Written in Foam – An Interview with Muppet Writer Jerry Juhl
By D. W. McKim and Phillip Chapman (July 24, 1998)
On Saturday July 18, Muppet Central’s D. W. McKim spent a wonderful hour interviewing Jerry Juhl. From his days on the Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock, to the subject of Henson’s and Hunt’s characters returning, Mr. Juhl gives fans an insider’s perspective that is rarely revealed.
As you will read, Mr. Juhl discloses some fascinating information about a Fraggle Rock and Muppet movie which never went into production. Concerning the proposed Fraggle Rock movie, it likely is not feasible now, but the past several years there has been a strong movement for the return of Fraggle Rock to television. Since most of the principal performers are still alive, what better way to bring back Fraggle Rock than with a one-hour reunion show about how “The Rock” began.
The proposed Muppet movie, “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made” is also fascinating because so much time went into developing the ideas for the film. As you will read, this movie was in development after The Muppets Take Manhattan (1984). Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl worked closely together on the script. Wouldn’t it be a great memorial to Jim’s work to see this film made, especially since they had so much fun writing the script! I’m sure we would all be touched to see one of Jim’s “hidden works” see the light of day on the silver screen.
For those readers concerned about spoilers of “Muppets from Space,” the next Muppet Movie set to release next July, this interview contains none, as Mr. Juhl tends not to discuss projects in preproduction as “everything could change tomorrow.” So relax, sit back a spell, and get to know head writer, Jerry Juhl.
Your initial involvement with the Muppets was as a puppeteer, and a rather talented one at that.
JUHL: Well… uh… I’m not so sure about that.
Well, Taminella did essentially steal “The Frog Prince!” (Jerry does quick Taminella impression).
JUHL: Actually, I didn’t even perform in “The Frog Prince!” That was Richard Hunt doing the puppet in his first major role. At that point I was phasing out of doing characters. I just did the voice since I had done the character before for a few years previous, but that was my last major piece of performing. In the beginning, it was just Jim and Jane [Henson], and me and the three of us did everything. We all did a lot of writing together at first. Then Frank Oz joined later, and with this talented performer with us now, I could concentrate more on the writing which had been my strong suit. So the transition from performing to writing just sort of happened, I had no idea at the beginning that that’s how it would turn out. So now I attend puppetry gatherings like the one I’m in town for this weekend and give pep talks on the writing aspect.
Do you at least ever get the urge to return? Or at least lend a hand during massive crowd scenes?
JUHL: Every now and then when a lot of extra hands are needed on the set, I may do some crowd scenes. There are those moments every few projects when we do mammoth crowd scenes when you’re scrambling for every available hand. But I remember how difficult it was performing a puppet again after not doing it for so long, you really forget a lot.
It’s not like riding a bicycle, eh?
JUHL: Not like riding a bicycle. The hardest part is that the whole time is spent with the arm outstretched over your head. Your head is crouched down for a long period of time and we’re constantly using monitors. So every time you’re moving the character to the left, you see it going to the right on the monitor and it takes quite some time to get used to that.
When the Muppets do interviews on talk shows and such, how much is scripted beforehand?
JUHL: Oh, it varies all over. It’s hard for me to say how much is done since I’m not really involved with that area anymore. But what usually happens is that the writers get a sense of what topics will be discussed and then puts down ideas for lines, like punch lines and their set-ups. Then we work it out with the performers so they have not a formal script but background material that they can use. So if someone says something about chickens, the performer’s ready with a chicken joke. But a lot of it is really ad-libbed. And, some performers are stronger at the ad-libbing than the others, that’s Frank’s strong suit. It’s very rare where we’ll have to write anything for him, he goes in a lot and just does his thing.
What’s your approach to writing new characters? Do you start with bios/outlines or know what the puppet will look like or who will most likely be doing them?
JUHL: There’s no standard, they really come from all over. When we start a series like “The Muppet Show” or “Fraggle Rock,” those all start with lots of long involved meetings with the writers, performers, designers, etc. just about CHARACTERS. There was a lot of those meetings especially with “Fraggle Rock.”
With the Muppets, everything starts with characters and it’s important to begin with that since you’re just learning about the characters at the beginning and who they are and of course everyone expects the first episodes to be fully fleshed out but they never are. On any television show, if you go back and look at the first episodes, they’re all just developing.
“The Muppet Show” started out very gag-oriented in its first season when Jack Burns was the head writer, then in the second season when you had taken on as head writer, the show really became very character based.
