Part 1: The Muppet Show and Emmet Otter
Part 2: The Muppet Movie
Part 3: Muppet Christmas Carol and Letters to Santa
Audio version

Songwriter and actor Paul Williams has had a long history with the Muppets, more than just about anyone outside of the Muppet performers.  With his own episode of The Muppet Show, soundtracks to not one but two theatrical Muppet movies, soundtrack to one of their more beloved TV specials, the creation of a more recent Christmas special, Oscar nomination for “The Rainbow Connection”, and a dozen live performances with the Muppets, it’s no wonder Kermit made him an “honorary Muppet” way back in 1976.  At the time, it was a joke about his height, but Paul eventually (excuse the pun) grew into the role.

Last year, a documentary about Paul Williams titled “Still Alive” was released, and we figured it would be the perfect time to track Paul down and ask for an interview. After a few emails via Facebook and his website didn’t work, ToughPigs’ friend Keven Miller offered to try and pass a note to Paul at a live promotion for the film. We figured, what could it hurt? Keven managed to slip the note to a publicist who forwarded it to Paul who sent us an email saying he’d love the opportunity to dive into the Muppet-centric part of his career with us.  So we’re extremely grateful to Keven, Paul’s entourage, and the kindness and openness of Paul Williams himself.

We’ll be posting our interview with Paul Williams in three parts over the course of this week.  At the end of the week, we’ll also release the entire audio recording of the interview (tracking at almost an hour long!), so if you’re the type to prefer podcasts to transcriptions, feel free to wait it out until Friday and hear the words (and songs) directly from Paul himself.

And with that lengthy intro, we are proud to present our interview with the great Paul Williams!

300px-PaulWilliamsTMS

ToughPigs: First of all, thank you again for agreeing to meet with us, it’s really a treat.

Paul Williams: Thank you, it took me a time to get around, but I’m happy to be here.  Thanks for your patience.

TP: Of course!  So, we really want to focus on your work with the Muppets and with Jim Henson, and so our first question is: How did you meet Jim and get involved with the Muppets?

PW: The story that he tells or that I’ve heard from a variety of people is that I walked onto the set of The Muppet Show in England and evidently, I had been doing two shows there, I flew over to do a series that the Hudson brothers were doing in England and The Muppet Show at the same time.  And evidently I walked into a wire backstage and managed to get a nice cut and bruise on my forehead, I had blood on my nose or whatever.  That’s the story I’ve heard, but I don’t remember that at all.  But of course, in those days, well actually, I was not drinking excessively at that time, but that’s the story they tell, that I showed up with blood on my nose.

It was just a great, great connection immediately.  I showed up on the set of The Muppet Show as already a huge fan, as the whole world was of Jim and his work.

631px-108-3TP: So you hadn’t met them before?

PW: I hadn’t met them.  They asked me to come on and do the show, and the big treat was that they made the Paul Williams Muppets, and they gave me one afterward.  So I did “Old Fashioned Love Song” with the Paul Williams Muppets, and then one of my favorite things to this day, ever on television, is Rowlf and I doing “Sad Song”.  And, you know, the caliber of acting… there’s a great moment at the end of the song when he reaches over and closes the piano and pats on it.  It’s just wonderful.  There’s so much emotion and such a full spectrum of emotion in all the characters.

So we connected and Jim was really funny, they did some really interesting short jokes.  “I love it, I’m finally on a show where no one’s going to make fun of my size,” and all the huge Muppets come out.

TP: Is that the kind of thing where they talk to you beforehand and say, “Is it cool if we…”

PW: No, they just did it.  I don’t recall at all. But I was so self-deprecating in my humor that they knew it would be all right.  But they did that with everybody.  Everybody got lambasted.

