Paul Williams talks a lot about being thankful in our interview, but we’re the thankful ones. Mainly because we got the opportunity to get Paul’s story down on paper (or whatever the internet version of paper is). And now we’re pleased to present the third and final part to our Paul Williams interview, as Paul talks about his work on Muppet Christmas Carol, Letters to Santa, and more.
As an added bonus, if you’d rather listen to this interview than read it, we’ve posted the audio version in its entirety right here. Feel free to read along with the bouncing ball! (Note: There is no bouncing ball.)
ToughPigs: I want to go back to Muppet Christmas Carol and talk about some of the songs. “It Feels Like Christmas” is probably my favorite Christmas song.
Paul Williams: Here’s an overview of the whole project. Look at the timing and how interesting it was. I had my last drink in September of 1989. I celebrate my sobriety from March 15, 1990 because on March 14 I took a Valium, and you just don’t take someone else’s medicine. So I’ve been totally sober since 1990. And the first thing they come up for me was Muppet Christmas Carol, about a guy who’s had a spiritual awakening. I’ve just had a spiritual awakening, I’ve been given my life back, I’ve been living in absolute gratitude, I’ve been imbued with a thankful heart beyond what I can even express, except now I’m going to express it.
TP: I love that. It’s such a personal story for you then.
PW: Incredibly personal. I sat down to write “Scrooge” and I prayed about it. I call God “The Big Amigo”. I read the original Dickens “A Christmas Carol”, I really got into it, the story of a thankful heart and all the stuff that made it into the final project, there was so much that was inspired by that. Then I got the script, the wonderful, wonderful script. I sat down to write the first song, “Scrooge”, and I’m a great believer in the power of the unconscious. I go back to the lyrics from “The Rainbow Connection”, which dwell on the creative. Don’t stand on the hose, don’t work at it, play at it. I had read everything, I knew that within my mind was the ability to write this song. So I said to my inner self and to that higher power, “The song has to be written, let me know when you’ve got an idea, I’m going to be sitting here reading a book.” So I picked up a copy of a novel and I literally sat down and started to read a murder mystery. The image was very specific, we see Scrooge’s feet coming out of the door, we never see him, but we watch his feet, splashing mud and snow on the little creatures who seem to get colder as he walks by. So that’s the scene, let me know when you’ve got an idea. I picked up the book and read about three pages and I went wait a minute. (sings)
When a cold wind blows it chills you, chills you to the bone
But there’s nothing in nature that freezes your heart like years of being alone
I went, “Wow, that’s not bad! You guys are really good!” The rest of it just poured out of me.
It paints you with indifference like a lady paints with rouge
But the worst of the worst
The most hated and cursed
Is the one that we call Scrooge
Oh there goes Mr. Humbug, there goes Mr. Grim
If they gave a prize for being mean, the winner would be him
Right up to there, that far into the song, it just poured out of me. The lesson in that for me was “don’t stand on the hose”. Trust your inner self, trust your unconscious, and it’s there. It was just a wonderful, wonderful opportunity to write about what I was experiencing myself. When you see [the end of the Still Alive documentary], I talk about my intense gratitude for my recovery, it just means the world to me. I wrote the words and music and recorded all the stuff with Chris Caswell, who’s been my music director for years, we did a very almost Beatle-esque… not rock and roll, but the versions we did weren’t extremely Christmassy. When [Executive Producer] Robert Kraft got involved, he wanted it to be more traditional Christmas, so he brought in Miles Goodman to do the underscoring and also to augment all of my arrangements. It was a good move, I think. He did beautiful, beautiful work. But Chris Caswell was a huge part of that project. Those little songs, they sound like they were written by an adult. (Laughs)
TP: What was the whole process like compared to The Muppet Movie, as far as Jim Henson not being there?
PW: Well, Jim had that classic line of, “I’ll hear the songs in the recording studio”. By the time we did Muppet Christmas Carol, Brian was much more hands-on. I think Brian heard songs along the way that he wanted. It was a really good working relationship, but he was much more of an activist.
TP: When you talk about writing for the characters, was there more of a challenge when you’re not just writing for Kermit the Frog, but for Kermit as Bob Cratchit?
PW: At this point in my life, those characters, those Muppet personalities, are as distinct to me as… Dave Goelz doing Gonzo as an actor is as real to me as Dustin Hoffman as an actor. I’ve worked with both, and I have equal respect for Dave Goelz and Gonzo as I do for Dustin. So I knew that Gonzo could play the part, and Kermit could play Bob Cratchit. Part of what I had to do was to let go of my identification of them as Muppets and just see them as actors in a role. And again, Jim Henson’s rule that you don’t write down to anybody. You write story, you write character.
The only disappointment for me in that project was that they chose to pull “When Love is Gone” out of the picture, which I thought was so key to the story.
