27 Things I Learned from Frank Oz’s Muppets Take Manhattan Commentary

Published: November 10, 2023
Categories: Commentary, Feature

For years, we’ve been begging – literally begging – the Powers That Be to release versions of the Muppet films with commentaries. So few of them exist, and with physical media being increasingly more rare, it’s more important now than ever before.

So of course, we were surprised and delighted to learn that Sony Entertainment would be releasing a new version of The Muppets Take Manhattan, complete with a beautiful-looking 4K Ultra HD restoration and a brand new commentary by director and Muppet performer Frank Oz.

Normally, this would be the greatest news ever. And it sure does come close! But as we learned the hard way, regular old Blu-ray players are incapable of playing 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray discs. The set does come equipped with both a Blu-ray version and a digital version of the movie, but neither features Frank’s commentary.

For me, the only way to watch Muppets Take Manhattan with Frank Oz whispering secrets in my ear was to either purchase an updated Blu-ray player for $200 (For just one movie? Sorry, not doing it, even for the Muppets.) or to watch with someone who already owns one. Thankfully, I was able to watch with my friend and comrade in Muppet fandom: David Levy from the Muppeturgy podcast. Thank you, David!

For those of you like me who aren’t able to enjoy Frank Oz’s commentary track just yet, I’ve watched and taken notes, and I’m ready to share some of his biggest revelations and most interesting anecdotes. Read on, but fair warning, there are SPOILERS ahead!

Frank wanted the opportunity to do this commentary so he could give credit to the non-Frank people who put the film together. He gives a lot of credit to Jim Henson (naturally), and calls out the rest of the main Muppet performing troupe several times through the film, including Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, and Steve Whitmire. He also speaks about several of the crew members, including the costume designers.

In the opening “Manhattan Melodies” scene, the audience was asked just to applaud. But their exuberant and over-the-top reaction was genuine. They were all just so excited to see the Muppets!

Frank points out several moments in the film that “couldn’t be done today,” including Animal chasing a female college student out of the auditorium and Rizzo relentlessly hitting on Yolanda.

Although we’ve heard it a few times before (including in our recent interview with Frank!), it’s still an interesting one: After shooting a scene with some little people leaving their storage locker homes when the Muppets move in, it was ultimately decided to cut the sequence. When the actors arrived with their families at the red carpet premiere, Frank was mortified that he hadn’t alerted them beforehand. So now he makes it a practice to speak to actors directly if any of their scenes are cut in his films.

A recurring theme throughout the commentary is Frank justifying the Muppets’ plot-related issues in the story. “If it was easy for the Muppets, they wouldn’t be the Muppets.” They need to struggle and earn their happy ending.

Alice Spivak, who plays the customer at Pete’s Luncheonette who argues with Rizzo about her missing hamburger, was Frank Oz’s acting teacher.

The Muppet performers hated Frank during the film shoot. Since it was his first film that he directed solo, he had a big learning curve for how to act on set, which he can now look back on and recognize as a teachable moment. He needed to learn how to shut up and let the performers breathe.

Pete’s broken advice (“Peoples is peoples”) is inspired by Frank’s father, puppeteer Mike Oznowicz, who was Dutch and gave similar advice. He’d say wise things, but the syntax was off.

There aren’t many elaborate or experimental camera shots in the film. This is deliberate – keeping things technically simple allows the attention to stay focused on the characters and the story.

On the day of the Empire State Building shoot, the lights were tinted bright blue in honor of an unknown holiday. For the film, Frank needed those lights to be bright white. So they bribed a security guard to shift the lights to white until they got the shots they needed.

Several of the New York-specific shots were filmed in their actual locations. This includes the top of the Empire State Building, Bergdorf Goodman’s, and Sardi’s Restaurant.

Frances Bergen, who plays Leonard Winesop’s secretary, is famously Edgar Bergen’s wife and Candice Bergen’s mother. But she didn’t get the role for her connection to either of them – she was hired thanks to her friendship with Muppet producer David Lazer.

During the scene when the construction workers attempt to catcall Miss Piggy, Frank deadpans this killer line: “Piggy won’t let that go for long. They’re going to die.”

During the “Quell Difference” scene at Bergdorf Goodman, Miss Piggy and Joan Rivers needed to laugh hysterically, but they couldn’t make it work convincingly. So Frank had someone run across the street to the Plaza Hotel, go to the bar, and order four gin and tonics. After each of them downed two of the drinks, they were in the perfect mood to cover each other in makeup and powder. But since Frank was directing, he had no idea what was actually shot, so he just said “cut, print” and hoped for the best. And it certainly was the best.

Frank allowed Jim Henson to direct the “Rat Scat” sequence. Jim relished in this sort of detail-heavy directorial work, and although it took days to shoot, Frank knew that his own perfectionism would’ve made it so much longer.

Jim Henson loved that this movie gave Kermit an opportunity to do characters. “Boffo Socko” Kermit and “Whispering Campaign” Kermit were both Jim allowing Kermit to get out of his own comfort zone and have some fun. Later, when playing “Phillip Phil,” he went the other direction and performed Kermit as a “non character,” or as a neutral version of Kermit.

David Lazer suggested the idea of Kermit initiating a whispering campaign. Laser also makes a cameo appearance in this sequence, escorting Liza Minnelli into the restaurant.

During the jogging and purse thief sequence, Frank wanted to use a Steadicam, but the technology was still very new. They ended up hiring the actual inventor of the Steadicam – Garrett Brown – to handle the camera.

Kermit and Piggy’s entire argument scene – including Gregory Hines’ long jog from the far background – is filmed in one take. According to Frank, keeping this scene in frame and uncut keeps the dialog organic, and the director isn’t attempting to tell you what to look at. The viewer sees all of the actions and reactions at the same time.

The Muppet Babies scene was incredibly hard to shoot. Mainly because the puppets are very small, and they have limited mobility.

In the scene at Pete’s Luncheonette when Kermit calls to tell Piggy and Jenny that he sold the show, Frank recalls that (he thinks) Martin Scorsese’s father appears as an extra. Frank is correct – that’s Charles Scorsese being waited on by Rizzo in the image above.

The fact that Kermit seeks out a job at an ad agency may have been inspired by Frank’s early experiences trying to sell the Muppets at various ad agencies in their early years.

Frank Oz famously makes a cameo during an Ocean Breeze Soap office presentation, but the scene also includes the First Assistant Director and several Henson Company employees.

The clinking glass scene at Pete’s was inspired by an old movie (possibly with Dick Powell) where he does the same thing. Unfortunately, Frank couldn’t recall the title of the film.

The real reason Frank insisted on hiring a real minister for the wedding scene is because he wanted Kermit and Piggy to be able to argue over the legitimacy of their wedding during the publicity for the film.

At the end of the wedding, doves are released and fly past the camera. For weeks later, the crew would find doves roosted in the rafters of the building.

All in all, Frank isn’t sure if this movie is just a different texture from The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper, or if it’s just not as good. This film doesn’t do “gags,” but instead relishes in the quiet moments.

And that’s it! We learned a lot from this commentary, including some new facts and some lesser-known ones that are now safely in the minds of Muppet fans everywhere. But the most important revelation is that these movie commentaries are possible, and that there are parties willing to invest in creating more for fans like us. So here’s hoping this is the start of a new and exciting trend!

Click here to release doves on the ToughPigs forum!

by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com

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