Meet the Real People Behind Your Favorite Muppets
Prior to Monday night's screening of the new documentary Muppet Guys Talking, a group of 30 local elementary students sang a medley of the popular TV show's songs to set the mood. While none of the kids had grown up with the Muppets, their voices were a fitting start to the evening for Frank Oz, the film's director and longtime puppeteer and voice of many prominent characters. "The Muppets work in purity," he said, and the performance provided him another reminder that Jim Henson's spirit remains fully alive.
That is further confirmed throughout the documentary, which sits down five legendary voices and hands responsible for bringing to life dozens of the most popular characters from The Muppet Show and Sesame Street—Oz, Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Bill Barretta, and Jerry Nelson, who died shortly after the film was completed. Oz helps moderate clips of candid conversation on couches between them and rekindles the chemistry they shared dating back to the 1960s. Memories about creating characters and voices (everything from Miss Piggy to Pepe the King Prawn has a backstory) spark more voices and stories over the course of the film's expedient hour-long run-time.
David Goelz, Bill Barretta, Fran Brill, and Frank Oz attend the world premiere of Muppet Guys Talking
What remains present is a devotional, almost cultish, love for Henson, whose immense work ethic and humility continues to impact the group. Twenty-seven years after Henson's death, the documentary is at once a unique behind the scenes look at the Muppet-making process and another eulogy for the man that made it all possible. Here are eight things we discovered.
Muppet characters were often reflections of their puppet masters.
The word cathartic is used often in the film as a way to describe the experience of controlling the puppets' behavior and sense of being. The puppeteers explain how they drew upon their own insecurities in life and injected them into their characters. Goelz, for example, wanted to isolate his flaws and then magnify them, turning Gonzo, as he said, from a loser, to a nut case, then to someone more soulful, over the course of the show. Brill gave Sesame Street's Prairie Dawn a sweet innocence reflected in her perky soprano voice. In later years, she dropped her voice slightly and gave her more willful and bossy lines.
Puppet builders were meticulous in developing the characters.
Most of the characters didn't come organically from the puppeteers themselves. Builders would often have endless discussions about facial features and backstories, making sure that the construction was conducive for the hand and the interactions the puppets might have. Henson instructed his actors to try out many of the puppets already created, and they would give them voices and movements based on questions Henson and Oz would feed back to them.
The puppeteers formed a real brotherhood on set that's still evident today.
Maybe by necessity at first (Oz described their working conditions as "nose and armpit close"), the puppeteers hired by Henson all had a filial bond with each other. Every puppeteer felt they could share input about their characters without ever feeling as though they were encroaching on someone's creative process. The documentary shows that unity years later, as the group continues that close connection joking and laughing as though they had never stopped working together.
Henson was extremely committed to the shot.
Assisted by the film's diagrams, which help the viewer fully appreciate the challenges actors faced working underneath a stage (or a couch or table), the level of dedication Henson possessed is explained by watching the opening scene of the first Muppets movie. Kermit sings on a log in the middle of a swamp, meaning Henson is forced to climb into a steel canister, submerged under water, and contort his body to fit inside. There he sat for three hours with a small video monitor inside until the scene was completed. It took him a while afterward to get blood flowing through all his appendages again.
Working with Henson was sometimes extremely dangerous.
Aside from being physically taxed, Henson sometimes unknowingly put his cast and crew into danger. A few examples include a John Denver music video that included the Muppets listening around a campfire. Several actors stood underground in a circle controlling their puppets next to a precarious propane tank Henson used to get the fire to start. In the second Muppets movie, as characters are being chased up a drainpipe, Henson installed 11 small elevators (essentially drawers) that lifted the actors simultaneously to get the shot right. Any small break in the wood, Oz remembers, there could have been a serious, injurious collision. One of the reasons that there was no competition with the Muppets, Goelz explains, is because "nobody was crazy enough to go to all this trouble."
The crew would often prank the cast members.
One of the puppet builders, Don Sahlin, was in charge of the small pyrotechnic work that was often a staple in the show. One night he stayed late to wire up an exploding squib on Goelz's desk, which was just a few feet away from his. The next day as Goelz sat down, his papers and materials went up into smoke, the beginning of an ongoing comedic prank war between them.
Henson's genius was in the details.
One of the first things Henson asked his puppeteers was to develop a signature for their characters. When the actors would go to TV and movie premieres they would then sign autographs with their character's penmanship, subtle directions to round out their personas. Oz remembered the curlicues and hearts he added for Miss Piggy's signature, which represented the bravado that masked her utter lack of talent.
Henson was the best boss because he led by example.
Among the adjectives used to describe Henson throughout the documentary, "generous" remained the most consistent. He fostered a culture of empathy and inclusiveness, evident in the show's themes, which extended to everyone watching. He stayed late at night working, long after the cast had gone home, continuing to perfect his craft while managing to run an entire business. He was never afraid to wear costumes, and his characters—Kermit, Ernie, Rowlf—embodied the various parts of himself. His omnipresence on set indicated his investment in every cast member and crew worker, fueling a legacy that continues to be sung.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.