JUHL: Yeah. Sometimes it’s amazing how much of the shows, the fans pick up on things like that! It’s really common to find the core fans like yourself and the Bill Sherman√≠s, Danny Horn√≠s, and Chris Smigliano√≠s that remind us of the things we did on TV. When you emailed me the subjects you wanted to discuss, one thing that blew me away was about how we were planning to have Robin Williams and Cher on “The Muppet Show” and I had to stop and think, “We did almost have Cher on.” Was that ever announced?
There was a list of upcoming guest stars printed in one of the fan club’s newsletters. What would you have liked to have done in their episodes?
JUHL: We had tried to get Cher on the show for the longest time. Frank Sinatra was another one we had really tried to bring on but never happened. We tend not to think of too much as to what we’d like to do in advance, usually David Lazar [“The Muppet Show√≠s” executive producer] would call up the guests. He would call the star up and ask what they would like to do and except for some really specialized guests, we’ll go completely from that. We really could have done anything with Cher since she was just an exceptional talent as a singer and actress, comedian, all sorts of things. One thing we would not have done though would have been to make a Sonny Bono puppet!
That reminds me, the first two episodes of “The Muppet Show” were done before the others as pilots, and at the close the guests were given puppet likenesses of themselves. Did this tradition continue off camera?
JUHL: Did those actually make it onto the air? We really did a lot of reediting of those early episodes. Those were done before the rest and at that point we were just completely feeling around, we didn’t know what we were doing. That was done at the farewells so those ended up in there since those were with the guests and we couldn’t reshoot.
Had “The Muppet Show” gone on for a sixth season, were there any characters, sketches, or plots that you would have liked to explore or never got a chance to use?
JUHL: There probably were some, but by now I’ve forgotten them all! I was really in favor of ending after five seasons. A lot of us believed that it was best to leave at the top of our form, not just trailing away slowly, but leaving the audience wanting more. We didn’t want to drag it out and just be sustaining the same things.
The last season was certainly still very innovative up to the end. There was a lot of playing around with the format: the whole show becoming a dance marathon, Statler and Waldorf hosting with Kermit and Fozzie in the balcony, etc. The shows like the Melissa Manchester episode with the standard onstage/backstage silliness was almost an exception.
JUHL: Was the show where the theatre went out to sea in the fifth season?
Yeah, with Glenda Jackson!
JUHL: That had to be our most off-the-wall episode. That was Chris Langham’s contribution. He joined the writing staff in our third year as our kind of “wacky British Monty-Pythonish” writer. In fact, it was John Cleese who recommended him! So he joined us and as we were sitting around in these meetings throwing out ideas, he all of a sudden burst out, “let’s do a pirate show and send the theatre out to sea!” and we all just looked at him as if he was going off the edge. We just said, “Okay Chris, just sit down and take your pills.” But two years later, the idea had sunk it and we thought it would be a good idea so that turned out to be a fun show!
When you have such large casts as the TV shows tend to do, some characters will naturally come to the forefront and others phase out naturally, but how often do the writers actually consciously decide, “this character’s not working, we’re not using them anymore?”
JUHL: It’s usually pretty obvious when we’ve exhausted a character’s possibilities. The writers basically know when there’s nothing new to do. We can always look for new aspects or ways to use a character, and if one comes up we may bring it back, but we pretty much realize when we’ve otherwise exhausted the possibilities. When it comes to the characters, it’s all a collaborative effort with the writers and performers. We all have a family quality that picks itself up in the writing what with all the time we spend together. The writers see the performers play around in rehearsal or on set between takes and when something works, we’ll use it in the scripts or vice versa.
Some of the Muppets’ funniest works were the Muppet Meeting Films and the Muppet Time sketches done for Nickelodeon, but neither contained any credits. Who was on the writing staff of those?
JUHL: A lot of the really, really early ones were collaborations between Jim and I. How much of the early ones have you seen? Have you seen the one with Rowlf and the typewriter for IBM?
Actually, I’ve not seen it yet but I literally have a copy coming to me in the mail this week!
JUHL: Yeah, yeah, those interns dubbing tapes at night! You never know what’s making it’s way out there to the core fans on the newsgroups and such! There was a great early one of Jim’s character doing this “Sell, Sell, Sell!” speech that started out calm and built more frantic as it progressed. We did a few different versions of that in the Meeting Films.
My favorite one like that wasn’t even a Meeting Film, but a project we did when we were trying to sell the idea of “The Muppet Show” to CBS. This was in the early days before the shows were taped; we were pitching ideas to networks and our group was doing a lot of tie-ins with George Schlatter of “Laugh-In.” When we pitched the show to CBS, we made a film for them where Jim did a Leo-style “Sell, Sell, Sell!” speech that started out quietly and just built and built and BUILT where it ends up with a shot of the heavens. We put the heads of CBS into heaven and extended that into a shot parodying the Sistine Chapel with the CBS executive reaching out to Kermit and the voice-over, “And the Lord said, ‘Let them have a 30 share!'”
