A Frog and a Bear at VultureFest: Morning with the Muppets

Published: June 6, 2016
Categories: Feature, Reports

Morning with the Muppets

Super-special thanks to Tough Pigs’ own Scott Hanson for all the great photos!

New York magazine’s VultureFest brings the best and brighest figures in current pop culture to New York City for a series of panels and live events.  This year, the list of guests included some major TV stars, hot off the cancellation of their latest show.

Yep, the “Morning with the Muppets” panel came just days after the announcement that The Muppets had been cancelled.  But that didn’t prevent the Muppets from being as entertaining as ever, and it didn’t prevent anyone in the audience from having a great time.

The event began with what I believe folks in the biz call a “sizzle reel.”  It was a montage of quick clips of the Muppets being funny, wacky, musical, and Muppety.  (UPDATE: I originally reported that this reel was edited by the Jim Henson Legacy’s master editor Craig Shemin, but I have since learned that in fact, he only edited the later montage of Kermit & Fozzie clips.  This one was put together by somebody else, presumably at Disney.)  It occurred to me that the montage would be a good tool for selling the next Muppet TV series or movie, as it had a perfect blend of classic and recent stuff.

Perhaps the most the intriguing clip incorporated appeared to be from one of the new, as-yet-unseen “Pigs in Space” sketches we’ve been waiting to see on YouTube.  It looked like a spoof of Alien with Pepe as the facehugger alien.  When are we going to see that sketch, anyway?

VultureFest KermitNew York’s senior editor Chris (yes, we have no) Bonanos moderated the event.  He wasted no time introducing Kermit, and asking him about his trip to New York.  Kermit explained that he flew in an overhead bin, and he was staying not near Central Park, but in Central Park.  There was some talk about his old swamp life, and his journey to Hollywood, where he sometimes faced anti-amphibian sentiments.

On the subject of Sesame Street, Kermit said his role was easy to get, because it was written for a frog. He enjoyed his stint as a newsman, asking tough questions — or in Miss Muffet’s case, tuffet questions.  “All internet news people would be better off with trenchcoats and hats,” Kermit said.

Bonanos tried to get Kermit talking about politics, but he hesitated… because frogs can’t vote.  But that’s okay, because they don’t pay taxes.  One thing he was willing to say is that whoever loses this year’s presidential election is invited to join the Muppets.  He also revealed Sam the Eagle’s preferred candidate for 2016: Teddy Roosevelt.

Then it was time to let Steve Whitmire put his arm down for a minute (Kermit made several not-always-subtle jokes about being tired during the panel), so they showed another video montage, focusing on Kermit and Fozzie together (UPDATE: This was the one Craig Shemin made).  And then it was time to bring Fozzie in!

Kermit asked Fozzie why he didn’t see him come back to the hotel the night before, and Fozzie explained that he had gotten lost in Manhattan.  Fortunately, he found a cardboard box to sleep in.  See, Fozzie’s been sleepy because he couldn’t hibernate during the winter because he was working on the TV show — sleepy enough to fall asleep on the table right in front of us.

Fozzie demonstrated his comedy skills with a knock-knock joke for Kermit:

F: Knock-knock!

K: Who’s there?

F: Hi.

K: Hi who?

F: How could you forget your catch phrase?  It’s “hi-ho,” not “hi-who!”

That’s not verbatim, but you get the idea.

VultureFest Fozzie KermitAfter Kermit and Fozzie told the story of how they met, straight from The Muppet Movie (They remembered it a bit differently, with Fozzie’s version including him having a great set at the El Sleezo with an audience who loved him), Bonanos asked Fozzie who his favorite current comedians are.  He named Milton Berle and Bob Hope, and Kermit had to inform him that those men are no longer alive.  But for the record, Fozzie does like Jim Gaffigan.  (I think Eric Jacobson was trying really hard to think of a modern standup comic who works relatively clean.)

At one point, Bonanos asked Kermit the inevitable question about Miss Piggy and the breakup, and Kermit pretty much avoided answering.  I guess that’s what they have to do now, although I thought he might mention following her onto that plane with the in-flight calzone.

Hey, how have Kermit and Fozzie stayed looking so young all these years?  Answers: Fozzie colors his fur, using the same colorist as Donald Trump.  And Kermit has spent years running from a pig.

By this time, you’ve probably seen the video clip of Kermit breaking the news to Fozzie that their show has been cancelled.  It was heartbreaking and funny, and it demonstrated just how good the Kermit/Fozzie team is these days.

