A Chat with Joey Mazzarino, part 2

Published: February 25, 2009
Categories: Feature

Part 1Part 2

Did you miss the first part of our chat with Sesame Street puppeteer and head writer Joey Mazzarino? Well it misses you too. You should call it more often.

Let’s dispense with the preliminaries! On to part two!

I wanted to ask you about Horatio the Elephant. How did he get his name?

Joey Mazzarino: Belinda [Ward] named him. He’s had a few different performers. I think Dave Goelz did him for “Elephant Elevator Operator“, and Marty Robinson did him for Monster’s Clubhouse, and I don’t even remember when I started doing him. I just remember when I started doing him, I thought, “You know what would be great? If I could do this upright. And it would be even greater if he had legs!” And they started to build him that way. He doesn’t have the greatest eyes, he was made by Ed Christie to be a big jungle animal. It’s the most freeing thing in the world to be a full-bodied puppet.

TP: So how does he work…?

JM: It’s just like Big Bird, but I give him this weird curve in his spine (sticks arm in the air, but tilted forward, not straight up like Big Bird).

TP: Is it like Big Bird where you’ve got a monitor strapped to your chest, with the camera pointed at the character?

JM: Yeah, it’s looking straight on. I do have some little slits in the front, because it does get dangerous. I mean, that trunk really hurts if you hit somebody with it.

TP: How did you come up with that hyperactive personality?

JM: It was a one-shot thing, and I was just stealing Bobcat Goldthwait’s voice. Most of my characters, even Murray, have been developed in any way. Even Stinky the Stinkweed was a one-off in an Oscar parody. I know some people hate the voice, but I never cared about it. I love that most of my characters are hyperactive.

TP: Is that a part of you coming out?

JM: Yeah, I’m very hyper. Murray’s interviews are about as close to me as you’re going to get. I tend to be big and annoying.

TP: You were one of the writers on Muppets From Space. What was that like?

JM: It was a miserable experience. We were working with a director, Randal Kleiser, who had directed Grease, one of my favorite movies. We got the green light, it was Jerry Juhl’s script, and they asked me to do a pass, and I wrote a very parody-heavy script. We parodied Men in Black, Contact, Alien, and we were very close to shooting. Then I got a panicked call from Henson saying that they were firing Randal. They said, “We don’t feel like he’s bringing enough vision.” I said, “But we got the green light! We’re going!” So they flew me out to LA to pick a new director, and we picked a director who was a very nice guy, and he did a decent job, but he wanted to get rid of all the parody stuff. He wanted it to be more real, and the ending, I hate the ending. In my draft, the aliens were getting the signal of old Muppet Shows, and they made themselves look like Gonzo because he was the ultimate being to him. And then they peel back to reveal themselves to be these hideous creatures. And it’s not about family being those guys, his family is the Muppets. So he’s still a whatever, he’s not an alien in the end. So the fact that they made him an alien bugs the crap out of me. Anyway, they hired him, he wanted to make all these changes, and I just left.

TP: So you weren’t on set for the filming?

JM: No, I left before they started. And it was probably a mistake because I never worked on a feature again.

TP: That might not just be you, the Muppets haven’t worked on a feature since then either.

JM: I know, but I was doing really well with Columbia at the time.

TP: I recently rented Ghost Town. I knew you were in it, but I forgot at the time. When I saw your name in the credits, I had to go back and find your blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene. How did that happen?

JM: We were doing auditions for the character who would become Leela, and I had Murray on the auditions, and I was improving with all of the actresses, and at the end of the day, [casting director] Pat McCorkle said to me, “We’re looking for funny character actors to come in and do Ricky Gervais’ new movie. Are you interested?” And I was like, yeah sure, why not. And about three weeks later, I got a call to come in and meet David Koepp, the director, and he asked me, “Can you sneeze?” So I did some sneezes and he says, “Those are really good sneezes.” The next thing I know, I’m called to the set and I did my sneeze and that was it. And at the end of the day, I said to Ricky, “I work on Sesame Street, we’d love to have you,” and all of the sudden he was like, “Oh yes! I’d love to do that! What do I do?” And we’re having him on the show this season.

