A Recap of a Conversation with Frank Oz

Published: November 10, 2011
Categories: Feature, Reports

Frank Oz almost never makes public appearances — not for Muppet stuff, not for Star Wars stuff, not for nothin’. So it was no surprise that, an hour before “A Conversation with Frank Oz” was scheduled to start at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York on October 23, there was already a long line of fans waiting to get into the auditorium and see the man in person.  The live event sold out in no time, so the museum even ended up adding an overflow room with closed-circuit TVs.

But as soon as he took the stage to applause and cheers, Oz made a point that he would repeat throughout the event.  He was there not as Frank Oz, the awesome, talented star; but as Frank Oz, the guy who got lucky enough to be part of a team, led by Jim Henson and including writers, performers, puppet builders, and others, that produced some really good stuff as a group.

Craig Shemin played the James Lipton role for the afternoon, skillfully talking Frank through the highlights of his career with the Muppets and beyond. After showing a montage of Frank’s acting cameos in John Landis movies (which Frank deemed “completely unnecessary”), Shemin asked Frank about meeting Jim Henson for the first time. Frank recalled encountering a beardless Jim at a puppetry event when Frank was just 17 years old, and not knowing who Jim was other than the fact that he was the guy who did the Calco Water commercials starring Wilkins and Wontkins.  When he was 19 years old, Frank moved to New York City to work for the Muppets.

A clip montage of some of Frank’s early work included some right hand work with Rowlf on The Jimmy Dean Show, a very funny excerpt from a Wilson’s Meats meeting film, a Munchos commercial, and the classic “Java” bit from The Ed Sullivan Show.  I was surprised to hear that the voice of the Munchos monster was Frank, in one of his first puppetry-and-voice performances… It sounds so unlike any of his later characters I always thought it was Jerry Juhl.

And then there was the “Java” story.  We Muppet geeks go to events like this hoping to hear a few stories we’ve never heard before, and this time Frank had a doozy. Here’s the deal: The Ed Sullivan Show was aired live.  For the “Java” bit, Jim and Frank performed the two puppets, and the explosion that provides the punchline was achieved by Jerry Juhl shooting off a fire extinguisher. As the three of them prepared to go onstage that night, Jerry suddenly realized he had forgotten the fire extinguisher. It was in their dressing room… which was up on the second floor… and Ed Sullivan was about to introduce them.

Jerry raced to the elevator, which was operated by an old-timer who was not in a hurry. As he rode up, Jerry could hear the “Java” music through the speakers in the elevator, so he knew exactly how much time he had left until it was too late. Meanwhile, Jim and Frank were doing the bit and looking at each other going, “What are we gonna do?!” Somehow, Jerry managed to grab the fire extinguisher, run back to the elevator, and make the trip back down to the stage just in time for the climax. Whew!

For several years, Frank said, working for the Muppets meant going back and forth between New York and Washington, D.C. to shoot commercials in a D.C. studio Jim had a deal with (and, for a while, working on Timepiece). Then they got Sesame Street, which Frank described as “just another gig” that turned out to last a very long time. This led into another clip montage, which featured excerpts of Ernie’s disguise kit, Grover as a singing waiter, the Sesame Street Newsflash starring Rapunzel, the “Cookiegate” sketch, and “Me Lost Me Cookie at the Disco.”  Frank recalled everyone on the set cracking up during the Rapunzel sketch, and asking Jon Stone, “What are we teaching here?”  To which Stone replied, “Who cares?”  I love hearing about stuff like that. (The sketch teaches the meaning of “loud” and “louder,” right?)

From there, Craig and Frank briefly touched on Saturday Night Live and the Muppet Show pilots, before moving on to the subject of The Muppet Show itself.  Frank was witty and modest throughout the whole discussion, and he got several laughs simply because he kept inadvertently providing Shemin with a perfectly appropriate segue to the next selection of clips.  Speaking of which, the next selection of clips was Muppet Show stuff, with Fozzie’s ventriloquist act, Animal backing up Rita Moreno’s “Fever,” “The Rhyming Song,” Kermit mocking Piggy’s heritage, and Rowlf and Sam singing “Tit Willow.”  Craig mentioned that Frank wrote “The Rhyming Song,” and Frank revealed that the song just “came up” in his head one day in his dressing room during the taping of the Danny Kaye episode.

It’s always fascinating to hear Muppeteers talk about the characters they’ve spent so much time with, and of course you can’t talk to Frank Oz about The Muppet Show without discussing Miss Piggy, so there was plenty of pig talk.  When Shemin brought up the differences between Oz and his most famous character, Oz said, “Weird, isn’t it? …I’m a 6-foot-2 guy who looks like a professor.”  Summing up Piggy’s characterization, he said, “She’s coy and feminine, but she’s a truck driver underneath… She can’t sing, she can’t dance, but she has this extraordinary bravado.”  Frank recalled the height of Piggy’s fame when she was constantly getting offers to do guest appearances, and revealed that his response was always, “Would Barbra Streisand do it?” because Miss Piggy sees herself exactly the same way Streisand does.

