Recently Disney let us know that long time Muppet writer Jim Lewis would be retiring from his position as the go-to scribe for The Muppets after 35 years. We couldn’t let this occasion go unmarked, so I sat down with him last week to conduct this exit interview.
(This interview has been condensed for clarity purposes)
Jarrod Fairclough, ToughPigs: Jim, thank you for being here. I know I’m a 14 hour flight away but can I get you anything before we start?
Jim Lewis: No! Just scintillating conversation, which I know you always bring to these events.
ToughPigs: It’s what I do best. You’re joining us here today because there’s an announcement you want to make.
Jim: Well, I am formally exiting working with The Muppets after, let’s see… Whenever Muppet Magazine started, that’s when I first started working with them. It’s over 35 years, since the mid-80’s. I’ve survived the Germans (Note from the editor: German company EM.TV owned The Muppets for a brief period in the early 2000’s), and various sales, assorted directions. And it’s, uh, it’s just my time. So I’m gonna be exiting. But I hope to serve as a resource, and/or, uh, the characters still live in my head, so anyone who wants to come visit them is welcome to.
ToughPigs: Well, it’s going to be strange not having you as the go-to anymore, but whoever is coming up, I guess we’ll have to adopt them instead. Let’s start at the beginning of your career with The Muppets before we get to the end of it. You started as an editor for Muppet Magazine, as you said before. How did you come into the Muppet world?
Jim: I had worked in Washington DC and I fell in love – with a woman I didn’t marry, so let’s leave that as it is. We moved to New York, and I was basically working freelance for whoever would have me, doing pretty much everything. From writing speeches, to writing ad copy, to doing PR stuff, to picking up an occasional article here and there. I found a spot at Children’s Television Workshop, now Sesame Workshop. I was there for a couple of years working on one of their magazines. It was something called ‘Enter‘. That was at the beginning of the computer age. If I knew then what I know now, I’d be a rich man. I’d have invested in all these little companies we’d go and see. Anyway, Muppet Magazine had already started and was underway, I forget who exactly the editor was before me. But Louise Gikow and various other people were writing for it. The editorship came up and I applied for it and I had a strange sensibility that seemed to match what they were looking for. Writing in character seemed like a fun challenge. So I ended up joining them. And I was there for, uh, quite a few years, and that lead to formally – they were a licensee to Henson, but I worked with a lot of people over on 69th Street, and that’s how I eventually ended up coming to The Muppets.
ToughPigs: So how did that then transfer to you working directly with The Muppets?
Jim: Well, you know, the secret of Muppet Magazine is that it was all written as told to by the characters. So some of the pieces were written by outside writers, they would try to write in character, and I would try to get it in to character. And over that time and the period of doing that, like I said, I heard the voices in my head. You start to think like them. And in the mid-80’s, Jim and Frank – well, Frank had moved on, but Jim and Jerry Juhl, Michael Frith, started working on home videos, because that was a whole new area by the mid-80’s. They were looking for somebody. Jerry didn’t really want to get saddled with that stuff. Bill Prady was working there and he was doing other things for them. So they needed somebody who could write in character. So I wrote a sample script for them in Fozzie’s voice, and that lead to doing some home videos, which then eventually lead to them realise it was cheaper to hire me than to pay me for scripts. So that’s how it ended up. And all the things I’d done before, scripts, writing PR, writing speeches, all came in handy because it was a relatively small organisation, so you got to do everything. From consumer products, to publicity, to production, to eventually theme park work, that sort of thing. So it was a joy. It really was. And as great a group of individuals as you could imagine, you know?
ToughPigs: For sure. Just looking at your Muppet Wiki page, the amount of credits you’ve had over the years, and that’s not even all of them! Because you’ve done a tonne of things you haven’t been credited for, like interviews, public appearances–
Jim: Oh and my personal favorite, which I just found. I wrote the back of the stamps!
(At this point, Jim pulls out a framed copy of the complete set of 2005 Jim Henson and The Muppets stamps)
I am one of the very few people who have written on the back of postage stamps. When they came out with those, I wrote the little ‘in character’ messages on those. I was basically the utility infielder, spot welder, call it what you will. And I loved that, I loved that challenge of not knowing what was coming at me. That’s served me well through the years.
ToughPigs: Out of all the little odd-spotty things you’ve done, what kind of things were your favorite? Was it interviews, or an appearance script, or?