TP: Do celebrities often come to you to ask to be on the show?

JM: Yeah, sometimes. We have a talent booker who keeps an eye out on who’s in New York that we can grab for a few hours. But some people are just big Muppet fans, like Neil Patrick Harris.

TP: Yeah, we’ve heard in a few interviews, he loves talking about how much of a Muppet fan he is.

JM: It was great, he came in and did a whole episode, which is rare.

TP: That was a great episode, he was fantastic.

JM: You liked it? I wrote it and directed it! Neil was great. He was totally committed to it. And coming up this year, we have Judah Friedlander. He plays “Inspector Four” and he’s hilarious.

TP: Well, if you ever want more celebrities, we’re available.

JM: (Laughs) I’ll keep you on the list.

TP: We heard at the event in New Jersey that Frank Oz had performed earlier that day. Was he on set?

JM: He was, he came in. He did Grover for a bit, and then he did a parody, I think he did Mad Men. He hadn’t been on in a couple years, he’s just so busy.

TP: How often does Jerry Nelson come in?

JM: Jerry’s been on quite a bit this year. He’s been in maybe four or five days. I’ll tell you this: keep an eye out this season for Marshall Grover and Fred the Wonder Horse with Frank as Grover.

TP: We’ve noticed that you’ve done a lot of the Muppet and kid moments on the show.

JM: That’s how Murray came about. I happened to be in Egypt working with the puppeteers there, and they have this character named Filfil, who’s this purple monster with a jaw line like Murray, and I fell in love with this character. And just by chance, that year new A.M.s came in and one of them was that puppet design, so I said, “Please put this puppet away, don’t let anyone take him, I don’t know what I want to do with him yet but I want to use him.” That was when they had me interviewing kids as Papa Bear and a broccoli.

TP: Yeah, I remember you had the broccoli doing pushups in one sketch.

JM: Well it was all improv, right? So I said they should let me use this guy, and they let me change it up and use Murray. We were trying to figure out a name and I think a crew guy or a producer said he looks furry, how about Furry Murray? My grandpa’s name was Murray, and I was always naming characters Murray, like Little Murray Sparkles, there’s a Murray in the Halloween video. And I was like great, it’s my grandpa’s name, so I’m going to use it. And then the Word on the Street thing came about, and there was a marketing campaign behind it as a promo for the show, and we were trying to figure out who to use, and they said they really liked those Murray and kid videos, and we took a chance. People saw it and recognized it as Sesame Street right away, so it turned out to be really great. And then we did those Murray Has a Little Lamb pieces, and those were the greatest shoots ever.

TP: Are those coming back?

JM: We’re going to re-air them if we don’t have the budget to shoot new ones, but if not then we’ll do new ones for season 41. I loved the stuff in the schools. Because we’d go into a place, like a karate school, and we’d watch a class for a little bit, and then we’d say, “Okay, we have a puppet, we have wild legs, Ovejita, and a throwing Ovejita, what can we do?” And in a couple hours, we’d figure out what physical stuff we can do. My favorite thing is throwing Muppets.

TP: Wild feet are what you call the disembodied feet?

JM: Right, they’re the legs that are not attached. They’re rodded. For the karate one we had them kick, and in the gymnastic one we had Murray on the rings, and in the pottery one we had the legs working the pottery wheel.

TP: Should we expect any surprises in season 40?

JM: We’re trying to do what we call a gem in every episode. That’s for you guys, the fans. Little things like Biff and Sully in a scene, or some other stuff that I won’t tell you about that will be hidden in the scene. There’s one, the writing on the sandwich board outside of Hooper’s Store reads, “Loaf of bread / Container of milk / Stick of butter”. We’ll try to get one of those in most of the episodes this season.
Special thanks to Joey Mazzarino for taking the time to chat with us! We can’t wait to see what you’ve got in store for season 40!

Click here to show your fake sneeze on the ToughPigs forum!


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Written by Joe Hennes

Co-owner and Editor-in-Chief.
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