If you’re reading this website, you’re probably a Muppet fan. And if you’re a Muppet fan, you probably watched the Muppet Guys Talking guys’ live video event on Saturday. I say “you probably watched it” with confidence because seemingly every Muppet fan with an internet connection watched it. In fact, so many people tuned in to watch it when it started that it crashed the system at MGT HQ and they had to do some fancy technical work to get it back up and running.
It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon and celebrate Jim Henson. Hearing Frank Oz, Fran Brill, Dave Goelz, and Bill Barretta share stories and insights often felt like watching a sequel to the Muppet Guys Talking documentary – and sometimes it felt like eavesdropping on the four of them just chatting over coffee.
A replay is reportedly forthcoming, but for now, here are some of the highlights, things I learned, and things I was surprised by, from A Special Conversation to Honor Jim Henson:
The event was for a good cause
The occasion for the event was the anniversary of Jim Henson’s death, but the Muppet guys also made good use of their audience by setting up a fundraiser. The donations go to Elmhurst Auxiliary Hospital, where a lot of important work is being done during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can still donate at MuppetGuysTalking.com/donate – and if you’re able, you should!
A lot of people are curious about Jim Henson getting angry
For some reason, the topic of Jim expressing anger came up multiple times. The three Muppet guys who worked with him agreed that they very rarely saw him get mad, but when he did, he didn’t yell. Instead, as Frank explained, Jim would get “quieter and quieter and quieter.” In many situations, this reaction was so unexpected that it would quickly defuse tense moments. Frank did recall one incident in which Jim got into an argument with a cab driver who called Jim a “dirty beatnik!” That’s right. Jim Henson: Puppeteer, writer, director, and dirty beatnik.
We learned that Jim knew how to appease sea captains
This was a story even Frank had never heard before. The Fraggle Rock crew was shooting a Traveling Matt segment in San Francisco and they hired a boat to be in the shot. After the Fraggle folks instructed the captain to move the boat to a specific spot, the captain complained that they had forced him to run over his boat’s mooring line, which had ruined his propeller, and they now owed him $7,000 for it. As producer Martin Baker got into an argument with the captain, Jim calmly offered to give the captain $50 to send a diver down to inspect the propeller. He accepted, and everything was fine, and that was the end of it. Silly creatures: you never know what they’re going to do next.
We learned that Jim was a sound effects machine
The Muppet guys revealed that Jim liked to accompany simple actions with sound effects. If Jim dropped a quarter in your hand, Frank said, he wouldn’t just drop the quarter. He would make a clicking sound to go with it. If he picked something up and put it down, he’d add a “whoop” and a “bloop” to go with it.
We learned that Jim was a good businessman, but not a super-serious one
Dave recalled that Jim didn’t become a different person in business meetings. He would doodle, he would make funny remarks – and when somebody made a suggestion and Jim would made his trademark “Hmm…” sound, the other person felt heard, even though the sound actually meant Jim wasn’t into the idea.
We learned that Jim loved dessert
Frank described Jim eating his meals and saving the dessert “as if it were the Holy Grail.”
The Muppet guys tease each other mercilessly – and they really love each other
This was clear from the documentary, and if anything, it was even more evident in this live, unedited chat. These folks have known each other forever, and it shows in their banter. When Frank attempted to get things off to a sensible start by asking the others what characters they performed, Bill claimed that his characters include Cookie Monster, Grover, and Bert. When the subject of Fraggle Rock came up, Dave was sure to note that Frank wasn’t involved because he left the Muppets to go make films. When Bill had to leave the chat early, the others feigned offense at his abandoning them.
Giving each other a hard time is a big part of their dynamic… and so is mutual respect. There was a lot of talk about collaboration and trust, and it was obvious that these guys are big fans of each other as performers and as people.
Dave Goelz’s home office is a treasure trove of cool artifacts from his Muppet life
Here are some things Dave showed off: A photo of himself and Jim on the set of Miss Piggy’s Hollywood framed with his favorite Jim quote. A coffee table book called The Art of Chickens that Jim bought for him and inscribed from Kermit to Gonzo. A Peabody award, awarded to The Muppet Show, framed with a personalized letter from Jim. And a nightlight with a face. See, Dave had a nightlight he didn’t need, so he mailed it to Frank, and Frank sent it back to Dave decorated.
Frank Oz actually spoke in his characters’ voices on demand
Throughout the broadcast, the comments were full of requests for the performers to “do voices.” Of course, those of us who are familiar with Frank Oz and the way he conducts himself in interviews know that he never does voices on command, preferring to save them for those moments when he’s getting in character for a production rather than trotting them out as a “party trick.”
Well, history was made on Saturday. When Victoria Labalme informed the performers of these requests, she added the disclaimer that she knew it was a delicate subject. But Frank willingly – and by all appearances, happily – spoke in the voices of both Cookie Monster and Grover. I bet I’m not the only Muppet geek who was thoroughly shocked by this… and I know I’m not the only Muppet fan who was delighted by it. Fran Brill did her Prairie Dawn voice, Dave Goelz’s Gonzo asked Prairie out to dinner, and for a second it sounded like Frank was about to break into Bert before Gonzo cut him off with a hilarious chicken dance.
Dave Goelz’s daughter texted him to say Frank and Dave looked like Statler and Waldorf
She’s not wrong…
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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com