The nice thing was that Jim sent me the book for Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas and he actually talked a little about The Muppet Movie, that they were going to do a movie, but in the interim they were going to try out some things, including Kermit on a bicycle, for Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas.  I recorded all of the songs, I recorded them with my road band, and I think we spotted the special up in Toronto. Jim was in Toronto as well, they had the Creature Workshop up in Toronto as I recall, and sat in front of a monitor with Jim, looked at it, and said he wanted the ins and outs of the scenes and that was the beginning.  I wrote words and music to all that stuff, and almost immediately he asked if I would do The Muppet Movie with him.  And I said, “Yeah, but let me bring in Kenny Ascher, his music is so elegant.” Kenny and I had done A Star Is Born together, and I knew he was the right guy to do The Muppet Movie with me, so he came on board.

300px-WhentheriverTP: When you started writing the songs for Emmet Otter, you just had the book?  Or was there a script yet?

PW: There was a script, but the first thing Jim did was get me the book.  And then Jerry Juhl wrote the script.  There were fun little things in there like catching the sewing machine and letting that be the beginning of a cue to another scene.  The real challenge was to create the song at the end, “Our World” and “Brothers”, they worked together.  I think I wrote them… (sings) “We’re closer now than ever before…”  I think I wrote “Our World” first and left big spaces and then filled the other one, but it was a challenge.

Of course, you’ve heard The Green Album.  My Morning Jacket’s recording of “Brothers” and “Our World” just kills me. It’s just wonderful.

TP: I’ve always found it surprising that more people don’t cover those songs, because they’re solid, they really hold up.

PW: I was really thrilled with that.  I was disappointed that they didn’t do “Riverbottom Nightmare Band” on the album.

TP: That seems like a no-brainer.  I’ve heard a few covers of it, The Dead Hensons covered it.

PW: I still have my Dead Hensons t-shirt at home.  I don’t think they’re working together anymore.

TP: No, they’ve told us that they’ve split.  So, the “Riverbottom” song was a departure for you?

300px-ChuckPW: Yeah, a little bit.  But you know, if you look at Phantom [of the Paradise], I got into some real hardcore rock and roll, some real edgy stuff.  It’s just not what I was known for.  What I write is more “codependent love songs”, I was known for a lot of ballads, the Carpenters stuff and Three Dog Night, that sort of thing.  But the Riverbottom Nightmare Band was too much fun to write for.

TP: In the [Emmet Otter] book, we noticed that some of the song titles were listed in the book.  That must’ve been a challenge to wrote a song called, “The One Bathing Suit that Your Grandma Otter Wore” and not knowing anything about the song beforehand.

PW: Well, the song didn’t exist, it was just a title.  And it was just so much fun.  I don’t know if the “Barbecue” title is in there as well or not.  I’d have to look at it again, but that was fun.  And as you say, it was a challenge.  It’s just such an iconic, sweet story.  To this day, Wendell is like a member of my family.  “You got mashed potatoes?” It’s a sentence that reappears in our family conversations.

TP: We got to see the musical adaptation, which was fantastic.

PW: Thank you, I was thrilled with it.

TP: We know that “Born in a Trunk” was written for the movie, but didn’t show up until the musical.  Was it written in that burlesque style?

PW: I had written just a verse, (sings) “I was born in the trunk of a great oak tree that they used to build the stage at the palace…” the “Come and see mama” was not in there, she sings “come and see mama” and it’s interrupted in the earlier version.  I loved the old lady possum, an amazing actress who did that, she was just brilliant.

Jugband-stageshowTP: You wrote a few new songs for the show.

PW: I did, I wrote two or three new songs.  I wrote “Alice Keep Dreaming” and (sings) “You gotta trust that branch you land on”.  The squirrels just stole the show.  That was new, I think the song about the music store was also new.

TP: It sounds like you were pretty closely involved with the musical.

PW: Yeah, totally.  Turning a one-hour special into a full-blown two-act musical is a heavy involvement.

TP: We keep hoping that they tour with it or bring it to New York.

PW: The big thing for me is to bring it to New York.  It seems to me it’s a natural for the city at Christmastime.  I think that it’s a natural, and I think it’ll happen.  I hope so.

