Dave Goelz has performed with the Muppets for over thirty years, on shows like The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock and in films such as The Muppet Movie and The Muppet Christmas Carol. His cast of characters includes Gonzo the Great, Boober, Bunsen Honeydew, Zoot, Philo, Beauregard and many others. He was also Fizzgig and one of the Skeksis in The Dark Crystal, and Didymus in Labyrinth. And, like Jim Henson, he's not only hugely talented, but also a notoriously nice guy. Goelz recently appeared as part of the San Francisco stop of the touring film exhibition "Muppets, Music & Magic: Jim Henson's Legacy" (find out more at The Jim Henson Legacy). This interview also aired on Celluloid Dreams (90.5FM in San Jose, CA) on August 27, 2007.
Groucho: Dave, welcome to Celluloid Dreams.
Dave Goelz: Thank you. Nice to be here.
G: First, I have to confess to you. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a Muppet. I remember telling people that. And, I gather a similar childhood fascination led you to puppeteering as a hobby and, eventually, a career. What first sparked you to puppeteering?
DG: Well, when I was five, I watched Beany and Cecil, which was made by Bob Clampett—it was a television series. It was made by Bob Clampett and Stan Freeberg. And I loved it. And then I also watched Howdy Doody, with Buffalo Bob and Howdy Doody and all the rest of the cast. And so, at the age of five, I was very fond of puppets, and I—my parents bought me a few toy ones. And then again at the age of twelve or thirteen, a friend of mine and I gave a few marionette shows. And my Dad built a stage for us. And so we printed tickets and made shows. And beyond those two episodes, though, I didn't have any inclination toward going into puppetry.
G: Yeah, I think people would probably be surprised to hear your pre-Muppet resume. Can you give a little rundown of some of those jobs you did before?
DG: Well, when I graduated from college, I had a degree in industrial designs. So I worked for Henry Dreyfuss and Associates in the beginning. Their clients were John Deere Tractors, which I worked on, and American Airlines and Polaroid Camera. And then I left there and worked for Hewlett Packard for about three and a half years designing electronics instruments. Measurement instruments. Things like laser interferometers and so forth. So I worked in Silicon Valley. And during that time, I had a friend in Los Angeles who produced a television program that was a survey of films. And I got my Sony black-and-white five-inch television out of the closet to watch that. And got hooked on Sesame Street reruns. Every Saturday morning, there were five reruns a week from the week. And I never got around to watching my friend's show—because I was so fascinated with Sesame Street. I got very curious about who the people were who created work of this depth. For example, Ernie and Bert, are two opposite character types. And everything about the way they dress, move, think and speak is consistent with their character types.
DG: And I thought, gee, these people are thinking. Whoever makes the sweaters knows those characters. Whoever makes the puppets is totally in sync with those characters. And that curiosity led me to meet the Muppet people.
G: You've described almost practically stalking Frank Oz in a way—in the way that—you mentioned, I think, that when you went to see him perform—he came through town, right?—and that you got a high vantage point so that you could see not only the puppet show, but what he was doing, right?
DG: Yes. I lived—yeah, I took a day of vacation to see Frank at the Puppeteers of America National Convention which was at Mills College in Oakland. So I got up early, and I drove up the freeway and I got there. I went to a workshop that he conducted and, after that, he performed in the amphitheatre. The amphitheatre was surrounded by a u-shaped building that was around the stage, and then, the outdoor audience area. And I got there about an hour early and I scoped out the building, and I found a window on the second floor that looked down directly from the side at where Frank would be working. And I had three rolls of high speed ektachrome film and a 305mm lens, and I was ready. I was just like the Lee Harvey Oswald of the puppet set, except that I wasn't going to kill Frank.
G: Right. (Laughs.)
DG: And so, I took a lot of pictures. And there were so many people at that show that they had to give another show later in the day. So at 5 PM, the second show happened, and this time I was in the middle of the audience. And, at the end of that show, I got up and I had the heaviest heart you can imagine—I just thought, "I have to go back to Silicon Valley and design boxes, and that's what I ought to be doing," and I shrugged and turned around and walked out with everybody else—and, not realizing, that, within a year, I would be doing that.
G: Yeah. So what was the path that led you there? I know you sort of made contact, one after another, with the Muppet company, until, one day, Henson called you up at work, right?
