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 Shermans, Danny Horns, and Chris Smiglianos 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 Shows" 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 TVs really stressful which may be why I've moved to the boondocks!