Part 1 – Part 2
When last we left off, Muppet performer John Kennedy regaled us with stories about how he got into puppetry and his early days on Sesame Street. Today, John continues with tales of Muppets Tonight, Aliens in the Family, Julie’s Green Room, and more!
ToughPigs: I also wanted to talk about Muppets Tonight, which is just an absolute fan favorite of a lot of us here at ToughPigs. You were telling me once before a story – I believe it was with Pierce Brosnan, is that right?
John Kennedy: That’s right. Yeah, Pierce Brosnan nailed a puppet to my hand.
TP: He nailed a puppet to your hand.
JK: Yes. [laughs]
TP: How did that happen?
JK: Not on purpose. He may not even know he did it. I was playing a prawn. It was the scene where he’s playing James Prawn and he’s in the prawn costume, and I think Johnny Fiama’s singing in the foreground, and I come in with Dave and Jerry with the lobsters – I think I was a lobster or a prawn with a wig on – and they had the caps. I may have had a cap too, cap gun. They put little caps in them, I thought it was really cool cause it was just like when I was a kid and had a cap gun. They had those. They would really fire them, and they had a trigger that would come down from them, an extension trigger, that would fire the pistols. So it was the famous scene from the Swedish Chef when the lobsters come in.
TP: The Lobster Banditos.
JK: Yeah, the Banditos, right. So I got to play one of those. They said I was doing Richard’s puppet. So, what was happening in the scene is Pierce Brosnan had this huge, heavy slingshot, and he was firing these real metal alarm clocks at us. We had to have hard hats on, cause they were really hitting us. They were going “Bing! Bing! Bing!” off our heads. And then when he ran out of alarm clocks, he just started swinging this heavy wooden slingshot at us, and he hit me on the hand really hard, and I dropped my hand cause I thought he broke my hand. I mean, this thing was like two inches thick, so I bring my hand down and it felt weird. I start to move my fingers and like, “Something’s wrong, but I can move my fingers?” I mean, this is all happening in seconds. I start to take the puppet off, and I realize it wouldn’t come off. There was a bunch of pins in that wig, and when he hit me the pin went through my knuckle. I was lucky I didn’t have any permanent damage, in fact there was none at all. They sent me to the emergency room, and I had to explain what happened. That was the weirdest part of it.
TP: “James Bond nailed my hand.” You had to tell that to a doctor.
JK: Right. [laughs] But it really was just a little pin prick after I pulled it off. It was bleeding a lot, but I pulled it off and there was no bruise and I could move it. I guess that pin just found its way through the cartilage of the knuckle, I don’t know how it did it, but I think it went all the way through. I just pulled it off really quick and it started bleeding, so they sent me to the emergency room, I was fine, I came back, and in no time at all I was in the next scene. It happened so fast, and I think it made it into the shot? You see me there, the closeup on Pierce, you cut back and I’m gone. You see him bring the slingshot down, but you don’t see him hit me. It’s there, but missing in the cuts.
TP: Y’know, the story kind of seems like if you were a Bond villain or a henchmen, that’s probably exactly what would’ve happened. Pierce Brosnan would have come at you with a giant slingshot and driven some sort of thing through your flesh.
JK: That’s right! [laughs] It’d make a great comic book scene.
TP: So, you were on Muppets Tonight for the whole run? For both seasons, is that right?
TP: Wow, okay, let’s talk about that though. How was that? Honestly, even for me as a Henson fanatic, I’ve probably only seen two or three episodes of it, and not since it originally aired. Did you guys even know at the time that it was maybe not something that was going to survive the test of time?
JK: Yeah, we found out before we finished. I think we did all we were scheduled to do, but we knew that it wasn’t going to keep going. It was a bummer. It was a cool show, that’s the sad part. You get on the show, all your friends are there, you’re working on something, and then it gets canceled. It’s upsetting that you can’t keep doing this, cause it’s such a great vibe. You’re like, “This is wonderful! Let’s do this for five years!” and then it’s over. But there’s just been so many shows, so many pilots. Every year there’s several things I’ll do that won’t go or they ended cause they did their run. It’s just a part of show business, I guess.
TP: Were there any others that you were particularly proud of or maybe not proud of?
JK: Oh, shows that didn’t go? I really wish I could have done more of Jack’s Big Music Show, that was another one that was just so good and so fun. We were in Chicago and it was the Rudman brothers and we were just there having fun playing music and with the puppets. I played Mel the dog – I end up playing a lot of dogs, I don’t know why. I just did Julie’s Green Room where I play Toby the dog. The first fifteen music videos I think for Pajaminals I played Apollo the dog – I don’t know. [laughs] But yeah, Jack’s Big Music Show was one that I wish I could have done more of, but they only do sometimes a couple of season, enough to get them in a rotation, and then they just let them go and go and go for years. You’ll still see the same twenty-six, twenty-eight episodes that you shot. But the kids rotate, so they don’t know.
