Jarrod Fairclough – There’s a very, VERY small chance that some of you may have already read this article, because it was initially published in February 2016. Unfortunately it was only on the site for all of about 12 hours before the people at Muppets Studio had me remove it. But now the ABC Muppet series has been off the air for 4.5 years and the people who wanted the article gone aren’t with the company anymore, so I figure why not re-publish it? And if they really have a problem with me talking about something that happened almost 5 years ago, that’d be weird. So, please enjoy this article of my visit to the set of the ABC series The Muppets, in 2015 with just a few (in bold) notes from 2020!
This article was initially published February 5th 2016 after the episode ‘Swine Song’ premiered, and contains referecnes to that episode, which you can see on Disney+.
A couple of months back I packed my bags and made the 14 hour flight from Melbourne to Los Angeles, by way of Auckland, to visit my good friend Ryan Dosier. Remember him? He used to run this place, and now he’s writing all the social media stuff for The Muppets. He also has a delightful girlfriend (now fiance!), a gorgeous little dog, and a really comfortable couch that I slept on for 8 nights. But I was also in LA for a different reason – I was heading to the set of the new ABC series, The Muppets.
So, on December 8th, I Ubered my way to the Walt Disney Studios and headed to Studio 6. It was such a strange experience, walking in to the world I had seen only 10 episodes of, but everything was immediately recognizable. My first point of call was Rowlf’s Tavern, which is much, MUCH smaller than you think it would be. One thing I noticed was just how detailed the whole place was, including at least 5 photos of Rowlf with Jimmy Dean adorning the walls. I then went to the main studio set, including a good look around the ‘Up Late’ set. As you’d know, everything is built up, so that the performers can stand while they puppeteer. Holes are cut out of the floor in several sections, like where Statler and Waldorf sit, where the band are etc. I was amazed at just how small some of these sections are, like Eric’s hole behind Miss Piggy’s ‘Up Late’ desk.
I apologize for the lack of behind the scenes photos, as I had my phone taken on arrival (which is standard procedure). (I believe the photos I took later on were one of Muppet Studios’ biggest reasons for asking me to remove this article)
I was treated to watching some monitors as the performers prepared for the scene where they scat The Muppet Show theme song. They did the whole thing through a good 6-7 times, and would change small things each time. I was given a head set so I could hear the mic’d performers, who included Matt Vogel, Bill Barretta, and Dave Goelz. With so many of performers in the scene (including people like Mike Quinn, Colleen Smith and, to Ryan’s surprise later that night, Karen Prell!) talk between scenes was interesting. At one stage I heard Dave Goelz talking to someone about his surprise at Chip’s popularity, and then the making of Sex and Violence, while Bill Barretta contrasted that as he spoke with someone about things I probably shouldn’t repeat here.
The performers hilariously stayed in character between scenes, with Matt Vogel and Bill Barretta being the main instigators of improvisation. Before one scene, Dr Teeth pretended to chew on some gum, and Floyd asked if he had any extra. So they proceeded to pretend to spit gum in to each others mouths, with Janice and Zoot also chiming in. It was such a fun moment to witness, and they amazingly got right back in to the swing of it the second Randall Einhorn called action.
My tour guide for the 90 minutes was to be Peter Linz, performer of Walter, but unfortunately he, along with some of the others, were all suffering from either the flu or food poisoning, so Peter disappeared almost as quickly as he’d appeared. He was so insanely sweet in that time though. It just meant that I wouldn’t be able to speak with Steve Whitmire, who was also one of the sick ones. When the scene was over, Matt Vogel rounded the corner and immediately shook my hand warmly. He and I have spoken a number of times over the years (and many times since, including just earlier this week – listen here!), after we met on the set of Sesame Street in 2008. He was quickly joined by Eric Jacobson, who I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting before. As Steve would be unavailable for a photo with Kermit, Eric offered up Fozzie. We took this amazing photo in Miss Piggy’s dressing room. (My god, look at my hair)
Now, let’s skip forward 30 minutes, as I was standing around awkwardly, and I decided to leave half an hour before my allotted time. I’d had a great 90 minutes, but I was feeling in the way. So, I disappeared, and headed back to Ryan’s place. I won’t lie, I was like 5% disappointed with the experience. It was amazing, don’t get me wrong, but I didn’t actually see any filming (besides on a monitor), nor did I even lay eyes on Steve Whitmire, who I was so excited to meet. But still, I sent Peter an email thanking him for the experience. What happened next was astounding. Peter felt awful that I didn’t have the experience I should have had – so, I was to come back three days later, on Friday, for another visit, one that would blow the other out of the water.