DG: Well, the path after that was really ironic because I used to want to travel and my job just didn't involve travel. As a joke, I would go down to the travel desk and beg to the lady there, Billie, for leftover tickets and scraps. And, you know, it was just a joke. I never got to go anywhere. But, after meeting Frank, one month later, I got a trip to Pennsylvania. And so I did about a week's work in Pennsylvania, and then I took some vacation time. I took another week of vacation time, went to the city, stayed with a friend, and went to Sesame Street every day. And so, through that, I met everyone but Jim, who was in France at the time. But the woman who headed up the workshop, Donnie Ericson, recommended to Jim that he talk to me, because, by that time, I had made three puppets, and I had them with me and she could see that I could make good puppets. My industrial design training gave me that ability. So, Jim called me about another month after that and had me come down to Los Angeles. He was guesting on The Perry Como Show. And I got there and he interviewed me, and that was the basis of our—that was the beginning of our friendship.
G: Uh huh. And you had a strategy in terms of how to hook Jim, right? I mean you showed him a portfolio—
DG: Well, I was ambivalent. I was ambivalent. I was certainly not trying to hook Jim—because I knew that they lived in New York City. They worked in New York City. I did not want to go there. So I wanted to work for him desperately, but I didn't want to go there.
DG: So, if he didn't have any interest in hiring me, it would have been great. And if he did, it would have been great. But what I did was I showed him my whole industrial design portfolio that started with school projects—things like designing cameras, light switches for the wall, tractors, airline interiors, all these things. And I said, "I'm going to show you this portfolio hoping that you'll see how my background leads me to being able to work for you." And then, the last thing in the portfolio was a photograph of my first puppet that I had built, which was a so-called replica of Ernie, which didn't—wasn't that close, but the second puppet was a great, really nice Muppety-type puppet that he could easily see was usable. I brought that with me too. And then the third one was with me as well, and the fourth one. And those—all of those were of Muppet-class-type puppets. So the whole point was to just show him what my background had been and how it was a good foundation for at least designing and building puppets, if not performing.
G: And you ended up wooed on a—first, a part-time basis, then eventually, hook, line and sinker to go to New York, right?
DG: Yes. The interesting thing that happened that very day was that Jim was—I came back that evening when Jim was performing with Perry Como. Jim and Frank were there. And I sat in the audience with Jane Henson. It wasn't performed before an audience, but we sat in the seats. And she said, "So, will you be working with us?" And I said, "Boy, I have no idea. I don't know." And she said, "I'm sure Jim will find something for you to do." It was one of the greatest understatements of my whole life—
DG: Because he found so much for me to do.
DG: You know, we were busy for years and years and years.
G: Well, he was—it's been said often of him, anyway, that he was a master nurturer of talent. And, in interviews where he's talked specifically about you, he always invariably says, "Dave, is a very funny guy. That's his strength is that he's so funny."
DG: I don't think I've read those interviews.
DG: I don't think I've ever seen one.
G: They're, you know, video interviews with Jim—or film interviews. Two of them—
DG: Later on, you have to tell me where I can find those.
G: I will. I will. But there are two where he says independently, you know, "Dave is so funny. And so quick." He makes a point of you being so funny and so quick. What were the formative influences in your sense of humor?
G: Or is that just so unconscious that you never really—you wouldn't point to specific influences?
DG: It's pretty unconscious. I mean, I certainly love people like Peter Sellers. I grew up watching Red Skelton. I grew up watching anybody who was on television who was funny. Umm, I don't know. I was—I used to amuse myself—
G: Do you consider yourself a naturally funny guy?
DG: No. I'm a very serious guy.
G: (Laughs.) I don't buy that.
DG: I think I'm very serious. I like to play. I like to play but, you know, I think it's probably because comedy is so serious.
DG: It's so dependent on timing and so on, and there's so much structure involved in it, that you have to have a serious side to be good at it. But then you have to drop that serious side and just let yourself be free to actually do it.
DG: So, you know, it's—I think that there's a—there are good grounds to be institutionalized, in my case.
G: (Laughs.) You've said that Jim loved upstaging—you know, on the topic of comedy here. And you are a master of that. What would you say was your finest hour of upstaging?