Then Bonanos announced that it was time to bring Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobson out, which prompted to Fozzie to ask, “Who?”  Kermit directed him to look down, and Fozzie was suitably shocked.

VultureFest Eric SteveThe puppeteers popped up, and gosh, it’s always good to see those guys get their due.  They talked about how they both started with the Muppets at a young age.  Eric talked about being a student at NYU film school when Jim Henson died, and realizing that he wanted to be part of carrying on Jim’s legacy.  He loves the work because it allows him to combine skills related to acting, writing, and directing.

Steve talked about watching Sesame Street at the age of 10 and writing a fan letter to Jim Henson, who wrote him back.  Steve learned to make puppets using a Muppet pattern published in Women’s Day magazine — though he speculated that Jim may have regretted allowing that to be published, because so many people used it to make puppets that they then sold.  On the subject of taking over Kermit, Steve has heard that Jim had mentioned him as a possible understudy for the character, although Jim never mentioned it to Steve.  He tried to emulate Jim “a little bit” but eventually made the character his own.

When Eric Jacobson joined the Muppet performers, Steve encouraged the recasting of Eric as many of Frank Oz’s characters.  (“Thank you, by the way,” said Eric.)  Frank didn’t train Eric to do the characters, but Eric believes they have similar performing instincts.  And it was valuable to see Frank in action in real life.  Eric said his character voices are “in the ballpark” of Frank’s.  This prompted Steve to recall being on a local shock-jock radio show shortly after he took on Kermit, and the hosts kept making jokes about how he didn’t sound like Kermit.  To Steve, there is no “Eric’s Fozzie” or “Frank’s Fozzie.”  They’re just the characters.  Eric agreed, noting that it’s natural for the characters to be a little different when a new performer takes over.

Then they ran through several topics, which I will now present as bullet points:

  • Steve and Eric both understand what it’s like to be a Muppet fan, but being on the inside provides a different perspective.  Sometimes the Muppet people are more ready than the audience for the characters to evolve.  For example, the ABC show.  But they try to stay modern.
  • As kids, both drew comics.  They both admired Charles Schulz, but were aware that Peanuts was the creation of one guy.  The Muppets, on the other hand, were brought to life by several people, so it seemed possible that they could be a part of it.
  • VultureFest Eric armIt takes a lot of arm strength to be a Muppet performer.  Steve stretches a lot and does yoga.  A chiropractor once told him he has “an athlete’s body.”  Eric commented that it’s generally hard for him to to exercise to keep in shape because he has kids.  He agreed that stretching is important, but noted that he’s decided at this point in his career that he’s going to start avoiding getting stuffed into small spaces.  His hand once fell asleep during a talk show interview, which led to Miss Piggy giving increasingly short answers.
  • The Muppets had the biggest set they’ve ever had, and it was the first time they’ve ever used handheld cameras.
  • Guest actors working with the Muppets do have to adjust to talking to puppets, but good actors slip into it pretty easily.  They’re now working with a lot of actors who grew up watching the Muppets.  Also, it’s a common occurrence when Kermit appears on a set for a big, burly crew member to break into tears.  (“His name is Bob; he’s on every set!” Eric joked.)

Then it was time for the audience volunteer portion of the event.  Peter Linz, who was there to perform Fozzie’s right hand, picked a handful of lucky people to come up front and learn how to perform Muppets.  They each got a Muppet (including Debbie, Gonzo’s date from The Muppets), and Steve and Kermit taught them them about making eye contact with the camera and lip-syncing.  Animal showed up for this demo too, and suggested the word they used to practice lip-syncing: “Lunchtime.”

VultureFest puppets with AnimalThat got a laugh, and in fact, it was remarkable to observe that everything Animal said or did was funny.  There’s just something about that guy.  Once the volunteers had gotten used to their puppets, they all lip-synced to Chumbawamba’s 1997 hit “Tubthumping.”  I have no idea why they chose that song, especially because there are a lot of fast lyrics that were difficult for the amateur puppeteers to keep up with.  Peter Linz joined in with a dog puppet, and they ran through the first chorus and verse a few times.  At the end, Fozzie showed up for the lesson… too late.  Oh, Fozzie.

Then it was time for the Q&A, which Peter Linz stuck around for, and which went something like this:

Q: How do you guys get paid by the Jim Henson Company?

After clarifying that they don’t really work for the Jim Henson Company because Disney owns the Muppets, the guys explained that they’re freelance on a project-to-project basis.