Jim: Well, no, I can say – it’s a horrible thing to say, because it’ll cut me out of things, but now I guess I don’t have to worry about that! I loved the low profile things. I loved print interviews, because they were ultimately reviewed by say Michael Frith or someone up the chain, or at certain points by me because nobody else knew the characters. But it was fun to do that because you could create a whole scenario and you didn’t have to worry about going through various committees to get it approved. Those were some of my favorites. And then the sort of group stuff. Obviously Muppets Tonight, other productions working with Kirk Thatcher closely, and the theme park stuff. That was just a treat and a half to see in the early 90’s working on MuppetVision*3D. In fact we just had a little gathering at Imagineering at the very building that Michael Frith and I used to go to back in the early 90’s. It would be he, myself and usually one other person, Jenni Lupinacci, his assistant, and on the other side of the table there were like 45 Imagineers and vice-presidents and whatnot, and just seeing the amplification they could bring to a project and to work with a bunch of people who were creatively bent in that direction, and also to bend them. Because you would try to get things to, you know, loosen up, and not – these are living characters who are able to change and react to the real world, so they don’t have to be as locked in and some of the more traditional characters. They grow, which is one of their strengths, I think.
ToughPigs: Through all that, is there a favorite moment or line you’ve written that you’re most proud of?
Jim: 2 moments stick with me. One was the very first script I wrote, Hey, You’re As Funny As Fozzie Bear. We were shooting that on 67th Street, in this little studio that Jim had there, which was the original home of The Muppets when they were in New York. I was there, and I remember Frank and Jim calling me over, and asking me, they were looking at the page and they said “You know, we think this would be better if we went from here to here and cut these two lines”. And I was just so flabbergasted, that these guys who, you know, international successes, they had the kindness and the decency to actually ask that. It spoiled me from ever working in Hollywood, because nobody asks anything. Just ‘What is this crap?’ and then throw it out. But they were just classy, and they were confident enough in their own abilities. That was a very, uh, that set the tone for the last 35 years.
And then the other moment was one of the first projects we did after Jim passed away, Muppet Classic Theater. Because that was one where we were trying to sort it out. One of the first combinations of Gonzo and Rizzo, and just working on that and seeing everybody rise up and try to fill that gap that was left by Jim’s absence. That was, again, inspiring. That was when I realised, yeah, this can keep going. What’s going to keep it going is what’s on the stage now, working on it. Everybody wanted it to happen.
ToughPigs: Have you found there were certain characters you found easier or harder to write for?
Jim: Oh, for sure! I mean, Fozzie. I love Fozzie. I am Fozzie. I mean, I’m a failed comic, that’s what it is. I never had his courage to get up on the stage, but his bouyency in the face of everything is one I understand totally. And the other characters that have become easier to write for the older I get are Statler and Waldorf. (Laughs). Although sometimes I forget to be funny and I’m just bitter! But seriously, they’re fun to write for. It’s just such a different tone to the rest of the different characters.
As far as difficulty? Um, well, you know, Zoot! He’s tough!
ToughPigs: He doesn’t say a lot!
Jim: No! I tend to be a verbal guy, so it’s learning ‘What does this character bring and their attitude’. And really just playing characters, not worrying about funny lines. I like to see what mix of characters would be interesting, what haven’t we seen and how would they played off each other? We did some things where we put Floyd and Sam Eagle together, and that was just so much fun because they’re oil and water. Doing things like that. Then along the way it’s also learning, it took me a while to learn it, but with certain characters like Miss Piggy – especially Piggy – it’s easy to go to the same well every time. Whenever we’d do something, like an appearance or something, their writers would take a shot at it and they’d go to the bacon jokes and the pork jokes and all the obvious stuff. You know, it was trying to find the nuances and the surprises that would get you to the pay off, and the anticipation of whatever you were waiting for her to do but not let her become tired. But Frank never let that happen, and Eric has certainly never let that happen. They always have kept her honest. That’s the thing, no matter how well I know the characters, the men and women who perform them ARE these characters and they just, you know, they wear their hearts on their sleeve and their sleeve in a puppet, so.
ToughPigs: You said you find Fozzie easy to write for. What about those puns? Because just the idea of having to come up with that many puns! Like, Ryan [Dosier], who runs the social media, I have no idea how he’s doing that! I’m close with Ryan, I’ve pitched jokes and he’s turned them down! Like, volume wise, surely he needs them!
Jim: Yeah, well, for one thing I think I have the pun gene, you know? I haven’t done the DNA testing, but 23 & Me are researching it. I dunno. I did have one writer say to me ‘You know puns are the lowest form of humor, don’t you?’. I said ‘Yeah, but it’s my corner of the world!’. (Laughs). Yeah, I mean, with Fozzie it’s all new to him. It’s all found humor to him, ‘Oh wow, that’s such a great joke!’, you know? I know we did a little thing with him on the Jungle Cruise, writing down the boat captains stuff. ‘This is ace material! I wonder who writes this stuff?’. It’s that enthusiasm that keeps it going.
ToughPigs: I can understand why you’d want to retire just from 35 years of puns. My goodness. One of my best friends has a book called The Riddle-O-Pedia, and it’s just pun, pun, pun, pun.