TP: After that was The Muppet Movie.  How did the collaboration with Kenny Ascher work?

KennyascherPW: Kenny and I have a really interesting way of writing.  We kind of just sort of start.  All of the songs that I wrote with Roger Nichols for the Carpenters, he would write a complete melody, give it to me, and not want me to change a note.  He would write “bee dee da da da da da da”, and I would have to write (sings) “We’ve only just begun to live”.  Kenny was my piano player, my music director.  We went to England to work on a television project, and his work permit was screwed up somehow, so he couldn’t perform with me.  So he had nothing to do.  We were sitting around one day, talking about the kind of music we like, and we found we loved Cole Porter, Larry Hart, this whole kind of throwback to the great American songbook, except we loved Harry Nilsson.  He loves Harry, I love Harry, Harry loves Randy Newman.  Out of the blue, we started writing, I had a piano in my room, and we started writing (sings, in Randy Newman style)

Do you love me babe
Do you love me not
Let’s decide in the morning not now
Oh, you don’t like Schumann
Or Randy Newman
And Nilsson’s not your cup of tea
You say Van Heusen is the shirt worth choosin’
But you’re still undecided about me
Whoa-oh-oh
Do you love me babe
Do you love me not
Let’s decide in the morning not now-w-w

…just as a joke.  Kenny said, “You know, if you did that on an album, it would be great to come out with something like…” And he played the intro to “You and Me Against the World”.  (hums) “Bum da-da-da dum dah”.  He looked at me and I went, (sings) “You and me against the world” and he played a chord, “Sometimes it feels like you and me against the world” and it just poured out of us.  So we both contributed words and music back and forth.  I’d probably write 80-90% of the lyrics, and he writes 80-90% of the music, but it’s just kind of a one-mind, one-heart way of writing, especially on the Muppet stuff.

625px-PaulkermliveWe had written an entire musical about Dorothy Parker that was unproduced.  They had problems with the rights and the musical kind of went away, but we were coming off A Star is Born and writing all these songs for Dorothy and we were just so primed that when we sat down to write the songs for The Muppet Movie, they just poured out of us.  And again, it was a love affair, we were just so totally in love with all the Muppets.  For me, especially Gonzo.  I’m a skydiver, I had a free fall team, I quit at 100 jumps in 1980, and I had this thing about free fall and flying, and I looked at Gonzo, and Gonzo is a landlocked bird whose girlfriend is another landlocked bird.  And I thought there has to be this longing.  When it comes to that scene in the desert, Kenny and I looked at it and it was the one place where there was no song at all in the script and we went, “Look at this, it’s a great place for [a song for] Gonzo.”  (In Gonzo’s voice) “Look at that sky. I could get lost in that sky.”

We wrote the song and played it for Jim and we didn’t know what he was going to say.  At first there just wasn’t room for the song in the picture, but we went out and recorded a track, I put a vocal on it, and played it for Jim, and Jim went, “Yeah, let’s do it.”  But Jim was so sweet, he said, “Why don’t we add a scene where Gonzo buys some balloons. Because that way he experiences flight, so when he’s singing about it later, we know he’s experienced it.” So it’s a fresh memory for him.  It was an amazing flexibility.  The story I’ve told the most about Jim is when we met to talk about the movie and what the songs would be about, and at the end of the very first meeting, I said, “Y’know Jim, I don’t want to surprise you with this, so when we’re working on the songs, we’ll let you see what we’re doing and all,” and he said, “Oh no, that’s not necessary, I’ll hear it in the studio.” Where do you go to find that creative freedom in this day and age?  It’s impossible.

Goingtogobackthere

Head back here in a few days for part 2 of our interview with the great Paul Williams where you’ll hear more about The Muppet Movie, and then a few days after that for part 3 to learn more about Paul’s long history with Muppets and Christmas!

Be sure to follow Paul Williams on Twitter at @IMPaulWilliams.

Click here to fly like a landlocked bird on the ToughPigs forum!

by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com

Pin It on Pinterest