But getting back to the writing of the Meeting Films, I don’t want it to sound like I did them all. Bill Prady did a lot of them, right now he’s the big producer on “Dharma & Greg” and Jim Lewis, I believe, did the ones for Nickelodeon with Craig Shemin, who’s in our New York group.
In Christopher Finch’s 1981 book, “Of Muppets & Men,” you’re quoted as saying, “If it weren’t for the Muppets, I doubt I’d have much interest in writing for television, and I certainly wouldn’t be writing television comedy. We have a unique situation here. We’re not answerable to network executives or standards-and-practices people.” Was this ambivalence toward network television coupled with NBC’s poor handling of “The Jim Henson Hour,” the reason you weren’t involved with the “Muppets Tonight” writing staff?
JUHL: Not at all. It’s because right now I live in San Francisco and I like to stay there as much as I can and I had done 11 consecutive years of series television between “The Muppet Show” and “Fraggle Rock” and that’s enough! When that was over, I said, “I’m done!” Weekly TV√≠s really stressful which may be why I’ve moved to the boondocks!
The upcoming film will be the first one post-Jim Henson and Richard Hunt’s passings where the Classic Muppets are playing themselves again rather than playing parts. Will we see more of their characters returning like Rowlf, Scooter, and especially considering the science-fiction genre, Link Hogthrob?
JUHL: There’s a lot of things taken into account when we bring back those characters. It’s very important that if we do that, that they’re done by people who can do them well, especially Rowlf. We haven’t really had anyone who can do that gruff Jim voice. The characters are very real to a lot of people so any replacements need to be of a certain level. Of course, with the ones we have brought back like Kermit, Beaker, and Statler and Waldorf, those get dissected heavily on the newsgroups. The second thing that’s involved is we’re pretty reticent to hand over certain characters that are such an integral part of the personalities of the performers. Scooter was so much like Richard. Someday that may change if the need for the character presents itself and we find the right person. Link’s the same way, it’s hard to imagine anyone performing that type of character like Jim.
We take into consideration a little of everything and this is something the fans have endless discussions about. I personally feel Steve’s certainly done a wonderful job with Kermit. It’s always tricky, hard, and emotional both for the writers and the performers. Even when we decide to do it, the performers may have their own feelings. Ultimately, it depends on the project at the time.
Steve Whitmire really has done an amazing job with Kermit. Also with Ernie.
JUHL: We really allow the performers to make the characters their own and Steve really has made them his own. We would never want a performer to be doing a copycat imitation, it’s a true acting job in that sense. Since our comedy is character-based, they can’t be static. They need to be able to grow.
One piece of criticism that keeps coming up though is that Whitmire’s Kermit is too “passive” and not as excitable as Jim’s. Yet this really falls more into the writers’ arena as opposed to being a particular fault of Steve’s. In the films, Kermit’s been playing other characters, Bob Cratchit and Captain Smollet, and on “Muppets Tonight”, he’s been in the role of executive producer and not on the front lines dealing with all the craziness.
JUHL: That was actually a conscious decision. Brian [Henson] and the writers of “Muppets Tonight” both felt they didn’t want Kermit back out front again. Because then there would be the direct one-to-one comparisons between the old show and the new one. The Muppet Show was two decades ago and now we’re in a new era and a new generation of comedy. I think the decision to make him the executive producer was a good idea, that seemed to be where Kermit was naturally headed. Then you can have Clifford come crawling to Kermit and Kermit saying, “Yeah, I understand, I’ve been there.”
Another area that we haven’t seen at all due to the Muppets playing other parts in the movies has been Kermit’s relationship with Fozzie. Will we finally see more of that again with the new film?
JUHL: I would love to return to that. There’s always ideas that abound out of meetings, and one idea for a film that’s been knocked out that I thought it would be fun to do would be a buddy picture with Kermit and Fozzie and get that fully reestablished. We did lose that in the novel movies, but we were at the mercy of the material.
I thought it was lucky when Kirk Thatcher came up with the idea of Mr. Bimbo for Fozzie, having this running gag with a character living in Fozzie’s finger. Still, even though it allowed him to do something comedic, there hasn’t been room for Fozzie to be himself and do his jokes. Sadly, despite all the expectations, you can’t do everything in a movie, even when the characters do play themselves. The emphasis will always be on the protagonists even though you can still present the other characters.
