UPDATED: Muppets and Performers Rock D23

Published: August 21, 2015
Categories: Feature, Reports

D23 Expo logo

Disney’s massive D23 Expo was held this past weekend, and there was quite a nice Muppet presence. To make sure we fully covered the event, we had not one, not two, but three Tough Pigs reporters on the scene, and we got some great details. The following info comes to us courtesy of Danny Horn, Matthew Soberman and Matt Wilkie. Thanks, guys!

abcbooth8ABC’s pavilion from San Diego Comic-Con was on the show floor, allowing visitors to get a glimpse at the set for Up Late with Miss Piggy. A brief clip from the pilot was shown on an “editing bay.” After that, guests could make a gif with a randomized Muppet, and everyone walked away with a promotional button.

On the shopping side, vendors had Muppet memorabilia everywhere, ranging from the typical (pins, buttons, and the like), to the rare (a press kit from the 1994 VHS release of The Dark Crystal), to the really rare (a film reel of the theatrical trailer of The Muppet Christmas Carol).

D23 Walter cosplayerCosplay was infrequent (we only spotted a Walter and a Miss Piggy the whole weekend), but one was never too far from a fan wearing Muppet gear. On a more serious side, Disney announced both a new Star Wars and a Toy Story land for Disney’s Hollywood Studios. There’s no word yet on whether or not either of these lands will displace Muppet-Vision 3D, but if you’re at Walt Disney World, see it twice, just in case.

Tough Pigs own Matthew Soberman remarks, “All in all, it’s great to see that people still care about these characters after all this time. After some uncertainty following Muppets Most Wanted, it’s good to know the Muppets are still in demand. During the panel, Goelz said that ‘everyone feels like they’re the right person in the right place at the right time.’ With a new Muppet series underway, the promise of more Sesame Street projects following the HBO deal, and new projects from The Jim Henson Company like Turkey Hollow, Muppet fans can feel like they’re the right person in the right place at the right time too.”

The main attraction was, of course, the aforementioned “Magic Behind the Muppets” panel held to mark the occasion of the upcoming The Muppets., and moderated by Entertainment Weekly‘s Marc Snetiker. Fans lined up as early as 6:00 AM to get into the panel for the new TV show — which, by the way, premieres September 22nd on ABC, so I hope your DVRs are set.  Here’s how the whole thing went down.

The Muppets 2015 logo title
The panel started with a trailer for the show — kind of like this one, but with appearances by cameo guest stars Elizabeth Banks and Topher Grace included.  After that, the Muppet performers themselves took the stage, introduced in chronological order of when they joined the Muppets: Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Bill Barretta, Eric Jacobson, and Matt Vogel.

Moderator: How does it feel to be back on TV?

Dave Goelz: It feels the same as it always does when I’m anywhere. It’s fun to have the Muppets back on TV. It’s a grueling thing to make a TV series, a lot of work — but we have the perfect wave this time. The right people writing, the right people in the crew. It feels like there’s the right people in the room. I haven’t had this feeling since Fraggle Rock. (This bold statement inspired applause from the audience.)

Moderator: What’s new about the show?

Bill Barretta: It has a mockumentary style. It explores the Muppets’ lives and relationships behind the scenes on Miss Piggy’s talk show. Kermit is the producer, Fozzie’s the sidekick. The Electric Mayhem is the band on the show. It’s a style that we haven’t explored much. We’re used to a frame for a shot that we can play to, something a little more formal. We try to work ourselves into a composition for the shot. In the documentary style, they find the Muppets.

Dave: It’s fun to work this way.

Eric Jacobson: The style gives you a different view on the characters and their personalities. You’re getting to see them in candid moments. They’re exposing their vulnerabilities, fears and anxieties as you’ve never seen them before.

Moderator: Are you learning new things about the characters?

Steve Whitmire: Always.

Dave: Yeah, that’s what we do. We’re there with the characters all day.

Bill: We’re pushing the characters in new ways. We keep them true to who they are, but we’re pushing.

Moderator: Is the show edgier?

Steve: It’s real life. You see them in unscripted moments.

