A Chat with Louise Gikow, part 2

Published: October 30, 2009
Categories: Feature

Part 1Part 2

Hey, how about that interview with Louise Gikow from the other day? Wasn’t that fantastic? Sorry, what’s that? You think it should’ve been longer? Well you are in luck, my furry friend! Part two of our chat with Louise is right here, right now!

ToughPigs: How did you get started in your career with the Muppets?

Louise Gikow: When I was very young, I was a graduate student of Medieval Literature at Columbia University. I got my Masters and decided that it was insane to be a Medievalist. It was a bad economic time and nobody wanted professors of medieval literature. I also realized that university teaching and the university atmosphere was probably not for me. I wanted real life. So I left, answered an ad in the New York Times, and got a job at the National Lampoon Magazine for six years. I worked with everyone from Doug Kenney to Henry Beard to John Belushi, because I was a production assistant on the first Lemmings show. I’ve been so incredibly lucky. I was there for about six years as the Senior Copy Editor, and then I decided that I didn’t want to be working for that magazine when I’d hit a ripe old age. I loved it madly, but it was time for me to move on, so I quit and freelanced for a while. And while I was freelancing, my friend Mark Saltzman, who had been writing for Sesame Street, called me and said that they were starting Muppet Magazine and they were looking for freelance-permanent staff. And I became the Managing Editor of that.

TP: So Muppet Magazine was your first job with the Muppets?

LG: Yeah, it was my first Muppet experience. I worked there for about a year, and it was a great gig for me, because I would come in irregularly and I made about $12,000 a year, which at that time was an enormous part of my income, which goes to show you how the world has changed. After about a year, Jane Leventhal, who was the head of publishing, who is the older sister of J.P. Leventhal, who is the publisher of [the Sesame Street 40th Anniversary book], called me up and said she’d like me to come and work full-time in the publishing division. I really like freelancing, and I like having permanent jobs, but I really don’t like transitioning between the two. And I told Jane a few weeks later that I had a nightmare the night after she asked me to come where she was chasing me around the office with a meat cleaver, shouting “Come join us! Come join us!” And I was running away going “No, no, I don’t want to! I like freelancing!” But I went and joined them anyway because it was one of those things you couldn’t pass up. I was lucky enough very soon afterward to become kind of an ad-hoc creative group that Jim gathered of people from a variety of places, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I guess he liked my big mouth and my ideas enough to invite me to all the meetings. So I didn’t do the scriptwriting very much for him, but I did a lot of bits and pieces like PR and internal films and things like that. Mostly I was a part of this brain trust kind of thing. And Jim… oh Jim, Jim was a wonderful guy. I miss him very much. He used to gather people together for these weekends, and he would hire the most amazing people, people who were famous in a variety of fields, and we’d go in and they’d tell you these fascinating things about their fields and we’d brainstorm about what we can do. It was just a joy, we were so lucky.

I did that for 11 years, past when Jim died, probably longer than I should have, mostly because I just loved it there and it was hard to leave. Then I got a job starting a publishing and multimedia division at Nickelodeon, and I thought I really had to try it. So I spent two years at Nickelodeon, and I learned more there than I had at any other job in my life, and it’s influenced everything I’ve done since, because it was more about what makes a successful show, what makes a successful network. And then Chris Cerf asked me to join Sirius Thinking, where I worked for seven or eight years, and I’ve got two Emmys to show for it. Then I left to freelance and I’ve been freelancing ever since.

I was always a book writer, I became a script writer, I helped develop shows like Johnny and the Sprites, I wrote the last two planetarium shows. And as a part of my freelance work, I got a call one day from J.P. Leventhal, and he told me about the 40th anniversary book, and he asked if it was a project I’d be interested in writing. Because when The Works was done, I was pretty instrumental in the publishing division, rewriting it and getting it all together. So I said you betcha. I know they’ve tried to do it before and haven’t really been able to. There was Sesame Street Unpaved, which was a different kind of book, and I think they planned on a 25th anniversary book in-house, but it was very difficult. I think one reason why it was possible now is because of the perspective. The world is changing so much and Sesame Street is still here, and it demands a celebration. It took a long time to get the project off the ground and it took a long time to get it done.

TP: You have written books for more of the Muppet franchises than just about anyone: Muppets, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, Muppet Babies, Muppet Kids, Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss., Labyrinth. Did you have a favorite franchise to work with?

LG: I love Fraggle Rock, I really do. I mean, I love them all, but there was something about Fraggle Rock that was joyous and amazing, and the people were extraordinary. It’s really inspired other people. John Tartaglia was inspired by Fraggle Rock to do Johnny and the Sprites. It has extraordinary music, it’s such a wonderful show. And it breaks my heart that more people don’t know about it, and I know they’re bringing it back now in DVDs, and I’m hoping that they really promote it because. It was a show that was ahead of its time in terms of a broadcast situation because it was on HBO and HBO wasn’t big enough. And the only place where it became popular was that band between America and Canada, because all of the northern states could pick up the signal from CBC. So we’d get huge numbers in Buffalo of Fraggle Rock fans because they could get it on television.

The other one that was close to my heart was the Palestinian-Jordanian-Israeli Sesame Street co-production. It was an amazing opportunity to work with those people, and to do something to really make a difference. That’s where Gary Knell is really standing out now, and that’s where he’s dug his heels in, saying this is how we’re going to change the world. I think Joan [Ganz Cooney] really wanted to change the world when she began, but I think she was thinking of the American world. And very soon after it became the international world. So to be a part of international for Sesame Workshop was an additional gift. I worked for Jim Henson for 11 years and it was all amazing, I loved it dearly, but that was something that let you wake up feeling good every day.