Jim: Oh, wow!
ToughPigs: There are thousands in there, and I’ve told him if I ever get to write for The Muppets, I’m stealing this book, and I’m going to use every single one of them!
Jim: (Laughs) Yeah! And with Fozzie you can do that. I never want him to become that one-dimensional thing, just the jokes. Because I think in a lot of ways, aside from Kermit he’s the heart of The Muppets. You know, you watch any of the movies or shows, he’s the one when Kermit is at his lowest point, it’s Fozzie who says ‘I believe in you’, that’s why they continue along.
ToughPigs: Have their been any dream projects that for whatever reason you just never got the chance to do?
Jim: Yeah, a couple. Frank and I worked on a script, a Jerry Juhl script, that we rejiggered, that was potentially gonna be made.
ToughPigs: Was that ‘The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made‘?
Jim: Yes! Hopefully, you know, it’s still in the vault, I’d be thrilled if it happened. If nothing else it gave me a chance to work really closely with Frank. But the time I joined in the mid-80’s he’d finished Take Manhattan and he was off doing Little Shop and growing his own stuff. So it gave me a chance to work for an extended period with him directly. Plus, when we worked at the hotel he was staying at, he validated my parking! I’ll never forget him for that. He insists on repayment every month, but, you know, eventually I’ll pay it off.
Then the other one was another script I wrote just before The Muppets were sold to EM.TV, to the Germans. It seemed to be moving along quite nicely. It was called ‘When Kermit Met Piggy‘, and it was kind of in the realm of Four Weddings And A Funeral, Love Actually. It was every romantic comedy trope put in to a story with The Muppets in the center, with Kermit and Piggy telling their story – well, telling Piggy’s version of their story. It was essentially a rip-off of Pygmalion.
ToughPigs: Ah, Wocka Wocka!
Jim: Exactly! Or ‘Barn Yesterday’! We could go on all week here with these. That was a fun project that just didn’t get made because of the timing. But it was one of the last things I wrote before it all changed. I’m sure Disney probably own it. But that was fun, I enjoyed doing it. It was a way to tell a lot of different stories, because like Love Actually it jumped around to different character groups. We pursued Rizzo and Yolanda, we pursued Gonzo and Camilla, we had all these other romantic relationships going on with Kermit and Piggy at the center of it. And Piggy just, well, it’s all her version of what happened. Those are the two that I wish I’d gotten made, but, you know. You live and you learn.
ToughPigs: Well, Muppet fans reading this, we need to get #MakeBarnYesterday trending, because I need to see this film now. You’ve worked with The Muppets as they’ve changed hands a bunch, excuse the pun. Henson, Disney, the strange German years we all tend to forget about. How has the job changed with each new ownership?
Jim: I mean, obviously the vacuum that was left with Jim’s passing was enormous. As I said, people rose up. People like Martin Baker, Michael Frith, kept it going, and of course all the performers. From Richard Hunt and all of the other guys. All of them believed – Jim made you believe you could do it, and without him there to believe in you it was a little harder, but we all tried to boost each other. That, I think, was obviously the most difficult time. Otherwise, really, within the creative – except maybe when we found ourselves doing something that, maybe we shouldn’t have taken that project or that cross promotion, those make you go ‘Ugh’.
But really, we’re like a theater rep company, where it’s the same group of performers and puppet builders and people who have grown with The Muppets. You work together and whatever gets thrown your way you deal with. So you’re not totally insulated, certainly. But there was a certain insulation once you got on the stage and were able to do it. I can only remember one instance where we were about to shoot something, um, a PSA. We’d written some stuff and we were going over it with the guys, and some vice-president of this or that came in, I think it was during the German years, and he said ‘What are you guys doing?’. I said ‘Oh, we’re punching up the script’. He says ‘You, you, you can’t change it! It’s been approved by legal!’ So I basically did the whole ‘Well what the eff am I doing here’ thing, ‘No, this is how we work!’. Eventually, you know, with a 2×4 and some duct tape we were able to convince him that it was a good idea to let us continue working the way we did. But for the most part we were insulated from that kind of stuff, and that’s good.
Most groups, like the Germans and at first, at Disney, weren’t really sure what to do with us. There was some continuity, with Debbie McClellan, but to try and keep ‘This is what they are, this is what they do, this is why the performers are so important’, they are the character, otherwise you just bought a box filled with cloth and ping pong balls. So, keep that in mind if you’re ever doing anything with these characters.
ToughPigs: That’s a great note. Now that you’re retiring, is there anything you’re looking forward to doing, considering you don’t have to keep thinking up Fozzie Bear puns? Or will you always have them in the back of your mind?
