On November 5-9, 2001, the Muppets appeared on a week of Celebrity Family Feud. The featured characters were a mix of old (Kermit, Sweetums), new (Johnny Fiama and Sal, Pepe, Phil Van Neuter), and brand new: appearing all five days was Mo Frackle, a monster who had never been seen before.
For the last two decades, Mo has been a subject of fascination among Muppet fans. To learn where Mo came from, we sat down with his puppet builder James J. Wojtal Jr. and his performer Bruce Lanoil. We also reached out to some other important figures in Mo’s history: Family Feud host Louie Anderson, puppeteer Nathan Danforth, director Kirk Thatcher, sculptor Jasper Anderson, artist James V. Carroll, and comedy producer Patrick Cotnoir. Together, they’ll finally tell Mo Frackle’s story.
Mo was built by James J. Wojtal, a professional puppet builder based in New York. From 1998 – 2002, he worked for The Jim Henson Company.
JAMES J. WOJTAL, JR. (Puppet builder, Mo Frackle): I started at the 67th Street Henson workshop [in New York] in 1998, and my first official job was rebuilding Lola for Plaza Sesamo. And then I was building Bear heads [for Bear in the Big Blue House]. I built 19 Bear heads – 3 for the show and 16 for stage tour, PR, Disney World. Most of the Muppet stuff I did was refurbishing old puppets.
But the whole idea of working at the Muppets was to build weird Muppets, and we weren’t doing any of that! [laughs] I was building Bear heads, but we weren’t doing anything new. It was kind of a doldrum period, and I just thought “You know, we’ve got these great furs that nobody’s touching, and we have scraps of foam.” And I’m learning – and I’m working with these masters, but I’m only doing one thing. You can only build a Bear head so many times!
So I would come in and doodle on the paper on my table, and I drew a monster one day, and I thought “I’m just gonna make this.” And I always stayed late anyway, because Los Angeles had a bad habit of not realizing we were in a different timezone. They would call us at 6:15 or 6:30 and say “Hey, we need a Piggy out here for a shoot tomorrow.”
So I got bored, and that’s kind of the birth of Mo.
But Mo wasn’t alone. Wojtal built another monster at the same time.
Mo has a weird half-brother that no one has ever seen. A long-snouted blue Frackle who’s never been used in anything except for a Macy’s window display. He’s never been puppeteered in anything that I’m aware of. I think people don’t like to use him because he’s got a really long body. I know he still exists, because I saw him at Puppet Heap six years ago.
Mo’s last name has a long history. The Frackles are a group of Muppet monsters that debuted in the 1970 TV special The Great Santa Claus Switch and continued appearing on The Muppet Show and other productions. Frackles have a distinct look that separates them from other Muppet monsters.
WOJTAL: They all have the raw foam beaky snout. It’s always exposed foam that’s been dyed and painted. It’s always some kind of scraggly, weird fur. Often they have big ears, but not always. Often they have teeth, but not always. They’ve got those black eyebrows. They’re just monsters, but they’re based on Jim’s sketches. The whole look of a Frackle is Jim’s design, and I just did my interpretation of that.
BRUCE LANOIL (Muppet performer, Mo Frackle): I was talking to [longtime Muppet builder] Jane Gootnick, and she said that she also built a Frackle that she loved very much. I have a feeling she was also bored that day and built one. That’s what happens.
Bruce Lanoil began working with the Muppets in the early 1990s. Before Mo Frackle, his credits included MuppetVision*3D, Muppets Tonight, Dinosaurs (where he performed Charlene Sinclair), and The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss (where he performed The Cat in the Hat.)
LANOIL: Working with the Muppets, it’s a fabric. You start, and then all of a sudden you’re hitched to another panel in the giant cloth of Muppets. Brian wove me in once I started with Dinosaurs. I was there for Muppets Tonight for a little while. I right-handed for Frank, right-handed for Jerry. It was an honor and a half to be a part of that.
To have personal experiences with Kermit and those characters. They know who I am, and I know who they are. I’ve been around them so many times that they’re part of the fabric of my family in my mind and in my life. It’s been such a gift to right-hand for such an important franchise. When you walk in with the Muppets, people go nuts. We’re the frickin’ Beatles. Big stars, they melt to butter. It’s unbelievable. You hold a puppet up for them and their families. The gratefulness and the love is like nothing else I’ve ever felt in my life.
Only three of the core performers were available for the Muppets’ week-long appearance on Family Feud: Steve Whitmire, Bill Barretta, and Brian Henson performed their usual characters. To fill out the five-person roster, Victor Yerrid (later Hup on The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance) was tapped to play Sweetums and Bruce Lanoil was asked to create Mo Frackle.