Matt Vogel: But nothing in it is bad; it’ll be appropriate for the Muppets and TV.

Dave: We’ve always been riffing with each other; it gets boring on set, and you play in character between takes. It was like that on Sesame Street too, with Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson. We amuse ourselves. That’s what the new show is like, we’re amusing ourselves, but we don’t go too far for kids.

Steve: I don’t usually laugh at our scripts. I’ll usually think, oh, that’s going to be funny. But this one, I laugh out loud, sitting there alone reading the script. It’s not like what you saw in the trailer, all quick cuts. You get real dramatic moments for the characters; you get to see real experiences.

Bill: The characters, even after we cut, they stay alive. Just to amuse ourselves. This is what happens after they say cut.

D23 panel of awesome Muppet performers
Moderator: What’s it like to be working together again?

Dave: Well, we’re together quite frequently. We’ve been working together the whole time. We all live in different places, we have our own lives, and we don’t necessarily see each other between shoots, but when we get together, it’s always a reunion. We love each other.

Matt: We’ll go to dinner together.

Bill: I’ve never gone to dinner with you.

Moderator: The show takes place backstage in Up Late with Miss Piggy. How different is this from other Muppet shows?

Steve: We’re doing two shows at the same time. You probably won’t be able to find Up Late with Miss Piggy on the air… Kermit claims he’s trying to get it on.

Moderator: What about the other characters?

Bill: Gonzo, Rizzo and Pepe are writers. The Swedish Chef runs craft services. Sam the Eagle is very happy in Standards and Practices. Bobo is the stage manager, I don’t know why. Uncle Deadly is wardrobe. Bunsen and Beaker are props.

Dave: Kermit’s putting the show together, and he’s only made one mistake — hiring his friends. The band’s back together — the whole band.

Eric: It takes the template from The Muppet Show, and makes it what’s on TV today. This is what variety shows have turned into.

Dave: If you think about, a show is just as much about what you hide as what you show. Performers are always hiding, back behind some black cloth. You could have anyone coming onto the stage, and they’d be hiding. What are they hiding from? They’re big stars. So this show is about not just the show, it’s the hiding.

Eric: It’s like backstage on The Muppet Show; people always talk about how much they love the backstage. On this show, 90% is backstage.

Steve: And beyond that, going home with the characters.

Dave: We always wondered where they live — like, where does Lew Zealand live? That’s got to be a weird residence. (panel laughs) I bet that’s the top of their list.

Steve: The set is an entire soundstage, the whole floor of a building. You’ll see them moving through hallways. It’s things we’ve never done before.

Eric: We’ve only been shooting for a week, and we’ve already done a handful of shots that I don’t remember us ever doing for another project.

Dave: It’s like if the camera followed us backstage — you’d see Kermit’s office, Piggy’s office, the bullpen, the writers’ room — you get to see the geography in a single shot.

Bill: [Director] Randall Einhorn — he’s really designing these shows with all of that in mind.

Dave: He’s great fun to work with.

Steve: Canadian, right?

Bill: No.

Steve: He should be.

(At this point, they set up the mic for audience questions.)

Audience member: I have two questions. Fozzie with his human girlfriend — will that be an ongoing story? And for Dave, when Gonzo says that he also likes pigs — is that pigs along with chickens? Is he empathizing with Kermit? Or is he just being a weirdo?

Dave: That’s a great question. I think you should ask Gonzo.

(Dave brings Gonzo up. Steve has Rizzo, Bill has Pepe, Eric has Fozzie, Matt has Floyd.)

Gonzo: What was the question?

Audience member: Are you just a weirdo?

Gonzo: Yes.

Pepe: But do you like chickens or pork?

Gonzo: It’s different. We change it up.

Fozzie: I think the first part of the question was about me… What was it?

Audience member: Is the girlfriend story ongoing?

Fozzie: I don’t know, I hope so. You never know where a relationship is going to go. She’s a lovely girl.

Pepe: She’s hot.

Rizzo: Yeah, she’s hot because he’s got a lot of fur.