VultureFest Animal eyebrow mechQ: How does Animal’s eyebrow move?

There’s a mechanism in his head that Eric can slide up and down with his finger.

Q: In old talk show appearances, Jim Henson always sat on-camera with a puppet on his hand rather than hiding himself.  Why don’t they do that anymore?

Steve admitted that it might be his “fault,” because when he took over Kermit he wanted to reinforce the idea that Kermit was his own person and therefore just another talk show guest, so it should be Kermit sitting on the chair.  But he also noted that back in the day, the Muppets were seen as more of a troupe of people who did creative things with puppets, whereas now when you hear “the Muppets” you think of a group of characters.

Eric chimed in to say he’d like the audience to get a peek behind the scenes more often — it’s been a long time since there was any kind of featurette or behind-the-scenes documentary, but there are a lot of new technologies they’d love people to see.

Q: Which character do you identify with?

Eric identifies with different characters at different times, but most often Fozzie.  He’s a standup guy… Even if he’s not a good standup comedian.

The characters Steve identifies with are Jack Bauer and House.  Because the audience member didn’t specify Muppet characters!  But his Muppet choice is Rizzo, because he’s sarcastic, and he wishes he got to perform Rizzo more often.

Q: Can Ernie and Bert get along?

Steve noted that he’s no longer playing Ernie, but he remembered a time when the producers of Sesame Street wondered if Bert was coming across too angry.  Steve’s response was basically, “Of course he’s angry.  Look what Ernie does to him!”  But Steve and Eric agreed that essentially, Bert and Ernie are two very different guys who are able to get along.

VultureFest Eric Steve (2)Q: How can I join the Muppets?

(How many times do you think they’ve answered this one?)  Eric explained that you have to really love the craft of puppetry.  Keep performing, and keep being creative.

Q: How do you dress the puppets?

Steve and Eric were quick to point out that that’s the job of other, talented people.  Sometimes they buy doll clothes or children’s clothes.  Sometimes they make them from scratch.  Miss Piggy, of course, has had outfits made by some big-name designers.  When they do elaborate photo shoots with Piggy, Eric said, the designers get the credit and “we get to keep the clothes!”

They also noted that on The Muppets, all the characters had a lot of new outfits.  This was largely because in keeping with the more grounded, realistic tone, they didn’t really want them to be wearing the same clothes every day.  The notable exception being Kermit, who is always naked.

Speaking of which, it’s a whole different thing filming Muppets in HD than it was in the SD days.  Steve talked about the fact that when they started shooting the new show, they were startled to see how much fuzz was visible on Kermit under the lights.  Steve didn’t mind it, but there were some people involved with the show who were very concerned about keeping the frog clean.

Q: Which Muppet Show guest star “blended” the best with the cast of Muppets?

Steve couldn’t really come up with a single answer for this one.  He said it depended what they were called upon to do on the show.

VultureFest Kermit Fozzie monitorQ: Another question for Steve: How different is the atmosphere of working with the Muppets with the “new” group of performers, compared to the days with the old team?

Steve said it didn’t feel that different.  As for the old days, he talked about what he learned from all the guys… Jim Henson was a great leader, Frank Oz had a great sense for comedy, Jerry Nelson was skilled at music and voices, Richard Hunt was the “social coordinator” who took care of everyone, and Dave Goelz demonstrated the kind of technically spot-on puppeteering that comes from being an engineer.  (At this point, Eric and Peter asked, “How would you describe us?  What have you learned from us?”)

Officially recasting the characters performed by Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt has made a huge difference in recent years, Steve said.  For a while, they were kind of floating around between performers in various productions, but assigning them to permanent performers (mostly Matt Vogel and David Rudman), has helped a lot.  After the two most recent movies, the current team of Muppet performers felt like they came to the ABC show at the top of their game.

Eric added that it’s always a joy to work together.  And what else can you add to that?

This was a delightful event, and I hope they’ll think about doing something similar at the next VultureFest.  Although I would strongly suggest they keep the cameras running and projecting onto the big screen the whole time.  See, Muppets are short, so those of us sitting in the back half of the room didn’t get to see as much of them as we would have liked.

Also, where was Beaker?  He was advertised as being part of the panel, and he was even in the photo montage prominently featured on the cover of the programs they handed out.  Maybe he was being dry-cleaned.  I guess next year they’ll just have to give him his own panel.

Click here to lip-sync to Chumbawamba’s 1997 hit “Tubthumping” on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com


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