At 10am on 11th December, I Ubered back to Walt Disney Studios, and was greeted by a much healthier and happier Peter Linz, who immediately introduced me to everyone he could. Rather than go through this 4 hour experience bit by bit, I thought I’d talk a bit more about the performers I met, the conversations I had, and the insight I got in to just how The Muppets is made… It’s worth noting that for my second visit, they didn’t bother taking my phone (lol). Therefore there’s just a couple of Behind The Scenes images, but I haven’t included many. (Fun fact: There are some that I STILL can’t show!)
Matt Vogel – Though it was fleeting, Matt greeted me like an old friend. He was the first performer I ever met back in 2008, and he’s been incredibly nice to me ever since. On my 2nd day on set he was filling in as Puppet Captain, as Bill Barretta was away, and I got to see his professionalism at work. He would throw in ideas at the last second which always made the scene better, and he would almost direct the performers while Randall Einhorn directed the crew.
Eric Jacobson – When I met Eric in 2008, I was struck at just how kind he was. Well, 2 films and a TV series later haven’t changed him at all, and he was just as sweet, if not sweeter, than before. It was funny to think that just a couple of days earlier he had been reading a story with Michelle Obama at the White House in front of millions of people, and now he and I were alone in Kermit’s office chatting about Miss Piggy’s character in the series, and how appreciative he was of my kind words. When he was whisked away, he seemed apologetic to have to go, but made sure to say bye to me. It was amazing seeing him work on both days. During the Muppet Show theme song scat, he was performing Animal, and he would stop the take if he made even the tiniest little mistake, something that no-one else would ever notice. He’s a perfectionist, and that goes to show you just why he’s been so stellar this series. My next visit was while they filmed the scene with Kermit telling Piggy that their friends need to be a part of the show, and Eric would improvise little lines here and there. I almost ruined a take laughing at him.
Mike Quinn –If you’re not familiar with Mike Quinn, he’s often right hands and the like. He’s been around since 1980, and has gone on to puppeteer on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and he played Nien Nunb in Star Wars, including on The Force Awakens (and the other two, too!). He would occasionally come in to chat between scenes, and when I asked him if he was frustrated that after 35 years he was still right handing, he smiled and shook his head. ‘It’s full circle for me’, he said. ‘I got my start in 1980 right handing Kermit with Jim. Here I am, 35 years later, having done so much, right handing Kermit with Steve’. It was a sweet sentiment, and I could tell just how much he loves his work.
Dave Goelz – Out of the entire experience, this is the moment I often find myself remembering the most. Dave Goelz stepped in to the room, and Peter Linz introduced us. I thought he might stick around for the polite 30 seconds or so, but what I got instead was a 15 minute intense chat about film making, directing, Jim Henson and much more. Dave told me that in every scene he thinks to himself ‘How would Jim have done this?’, and how Jim would take everyone’s advice, from the executives to the janitor. It was truly an incredible conversation, with a Muppet legend, who could have just shook my hand and left, but treated me like a friend rather than a fan, and gave me more insight than I could have ever hoped for. (Every time I’ve spoken with Dave since, he refers to me as ‘The Australian!’ – I’ll take it!)
Steve Whitmire – Meeting Steve Whitmire was truly the first time in my life I have ever become star struck. I’ve met Academy Award winners and didn’t get this nervous. I held myself together well though, and Steve was extremely grateful that I had made the trip over. In our first talk, we discussed the intricacies of running this site, he said very nice things about Joe Hennes from ToughPigs, and promised that I could get my photo with Kermit before I left. When filming was about to begin, I was put in the cast area (in Peter Linz’s chair, if I remember correctly), a small curtained off section with monitors and headphones, to watch the action. 30 seconds later Peter walks in like Terminator and says ‘Come with me if you want to live’. Apparently Steve had asked where I was, and then asked that I be brought in to the middle of the action, where I could see everything. Between scene rehearsals he came in to Kermit’s office to chat, and we spoke about a lot of different things, like Australia, Fraggle Rock, and Randall Einhorn (more on him a little later). Watching Steve work was a masterclass in puppetry. He could improvise, he could play silly, he could play serious, all in one sentence. And he was so casual about it too, as he leaned on the door frame of The Writers Room while he performed. As promised, Steve grabbed Kermit and we took this photo, which is literally a dream come true for me.