DG: I'm not sure. The one thing that comes to mind—and I've mentioned it before, and you may have seen it in interviews—but it was when we were shooting a Piggy number for The Muppet Show where she was down in a Spanish courtyard singing and I up on the balcony playing a trumpet, I think. And Jim was next to me playing something else. And so we were just kind of up there trying to upstage Frank while he was doing this Piggy number. And when the instrumental came, there was a trumpet solo, so for my trumpet solo I had my pig who was playing the trumpet turn around with his back to the edge of the balcony and lean over backwards and play the thing upside down. And Jim just got into hysterics. You know, he just thought it was so funny. And in fact, near the end of his life, I think it was at 1985 or '86, we had lunch down in L.A. at the Bel Air Hotel and, as we were saying goodbye afterwards out in front, he said to me, "Do you know what my favorite part of this whole thing has been?" I said, "What?" And he said, "When we laugh."
DG: And I said, you know, "Me too." Of course, the laughing part oftentime interfered with the work.
G: Sure. (Chuckles.) That's a good reason to go over schedule or behind budget. Keeps everybody happy. Let's talk about Gonzo. The puppet was designed by Jim himself, and he became Gonzo at the inception of The Muppet Show, right?
DG: Yes, that's right.
G: Is it true that you came up with the voice out of desperation on the day of the taping?
DG: I did—while shaving.
G: While shaving. (Chuckles.)
DG: I had to do this character. The puppet had been built a few years before by Jim and was just in the inventory. And Jerry Juhl, I believe, came up with the idea for this loser who does awful acts and thinks they are high art. And then it was just time to shoot. And I had nothing—I was shaving in the hotel and I thought, well, I think I need to get this nailed down pretty soon because I'm shooting in an hour. And I just sort of thought, well, he has a big nose so he should be nasal. And he's really scruffy so he should have a gravelly voice. And so I just went (adopts a nasally voice) "I made a little voice like this," then I said, (adopts a more Gonzo-like voice) "I'll do it like this." And in the beginning, he had sort of a baby inflection. I spoke (as Gonzo), "Hello there. Kermit, how're you doing?" And it was a little bit babyish, and as they used him more and he became more conversational and got a little wilder, his voice gradually evolved and I just dropped all that and kept it more natural.
G: You and Jerry Juhl, who was the great head writer—the late, great head writer of the Muppets—did an AFI presentation, I understand, where you went into depth about the development of a character, and Gonzo being the example. And a good one, I would think. Could you give kind of a crash course in how that character developed in tandem with Jerry Juhl?
DG: Yes, I can. That was a process that was interesting. When we had spoke at the American Film Institute, we had put together this history of how we had evolved that character. And what fascinated me was that, for him, he was unconsciously tracking my own development. And Gonzo was one of the characters who has changed over the years. Others don't. A character like Animal stays exactly the same. Cookie Monster, I think, is the same. You know, there are various characters who are just set from the beginning. And others that change. Kermit changed quite a bit. He sort of changed along with Jim's level of confidence and with the job that Kermit was doing. I mean Kermit was not as assertive before The Muppet Show.
DG: So when we put together this thing about Gonzo, Jerry was actually surprised at how closely he had written Gonzo to track the changes in me.
DG: And he didn't know the depth of the changes until we spoke about it. But anyway, to get around to finally answering your question—we still have time on the radio?
DG: Okay, good. I guess in the very first season, I had no confidence. I felt completely out of place there. We were working with a different world-famous guest every week. And I was just off the street. You know, I didn't have any—I was just a beginning performer. I avoided the guests. When they walked into the room, I went out the other door. And I felt unentitled. And Gonzo was a loser. And he was very sad-looking. His eyes were sad. So I just performed him as a dejected character. And I realized that they wanted me to put more gusto into it. And so, at the end of the first season, I asked Jim if I could build a new Gonzo, with an eye mechanism, so he could look excited. Because it was very hard to overcome that sad look. And, so I did, and when I came back the second season, I was able to make him a little more upbeat. Another thing that happened was, in the first season, whenever I came out to work, the crew was understandably bored. And so the newspapers would go up—the guys sitting on the camera cranes just put their newspapers up, and they'd just wait and then kind of grudgingly shoot whatever I did. And when Frank came out, they were alert and watching, because he was so funny. So I was very aware of that. At one point, Gonzo had to say, "No!" in a backstage scene during the first season. And Jim said, "Well, do it with more energy." So we did take after take. And he said, "No, more energy." So finally I just went too far and went (comically ululating) "Nooooo!!!!" And they said, "Yeah. That's good." And so I got a laugh from the crew. They were laughing right through their newspapers. And so I thought, "This is good. I'm on a roll." And the second season, I got another laugh, you know? So now I had reason to be confident that this was a good course to take. So that was another reason that I built the second Gonzo and he had more excited expression.
