Yakking with Yolanda: An Interview with Julianne Buescher

Published: March 13, 2017
Categories: Feature, Interviews

We here at ToughPigs love Julianne Buescher. From her spirited energy to her hard-working tenacity to her bright and positive personality – both in person and below the camera – Julianne exemplifies all that one might expect from a Muppet performer. So it was an honor to talk with her about her career in show business and what brought her to this exuberant troupe of weirdos we all know and love. As one of the few female Muppeteers allowed into the inner circle, it’s an honor to get to showcase her in her own words. So here she is (digitally), ladies and gentlemen, Julianne Buescher!

ToughPigs: Hi Julianne! Thanks so much for joining us. Let’s start out with your background. Did you always want to be a puppeteer? If not, what brought you into that world?

Julianne Buescher: I grew up surrounded by music, art, performance… from both sides of the family! We weren’t part of “the Biz” by any means… just creative folks expressing their love of art in a small Midwestern town. My mom would dress my cousins as Hummel figurines and win the annual Hallmark/Hummel contest at the mall. She would also dress my uncle as Santa Claus and decorate the backyard cabin, and was featured in the local papers (along with her poetry). And my dad’s mom was part of the “Young at Heart Kitchen Band” in the 1987 Martin Mull HBO special about returning to his hometown. And, well, I was in my first play at the age of 3! So it was just natural that I became a professional performer.  I had no clue, however, that I would become a puppeteer.

ToughPigs: Did you grow up on any Muppets/Henson projects? Any that meant the most to you as a kid?

Buescher: I grew up watching Sesame Street and LOVED IT!! I was completely absorbed in the creative whirlwind… the ingenuity… learning FAR beyond the letters and numbers. And then The Muppet Show and of course The Muppet Movie which changed my life. I was (am) an introvert with a high IQ and with a desire to draw and write and be my nerdy self.  Naturally, in school I was alienated and misunderstood, and The Muppet Movie spoke to me, validating my dream of finding a pack of creative misfits someday to call “family”. I had no idea that “family” would actually turn out to be the Muppets!

ToughPigs: Which Muppet was your favorite growing up? Is that the same one today?

Buescher: I will always have a special place in my heart for Gonzo. When he sang “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday” by the campfire… well, I immediately went home and wrote a heart-felt little-nerd-girl letter to Gonzo (which I never sent). Luckily, I kept the letter and was able to read it to Dave Goelz, and Gonzo, at an awards event for Dave last year. Yup… big-time tear-jerker…

ToughPigs: I know you have a nice story about almost meeting Jim Henson.  Could you please share that?

Buescher: I had moved to LA after college and in a few weeks met some Henson folks at a cafe.  I thanked them for the amazing work they do, and they invited me to their offices to meet Jim and hang out. For a month I did the “I’m not worthy” thing and didn’t call them for a visit. Unfortunately, within that short time, Jim passed away. I decided that day that I would always go for every opportunity immediately no matter how scary it seemed. So when Brian Henson put an ad in the paper seeking actors willing to be trained as puppeteers for the TV series Dinosaurs, I didn’t hesitate. And though I had never held a puppet in my life, Brian believed in me and gave me a chance… and I’ve been a Henson/Muppet performer ever since.

ToughPigs: Everyone at ToughPigs is very interested in your position on being a woman puppeteer in such a heavenly male-dominated field – not just with the Muppets but puppetry at large. I’d love to shine a spotlight on this issue and I’m very interested in your thoughts.

Buescher: If only it were easy to be a woman in everything else besides puppetry! Unfortunately, just about everything is still a heavily male-dominated field. And it is too huge of a world-wide issue to place at the feet of the Muppets to fix. As I was driving down the freeway, wondering how I was going to answer this question, I took a long look at everything I could see and asked one question: How many women were likely involved in what’s in front of me right now? The pavement, the designing of the freeway, the cars, their design, the gas, who controls it, the construction of the bridge, the skyscraper, the architect, the CEO in the penthouse, the classical music on the radio, the conductor, the arranger, the concert hall, the stadium, the athletes, the coaches, the designers of the uniforms…

Yet it isn’t just women aching to fully participate in this human landscape…it is all of us. In one way or another we can all be halted or blocked or shut down somehow by someone else…or even by ourselves.  The beauty of our lives is in the waking up, being grateful for another glorious day, and getting out there again and never giving up.  And knowing that everyone else is waking up to the same day, with the same hopes, and it’s about reaching out our hands and helping each other along to make it to another day with a smile, a song, and a dream.

ToughPigs: That’s beautiful, thank you! At one point, you jokingly apologized for the character Denise, but I think it was a bold new step. How much input do you have on your characters’ personalities, and in particular how much input did you have on Denise?

Buescher: I think we can’t help but pour ourselves into the characters we play.  I had actually just come out of a relationship similar to the pig-frog-pig triangle and Denise’s struggles were VERY much like my own!  And as far as “who is she?”, everyone gets very excited about new characters so there are a lot of ideas tossed around, many discoveries on the fly, and lots of trial-and-error. The first season of any show is about working out those kinks… it would have been so fun to see the whole cast develop through a second season!

ToughPigs: Conversely, what was the development of this newer incarnation of Yolanda like? Did you have a lot of input in developing her for The Muppets, or was that mostly done in the scripting stage? And how much was building upon what had been done before, both by yourself and other former Yolanda performers like Karen Prell and Alice Dinnean?