LANOIL: I think I got to do Family Feud because of those pre-established relationships. I was skilled, but there’s a lot of skilled people. But I was lucky – I spent two-and-a-half years doing Dinosaurs with Brian [Henson]. The family that was created from that show are still the greatest friends in my life. Bill Barretta, Michelan Sisti, Pons Maar, Jack Tate, Julianne Buescher, Tom Fisher, Kirk Thatcher, Terri Hardin, John Kennedy, Alan Trautman, Mac Wilson, Steve Whitmire, Dave Goelz, and so many others. We’ve bonded, we’re blood brothers, we’re literally family. That’s the most wonderful thing about Muppets.
Also, I’ve done a lot of game shows in my life. I did Password, I did Body Language, and I did Match Game. I matched with Charles Nelson Reilly for $5000. So I’d been to the mountaintop of game shows, and I thought “I got this.” But I didn’t got it! (laughs)
The Muppets lost four out of five games to their opponents, The Dixie Chicks and Friends (a team made up of all three members of the band now called The Chicks, along with country singer Keith Urban and former Hee Haw host Buck Owens.) Going in, however, it seemed like Mo’s design gave him a competitive advantage.
WOJTAL: The only thing that sets Mo apart from all the other Frackles, design-wise, is that he’s live-handed, because most of them have rod-hands.
LANOIL: I needed live hands for the show! You can’t be on a game show without live hands. How do you buzz in? Although, how do you buzz in anyway when you’re doing this [raises both arms into the air]? You could hardly hear the questions. It was crazy!
WOJTAL: Did they rig it up so the buzzer was by your feet or anything?
LANOIL: No, we got no accommodation, so the Dixie Chicks kicked our ass! On the last show, they eased up a bit. [Dixie Chicks team member] Buck Owens had to go to the restroom or something, so we had an opening. It was so embarrassing. We were supposed to be raising money for charity, but we did so bad. We did so bloody bad, but we were laughing our asses off.
You can’t think that fast when you’re also trying to entertain. And then [Family Feud host] Louie [Anderson] would ask questions about the character. “How did you and Kermit meet?” So I gotta make this history. Mo would say “Well, Kermit came to Frackle Island! He was summering there, and he said maybe some of you guys should join us! And I said ‘I’m in! Since I had a little bread, I went with Kermit, and the rest is history!” that is being made up on the spot. I had to make up something, so I made up Frackle Island. I think Frackle Island would be a great show!
If the Muppet performers felt awkward, it didn’t come through. Host Louie Anderson remembers their stint on the show fondly.
LOUIE ANDERSON (Family Feud host, 1999-2002): Everybody was such a pro. I think everyone hit their mark, maybe except Keith Urban who took a little while to catch on if I remember right.
It was so much fun. I could be a lot more silly and irreverent with the Muppets in the studio. These were all characters I knew and grew up with. Getting to meet the people who were the real creators behind the Muppets and getting to have them right there with you really made the show better. They competed against Buck Owens, who was one of my Mom’s favorites, Keith Urban right before he became a big star, and the Dixie Chicks, who were so great to work with. Everyone wanted to meet the Muppets, though, nobody cared whether I was the host or not. We all had a blast and raised some great money for charity.
Since Wojtal had built Mo for fun as a side project, he was surprised and delighted to see his creation competing on a TV game show.
WOJTAL: Bruce, how did you get to have him in your hand? I didn’t know [workshop head] Tim [Miller] sent him out. They packed up the core characters, and then they added some other puppets. Did this one just speak to you, or was there a list?
LANOIL: There was no speaking, nothing! I was given a choice between two Frackles, and I was drawn to yours [James’s]. I just went “The green one! I love this guy!” There was just something about him. He was right in your face, and I felt the energy.
Lanoil took advantage of that energy. He had to create Mo’s name and personality on the fly, on the set of Family Feud.
LANOIL: Jane Gootnick looked at me and said “I gotta write something on the placard here, because everyone has to have a name in front of them for the show. What’s the name of your character?” I wasn’t in the talking mode, because normally, the main guys, they do it all. So I had to figure out a name for this character. I was gonna go with Sy, which is my late father-in-law’s name. But no, he didn’t feel like a Sy. And I thought, he’s an instigator, so I thought Moe, like from the Three Stooges. Just a strong, easy name that is not too complicated, because I don’t have anything complicated about him in my head!