The next clips we saw were from the movies, beginning with a never-before-seen moment from James Frawley’s camera tests for The Muppet Movie.  In the clip, Kermit and Fozzie were looking out a window… I honestly don’t remember what they were talking about, but I’m not surprised that bit hasn’t made it to a DVD extra, as they seemed to be grasping for comedy.  We also saw “Never Before, Never Again” from The Muppet Movie, Piggy karate-chopping Kermit/Phillip Phil in The Muppets Take Manhattan, and the water ballet fantasy from The Great Muppet Caper.  Frank talked about shooting that last scene over ten days in a studio, which largely involved sticking his hand above the water line to perform Piggy while a brick was tied to his foot to keep him from surface, and a stagehand stood by with an oxygen tank so he could breathe between takes.  Piggy’s tiara had wires in it to keep it on her head, and when the puppet was placed on his hand the wires dug into his hand, but nobody knew it was happening because he couldn’t be heard underwater.  Puppeteering is dangerous!

The following montage featured unrehearsed Muppet moments, including a funny Bert & Ernie appearance on The Dick Cavett Show I’d never seen before, Miss Piggy on Parkinson, Kermit and Animal talking to Bernadette Peters on The Tonight Show, and a few of the hilarious, mostly-improvised promos made for each episode of The Muppet Show. Oz revealed that Jim Henson tended to get nervous before talk show appearances, because he wasn’t as comfortable working off-the-cuff as Oz.

As if all the Muppet stuff wasn’t impressive enough, Frank Oz has also directed some pretty good movies.  He explained that Jim asked him to co-direct The Dark Crystal because he thought “it would be better,” which paved the way for Frank’s re-writing and eventual directing of The Muppets Take Manhattan.*  That movie caught the eye of David Geffen, who asked him to direct Little Shop of Horrors.  And the rest is history, as seen in clips from Bowfinger, The Score, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and Death at a Funeral.  Frank said he’s been happy to work in different genres, and he’s satisfied with all his movies except for The Stepford Wives. Gotta respect the guy for being honest.

(*Speaking of The Muppets Take Manhattan, Frank also shared a sad story from that film. In the scene with the Muppets living in bus station lockers, there was originally a gag involving two little people in neighboring lockers.  One of the two actors brought his family to the premiere of the film… but nobody had told him his part had been cut, so he found out by watching the film.  For every film since then, Frank has told actors personally when their scenes are cut.  What are the chances that that footage still exists somewhere?)

Did you know Frank Oz is a newlywed?  Well, he is, and his wife of four months was at the event, sitting right up front!  Congratulations, Ozes!

The final portion of the event was an audience Q&A.  When asked which of his characters he most relates to, Frank named Grover.  Regarding his choice to start stepping away from the Muppet franchise in the 1990s, Frank explained that it actually started in the 80s, and said Jim always knew that once Frank started directing, he would never spend as much time being a Muppeteer as he used to.  One audience member with some genuine geek cred asked about Leo & Grump from the Muppet Meeting Films, and Frank recalled his chemistry with Jim, no matter what project they were working on: “With Jim it was always easy,” he said. “It was always there.”

After a brief interlude to screen the Leprechaun Brothers bit from The Muppet Show so everyone could laugh themselves silly, the questions continued. The next query: Did Frank have anything to do with recasting his characters?  No, and in fact Sesame Street doesn’t ask him to do projects much anymore because he costs more than the other guys.  Then a young boy in the audience asked if Frank could sign his Fozzie doll, and of course in front of hundreds of people he couldn’t say no.  He even took the opportunity to use the Fozzie doll for a demonstration of how live-hand puppets work.

Next, a fan politely asked if it would be okay to ask a Yoda question, then proceeded to do so with Frank’s consent: Did he have less time to develop Yoda’s character than he did with his best-known Muppets?  Frank said he had about two weeks to rehearse for The Empire Strikes Back, and he wrote a bio for Yoda to flesh out the character.  He also noted that Yoda was more difficult to perform than any puppet he had performed up to that point, due to the sheer number of people involved to get the whole performance onscreen.

And that was pretty much it.  Everyone present had a terrific time hearing Frank Oz reminisce and elaborate on his career, from folks who saw The Muppet Show in its original airings to kids who have just discovered the Muppets for the first time on YouTube.  With any luck, Frank had a good time too, so maybe he’ll do these things a little more often.

To close things out, Craig Shemin presented Frank with a few gifts: A pack of Little Shop of Horrors trading cards from the film’s original release, and a rubber Miss Piggy mask from 1979.  I hope Frank wore it for Halloween.

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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com

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