Buescher: I had actually first performed Yolanda back in 1993 on Muppets Classic Theater (“The Emperor’s New Clothes”) so we were old friends! She was still the same! Yolanda is so comfortable being Kermit’s put-upon assistant and Rizzo’s exasperated love-interest! It’s a far more free experience to be able to really play and bring more depth to an established character. That’s where the flow happens. A new character is like a blank canvas and a brush full of paint… where to begin?

ToughPigs: You’ve been with Puppet Up!/Stuffed & Unstrung pretty much since the beginning – What drew you to that? Do you have a big improv background?

Buescher: I started doing improv in college, and then at Second City Santa Monica – it is absolutely my favorite performance style – especially song improv! And OMG, when Brian started Puppet Up! I was in HEAVEN! Everything I loved all rolled into one show… it was perfect! All of us in the original cast had been working together for decades, and we would laugh so hard every night experimenting and supporting each other!  I also designed and built many of the original puppets so I was able to fully blossom creatively. And what a great experience for the audience to see how puppeteers really work and to participate in the show!

ToughPigs: I’ve always been intrigued by characters in one form being adapted into puppet form, like with the episode of Community where you played Shirley. How did you prep for that? Were you a fan of the show beforehand? And were you there when Yvette Nicole Brown first saw herself in puppet form?

Buescher: Yvette Nicole Brown is so loving, giving, and FUN!! All of the cast were stunned by their puppet selves! I do a lot of voice-matching for films, so I enjoy the challenge of studying actors and matching their voices/behaviors/movements.  I studied Yvette/Shirley to learn her voice and mannerisms, and of course it is then another layer of transference to try to manipulate the puppet to behave as the actor you are imitating. Yup, it can hurt your brain… in a good way.

ToughPigs: What was it like working on Forgetting Sarah Marshall? Did Jason Segel ask you a million questions about puppetry?

Buescher: The best part of that shoot was watching Jason Segel’s unending and absolute joy that his dream of a puppet musical had come true! Wherever people love puppets that much, that’s the place to be!

ToughPigs: You’re also a very talented singer and voice actor. Which do you prefer doing more: puppetry, singing, or voice acting? Or some combination?

Buescher: (Omigosh, thanks!)  All of it!!  I am so lucky and grateful to be doing what I love every day: to sing, dance, write, draw, voice-match, design, perform, to create every day. Even if it’s just breakfast, that’s what I love!

ToughPigs: Switching gears a bit: You shared an amazingly beautiful letter at the Puppets for Puppetry Benefit honoring Dave Goelz. Would you please share some background on that for readers who weren’t in attendance?

Buescher: Oh yes, that’s the letter to Gonzo I mentioned earlier!  Well, after seeing The Muppet Movie, I wrote a letter to Gonzo explaining how I was picked on by the other kids for being different – a quiet artist and nerdy-girl – and that Gonzo helped me realize that it’s okay to be me because he was different too and he kept chasing his dreams and everything turned out okay. I never sent the letter but kept it with me all these years. So when I was asked to record a little something for the award ceremony for Dave Goelz, I decided to read him that letter. I recorded it in the voice of an 8-year-old girl so that he wouldn’t know it was me until the very end. It surprised everyone!

ToughPigs: It sure did! Would you care to share what your fondest memories of some Muppet performers who have left us, and how they touched your life?

Buescher: Jim, of course, changed my life and influences me every day.  And as I grow older, his work and his words make more and more sense to me.  He has given everyone a seed, an open-heartedness and happiness that grows and widens, and it’s something this world desperately needs now more than ever.  I also miss Jerry so much. Singing with him (esp as Queen Quinella in “A New Baby In My House”) and going to hear some jazz at the Baked Potato [music venue in LA], and listening to his wise, kind words.  I am definitely a late-bloomer because I am so shy, but I hope I can reach and help at least one person out there they way they reached me.

ToughPigs: You are a cancer survivor, and let me just tell you as a personal side note how happy that makes me that you were able to fight it and you’re still with us! Without fear of getting macabre, is there any part of the experience for that that you’d like to share with the readers? And can you also talk a little bit about “Resculpting Venus,” and your decision to make it and what the process was like.

Buescher: Twenty years ago I had both breasts and ovaries removed due to cancer shortly after Dinosaurs.  And then I was bald from chemotherapy which was what helped launch my voice-over career (while I took a year to heal).  My Midwestern family of performers is also a family of cancer survivors. So I approached my medical experience as I did everything else: with familiar nerve, creativity, determination, and heart.  I did not get reconstruction because I did not feel that “a part of me was missing” and besides, SO much easier to puppeteer (I was a D-cup!).  I made a short film, “Resculpting Venus,” about my experience because I knew after dealing with the medical community that I had an unusual perspective (basically that women who do not have breasts and ovaries are still complete human beings… who knew?).  And also at the time there was nothing out there supporting younger women with cancer, so I really wanted to help change that as well.

ToughPigs: Terrific! And finally: Who is your favorite character you’ve performed, in any production?

I really love them all… our characters are all a part of us and we really do become deeply connected to them. My favorites are the unpredictable, mischievous ones!  Piddles the Pug (Puppet Up) was extra naughty and special because of the improv aspect which is the best way to explore and develop a character. You never knew what that dog was going to do! And Yolanda always makes me laugh! She says it like it is… and PLEASE let there be a blooper reel out there somewhere from the series!

Our sincere thanks to Julianne – as well as all the women in front of, beneath, and behind-the-scenes of the Muppets and around the world – for all you do! Happy Women’s History Month!

Click here to read your own letter to Gonzo on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Matt Wilkie – Matt@ToughPigs.com

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