TP: Going back to the books, how did it work when you’d get an assignment? Did you pitch ideas, or would you get a note saying “We need a book about Wembley”?

LG: I’ll tell you the story about the first book I ever wrote. I wrote over 100 books, some under pseudonyms. I wrote under “Emily Paul” and “Rebecca Grand”. Emily Pauline is my niece, and Rebecca Grand was my grandmother. I liked both of those names, and I thought they sounded sort of professional. Now I can say it since no one will care anymore. Anyway, what would happen was we’d make a deal with the publisher, and they’d say how many books they want and how many pages in each book. So you really started with a format, and you’d know the kind of book you’d want to do and the age range of the kids who will read it. I was going to write the first Fraggle Rock books myself because they didn’t give us any lead time, and the show wasn’t going to be on for a while, and it was difficult to explain to people what the show was going to be. I was involved in production, I was at the set in Toronto, I knew about the show. So we were going to do the first books in-house and then outsource the later ones. You don’t want to do them all yourself, because then you don’t get any interesting voices. But I decided for the first book I ever wrote for them that I’d write “What’s a Fraggle?” I love rhyme, I love Dr. Seuss, and I wanted to write a sort of funny explanatory book for kids, because I thought it was a good way to start the line. Very often I would talk to the publisher about the book, or I would talk to [editor] Jane [Levinson] about my ideas, but this one I didn’t. We had a meeting where Jane told us what the formats were, and I said I’d like to do a book about Fraggles. She said let’s try a book like that, and then I went back to my office and wrote it in five minutes and came back and said “You mean like this?” She thought I was out of my mind. I’m sort of hyper when I get excited, and I’m a very fast typist. But I knew exactly what I wanted to do, and it was basically published verbatim, just as I wrote it. I don’t think there was a single word change. Jane really liked it and the publisher liked it, but God knows not all books were like that.

The way it works is, if the order is for eight books, you’d look at them and say “Let’s do a general book with all of the Fraggles, let’s do five featuring the main characters, and a Doozer book…” and I did a “What’s a Doozer?” book too, and I thought that had a genius idea, that the way Fraggles start was that there was a lazy Doozer who at a lot and didn’t exercise, so he became bigger and bigger and eventually became a Fraggle. So it’s part of Doozer lore that Fraggles are basically useless Doozers.

TP: You also wrote a lot of the Muppet Kids books. Was that any more difficult because you didn’t have source material to pull from, like Fraggle Rock or Muppet Babies?

LG: We were very careful on Muppet Kids. If you work for the Muppets for as long as we did, you really know these characters well. There were always creative kickoff meetings for things like this where we’d talk about how it would work, who would these kids be, where would they live, what would they look like and how would they behave?

The first time I came on board, when I was working for Muppet Magazine, I was writing the Miss Piggy column. The way you write a lot of this stuff, especially when you’re not the character yourself, is you get the voice of the character in your head. When I first began to do that, I had a meeting with Frank Oz. Frank was very particular about Miss Piggy at the time, and he spoke to me for a couple hours about Piggy. He told me the classic pig’s beginning story, born on a farm, lots of brothers. He was extremely helpful to me, because he told me where he got her from and from where he derived this extraordinary character and all the things that sort of made her her. So you’d get to know these characters like you know your friends. And I may not have known my best friend when she was 15, but I know who she was when she was 15. The essence of a person is the essence of a person. You know that Piggy started out scrabbling the yard with all her brothers, elbowing her brothers out of the way so she could get her share of the food because she was smaller, so she had to learn to be aggressive early on. So you know the kind of kid she was in grade school, and you know the kind of kid she was in junior high. She probably never went to college, and she’s probably embarrassed by that fact, because she had to go out and earn a living… To know who a character is is everything.

TP: You wrote the Sing Along with Kermit and Friends tapes. How was it different writing for Jim Henson, rather than just his characters in the books?

LG: Luckily for me, Jim was comfortable enough with what I’d written to just read them. Jerry Nelson, who’s just the most talented puppeteer, voice artist, character builder, and just an amazing and wonderful guy, did Robin on a number of those and was just amazing. I’m trying to think if it made any difference, and the truth is that it didn’t. Whatever I wrote they had to like, as far as I was concerned. It wasn’t a matter of whether they were going to read it or if they were going to read it and say it out loud. It was a little confrontational emotionally for me when they did it, but it was also very pleasurable. I loved working with them, they were brilliant, and I just loved being among them. But the books were just as important to me to get right, and if I didn’t write my best and do my best to get the voices right, I wouldn’t have been doing my job. And because everyone was so incredibly supportive, it was such a joy to work with them, it never occurred to me to be scared. It was actually more fun and more joyous, and I think the reason why I moved from writing books to doing more production is because I get to work with more people like that.

TP: I know that there are a good deal of inside jokes in the Muppet books. Were you ever caricaturized in any of your books?

LG: No, not as far as I know. My name was occasionally used as a character, but not artistically. Although I did play Miss Preen in the National Lampoon Yearbook. If you go back and find Miss Preen the guidance counselor, that was me.
Many special thanks to Louise Gikow for chatting with us! Keep an eye out for Sesame Street: A Celebration of Forty Years of Life on the Street, due in stores this November!

Click here to ask What’s a Fraggle on the ToughPigs forum!


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Written by Joe Hennes

Co-owner and Editor-in-Chief.
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