TP: Was that the studio’s decision?
PW: Oh yeah, it sure wasn’t mine. I was already celebrating; I knew we were going to get nominated for that one.
TP: We were shocked that it shows up on some home video releases but not others, it’s nowhere on the new Blu-Ray.
PW: Isn’t that amazing? It’s interesting that the comments on Amazon.com, there’s rage among the fans about it. The fans are so upset that it’s not in there, which thrills me of course. Why is it not there??
TP: There were two songs that were recorded but never filmed.
PW: Yeah, the scenes were cut. One was for Sam the Eagle, “Chairman of the Board”.
TP: And Bunsen and Beaker, “There’s Room in Your Heart for Love”.
PW: Oh yeah, (sings) “When you’re ready to start, there’s room in your heart for love…” Yeah, that got cut as well.
TP: Is that frustrating when you write a perfectly good song that doesn’t make it into the movie?
PW: Y’know, at a certain point you realize that they shoot a lot more footage than they need, it’s part of the process. You have to trust the director. Ultimately it’s the director’s vision, so it’s Brian’s vision. I thought he made a great movie. What I hear again and again from people is that it’s their favorite version of “A Christmas Carol”.
TP: Every year, there are “Favorite Christmas Movie” lists online, and Muppet Christmas Carol is on there.
PW: I’m really proud of it. Initially, it got bad reviews. My songs for that were described as “pedestrian”.
TP: Wow! That’s shocking to me.
PW: So you kind of go “wait a minute,” do you pay attention to reviews when they’re great and not when they’re bad? Or do you pay attention when they’re bad and not when they’re great? I’m one of those people who reads those reviews to see what the reaction is. I realize that the critics in general don’t really have the same tastes as the audience. But yeah, the reviews for Muppet Christmas Carol were not good, the songs were not well received. But here’s the other thing, none of those songs have ever been recorded by other people outside of the project. When Jason Mraz does [his next] Christmas album, I’d love to hear “It Feels like Christmas” on there.
TP: Yeah, there’s nothing specific to the Muppets in there, so I don’t know why people don’t cover it. (sings)
It’s in the singing of a street corner choir
It’s going home and getting warm by the fire
In all the places you find love, it feels like Christmas
It is what it is.
TP: And Jerry Nelson did an amazing job singing it.
PW: He was fabulous. Jerry came up to Goodspeed when we did [the Emmet Otter musical] and I was able to introduce him to the audience. What an amazing talent. You know, he recorded an album right before he passed away. I thought it was great. Just a great heart, a great guy. Him, Dave, all these guys, they’re all just really good people. I feel like I’ve got felt in my DNA, and I think the direct connection is that I’m related to Gonzo.
TP: For Muppet Christmas Carol, how involved were you in the recording of the songs?
PW: Oh, totally. One of the interesting stories, I walked into the recording studio with Michael Caine, and I said, “It’s really an honor to meet you, I’m really looking forward to doing this,” and Michael said (in a British accent) “Are you out of your fucking mind? We spent an entire weekend together at the White Elephant in London!” I went, “Oh my god! Somebody was using my body back then, I wasn’t there.” It was one of those classic moments, I had been drinking in those days and I forgot that we spent that time together. But it was great, and we laughed it off, and he was fabulous. The way that we recorded his vocals, I would get in [to the recording booth] and I was doing almost like a miming of the intensity, and it was the way we were able to work. I’d get in there, not to sing it necessarily, but he’d hear my voice in his headset to remind him where the melody was going, but he did a great job.
TP: He said in one of the special features on the new Blu-Ray that it was the first time he’d ever gotten to sing in a movie and he was really excited about it.
PW: And he was great! He was just great. And the thing is that there was absolutely no caricature in that performance. That performance is real. Everyone’s performance is that real, right down to Piggy. Piggy doesn’t go over the top in the movie.
TP: It was the first movie since Jim had passed, so everyone knew they had to do it right.
PW: And bravo, Brian, because he really did a great job.
TP: And Letters to Santa…
PW: I was lying in bed one morning, I turn to my wife and I said, “I’ve got an idea for the Muppets.” She said, “What?” I said, “Well, what would happen if the Muppets went to mail a bunch of letters and they got caught screwing around in the post office, and when they get back, the find that there’s letters to Santa that got stuck to their backpack or something?” That’s interesting. They could be doing different jobs in New York, I forgot what all the jobs were, but I had them all broken up in different places and all. So she says, “Why don’t you pitch it? Why don’t you call Kevin [Frawley] and pitch it?” I’m like, “Gawww, really? Dawww.” So I did, and I wrote a page-and-a-half of what it was, they have to go deliver the letters themselves, and I pitched it to Kevin and he loved it. Then we went and sat down with the head of Disney and he loved it. So we were off and running. They brought in the two guys to co-write with me, so I wound up with a co-writing credit on the story, and I wrote the songs.