I know a lot of fans did not like Mr. Bimbo. The general consensus was that it made Fozzie come across as neurotic, but I liked it myself since it wasn’t Fozzie, but a character he played. It reminded me of Fozzie following the path of a lot of comedians today making the transition from stand-up to films and I can just picture him reading the script going, “Aahhh…Mr. Bimbo, now that’s funneee!”
JUHL: That’s what it was, Fozzie playing a loon. When Frank Oz came in for the first read-through, he was coming off of other projects, so it was almost a cold reading for him. He just had a chance to briefly skim it over before we started. And, at first he was just incredulous: “Uh..uh..Fozzie really has this character in his finger?” and we said, “Yeeeah.” It took him a long time to warm up to it but in the end he loved it.
Kind of like one of those Chris Langham ideas!
JUHL: Takes a while to sink in! He ended up suggesting more places on set to add bits with Mr. Bimbo.
I know Frank’s said in interviews that Fozzie is two-dimensional, but in all credit, he’s a wonderfully rounded character, having gone from just being a bad comedian to exploring his backstage persona and insecurities, going to group therapy and trying to become more assertive and watching him just take off.
The extraordinary thing about the Muppet cast in comparison to other families of fictional characters or even a lot of sitcoms aimed at adults is that the characters are always growing and evolving rather than remaining static. The downside to this is when fans complain, “Piggy’s changed” or “Gonzo’s mellowed” when in truth the basic essence of the character hasn’t altered but they learn and grow and develop just as we all subtly change over the years. They gain more dimensions, even the ones that start out as one-note characters like Beaker, Animal, and the Swedish Chef. But then as a writer, how do you feel when you hear such criticisms?
JUHL: The last thing we want is for the characters to become predictable. When I see those comments, I don’t know what to do. Sometimes I’ll look at older tapes and ask has this character gone in a different direction? Still, I’m a strong believer in having the main characters evolve and keeping them fresh and finding new places to put them. Otherwise, they would just be corporate icons. They need the space to move on and grow and to allow the writers and the audience to find out new things about them. So, I’m sorry if it disappoints some people, but it’s like all my friends that I’ve known for a long time too, they’ve changed over the years as well.
Gonzo’s probably the best example. For someone who started out as a one-joke character, he’s become one of the most dimensional. He’s always been among the main four, but lately his role’s become even more important, often serving as host. This seems pretty natural though, since he’s the weirdo among weirdos. If any character can represent the Muppets’ wackiness, it would be Gonzo.
JUHL: That is a role that we’ve learned Gonzo can assume quite naturally. Kermit’s kind of the sane eye of the hurricane and he’s a good host and character that all the others can play off of. But Gonzo’s not bad as a frontman. I don’t know that he’s really been a host all that much, but it worked well to cast him in “Christmas Carol” as Charles Dickens.
Dave Goelz and I actually did a presentation at the American Film Institute talking about long term character development and we used Gonzo as the example, showing a series of clips from his debut eating the tire to “The Flight of the Bumblebee” through his evolvement up to Charles Dickens in 1992. This was an incredible path. He started out as a sad character and then we see him in Christmas Carol where we gave him Rizzo, who provides him a great comic to play with. For the first time, Gonzo was actually being a straight man to someone else! So it’s fun to go back and think of other ways we can have them interact, but at the same time, Gonzo shouldn’t always be a straight man, that just wouldn’t do for Gonzo!
“Muppet Family Christmas” was a fun special and probably one of the most fun to work on as a writer because you could take the casts of “Sesame Street,” “The Muppet Show,” and “Fraggle Rock” and see what happens when you put them together. In the decade since that special, there’s been a wealth of new television shows which could offer more crossover possibilities to play with like Sam Eagle’s recent guest appearance on “The Animal Show.” Are the writers anxious to explore these some more?
JUHL: Things like that are done on a case-by-case basis when it does occur. The group that was working on “The Animal Show” was set to do a show on the bald eagle and thought, “Hey, wait a minute, why not bring in Sam?” That turned out to work beautifully with them all knowing he was famous but not what for! When we do it, it’s only when it’s worth doing. It does get tricky with the “Sesame Street” characters though. CTW’s very careful, especially these days, about how the characters are portrayed. Whenever we’ve used them on “The Muppet Show” or in cameo parts in the movies, we’ve had to submit scripts for approval. But when appropriate, the crossovers are always fun to do.
“Fraggle Rock” remains one of the most beloved Muppet projects. In comparison to other kids’ shows, “Fraggle Rock” was very innovative in terms of story arc, character growth, and a sense of closure by series’ end. Still a lot of fans would like to see some sort of “epilogue.” Do you think that world will ever be explored again?
