Earlier this month at SXSW, the documentary Muppets Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched premiered to much jubilation. The film is exactly as the name implies: some of the team behind the original Muppets (as well as Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street and others), got together to talk about their time on the series, working with Jim Henson.
Directed by Frank Oz – who played characters like Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Grover and has since gone on to become a celebrated director through films like Bowfinger and Death and a Funeral – the film’s SXSW premiere saw Frank walk the red carpet alongside his wife Victoria Labalme who produced the film, as well as Bill Barretta, Fran Brill and Dave Goelz.
In an experience which served as a personal life highlight for yours truly – who like many of you, grew up watching the Henson catalogue of puppet-related series – I had the chance to speak to everyone on the red carpet about getting the gang back together for the film. Here’s what went down when I spoke with Frank Oz and Victoria Labalme:
It’s an honour and a privilege to speak to you today about one of the most iconic and influential series in history! In going back and talking about the origins of The Muppets, were there things that you learned about it all that you may have missed at the time, while you were caught up in it all, so to speak?
Frank Oz: Well not the origins, I pretty much knew all the origins. Jim and Jane Henson started it in Washington D.C., they were there for 8 years and then I joined them in 1963, and that was in New York. So I knew the origins, but you did touch upon something – which is when you’re involved in it, you don’t really notice it. You’re just working and enjoying your work and enjoying the people around you and then years and years later you stick your head up and say – oh wow, we did something, you know? Because all we did was work as hard as we could and have fun, and then gosh, look at where we are.
Are there any characters that are some of your favourites that maybe never got the limelight they deserved?
Frank Oz: I think Jerry Nelson’s Lew Zealand, the Boomerang Fish Thrower (below), which I love. And of my characters, the one’s that didn’t get the attention, deserved not to get the attention *laughs*
A lot of why it seemed like such a fun time from an outsider’s perspective though was that it seemed like you were able to experiment with characters that may have failed or fallen flat…
Frank Oz: That’s what Jim (Henson) did. He created an atmosphere of safety, and support and whatever we did, whatever television series or movie we did, it was always that area of safety and fun and hard, hard work and affection towards each other. And that’s where the good work came from. And the fact that these people are all brilliant.
Victoria Labalme: And that’s why we made this film, to capture that essence, that’s what propelled the initial idea.
Frank Oz: It was her idea to do it, not mine.
Were you reluctant to do it at all?
Victoria Labalme: He was totally reluctant *laughs*.
Frank Oz: The only reason I was reluctant – and it took her a year and a half of prodding – was that I grew up. I was 19 years old. I didn’t think it was that special. I thought, who’s gonna want to see this? And that’s the reason. But finally she convinced me.
Are you proud of the result?
Frank Oz: Yeah I’m very proud of it. I love that we communicated – well at least I hope that we communicated it – that we have such great affection for one and other, and because we have affection for each other, that translates to the characters having affection for each other, and also we just have a great time and work like hell, and I think that comes through.
Do you hope to encourage others to work like hell as well? The next generation of Puppeteers?
Frank Oz: Yeah, not only puppeteers, but anyone. Work like hell but have fun, have a ball! Because if you play, and you’re loose, you get good work. If you’re scared, or caught up in the politics, then you’re tight and you don’t do good work. So yeah that’s the idea.
Victoria Labalme: And yeah that’s really it, we hope that the film inspires people to have that kind of community and work culture, of support and connectedness.
Frank Oz: It’s a bit larger than just The Muppets. We’re using The Muppets to say “This is how Jim taught us, and this is a pretty damn good way to work”.
Muppet Guys Talking premiered at SXSW earlier this month. To find out when it will be officially released, head to their official website and sign up to their mailing list.