As of this writing, Muppet Guys Talking has been available to watch by everyone with an internet connection and $10 in their pocket for three days. Have you seen it yet? If not, stop reading my ramblings and get over to MuppetGuysTalking.com to remedy this situation. And then come back here for the ramblings.
For those of you who have seen the movie, wasn’t it just the best?? For years, we’ve been hoping, begging, pleading the original Muppet performers to write their memoirs or get their stories down on tape. We’ve been grateful to get a few biographies, autobiographies, and documentaries over the years, but none have focused on the five performers who sat around a coffee table and talked about their memories of wiggling dollies.
What I’m trying to say is this: We are beyond lucky to get this glimpse into the minds of Frank Oz, Fran Brill, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, and Bill Barretta.
I’ve got to start this review with my one and only complaint. There isn’t enough. Oh, don’t get me wrong – just over an hour of Muppet performers talking about Muppet performing is glorious. And with a reported 9 hours of footage, cutting it down to that length seems on par to just about any other documentary. But the whole thing just made me want to see more, learn more, laugh more. I’m sure I’d be making the same complaint if the doc was 9 hours long. And y’know, that’s easily the best problem to have.
My partner-in-crime Ryan Roe already did a bang-up job writing about his feelings toward the film in his spoiler-free review (be warned: this one will be entirely spoiler-filled starting now), so I’ll take a slightly different approach. Rather than recap the whole movie you’ve already seen (more than a few times, I assume), I’ve broken out my thoughts into some super-fun categories. Who doesn’t love a good category???
Well, this is just an impossible place to start. As the de-facto “star” of this film, as well as the conductor of the conversation, Frank acts as the master puppeteer he’s always been, pulling this string or moving that rod in order to get his cast to provide the best performance necessary. It’s easy to see why Frank is such a great director in those little moments, and the film as a whole really showcases his brilliance and flexibility. Just like the world-class puppeteer we know him to be.
As someone who’s heard hundreds of behind-the-scenes stories and knows more about Muppet history than the average Schmo on the street, I love getting surprised by learning about a new Muppet factoid. For example, I’d heard before about the origin of Pepe’s accent (Bill’s wife’s aunt, who accented most sentences with “okay”), but I’d never heard the story about developing Pepe’s personality. Kirk Thatcher asked Bill to tell him about his aunt-in-law, and when trying to explain how she can often act selfish, he accidentally said “shellfish”. And thus, a King Prawn was born!
When this movie was first announced, most everyone immediately noticed that the title was Muppet Guys Talking, but one of the talkers is not a guy. And somehow, this was a complete shock to Frank Oz, as Fran blew his mind when she said that as a woman, she could never just be “one of the guys”. Even though she was completely accepted as a member of the Muppet troupe, she needed to keep a certain distance from the boys’ club in order to retain her femininity. This is such an important moment in the documentary, reminding us all that this industry was (and, in many ways, still is) male-dominated, and Fran is still shocking her longtime collaborators with the truth about gender inequity.
This is an easy one. I love hearing Dave tell stories, but rarely do we hear him start the same story four times, completely lose his train of thought, and abandon the entire point. That’s probably because this is normally the sort of thing that gets left on the cutting room floor, but for reasons we may never truly understand, the choice was made to leave it in. This says a lot about the sort of film Frank Oz wanted to make, but it says more about Dave Goelz and his humanity, his flaws (more on this soon), and his joy in rolling with the punches.
Is it bad to say “everything”? As the only member who isn’t around to share any more of his stories, I ate up every second of Jerry’s screen time. But the part that brought the biggest smile to my face was Jerry’s description of The Count: “he wasn’t into blood and all, but has a real jones for counting.” Not that we needed to learn the secret motivation behind the creation of a vampire numerologist, but Jerry’s explanation is packed with an innate simplicity, as well as some Floyd-level hipness without any effort, thus cementing Jerry Nelson as the coolest person who ever lived.
For my entire life, I’ve wondered how the Muppets shimmied up a drainpipe in The Great Muppet Caper. And now we know, and I’m blown away by the brilliant simplicity of the technology, as well as the sheer danger all the performers were put in for a single gag.
What happens when the cameras stop rolling? Frank Oz lets us know (while, I guess, not actually stopping the camera roll) as the cast breaks for coffee and the conversation continues. Not only does this prove that Frank is a fearless director, but also, the entire movie is a true-to-life conversation that might be similar even if there were no cameras at all. What a wonderful moment to help us feel like we’re actually in the room with these magnificent people.
It’s mentioned several times while discussing characters: Sometimes you need to let go to really bring a character to life. Big Mean Carl, Gonzo, and Guy Smiley were all outlets for their performers to completely cut loose, act crazy, and help inject pure energy and comedy into the life of a Muppet.
Dave Goelz put it best when he said that his characters are defined by their flaws. Frank Oz said the same thing about Miss Piggy, who is apparently constantly doing everything she can to cover up her pain. But in those flaws come equally positive attributes (for example, Gonzo is “crazy, but free”), and that’s one of the most important lessons I think anyone could learn about character creation.
That’s the real thing we’d all want to discover from a documentary like this, right? What was that magic combination that led to decades of brilliant work, memorable characters, and iconic productions? The secret is revealed in this documentary, and it’s proven through the creation of the documentary itself. The Muppets’ success came from a concoction of fun, experimentation, and collaboration. Jim Henson encouraged a sense of play in everything they did. He wasn’t afraid to try any idea from anyone. And, as it was stated in the film, Jim was a cultivator of people. That’s the secret to success, and you can see all these elements in play throughout Muppet Guys Talking.
Seriously, what the hell is the camel???
Jerry Nelson put it so eloquently. “People who feel disenfranchised in life feel accepted in the Muppet world.” He was talking about those lucky enough to work close to Jim Henson, and how Jim surrounded himself with misfits and free thinkers, but I like to think he was talking about us too – those of us who have chosen to love the Muppets and the works of Jim Henson more than most. Many of us feel out of place, or different in some way, and that’s a difficult thing to accept and embrace. But we’ve got a lifetime of amazing TV and film to love and share and a motley crew of a community to share in it with. There’s something about the Muppets that especially lends itself to this sort of acceptance, and we’re all so grateful to have found it.
That’s just a few of the amazing moments found in Muppet Guys Talking, so I’ll leave you with this one final observation: The glue that holds each and every character, joke, song, production, and moment together is collaboration. And although it’s rare when the original Muppet performers work together anymore, the result of collaboration plus time is reunion, and this is the gift Frank Oz and the filmmakers behind this fantastic documentary have given to us.
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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com