G: I always wondered, too, if The Muppet Show has superficial similarities, being a variety show, to something like Saturday Night Live. And I wondered if you as performers ever felt like you needed to hustle for those characters? Because I gather you were a little bit nervous in that transitional period of "Is this character going to make it and continue?"
DG: Well, Jim always gave people a sense of security. He didn't like to fire people. He didn't like to disappoint them. He couldn't confront people. He wasn't comfortable with that. And so that gave me a certain cushion. So I didn't feel that my job was threatened. But we all were competitive. Because of this whole "upstaging" mentality. We were competitive, but not in a way that we would stab each other in the back. You know, it was a little tiny rep company—there were only five of us doing all the characters in the beginning. And during the five years, we picked up Steve Whitmire and Kathy Mullen.
G: Uh huh.
DG: And Louise Gold. So there were eight by the end. But it was a rep company. You know, there was a brotherhood and chemistry—particular chemistry among certain pairs of performers, as often happens. People find their rhythms work together. They can anticipate each other. So Jim and Frank were a pair. Steve and I became a pair—Steve Whitmire and myself—
DG: Who now does Kermit. Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt were a pair. And so, oftentimes, the writers would write things so that we could work together in pairs.
G: I wanted to specifically to ask about that—the sort of double-act idea that you see through the Muppets. And you're certainly known for it—especially even more so in recent years with Steve. And you also had a lot of sort of double-act time with Richard Hunt, right?
DG: Not too much. No, I think they—again, understand this is never conscious, it just happens. It's not calculated. And it happened with Steve, but we all could be funny together. We could all play with each other. You know, I did have good chemistry with Richard. I had fun with Richard. But we weren't really a pair. I would say we weren't really a pair.
G: Talking of Steve Whitmire, how would you describe that dynamic? Why do you think you two worked together so well in particular?
DG: I don't know. I don't know. But I think we have a sense of being able to anticipate the direction that the other is going. We sort of think similarly.
DG: Not always. We're able to speak in shorthand just before doing something. Or even signal each other while we're doing something, and convey an idea that way to warn the other what we're going to do. Or we just surprise each other. But for some reason it just happens. I don't know why. I have no idea.
G: Let's talk a little bit about the mechanics of puppeteering for those who don't know—for example, the fine art of working with a monitor. How does that work for you?
DG: Well, what people don't oftentimes realize is that the image on a monitor—if you're facing the monitor and facing the camera is reversed—so that when you turn your hand to your right, it goes to your left on the screen. And it takes about a year, I think, to get used to that. And then it becomes second nature. So that's one aspect of puppetry that's difficult. But what I once estimated was that you had to be thinking about roughly eight things at once. You were thinking about the monitor itself, being able to see the monitor, not tripping over cables and things, watching where you're going in the set physically and anticipating your next line, listening—having your character listen to the other character's line—that's about six. And there are a couple more. It's multi-tasking. And it's very hard for guys to multi-task, I think. I mean, it's pretty true, right?
DG: So—for some reason, most of us are guys—and so, it's hard. It's really hard for me.
G: But when you're in those trenches, too—I think of them as trenches, you know, the set is above you and you're sort of crowded into a corridor, I guess—a small area with a lot of performers right around you. Are you just constantly being elbowed? How does that work?
DG: Yes. The phenomena is that people are bigger than our puppets. We're bigger than the puppets are, and so for them to stand next to each other, we have to overlap.
DG: So there's a lot of—there's a lot of—it's like parking in New York.
G: (Laughs.) Right. Get to know each other intimately whether you like it or not.
DG: You gargle a lot.
G: Yeah. (Chuckles.) We were talking earlier about the cushion Jim gave you. You've also remarked about the "fleece ceiling" amongst the Henson company.
G: Sort of on the other side of the scale, I guess. I take it you mean by that that there was always room to grow—that you could always, if you want to, you could pass through that. Is that what you had in mind or did I misinterpret you?
DG: Well, you are a great researcher. I did make the comment about the fleece ceiling at some point. And what that meant was that Jim and Frank had been there since very early on. I mean Frank was the first performer that Jim got involved with—outside of Jerry Juhl, who ended up not wanting to be a performer. And because they were such a great pair, and so forth, they were kind of the leads in every project that they did together. And the rest of us did sort of secondary characters.
DG: When we did Fraggle Rock, Frank was off directing films and Jim was working on The Dark Crystal. And so he wasn't around. And it was the first time that all the performers had a chance to grow beyond where we could have grown before. And that was true, I think, of Jerry Juhl as well. So it was a very heady experience for all of us. We had a chance to really see what we could do on Fraggle Rock.