JUHL: Well, that was a favorite for everyone involved and we would have loved to go back and do something further. Jim used to talk about producing a TV movie. I doubt it would be done today though because the time for it has passed. But our idea was to do a prequel. We wanted to show the founding of the Rock; the characters emerging from somewhere looking for a home and discovering the Rock. Like a lot of things, it was one of a large number of ideas that were discussed but sort of never happened for a whole complex of reasons: a lot of the people involved were doing other things and no one was particularly begging us to do it. It would have been fun, but I do feel creatively that the “Fraggle Rock” world was wonderful but had a nice sense of closure. I look at the body of work and think for what we did, I don’t feel we need to extend it past the established ending.
The Jim Henson Company certainly has never been short of ideas. One of the drawbacks of being a writer in the entertainment industry must be working on a number of projects that eventually never get produced. Is there a particular project that you were disappointed by not seeing it reach the screen?
JUHL: Oh Lord, this is one of those things that will be all over the newsgroups once it gets out there! There was a project for a Muppet movie that we kept returning to. Jim and I worked on it and just loved it. It grew out of the fact that Jim was talking about finances and if we did another Muppet movie at the time, it would need to be done inexpensively, since we were using bigger and bigger budgets for all our other projects.
Around what time was this?
JUHL: This would have been from the time of “Fraggle Rock” on, the mid ’80’s. So we conceived of a movie slated as “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made.” That was the original working title and that later became the subtitle with the title along the lines of, “Into the Teeth of the Demons of Death.”
The idea being that this was a film that Gonzo directed. Kermit was too busy so when Gonzo asked, Kermit said, “Sure, go ahead. I can’t take on the responsibilities behind the scenes at this time, but I’ll perform in it.” So Gonzo wrote this cheesy, terrible plot that made absolutely no sense whatsoever about something being stolen that led to a chase around the world. Unfortunately Gonzo blows half the movie’s budget on the opening titles! So as the film progresses, it gets cheaper and cheaper where they’re using a shot of the same street corner for every city in the world! We were still talking about this project in the last meeting I ended up having with Jim.
Every now and then, we still bring up the movie. Six months ago, Frank had said to me, “You know, there’s still something in that movie, it would be a lot of fun to do.” One thing that kept it from happening though was that for “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made,” it still turned out to be expensive to shoot. Things like a tranquil island blowing up with a volcano and such.
Over the 40 plus years of the Muppets’ history, they’ve gone from a quirky experimental puppet troupe to practically becoming an entertainment “Institution.” Because of this, is there more pressure to be “politically correct,” or to be more selective on projects. For example, just doing huge projects as opposed to experimental guest appearances like the classic “Ed Sullivan Show” sketches?
JUHL: I think if you looked hard enough, you could find a few examples of stuff we did 35 to 40 years ago that we wouldn’t do today, but basically if anything we’re always pushing the envelope, and we want to always be pushing that envelope. If we drop back into safer stuff, it’s not because of an outside pressure, but because it may be appropriate for the project at hand. We always want to stay on that cutting block.
What about political influences? Right now the extremist conservative right is using Disney as a scapegoat for everything it doesn’t want to see represented in entertainment. Even though they’re geared toward adults, the fact that the Muppets are puppets will always earn them the label of “family entertainment.” Is there a fear that if you tell the wrong joke or depict the wrong type of situation that this movement could jump on The Jim Henson Company next?
JUHL: It’s not been on my mind on a daily basis and it never will be. Once you start editing yourself or writing to satisfy others’ agendas, that’s when you begin to waiver from the things that set you apart and we won’t play that game.
Frank Oz took a huge risk when he directed “In & Out;” I’ve been pleasantly surprised that there’s been no backlash from that.
JUHL: There hasn’t been any whatsoever. Everyone that you would expect to jump on the film really left it alone. Frank had expected the movie would receive a certain amount of flack, but everyone just loved it!
What future projects will you be working on?
JUHL: As you know, the “Muppets from Space” project is what I’m working on at the moment. At this point, I just take on one project at a time. There’s some newer writers in the company that do a few things at once but I don’t like to do that with the Muppet projects. I only work on one project at a time. I’ve tried to do two projects before and I can’t do that.
One thing the company will be doing though in a year or two is an exhibition at the Smithsonian in Washington on Jim and his works. This will be one of the projects of the Jim Henson Legacy. This is planned to be there for six months. I don’t know if it will travel after that, but it’s at least nice to know that there’s still such a demand for Jim’s works to continue to be seen.
Written in Foam – An Interview with Muppet Writer Jerry Juhl