So they asked how to spell it, and I said M-O, and it was M-O on the show, and it all happened that fast. I just had to entertain people with a character who now had a life, who had never had a life before. I was given carte blanche, and it was really fun. All of a sudden, you’re instantly part of history, and it’s locked in. It’s such a cool thing that happens. So many people are watching, it’s the greatest puppet company in the world.
ANDERSON: Of course I was rooting for the Muppets to win! Out in the open I had to be neutral but secretly the Muppets were my favorite.
PATRICK COTNOIR (George Lucas Talk Show executive producer/Mo Frackle superfan): 2001 is such a weird time for the Muppets, post-Frank Oz’s departure and you can definitely watch these episodes and have them feel like “The Muppets: The New Class,” it’s a lot of new characters who the audience aren’t really familiar with. I think they definitely have funny moments, some of the performers are a lot quicker on their feet than others.
These episodes are insane. It’s very funny to see how they work around the performers that they had available to them. At one point, Sweetums talks about how he prays for his friends at night? Sweetums is religious? Lets get into *THAT*! Where’s that plotline?
The Mo of it all is so funny because they never really introduce him. He’s just there. It’s as if he’s a part of the team and has always been there. They feel like you don’t need to know who he is. If you like the Muppets casually, I’m sure you’re like, ‘oh yeah i kinda remember that guy,’ because he just looks like other Frackles.
After Family Feud, Mo went back into storage. But he didn’t disappear. He was absorbed into the larger group of Muppet Monsters, notably appearing as part of a quartet in the “Bohemian Rhapsody” video. Meanwhile, Lanoil continued working on Henson projects. In 2011, the two were reunited.
LANOIL: I kept looking for him, hoping that they would use him again. I didn’t see him until the 2011 movie. There he was with all the Muppets, and I got to do him in a song. We’re on the Muppet Show set, and Walter was in the basement, he was nervous and he was gonna go on with his whistling. I had a cloth and Mo was cleaning the bannister. Jason Segel was running around looking for his brother Walter, and I ad-libbed “Are you lookin’ for Walter? He’s in the basement!”
I gave Mo a line, and I thought “That’s gonna get in the movie!” Well, they cut it. (laughs). They didn’t have time for it, it wasn’t important to the plot for me to chime in. They knew where the hell he was, so I couldn’t get the line in. I was like (clenches fist) URGH! Anything for Mo!
WOJTAL: I saw the movie in the theater, and I got such a kick out of it. There he was in the background, and I went “Holy crap, there he is in the movie! This puppet I made!”
LANOIL: He’s still alive. He’s not dust yet.
WOJTAL: I’m surprised he’s not dust yet, only because I don’t think they’ve done anything with him.
Another decade has passed, and Lanoil continues to praise Wojtal’s craftsmanship.
LANOIL: Honestly, I had my hand in him [Mo] just recently, and I didn’t feel that “uh-oh” feeling. You built a great puppet!
WOJTAL: That’s always a worry. I rebuilt a bunch of the old Muppet Show Frackles, and when I got them on my desk, it was just a pile of fur and a snout, and when you touched the snout, it disintegrated beneath you. They’ve gone through so many evolutions. The patterns back then – no one was concerned about making really good ones for the monster in the corner. Lots of them say “do not use, do not throw away.” (looks incredulous)
I had to redo the Blue Frackle, Boppity, from Santa Claus Switch. He’s had so many different color schemes on his snout. He was dark blue in one thing, in another he was a lighter pink with blue paint on him. Which one do you copy? It’s very hard to tell! But I did a lot of those.
After the 2011 movie, Mo continued appearing in Muppet productions. As a background character, Mo hasn’t always had Bruce Lanoil by his side. Utility players like Mo change hands frequently and are performed by a variety of people. In 2013’s Lady Gaga and the Muppets Holiday Spectacular, for example, Mo was played by puppeteer Nathan Danforth. In the show’s closing number (“Applause”), Mo can be seen in the back row among a crowd of Muppets and human dancers.
NATHAN DANFORTH (Muppet performer): When I perform a background character, I try to think about who this character is and what their reason for being is. I also would always stay true to any previous emotions or background stories that have built up over time what fans would expect or enjoy seeing from the character. Even if it is a glance or a sigh or a simple reaction, those reactions must be based in reality for that character. It is always an honor when you are given a main Muppet character to help perform as a background character, because that main Muppeteer is trusting you to bring their character to life without stealing the main focus, but also helping the fans and others around you truly believe it is alive.
Mo Frackle was absolutely a fun character to perform. I remember him being very easy to puppeteer due to weight and flexibility with the movements. It made it fun to dance and move around during Lady Gaga’s song, while making sure the character was not blocked or unseen. The dancing was all head movements for the most part with some body thrown in, as I had to extend and make him taller to be above the other cast members, since that was the framing of the shot. I did very much enjoy his facial characteristics and the looks I was able to give to the dancers on set to get their reactions as well. All smiles!