One of my favorite songs ever, that I’ve ever written for anything, is “I Wish I Could Be Santa Claus”. Again, for Gonzo, for that moment when he feels like he’s failed. I thought it was almost too maudlin. I was playing golf with my minister and I said, “Listen to this. I’m going to redo this, I think it’s way too over the top…” (sings)
I wish I could be Santa Claus
For just one day
I’d fill a bag with kindness and I’d give it all away
I’d make the world a better place, I’d do that if I could
I love the way it feels inside when I do something good
I looked over and he had a big tear rolling down his cheek, so I went, “Okay, it’s in the movie.” I was just really pleased with it, so I hope that it’s something that gets shown again and again.
TP: They’ve been showing it over the last few years every Christmas.
PW: Like with the Christmas Carol, you don’t get the feedback right away. But a little bit of time goes by… You know, I did this movie with Jaclyn Smith and Art Carney called The Night They Saved Christmas. It came out and there was absolutely no splash about it. But every Christmas, I get these letters from people saying that it’s part of their Christmas. So of course, when we did Letters to Santa, they asked if I’d play Santa’s chief elf, and I said, “Are you kidding? I’ve got my own ears!”
TP: Whose idea was that? The writers?
PW: I don’t know, Kevin’s? The director’s, I think? I was really proud of that. That’s the first one where I came up with the seed that became the tree.
TP: What was the collaboration on the teleplay? Did you actually sit down with the writers…?
PW: Oh yeah, absolutely. They took my treatment and they looked at it, then we got together and we worked on it, and I liked some things and didn’t like other things, but it was a collaboration. They worked as a team separately, and then we’d get together. Thank god my wife went, “Get up! Call Kevin!” My wife used to know Kevin Frawley, she worked as a piano player and a singer, so we had that connection to Kevin. So I take advantage of my wife’s connections, you know?
TP: It sounds like it’s not too challenging coming back to the Muppets after several years?
PW: No, it feels like family. I think that we’ve always been a really good fit. Again, because I approached them as a fan first, then I get the depth of the characters. There’s so much depth there. Any other project I’ve ever worked on, I’ve never felt anything that had this kind of great space behind, there’s no facade there, character and depth, and it all goes back to Jim Henson. Just the many, many rooms in his being. God knows what he would’ve done if he’d stayed with us. When I found out that they played “When the River Meets the Sea” at his funeral, or at Jerry’s funeral, that these songs all of the sudden reappear, it makes me feel like family. So there’s been the evolution of Disney and all those changes, but I’ve never felt any separation from the characters or from the organization. And hopefully someday we’ll see Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas on the stage.
They called about the new Muppet movie, talked about the songs for that, and they already had the guys from Flight of the Conchords, it’s such amazing stuff, you’re covered, you don’t need me. But it turns out that when they did want to use something with a little heart at the end of the picture, they used “Rainbow Connection”. So we all had a little success there.
TP: A lot of people said that was one of their favorite moments.
PW: There’s this harmonic to your youth and to Jim, for all of us. I close my show every night with “Rainbow Connection”. No matter what’s happened before that, when I start that banjo plunking at the beginning of the song, you know that it’s not just me in the room singing, I’m now connecting to an audience with a memory that’s huge for me and huge for them. It’s the memory of Jim Henson’s brilliance. It’s just a treat to sing that every night. And the amazing collection of people who’ve recorded it, from Jason Mraz and I doing a duet to WIllie [Nelson] and I doing a duet to Sarah McLachlan’s… we used Sarah McLachlan’s recording in the documentary, it’s really powerful. A gorgeous recording.
TP: And you also got to close out the show at Carnegie Hall with “Rainbow Connection”, which was really special for us.
PW: Like I say, it feels like family. I’ve got felt in my DNA.
TP: Do you have a final message you’d like to pass along to Muppet fans and fans of your work?
PW: The affection of the Muppets and the work that the fans bring to the world is a viable energy that can be used. Through a website like [ToughPigs] and a collection of people that really care about the work, you provide an energy that keeps the Muppets going. So never doubt that if somebody is reading this or listening to my words right now, know that you’re an active participant in the continuing life of the Muppets. If you didn’t care, if you didn’t show up, especially for those of you who were there when the Muppets were not hip, for the pure commerciality there was a lull, understand that the reason the Muppets are back at all is because you continue to care. So congratulations, as a Muppet fan, you keep something of Jim Henson alive and you keep the creative process as an ongoing thing, so bravo.
A million thanks go to the incredibly generous, talented, brilliant, and all-around nice guy Paul Williams for agreeing to sit down with us! And remember, you can follow Paul on Twitter at @IMPaulWilliams.
Click here to teach Scrooge how to sing on the ToughPigs forum!
by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com