Fozzie: I don’t know if you saw this, but it’s been hard with her parents. Well, not hard, but —

Floyd: They don’t like him! (Fozzie looks at Floyd.) Sorry to speak the truth, man!

Gonzo: I don’t think I’ve ever seen you — have you ever dated before?

Fozzie: Well, I mean… no. I’ve gone out with people. I don’t know if they were dates, technically.

Gonzo: With ladies, or animals? What’s been going on that we don’t know about?

Fozzie: Look, I’m a guy who, I don’t say no when someone asks me out. You know?

Gonzo: This is getting uncomfortable.

Pepe: Yeah, next question.

D23 Muppets onstage with performers
Audience member: My question is for the puppeteers — no offense to the others —

Floyd: Man! And I’ve been sitting in a box all morning!

Pepe: Yeah, they should put windows in those boxes.

Floyd: Air holes, too!

Audience member: I really loved The Tale of the Bunny Picnic, it meant a lot to me.

Steve: Yeah, Bean Bunny. Maybe he’ll come back someday.

Rizzo: But he sounds just like me, so it’s not gonna work.

Audience member: With this new style, what’s it like for the performers when you see the characters this way?

Eric: We have a unique point of view, because we’re watching ourselves on the monitors. We get to be entirely objective about the performance as we’re performing. So we’re lining the shot up, making sure you’re looking at the other character. We’re self-directing, basically, giving ourselves notes and making adjustments. When you watch the playback after, it’s kind of the same thing.

Bill: There’s a bit of separation from the performance. When it plays back, I try to take myself out of the equation. Are the characters looking at each other? Is it funny?

Matt: You’re thinking about puppeteering, about what you’re supposed to say, about what you’re going to have for lunch —

Steve: There’s a place that you get to sometimes, where you forget what you’re doing while you’re doing it.

(A woman comes to the mic.)

Pepe: Hola! I think maybe she has a question for me, I hope!

(The woman starts giggling, gets nervous. She says, “I think I need to come back!” and walks back from the mic.)

Gonzo: Come back! You can’t get off that easy!

Pepe: Please come back to the mic, my love.

(She comes back.)

Woman from audience: Have you ever seen the Muppet skits on Robot Chicken?

Gonzo: I don’t think so. I don’t have a computer.

Pepe: What does Robot Chicken taste like?

Gonzo: I haven’t seen it, but I’m open to dating it.

Rizzo: These are blowup chickens. (Gonzo looks shocked.) It’s okay, you’ve gotta go there sometimes.

Audience member: Which celebrities have you enjoyed working with, and are there 2015 celebrities you’re hoping to get?

Pepe: Michelle Pfeiffers… Sofia Vergara, Cindy Crawford, Reese Witherspoons…

Floyd: With or without her spoons!

Pepe: Anne Hathaways… all the womens.

Steve: I loved working with Alice Cooper, because that was my first show.

Bill: Jeffrey Tambor was great.

Steve: Yeah, it’s hard to pick favorites.

Gonzo: You put us in a really bad spot. Nice question.

Audience question (young woman with British accent): Pepe, would you be interested in dating a British girl?

Rizzo: He’d date any girl.

Pepe: Of course! My peoples has to talk to your peoples. We’ll work something out.

British woman: How’s Animal?

Fozzie: He was here, but I don’t see him now.

Rizzo: Fozzie, can you go find Animal?

Fozzie: Why me? Oh, all right.

(Fozzie goes under the table.)

Floyd: Animal’s here, you’ll see him in about 12 seconds.

Animal: (still under the table) Twelve… Eleven… Ten… Nine… Eight…

Floyd: Three, two, one. Come on up!

(Eric brings Animal up. Random note: I don’t think I’ve ever seen Animal in one of these live appearances. It’s really cool.)

D23 more Muppets with performers
British woman: I love you!

Animal: Awwww…. (He looks bashful, and rolls around on the table.) What your name?

British woman: Emily.

Animal: Em – i – ly…

Pepe: Hey, I saw her first, okay.

Floyd: Emily said she loved me.

Pepe: Are there more British women?