G: You played Boober on Fraggle Rock, which, consulting my research here—you described him as "suspicious" and "paranoid" and also "grumpy and inflexible, like I could be." But surely only on your worst days, right?
DG: Well, I think that, you know, for me the characters always begin with a flaw. And one of my flaws, and because they're the Muppets, we try to find a way to make them loveable. So I usually start out by isolating that flaw and then amplifying it—making the character about that flaw. And then try to find a way to make it lovable. And usually, as with all comedy, you're stuck. The character is stuck. So he wants to be—he wants, he aspires, to be something more than he is, or can have. But he can't get it. And so that who feeling of stuck-ness was something that I used in a lot of my characters.
G: Something that I'm also curious about—as the Muppets got more successful and branched out and you're doing all these different projects, at what stage would you come on to a project, and when would you first sort of report for duty on, say, a film like The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth or on Fraggle Rock? When did your creative involvement start and how did you go from there to shooting?
DG: It varied according to project. If I was a central character in the project, then I would be involved early and look at a lot of drafts and scripts and have a lot of feedback. And if I wasn't, then I would just come in at the time we all gathered to get ready to shoot. There might be a little—there might be a read-through and some rehearsal before shooting. But at the most, it would be a week. And oftentimes none. On Fraggle Rock, and I think most of the performers did this—when our character was featured in an episode, we might come in two weeks ahead of time. We might be shown an early draft. Give feedback on it. Come to the writers' meetings. Talk about ideas for the episode. And that was encouraged by Larry Mirkin who was producing—and made it a very satisfying project for everybody involved. Writers loved it because they could get real time feedback, before we got into the studio, from the performer. And the performers loved it because if we had some kind of agenda for that character or that episode, we could get included.
G: Uh huh. And when the Muppets sort of graduated to film, and you along with them, was that any kind of—well, what kind of adjustment was that for you?
DG: Well, graduating to film was a matter of working outdoors. And working on a larger scale than you do in television. More extensive sets. More travel to location. And aside from that, it didn't have a huge impact on the performers. Certainly on locations, you're oftentimes working on the floor—which is harder. It's hard to do good manipulation if you're not standing up. And so working on rolling chairs requires that you spend a certain portion of your energy and thinking about trying to make the chair move if you're trying to walk, you know? And you're really trying to perform a scene, but you can't get traction with the heel of your shoes to move the chair when you need to walk. So that's always frustrating.
G: And the films were more ambitious but I was reminded, too, recently, in watching some of the Muppet shows again, on DVD, that Gonzo seems to have been—maybe I'm getting this wrong, a sort of pioneering character in terms of full body. I think we saw him full body earlier than a lot of the characters. That was more of a deal in the films. But there were a lot of gags—maybe because of the nature of the character, the stunt nature—where we would see the whole head-to-toe Gonzo.
DG: Well, I don't know whether that's really true. Maybe it is. I've never thought about it that way—because we did double marionettes and even people in costumes for some of the characters to get wide shots with the full body. I don't think Gonzo broke new ground in that area necessarily, although you could be right. I think you—I'm suspecting you may know more about this stuff than I do.
G: I don't know about that, but another thing I'm very curious about is that people who do voices—whether it's puppeteering or, you know, voice-over—are oftentimes called upon to sing as well in their character voices, which is certainly something that you've been called upon to do often. Just how tricky is that, keeping that voice and also having the vocal gymnastics of singing?
DG: Well, uh, first I have to say that I have no singing voice whatsoever of my own. If you asked me to sing a song, I wouldn't know what kind of voice to make. And if I tired to do a natural voice, it would sound awful. I'm a terrible singer. Somehow, with the character voices, I can get through it. And I'm talking about just getting through it. I'm not great. But I can get through it as a performance. And I love doing it, I have to say. I love—I'm a complete imposter in an audio studio—in a recording studio. I would normally never be allowed in there. And I've spent thousands of hours doing it, and it's been one of the great treasures of this whole career. Because I get to be—it's a fantasy, I get to be someplace where I don't belong. And I get away with it. And it's really enjoyable. You know, working with the Jack Parnell orchestra on The Muppet Show, and all the other musicians we worked with. We worked with great studio people. They're just tops, and it's just incredible fun.