TP: That’s true, and kids like repetition. That’s something. I mean, that makes for less work for you guys, which is sad, but the kids are happy. I guess that’s the most important thing. So Julie’s Green Room – how was it working with Julie Andrews?
JK: Oh, it was awesome! Playing her dog, I was just right there with her all the time. During downtime we would just talk, and it’s just like, “How did I get here? This is a dream come true!”
TP: Amazing. That’s gotta be such a treat to just kind of be right there next to Dame Julie all day.
JK: It was, and then all the celebrities that came. It’s a great show. That’s one I’m super proud of being part of.
TP: Rightfully so. I wanted to ask you, you’ve got so much stuff on your resume it’s hard to focus on every one of them, but something that I noticed pop up a couple of times is you’ve done a lot of voice work for the Muppets, specifically just voice work with video games and things like that that maybe doesn’t involve the puppets themselves. How does that work? Do you just get called in for a project, just like you would for a puppetry thing, or is it any different, just in a studio instead?
JK: Being that utility guy, that’s one thing that I would do is fill in, sometimes not knowing at any moment what I might have to do. I show up on a project, and I just fit in to whatever needs to happen. Two characters in the same shot that are performed by one puppeteer you would do the other one they’re not doing, and maybe they’ll throw the voice, maybe you’ll do it, maybe they’ll loop it later, and then sometimes it’s just not possible to have that person there, so you might do it. At one time, Brian Henson had called me “The Muppets’ Best Mimic,” cause I could mimic a lot of the voices. It’s not perfect, it never was the best. I was just always kind of there to fill in for those times in a transition of characters with performers and stuff. From Jim to Frank, whatever needed to happen that’s what I would do, and if I did my job well no one would ever know that I did it.
TP: Well, unfortunately there’s a lot of Muppet fans out there who are very good at placing voices to performers, so nobody can hide it very well.
JK: I know, I know. [laughs] There’s just been so much of it, it’s hard to pinpoint anything. And some of it I’ve forgotten. I would like, someday, to sit down and write out everything that I remember. For now, I guess you just have to leave it up to the people that can guess well.
TP: So, I do want to ask you, before this interview you had provided me with your new album, and I want to talk about that a little bit. I want to talk about the Johnny K Band. What was your inspiration for starting it?
JK: I’ve been writing music all my life. Music was the other thing I was going to do, other than puppetry. My voice teachers in elementary school and high school, they all expected me to go on to music, in fact I had a music scholarship to two different colleges right after high school, and I turned them both down to pursue puppetry, to the dismay to most of the people who trained me in music. I had been in the marching band, played the marching French horn – the mellophone, I think it’s called. Then I played the bass guitar in junior high jazz band, then I was in show choir and men’s ensemble and madrigals, and it got to be where I thought it’s great to play these instruments, and I already played the banjo since I was eleven, but singing was probably something I should focus more on for puppetry and doing characters and stuff. I sort of switched to that as soon as I got into high school. I was kind of a heavy kid early on, and then I lost a bunch of weight and that’s when I started the dancing. I’d always been doing music though, and of course I wrote songs for my own puppet shows and things, after high school, and I even got to write some things for Henson stuff too. The first time I got to write music for a Muppet thing was for The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss, which, like earlier I said takes five years, well that was five years exactly of doing right hands to the point I got to do characters, and that hit in a big way. I got to play I think over sixty characters on that show.
TP: Wow, I’m looking at the list right now on your Muppet Wiki page, and I’m not going to sit here and count them, but yeah, that’s definitely the biggest chunk that you’ve got of named characters.
JK: Yeah, the first song I got to write was called ‘Run the Race.’ It was for the second season of Seuss. Bob Golden was the music coordinator for that, he wrote a lot of the songs. I got the opportunity to do that then, and so I had been writing other music. I always kept stuff on tape. I have a box, even now, that has all these cassette tapes of all the tunes and melodies that I’ve got. I’d started working with a guy, David Schweizer in Orlando, who has his own band called Davey Rocker’s Barnyard Jam. I built the puppets for him – or some of them, most of them – and I did the voice of one of the characters, Pipkin the Pig, and we could do these live shows, and we still do them in Orlando. And he has a nice studio, so he’d always offered me to come in and record stuff, so the offer was there to lay some of this stuff down, so I had the music already.
Some of the music I’d come up with during Muppets From Space, cause we put together a wrap party band, and I started playing the ukulele. Drew Massey and I shared a car, he would drive to all the locations we had to go to, and I would play the ukulele in the passenger seat. We just came up with songs the whole shoot, for months we came up with all these songs, and I just kept going with that. There was a lot of melodies and stuff from that time that I’d recorded after we shot the film – and some during – and I kept going with it, thinking, “We’re going to put an album together!” I was going to do it then, but it just kind of fell apart. We’re all in different places, live in different places, so it’s hard to concentrate on an album and get it out there, y’know.