British woman: Thank you!

Rizzo: Thank you for coming to see us.

Gonzo: I was free tonight, but never mind.

British woman: Oh, you were one of my favorites as a kid! I love you too.

Gonzo: Is that a date? It’s a foursome!

Pepe: Hold on a minute… (shrugs) Okay.

Audience member: With the Star Wars spinoff movies coming, is it time for the Muppets to go into space?

Rizzo: You know, except for Gonzo’s family, we never went. We could do Muppets in Space.

Gonzo: I’m open, I’d love to.

Steve: Actually, we just shot four or five “Pigs in Space” videos — not for the show, they’ll be released online.

Rizzo: Ya know, with all the Star Wars stuff this year, it should be R2-D23.

They segue into the next part of the presentation — picking six people from the audience to show how being a Muppeteer really works. This segment is mostly run by Steve and Kermit. Two audience members at a time pick up puppets — a bunny, a Whatnot man, a Whatnot girl, a monster. Steve raises his arm to normal performing height, and a camera is set up to keep Kermit in that frame. The audience puppeteers try to keep their puppets in shot.

D23 audience volunteers puppeteer
The technique that Steve/Kermit focuses on the most is keeping your arm up high enough — all of the guest puppeteers have a tendency to slip down out of the frame. Steve says that people tend to bend their arms and hold the puppet out — it’s actually easier on your shoulder and arm if you go straight up.

Kermit also teaches the guests about how to make the puppet talk — don’t make the top of the head wiggle, use your thumb to push down, and push the words out of the mouth.

After messing around for a while — keeping in shot, looking at each other, talking — they play a song and lip-synch/dance. There are three rounds of guests, two at a time. While the second group is coming up, Uncle Deadly talks to Kermit.

D23 Uncle Deadly Brittany Kermit

Kermit: What did you think of them?

Uncle Deadly: They were so-so… but I think some other people are coming up, I’m sure they’ll be marvelous.

Kermit: While they’re coming up — can someone get a breath mint for this guy?

In the second group, there’s a two-hander monster puppet — the guest puppeteers are stretching and keeping both hands up while Kermit is talking to them.

Uncle Deadly: You can relax, you’re not under arrest. You can put your hands down.

The second song is “Single Ladies.” The guest with the female Whatnot does the lipsynch, with Kermit, Uncle Deadly, Gonzo and Animal dancing. As the song ends, Animal says, “Are you single lady? I’m a single guy!” Kermit puts a stop to it.

Pepe joins for the final group of two guests — a male Whatnot and a bunny. The Whatnot has trouble staying in frame. He introduces himself as Morty.

D23 audience volunteer puppets
Pepe: I think he’s been drinking. Oh, here comes my girlfriend — (the bunny comes into frame) — isn’t she beautiful? What’s your name?

Bunny: Hippity Hophop!

Pepe: Okay, Hippity Hophop, do you know what our favorite song is?

The third song is “Sexual Healing.”

Kermit: Are we sure we can do this song?

Pepe does the lipsynch, then starts kissing the bunny. Fozzie joins the dance. The Whatnot dances up on the bunny.

Pepe: Go, Morty, go! We just started dating, it’s okay.

Fozzie shields his eyes.

Uncle Deadly: What’s the matter, Fozzie, don’t you like to watch?

Gonzo and Uncle Deadly start dancing, and it turns into a slow dance with Gonzo resting his head against Uncle Deadly’s chest. The song ends. Here it is caught on video by an audience member:

Gonzo: Can I call you?

Uncle Deadly: Sure.

Audience member: How many different things do you have to think about while you’re puppeteering?

Dave: Somewhere between eight and twenty-three. You have to think about where you are, where the camera is, where the monitor is, if you’re looking at someone. The character has to be listening to the person you’re going to respond to. Oh, and you have to remember what your line was, which I have a hard time with.

Steve: You’re multi-tasking.

Bill: You have to think about the person you’re working with, and what they’re thinking about.

Dave: It takes years to build up a team like this, who work together fluidly, and can anticipate what the other person might do.