Offscreen, Mo’s legend continued to grow online. In 2018, video producer Patrick Cotnoir uploaded all five Family Feud episodes to YouTube, and a whole new generation discovered Mo.
COTNOIR: I got these videos, maybe in 2003/2004, from a guy named KermiClown, who was a tape trader when I was a kid (and I was very surprised to find out is still doing it!). I’m not sure why I wanted to see them or what importance they held in my kid brain. Maybe it was the fact that I could get 5 of them on one VHS tape that excited me? It felt like more than just ordering one or two TV specials? I don’t know. This was all pre-YouTube/streaming video so almost nothing was readily available online. I was literally just going off descriptions of things, and, in this case, the ToughPigs “My Week with Family Feud” articles.
A few years ago, I was digitizing a lot of VHS tapes I had and realized I had a lot of things that weren’t online anywhere, I just uploaded them to my YouTube channel assuming almost no one would watch, but now, some of the Feud videos are over 125k views, which is wild! I don’t know if it’s because of Keith Urban or the Dixie Chicks… or people just wanted to see the final appearance of Phil Van Neuter (until the Muppets Haunted Mansion special!). I get more comments on these videos than so many other ones, it’s very funny to see.
In 2021, on the cusp of his 20th anniversary, Mo Frackle had his biggest comeback yet. He made two appearances in the Disney+ Halloween Special Muppets Haunted Mansion. One was in his physical puppet form, voiced and performed once again by Bruce Lanoil.
LANOIL: On the Muppets Haunted Mansion shoot, there was almost a hundred Muppets in the room. It was like the end of Indiana Jones, it was this giant room with everybody there. Haunted Mansion was during COVID, and then told us we had to record the audio tracks in our own homes. And I thought I had enough microphone firepower, but I thought “You gotta be kidding me!” But no, that’s what happened. And there among the monsters in the main song (“Life Hereafter”) was Mo, and he had a line! In the script!
KIRK THATCHER (Director, Muppets Haunted Mansion): I have always loved the look of the Frackles in general, and Mo is just a great version of one with a lot of character in his face. He’s one of my favorite Frackle designs, so I like to use him whenever I can!
LANOIL: And I said “Mo has a line?!” Kirk [Thatcher] said “Yeah, he’s a monster, and we need monsters.” They remembered! Jim Lewis is incredible. He’s been the keeper of the flame, and he remembers all of the characters, and so does Kirk. And Bill Barretta is always looking out for possible uses of those types of characters. So I got another shot with Mo.
Mo’s other role in Muppets Haunted Mansion is on the Haunted Mansion’s front gate, where he appears above the building’s address plate. This prop was built by sculptor Jasper Anderson.
JASPER ANDERSON (Sculptor, Muppets Haunted Mansion): The suggestion of which Muppet to insert where into the design of the Mansion came mostly from the producers, writers, and production designer. I threw some ideas in, like using Angel Marie for the poison sassafras mugs, and I seem to remember pushing for Mo on the address plaque because I thought his face was well suited for it. I had done a quick Photoshop composite to see how it would look, and it got approved. His big pointy ears kind of make the same silhouette as the horns on the head that’s part of the real Haunted Mansion plaque, and he’s got this wild look about him that adds a lot of fun to the piece.
Disney was very helpful in providing us with a 3D model of the Haunted Mansion gate plaque frame to work from. I simply replaced the horned head on the original with my ZBrush sculpt of Mo Frackle, and inserted the house numbers, which were drawn by our graphic designer, Claire White. I had to do his head a little bit in relief to match the rest of the plaque. Mo was a lot of fun to sculpt because I tried to make his fur in the same style as the original head’s windswept hair. Vision Scenery milled the digital sculpture out of foam and did the finishing work on it.
I was far from a Muppet expert when I started on this project, but when I began exploring the Frackles, Mo had the perfect look for what we needed. In a way, I think this makes him the face of our Haunted Mansion, and that’s pretty cool.
James Wojtal also revisited Mo in 2021, drawing a new picture of him for Tough Pigs’s own Great Muppet Mural.
WOJTAL: James [V. Carroll] had been asking me to do it.