So I still had some of those melodies, the others I had written later. Then my wife, Julie, she’s a recreational therapist at a psychiatric hospital in Longwood close to Orlando, she does a lot of work with people that have big problems. They need help with anger management and just destressing mainly. She had a lot of material, she helped me with a lot of the lyrics and stuff, or the ideas for the lyrics, cause I needed to fit them into these songs that already existed.
The name of the album is “Walk the Loop” and the loop that you’re walking is a labyrinth – not like the movie Labyrinth, it’s not where you’d get stuck and try to find your way. This is an ancient labyrinth where you can’t get stuck, you walk through it and it’s supposed to represent the path of your life, you go to the center, and then you weave back out again. It’s therapeutic, so I guess maybe it’s one of the first therapeutic kid’s albums. There’s a lot to be said for chilling out and thinking about things and thinking about your dreams and, y’know, how to be a better person, and that’s really what the themes of the songs are. There’s “The Chain”, which is the helping chain, and there’s “Butterfly Springs”, which is what makes you excited, what do you want to do in your life. Like, I want to be a puppeteer. Butterfly Springs, it’s that place in your heart where butterflies happen, the excitement of, “Wow! I want to be a fireman! Or I want to be…” whatever it is.
TP: I will say, I gave the album a listen, and I was expecting – before knowing anything about it, because it’s a children’s album – I was expecting something that was a little more like The Wiggles or something. But actually, the songs I thought were really catchy. I found myself tapping my foot with almost every one of them. I’m also a sucker for a banjo, so put a banjo in there and I’m down. So I actually really liked the album. And I’m not a kid!
JK: I love the banjo too. I don’t like it all the time for every song, but there’s a little bit of every kind of music in there, I think. I didn’t rap. I didn’t think that I should, I’m not a great rapper. There’s some bluegrass stuff in there, there’s kind of a calypso thing happening. Just a lot of fun dance music. We’ve got some great musicians. David Schweizer is not only a great mixer/engineer, but he’s also a great guitar player and he knows all the musicians in Orlando. We were lucky to get Anthony Cole who’s a drummer for Doyle Bramhall II. He’s on tour right now with his album, so Anthony’s been all over the world now. And then we got Bunky Garrabrant who’s a really great trumpet player, and she also sings on the album too, she’s a great singer. We’re really lucky to have them and other musicians that filled in. It’s all live music too, as far as live instruments. I worked everything out digitally and then figured out the parts, and then got real instruments played on the album. So there’s very few points in the songs where you hear anything digital. If it is keyboards, it’s a cool keyboard sound.
TP: We’re going to link to the music video you shot for “I’m Your Best Friend,” and I think a lot of people who read this web-site will recognize a familiar face in there along with yours.
JK: Yeah, Leslie Carrara-Rudolph’s in there! You can go to the Johnny K Band YouTube channel. It’s also on my puppet making web-site, puppetkit.com, all the links are there and you can see the video there too. Yeah, that’s our first music video, “I’m Your Best Friend,” which is a tribute to my grandfather who played the trumpet in the ‘30s – he was in the big band era and he would take trains and go to his gigs, and so I really wanted a trumpet. I’m even in the video wearing one of his bowties that he wore in the ‘30s.
TP: That’s a nice little tribute.
JK: There’s a yellow theme in there, I don’t know why. I was trying to think, “What should I say in the lyrics? We’re gonna meet up at Grand Central Station, what would you wear to stand out so you can find each other in a big crowd?” And I just thought, “Let’s wear yellow so we’re easy to find.” It just came out. But it worked out great, cause the caboose we found – it’s in Winter Garden, Florida, that’s where my workshop is, I still make puppets for different companies when I’m not shooting in New York or LA – and they had a yellow caboose, so that tie that my grandfather had had a little bit of yellow in it, then I told Leslie, “Wear yellow at Grand Central.” Chris Sassano directed and edited the video. He works with us on Sesame Street in playback and sound effects. He’s a super talented guy, and he was willing to come down, stay with me in Orlando. We went to Winter Garden and shot around there, everybody was super nice, and then we went to Railroader’s Society in Orlando on the east side of town and shot the trains – we put a GoPro on the train, the whole thing went around – and it was great! We pieced it all together, and I was like, “We’ve got a video!” And I hope everybody enjoys it.
TP: And where can people find the album, if they want to purchase?
JK: It’s on iTunes, CD Baby, Amazon, and Spotify. All those links too are on my puppetkit.com site, and also johnnykband.com, you can go there and there’s an iTunes link on top. You can also check us out on Facebook and Instagram!
TP: Great. Well, congratulations on the album. I think you should be really proud of it. I hope a few people out there give it a try and give it a buy. And John, I just want to thank you for chatting with us today. This has been really eye opening, and I’m really glad we were able to introduce you to a lot of Muppet fans who maybe didn’t know your name before today.
JK: Well thanks, it was really great talking to you. If anybody wants to ask me any other questions or anything, you can send me an email through puppetkit.com, there’s a contact there. I’m always happy to answer questions.
TP: Great, thanks again, John!
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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com