G: Yeah. And in some ways, it's those moments that seem to call upon you to do your most intense acting as the character. With something like Paul Williams' "I'm Going to Go Back There Some Day." It's about as serious as the Muppets gets—very poignant.
DG: Yeah, in fact, on The Muppet Show, I got to do the only moment of real pathos in the entire five years—when Gonzo quit the show and then sang "My Way" and started crying. And when Jim delicately told me they wanted to do this, I said, "Oh, no. No. No. Why can't—maybe Fozzie should leave. I don't want to have to play a real emotional moment."And he said, "No, it'll be great." Jim used to always con you into doing things by saying, "Oh no, it'll be great. It'll be really nice." And "You can do it. It'll be wonderful." And I said, "Awww, I don't know. It's too—I'm nervous doing an authentic moment like that. A real emotion." But we did it. And then people told me they were sitting at home crying.
DG: You know, my girlfriend's aunt had tears streaming down her face because she thought Gonzo was leaving. So it was an early foray into real emotion.
DG: "I'm Going Back There Someday" was another one, on The Muppet Movie. And we had kind of a problem with that because they had recorded it in Paul's key. Paul Williams' key. And so we had to re-record the track, and I had to go back and try it again. And I was really shaky about the movie. You buy this Paul Williams release that has been released by AIX records. We did a duet of it, and by now, I can sing it well. You know, I can sing it all right now. But at that time I couldn't. When Jim died, the family came to me and asked if I would perform that song at his memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. And yeah, once again, I went, "Ummm, wellll, I'll try." And it came out great. And it was then that I realized, "Oh, I've actually grown enough that I can actually perform a song like that now, and do a better job of it."
G: And just think, in ten or twenty years, you can go out on your concert tour and you can have your "My Way" encores.
DG: Yep. I can do all the county fairs. "A little song I did in The Muppet Movie."
DG: "Let me just get up there. Can you help me with my wheelchair?"
G: (Chuckles.) How long do the puppets last? And how often are they rebuilt? This is something I've wondered. How many Gonzos would you estimate there have been, example?
DG: Well, you ask great questions. Sometimes people come to us, and they ask if they can have one of the old ones. "You have any old Kermits that I can have?" And that doesn't happen. But it depends somewhat on what the character is made out of. But Gonzo typically lasts six or seven years—or eight years—something like that. And when we have a big project, we'll do a re-build. And that typically has involved four Gonzos, in his case. Piggys get rebuilt all the time—because the corners of the mouth tear. They're made of—the heads are cast foam latex and they tear. Gonzo lasts longer. So they make two primo Gonzos—one that we've been keeping in New York and one in California. And then a stunt Gonzo and then a burnt-up charred one—that is used for when he's done a stunt and he's gotten hurt. The uh, I'm sorry. The stunt Gonzo is the one that's hurt, and there's also one that is armatured—
G: Now, I always wanted to ask you—I wanted to know a little bit more about the range of that character, I guess, because he is the—he's up there with the zaniest, wackiest characters there are but he also has that poignancy that developed, that soulfulness. And it sort of, I guess, bookended the character because he started out as this melancholy character and he kind of came back to being very soulful, as you said. I guess I want to ask about maybe Muppets in Space being a sort of turning point for the character and how you felt about exploring his origins, and, finally, telling the world what he was. He was always a "whatever," and then it was decided to make him an alien.
DG: Well, that's what you would think. But Muppets in Space wasn't actually a formative part of the development. What was was The Muppet Christmas Carol—
G: Ah. Yeah. Right.
DG: Because, in that, when Jerry Juhl was writing the movie, he was looking—he was missing Dickensian prose. He really loved the language in the book and wanted to include it, but he didn't want to have a narrator in the film because it's a sort of distant, removed sort of convention and it's artificial. And he hit on the idea of having somebody play Charles Dickens as sort of a recourse and appear in the scenes unseen by the others, but as a way of getting that wonderful language in. And he chose Gonzo. And then he decided that Charles Dickens would have a sidekick who was a rat who was Gonzo's best pal, Rizzo. And so that's how it got in there. And I think—I'd had undergone a lot of changes just prior to that, in the few years prior to that, that caused me to deepen. And Jerry Juhl was resolutely unconscious. He did not want to do things consciously. But I think he picked that up. He was aware of that because we were very good friends. And somehow it just felt right to him to have Gonzo do this soulful stuff. And I think that was when it really—it was just a great—almost a reward to be able to use that character, that part of me for that kind of work.
G: Yeah. Hmm.
DG: And that was really—it meant a lot.