JAMES V. CARROLL (Lead Designer, ToughPigs Great Muppet Mural): My introduction to James Wojtal was before I ever really met him. In fact, it was upon later reflection that I discovered his appearance in my life. I was working for Ken Lilly at Palisades Toys in the early aughts and was forwarded images of the puppets. These were straight from the Henson Townhouse. The person lending a hand to Beaker, Dr. Teeth, and the gang was James! He was a big part of one of my best gigs ever and I never knew it until a decade later. I mentioned this later to him and we shared a laugh. He also told me about designing Mo. It’s such a wonderfully Muppets design!
WOJTAL: Initially, he had just assigned me to draw Mildred and the butler from Hey Cinderella, Featherstone. and I kept saying “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m gonna do it.” But then I shot out to LA, and I was on set every day for 12 hours, building puppets for Crank Yankers. So I’d say “I’ll do it when I get back to the apartment tonight.” But then I’d get home, sit down, have a beer, and I’m not drawing tonight. But then I did them, and I figured, I got time, I’ll do one more. So I did Mo. I had to look online to see, oh yeah, that’s what he looks like. Because I hadn’t drawn him in forever, and I don’t really have a set drawing style, I was just trying to make things look right.
Anyway, I just tossed Mo in and sent it to him, and they put it in, which is great. He is my one lasting Muppet thing. I didn’t design Bear, the initial designer of him was Paul Andrejco. And the first build of him, I believe, was done by Tim Miller and Kip Rathke with Larry Jameson doing the mech and the costume crew building the body. I didn’t design anything else that folks would know. I refurbished a lot of stuff, and I built Blotch the bullfrog from Swamp Years, but he hasn’t exactly made a lasting impression. But Mo, for whatever reason, has stuck around, thank goodness. And it’s my one little piece of what I’ve done that has lasted for 20 years. So that’s pretty impressive.
As Mo’s big comeback year ends, his creators and fans alike can only wonder what the future holds for Mo Frackle.
WOJTAL: It’s such a weird thing. Bruce and I have never met, except for now [a Zoom interview], but we have birthed a child that is named Mo.
LANOIL: He doesn’t write much, and he doesn’t call much, but he’s having a good life.
WOJTAL: I think he needs a quick ear-tuck. His ears are kind of sagging. They used to be much more vertical.
LANOIL: Next time I see him, I’ll make sure he gets a tuck for you. His daddy.
COTNOIR: Here’s the thing, I want new Muppets. I think we desperately need new Muppets. Don’t get me wrong, I love the classic characters, but it needs that fresh injection of wild characters again. Mo was trying that and I appreciate it. He’s got a good design and looks nice, if not a little Frackle-generic. He sort of falls into that early 2000s humor pit of sarcastic and ‘too cool for school; which is fine, but I don’t think we know him enough to get a good grasp on him beyond the surface level stuff.
Again, I want to be clear, I want more characters like Mo. New blood. New performers. New weirdos who seem like they belong even if we haven’t seen them before. There’s plenty of time to create new ones. It’s hard when they’re not putting out as much content as they used to be. You don’t want to use up 20 minutes of a 40 minute special introducing a new major character if you’re only going to be able to make one special every year or two. If you did that, you’d get the same cries of “Where’s Piggy? I want Beaker!” I think there’s a way to bring in new people to the fold, I’m not sure exactly how to do it, but I think it’s somewhere near what they were trying with Beverly Plume or Joe from Legal. Slowly integrate them with your old characters and eventually they will fit right in.
LANOIL: I haven’t gone too much farther into his backstory. I would love to sit down at a poker game with three other Frackles and just chew the fat, see what bubbles up. I’d love for the monsters to have a club or a group to anchor them. The penguins and the chickens are always choruses and dancers, and they get to do a lot of things for the mainstream.
The monsters only come out when they specifically need monsters, and I think that’s a shame. The monsters are such a great metaphor. These monsters, most of them are super loving, which is good modeling for so many things we now call monsters or monstrous. On Sesame Street, they make that obvious, but I think the Muppets could do it too. I really do think the Muppets have all these worlds they could do more with.
COTNOIR: I wish we got mo’ from Mo. I think we’re missing out. Maybe there’s still time for him? I wonder where he is now… maybe he went back to the Tropics!
LANOIL: Well, I’m going to pitch Frackle Island. (laughs) We gotta get the monsters something! At least a halfway house! A bar, where everyone knows their names!
WOJTAL: Do it! Make it happen!
LANOIL: Done and done.
Special thanks to James J. Wojtal Jr., Bruce Lanoil, Louie Anderson, Patrick Cotnoir, Nathan Danforth, Kirk Thatcher, Jasper Anderson, and James V. Carroll, along with artist Douggy Pledger, who drew Mo’s portrait especially for this article.
Click here to tell Louie Anderson about Frackle Island on the ToughPigs forum!
by Anthony Strand