Jim: Oh, that’s it, I’ll call Ryan in the middle of the night and say ‘Ryan! Ryan, I just came up with a good one!’. Also, I want to give credit to Craig Shemin, one of the greats, who came up with one of my favorites. It was for a poster we did, a Tarzan poster, his tagline was ‘She’s Hollywood! He’s Vine!’. When he said that, I was like, we are not worthy. It was a moment with that certain perfection you dream of!
ToughPigs: That’s one of those jokes where you hear it and think ‘That’s it, we’re going home, we’ve made our money for the day!’
Jim: (Laughs) Yeah, we’re outta here, that’s it! End of story! But, as for retirement, I don’t know. I’m pretty busy, I’ve got a lot of family stuff we’re dealing with here. I’m old, this is not a toupe, but it looks like one. I’ve got things to deal with here. Yeah, I’ll still be crackin’ wise, and like I said to The Muppets Studio folks, if you need me for something, please call. It’s just I have no be able to say ‘No’ and this just gives me that power to say ‘I can’t do it right now’. So, I don’t know. My son, who’s autistic, has been trying to get me to retire for the last, well he’s 27, so the last 25 years! (Laughs) ‘Dad, why don’t you retire? You can spend more time with me!’. ‘Okay!’.
ToughPigs: I mean, he has a good point!
Jim: Oh, absolutely. I kept holding up the cheque book saying ‘Here’s why!’.
ToughPigs: Right, ‘I have to help with Muppets Haunted Mansion, that’s why’.
ToughPigs: Finally, and this is probably a bigger question, what advice have you got for any of the future Muppet writers who are sitting out there reading this right now. Because God knows they’re out there.
Jim: Well, it all goes back to Jerry Juhl. Those guys, Jerry Juhl, Frank, Jim, they just pleased themselves. They wanted to make themselves laugh. They’d push here and there, but make themselves laugh, do things that weren’t kiddy, do things that worked on multiple levels. Again, Jim believed in you, so you kind of have to believe in the group. It’s kind of a mirror world. So many of the things we’ve done over the years have mirrored what’s happening behind the scenes because it rings true. I guess, the advice I give is just; like The Muppets, it gets messy, there are ruts, there are times you want to sing the going away song. But you bowl through it, and you work together, and it works.
The key to it is just, if you can reflect the characters and find that part of you that IS those characters and remember they aren’t just taglines or punchlines, and it is about that character and how they interact, that makes it interesting. Then you’ll succeed. It’s great, because I don’t know what else I would have done. I really have no idea. People ask ‘How did you get to The Muppets?’, I say ‘It seemed like an obvious place to go when the witness protection program offered me this opportunity. It was a good place to hide’. I honestly don’t know what I would have done, because it’s kind of the last refuge of a type of comedy that can be edgy but not over the line or trying to keep up with topical humor or ‘Oooh, they said that’. You know? It’s character comedy, it’s a sweet spot when it’s done right. Not that we’ve always done it right, but it’s a sweet spot when done right. And if vaudeville ever comes back I will come out of retirement. I want that on the record.
ToughPigs: Alright, we’ll be holding you to that.
Jim: Please do! Absolutely. I’ll be inside the box marked ‘In Case Of Vaudeville Break Glass’.
ToughPigs: Well, Jim, let me be the voice of the fans and say thank you. For 35+ years of laughs and for keeping those characters consistent, especially after Jim passed, and through all the weird ownership changes, and in ruts, and massive again. It’s sad that you won’t be one of the regulars, but it’s nice to know that you’re still around, I guess, in some capacity.
Jim: Yeah, in the words of Monty Python, ‘I’m not dead yet!’. I will still be around. You know, when Jerry Juhl decided that he wanted to step back, he said to Kirk Thatcher and I, ‘It’s your Muppets now. Go on, you’ll find it’. And that’s how I feel right now. There are so many good people. There are that core group that really do get it. People like Dave Goelz who were there from the start, the first man on the Moon. But also the others. It amazes me, none of the other performers besides Dave and David Rudman knew Jim. David and I worked very closely when I was starting out. But there is a core, and there is a torch that gets passed. It’ll be there, and I hope it always is there. Because you don’t want them to become catchphrases and punchlines. You want them to grow and keep reacting to the world as it is.
ToughPigs: Well, Jim, it’s been an absolutely pleasure. Thank you. We have sent you a Rolex watch, if you haven’t got that yet it’s in the mail, don’t blame me if it doesn’t arrive.
Jim: Oh, and it’s ROLLEEEXX?
Jim: Oh yeah, okay, great. If I have any trouble assembling it when it arrives I’ll let you know.
Thank you to Jim for sitting down and chatting to us, and to Frank Reifsydner from The Muppets Studio for his assistance!
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By Jarrod Fairclough – Jarrod@ToughPigs.com