I cannot thank Steve enough for that day. He made already a top day in my life even better.
Peter Linz – From the moment Peter did me a solid for my first post here as Head Operator, I’ve had an incredible amount of love and respect for the man. He is truly the nicest guy you will ever encounter, and I owe everything that happened on those 2 days to him. He took time out of his day (4 hours straight!) just to make sure I was having the best experience I could, and he treated me like an old friend (He still does!). When I thought I might be outstaying my welcome, Peter brushed it off and told me to stick around. We’d discuss the scenes being filmed, the set itself (including some tid-bits you’ll find below), the puppets etc. He also revealed that once in a blue moon if he’s busy, when he’s right handing he’ll use his left hand to send texts and emails. That’s skill right there. He was truly the best host I could have asked for, and I cannot thank him enough for everything he did. Hopefully he’ll get the chance to perform Walter soon. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot I can say about that. (That clearly didn’t happen, but I did get to take a photo with Walter which Muppets Studio told me I wasn’t allowed to publish – but, again, it’s been 4.5 years, so here it is!)
As discussed earlier, the sets are built a few feet in the air to accommodate the performers. Kermit’s office is slightly higher than the others, as Steve is one of the tallest puppeteers.
In the first week, Peter was assisting Steve in Kermit’s office, and Steve complained that he had no-where to put his coffee. So Peter bought Steve a retractable cup holder, which is bolted to the support that holds up Kermit’s desk.
A lot of what I saw was cut. For example, when Kermit and Piggy discuss having the others become a bigger part of the show, Kermit asked ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’. Piggy’s responses included ‘These glasses cover my beautiful eyes!’, ‘These glasses aren’t big enough – I should get something flashier’ and the line that made me almost ruin a take, ‘Oh Kermit, you’d look silly in this outfit’
The scenes I watched filmed: The Muppet Show Theme scat, Kermit and Miss Piggy’s chat at the door about their friends being in the show (the same scene, but actually filmed 3 days apart), and Denise confronting Kermit for missing her fun run. In fact, in that second one, I’m leaning against the door frame of Kermit’s office, about 3 feet away, the top of my head JUST off screen. Also, fun fact, Key and Peele weren’t there the day I was, meaning that the one 90 second scene was filmed over 3 days.
I got speaking with one of the camera operators, Jarrod Oswald, who said that Randall is the best director he’s ever worked with. He then recalled a story where Randall was editing a ‘Color Me Mine’ scene in ‘The Ex-Factor’, and he called Jarrod, who was on leave at the time. Jarrod expected the worst, but Randall was calling just to commend him on a great focus choice he had made. What a top guy, eh?
Speaking of Randall – Peter and Eric, and especially Steve and Dave had the nicest things to say about him in my discussions with them. He worked with the performers to get the best out of the scene, and I watched as Randall, Steve and Eric worked together to condense a rather wordy scene down, so it would still be funny and it would still have heart. Dave was saying that it was very remnant of Jim, and that he had this same feeling back on Fraggle Rock, a sentiment Steve also had a little later on.
All the performers consider ‘Going, Going, Gonzo’ to be the bar to hit in future episodes.
The scene where Denise confronts a sleeping Kermit and Piggy was originally much longer, with lines from Pepe and Chip. The scene ended with Chip waking up, wearing Miss Piggy’s dredlocks wig, saying ‘Slumber party!’. The first time they filmed it, everyone laughed, and it blew the take.
Also, in that scene Pepe was performed by Peter, as Bill was off sick.
As Steve and Julianne Buescher rehearsed that scene, Steve also read Miss Piggy’s lines. I’ll tell you now, he does a spot on Miss Piggy.
If you’ve seen the press images for Episode 12, you’ll have noticed a picture of Sam with steam coming out of his ears. I was there when they rehearsed the gag, and it took a single prop guy at least 45 minutes to achieve it. Randall actually asked me if I thought it was funny. I did. (I still do)
I spent the majority of my time in Kermit’s office, so I had a good look around. Some of the books on his shelf include ‘Art Direction for Film and Video’, ‘Morality In Practice’, ‘The Lost Artwork of Hollywood’, and encyclopedia books on Carnivores, Rodents, Reptiles & Amphibians, Primates and Marsupials. I’ve put a couple of photos of his bookshelves below.