G: I suppose you guys, from the beginning, or early on, all became experts in each other's puppet body language. And were sometimes occasionally called upon to play each others characters in the background or whatnot. Are there giveaways to the Muppeteers' styles and, if so, what's yours?
DG: Absolutely there are. I can still—well, I've just been to a puppetry, I'm sorry—a series of screenings of Muppet things in which I saw material that I hadn't seen for a long time. And I could easily pick out who was manipulating the characters because of their physical styles. I don't know what mine is, actually. I actually don't know what mine is but I can recognize it. But Frank Oz has a certain way—this is hard to do on radio—and especially hard in print. But he had a way of wiggling the neck sideways. So that the body would tilt to the right, and then tilt to the left. And the head would counter that movement. And uh—I know, I've conveyed nothing there.
DG: But that was something that you could always spot Frank with. Also, his incredible commitment. He totally commits to whatever he does, and so it's always forceful. So that's him. Jerry Nelson skipped syllables in his lip sync. He didn't do as many lip flaps as the rest of us did. So you can recognize his work that way. Also, the way his characters held their heads. His wrist had a certain angle that you can recognize. Steve Whitmire's an excellent manipulator. And you can recognize his stuff too because it's full of detail. His movement is full of detail. And so forth.
G: Yeah. Huh. I also would be remiss if I didn't ask you —since the Muppets have worked with a galaxy of guest stars over the years—is there one that sort of stands out to you that was extra special for you to work with or—
DG: There are probably a lot. I mean, it was all remarkable. I mean, gosh. I loved working with Peter Sellers, Dom DeLuise, John Cleese, and on and on and on. I can't even—I couldn't remember them all.
G: Many of whom requested you specifically, right?
DG: Well, I think that was true of Peter Sellers. I don't know if anybody else did. But it was—every week!—imagine, Beverly Sills shows up one week. The next week it's uh, somebody else. I can't even think. There were 120 guests on The Muppet Show. And since then we've worked with a lot of people. We always have cameos on our films, and so on. Edgar Bergen was a big treat. Well, Edgar Bergen is a great example—because we were in the same business.
DG: And when we were little kids, he was an influence. And when we had the read-through, afterward, they asked him to just set up and show us some of his material to see if we could work it in—whether it would suggest anything we should do. And he got out—he got out Charlie McCarthy and we all just melted. You know, we were just sitting there going, "We're sitting here looking at Charlie McCarthy. He's right in front of us!" And then he got Mortimer Snerd on and we were completely charmed with Mortimer. Mortimer was such a lovable character. Another one--another great moment was the read-through that we did with Elton John. And we sat—we stood around the piano—we had a grand piano that we rehearsed—it was painted gray. And we rehearsed with this piano and we would all put our little cassette recorders around the piano and record the rehearsal—and then study those before we shot. But he ran through his three songs for that show over and over again. "Yellow Brick Road," "Crocodile Rock." I knew I wasn't going to think of the third one. But anyway, those moments were stunning. And I think I still have the audio cassette.
DG: And what impressed me was that he could really play. And he could really sing. There were no pickups done. It was all real time and he could just do it.
G: "Benny and the Jets."
DG: "Benny and the Jets." Thank you. So that was great. But there was just many moments like that. The read-through with Jonathan Winters was a treat.
G: Oh yeah.
DG: You know, I recorded that one too. I haven't dug these tapes out for years. I'm not sure where they are. But you know, just this moment of thinking—we're sitting around a table reading a show and Jonathan Winters is here. So, I couldn't pick one, for that reason.
G: Certainly. There have been various reconstituted forms of The Muppet Show over the years—The Jim Henson Hour, and, after Jim's passing, Muppets Tonight. What were your feelings about those shows?
DG: Well, (sighs) I think any kind of—any kind of project that works well is the sum of everything that goes into it—including the era that you're in, the way the audience feels at the time, the mood of the country, the mood of the world, the kind of work you're doing, whether you're all at your peak at the same time—and it's not something you can just go back and recreate. But we tried to follow a similar format with those two shows. Similar, roughly similar. Not exactly parallel. Because it was a way of introducing musical numbers, backstage threads, in which you saw the real interaction of the characters, and then presentational stuff. Those were all things that we had a lot of fun with. We've tried to introduce them in those two projects. And it's not that they didn't work or were overly out of sync with the audience, it's just that they were on network. And you only get five or six shows—
G: To prove yourself.