To demonstrate how a two-handed puppet works, Bill brings up Rowlf, and performs the mouth and left hand. Steve performs Rowlf’s right hand. Rowlf notices that his hand is pinned to his chest. Steve takes the pins out.

Rowlf: Oh! It’s painful, I had no idea.

Steve: There’s another one.

Rowlf: (pounds the table) Sweet Mary!

Steve: We might have to get a proctologist.

Rowlf: Wait, there’s something in there.

Steve pulls out an orange puppet hand that was wedged inside Rowlf.

Rowlf: Good lord! I had no idea that was in me.

To demonstrate the two-handed puppet, they decide to open a bottle of water that’s on the table in front of them. Rowlf unscrews the bottle perfectly, then places it down on the table and instantly knocks it over. Water spills onto Rowlf, Bill and Steve. Rowlf shouts “Oh god!” and they all jump to their feet. Steve tries to clean up with his free hand.

D23 Rowlf as Trump
Bill: We’ve been doing this for years!

Rowlf: It’s okay, I’m used to being wet. (He shakes his head back and forth, a wet dog drying off.)

Moderator: In the show, we’re going to see your tavern?

Rowlf: Yes, I hope so. We haven’t filmed in the tavern yet. I’m looking forward to it.
Steve: He will NOT be opening bottles.

Rowlf: I want to do an impression. I will now do my impression of an up-and-coming Republican nominee.

(He flips one ear over the top of his head, a perfect impression of Donald Trump’s hairpiece.)

Rowlf: It’s a visual impression, I don’t have any dialogue. (He points.) You’re fired!

Moderator: Are you excited about the show?

Rowlf: I’m so excited, I wet the table!

Moderator: Do you guys have anything planned for the premiere? What’s happening on September 22nd?

Steve: I don’t know, I think we’ll still be shooting!

Moderator: What’s the excitement level among the team?

Steve: Dave touched on this before… I don’t think we could have done what we’re doing now, even if we had the opportunity. To develop this team, including the newer guys — (indicates Eric and Matt) — getting to know the characters the way that they do. We used to think it would be completely impossible. I don’t think we could have done this five years ago.

D23 Fozzie Eric
Eric: It feels like the right time. We’ve been doing viral videos, movies, and there’s a real appetite for the Muppets. And now we’ve got this amazing team, writers and creators. This material is so incredible. I’m really jazzed about this, in a way that — I don’t know that I’ve ever worked on a project like this before. I read the script, and I’m laughing out loud.

Steve: It’s amazing to go into that world, of their off-stage lives.

Dave: There’s 150 people every time you do any project. It seems like the right people are in the right places here.

Steve: To me, it feels like — with great love and respect for the fans — we’ve always done it for ourselves. We’re not really doing it for you guys.

Bill: (Talks about producer Bill Prady, and his work on Big Bang Theory)

Dave: Bill Prady would do this — he was working at Radio Shack when Jim Henson hired him to write — we have a huge history with Bill. In the early to mid 90s, he started working on sitcoms. Now that he’s in the place where he is, he can do what he wants, and what he wants is to come back to the Muppets. It’s kind of a thank you to Jim Henson. And we’re having a fun time working with Bill.

Moderator: What about Kermit and Piggy’s breakup? It was all over the internet.

Eric: Yeah, it’s rough. It’s no mistake that Miss Piggy isn’t here today. It would be tense.

Matt: But she has spies out there. I’ll say this, it’s probably good that we mentioned her.

Eric: It’s funny, people are upset because they’ve broken up, but they never had that stable of a relationship.

Steve: Yeah, way back, I was talking with Frank Oz, and we thought we were done with it. Kermit and Miss Piggy — how many times can we go around it? So this is good for the frog, good for the pig, to see them try new things.

Eric: It creates tension for them in the working environment. They have history, seeing each other date and still have to work with each other.

Steve: But even casual fans treated it like a real Hollywood couple breaking up. It’s remarkable.

And then it was time to end the presentation. The audience gave the panel a huge round of applause. People are loving Muppets these days!

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Steve Rowlf Bill

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