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.
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.
We would like to thank Lisa Glenn and Nancy Smith from the Great Arizona Puppet Theatre for allowing Muppet Central to conduct the interview. Our sincerest thanks is also extended to Mr. Juhl, not only for his time and comments here, but for spending so much of his life devoted to writing and making us laugh. Without his wonderful works and writing ability, the Muppets would definitely not be the institution that they are today.