DG: And if you only have seven million viewers, you're a failure and you're cancelled. So that's what happened. And, in particular, on Muppets Tonight. We had an audience of seven million people—which is just a failure.
DG: You need ten million or twelve million. You can't be in third place amongst the three networks. At least you couldn't at that time. And so we're finished. But the other thing that happens with our series is that it takes us a while to get it working.
DG: Anything like this—any TV series where you have a set up and some characters and a situation—very hard to get it working. Very hard to get it working, so we need a year. We need two years. Two years in and it's working even better. But we just don't always get it working right away. The first five are usually pretty rough.
G: It's a big operation to get in sync.
DG: It's just a—it's like—it's just complicated.
G: Now, I've heard that there's an unsold quote-unquote reality pilot, America's Next Muppet. Did you work on that?
DG: I did. We worked on it. We just did a short demo tape of it. I don't think we're going to pursue that project.
G: Since then, there's been yet another, right? Another demo? Is that true?
DG: We did do something. We got together and did something written by Bill Prady last December. And it was just a way of getting everybody together and working again on a project. It's possible that elements of that could wind up in a series.
DG: But, you know, it's a complicated process.
G: Sure. In general terms, how would you describe the state of the Muppet union right now? Where do you see—
G: Would you say things are gonna come together on a new project soon or—?
DG: I think—I think I feel optimistic. The big trick when—as you know, the Muppets franchise was bought by Disney—
DG: And this takes a property that came from a culture driven by one man and then carried on by his son in a similar fashion and transfers it to a shareholder corporation. It's a whole different dynamic.
DG: Shareholder corporations are focused on making money.
DG: And Jim was focused on what would be fun to do and what would be worthwhile.
G: And gathering people together.
DG: Yeah. And you know, it wasn't his—it was somewhat his problem to sell things. But he had Bernie Brillstein as his manager during his years, and it was Bernie's problem to sell things. And so, when we came off of The Muppet Show—I ran into Bernie in an airport once and he told me about this. We came off The Muppet Show. It was the world's most popular television show. Jim could do anything he wanted to. And what he wanted to do was a show that would stop war. And that was his initial mandate when he created Fraggle Rock. He sat down with a group that he gathered and said, "Let's—I'd like to do a project that stops war." And of course, everyone knew, including Jim, that it was not something we could achieve. But it was about harmony between individuals, groups, species and the environment. On all different possible ways. And that's why that reality ended up created the way that it was. And then, Bernie Brillstein had to sell it.
DG: You know, they got together. There were four people who met and created that show. And they created a bible for it. Then Bernie had to sell it. And he said, "I had no idea what to do with it. I had no idea who would buy that." You know—because it was such an odd little idea. And he eventually sold it to HBO, and I think it was their first original program that they had ever done. And it was a great association. They let us alone completely, creatively. And we created something that we feel so good about it. Everybody who works on it considers it the highlight of their career.
G: And that's actually the one element of the sort of Muppet empire, if you will, that remains sort of independent of the Disney deal as well, right?
DG: Yes. The Henson Company kept all the properties that they owned except for The Muppet Show franchise, or Muppet franchise, and the Bear in the Big Blue House franchise. And so, they still have everything else, including Fraggle.
G: And, for you personally, do you remain content performing? I know that there's some shoulder pain you've incurred, right, over the years?
DG: Yep. I've ground my shoulder down a lot. I'm content performing. There was a time in the '80s when I started to get interested in directing. But then in the '90s, I got married and started having a family. And I really didn't want to make the time commitment.
G: Uh huh.
DG: And so I won't—I don't expect that I'll ever be a director. I was really interested in it. Being a puppeteer is a great starting point because you are always an audience and a performer at the same time. You're in both positions. You're watching on the monitor. You're composing shots. You know a lot of times the camera operators know to lock off the shot and we'll compose it. You're very aware of cutting. And I spent years reading about it and studying it—the whole process of filmmaking. So I am interested in directing, but I don't want to do it because I just don't want to involve myself to the extent that you have to be.
G: Right. Yeah, you have to give your life over to it for as long you're doing it.
DG: Your life is totally it, yeah.
DG: Especially in features.
G: Well gee, I'm sure we could talk all day. But it's been great talking to you. Thanks very much for being on the show.
DG: I've had a great time. Thanks.
[For Groucho's interview with Frank Oz, click here, and click through for his reviews of The Muppet Show—Season One, The Muppet Show—Season Two, The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper,The Muppet Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island, The Muppets Wizard of Oz, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth.]