The Guys From Muppet Guys Talking Talk About the Muppets — and Mortality

Dave Goelz and Frank Oz.

Muppet Guys Talking is no more, and no less, than its title indicates. The documentary isn’t flashy, isn’t stylized, isn’t profound — in some cases, it isn’t even edited. That’s exactly what director Frank Oz (the soul of Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Yoda) intended. “The Muppets are rambunctious, and a little bit anarchic, and they’re very affectionate, and they’re rebellious,” he says. “So I felt there’s only one way to shoot it, which is kind of handheld, roaming cameras, some stuff on sticks, seeing the cinematographers in the background, getting up for coffee and keep rolling. That kind of rambunctiousness and that rebelliousness was the only way I felt we could shoot it, to mirror our spirit.”

Shot in early 2012 and released this past Friday exclusively on MuppetGuysTalking.com, the “guys” are Oz, Dave Goelz (the Great Gonzo), Fran Brill (a Sesame Street veteran best known for Prairie Dawn), Bill Barretta (Pepe the Prawn) — and the late Jerry Nelson (Count von Count, Gobo Fraggle), whose humor and warmth belie the oxygen tube he sports in the film, but who passed away a mere four months after the shoot. The laughter-filled conversation playfully dances around the topic of the work culture and ethos created by the Muppet god, Jim Henson. And while it does something to humanize Henson, who’s become larger-than-life, when Oz and Goelz spoke to Vulture about their old boss and friend … he still sounds superhuman.

Something that hit me as I watched the documentary, which probably wasn’t your intention, was the idea of mortality. Obviously Jim is gone, and Richard Hunt is gone, and now Jerry. Was mortality on your mind as you made this?
Frank Oz: Mortality is on my mind every day [they both chuckle]. No, actually, we didn’t know Jerry was going to pass. He was looking pretty good, as far as I was concerned. We’re all missing Jim, and we’re all missing Richard Hunt, and now we’re all missing Jerry. But that’s not unusual.

Dave Goelz: And there are others who passed too early. Jerry Juhl, our head writer. Don Sahlin, the great Muppet maker. They all died way too young. It’s just grossly unfair, and it’s statistically unlikely that one company would have all these losses of great, key people.

Was there a sense of urgency or timeliness to do something like this, to get the band back together to reminisce?
FO: No. And actually the band didn’t need getting together — the band was together. We are constantly talking to each other. But there was no urgency, no. We only did it because my wife [Victoria Labalme], and producer, saw that it would really be great for the world to see how we all work together. I didn’t feel that was going to be interesting to people; I worked with Jim for years, and it was just very normal for me to work the way we worked. But after about a year of badgering, she convinced me.

Why did you choose to make it in this kind of loose, casual style rather than in a traditional documentary format?
FO: Even in my movies, the form always has to mirror the content and the spirit of the content. The spirit of the Muppets is not beautiful lighting, the spirit of the Muppets is not crane moves. That’s also the reason why we’re distributing it the way we are. Instead of going through a big company like Netflix, we again wanted to be rebellious — ’cause the Muppets aren’t a big company. We wanted to take that spirit and be a bit scrappy about it and do something new, which was distribute it on our website. This was a great opportunity for us to have direct contact with our fans.

The main reason I said yes to shooting this was that everybody in the world knows Jim, and a handful of people know me, but these guys have not been seen — and these guys are brilliant and professional, and they really need to be seen for the work they’ve done.

DG: We have such a community of colleagues who really love each other, and we’re bonded for life. And that’s worth celebrating. That’s really unusual.

What left with Jim when he died [in 1990]? What changed, and what was irreplaceable?
FO: In my opinion: working for a nobler cause. We’re still entertaining, but Jim wanted to change the world. And he did. I’m not as noble or as far-reaching. I don’t have that ability. I don’t know of anybody around us who does — including the Henson kids. So, to me, the loss was working for a larger reason.

DG: Jim’s appearance was deceptive. The first time I met him in person, he came to my town in California and I took him out to dinner. So he was staying in a motel that I had booked for him, and he was standing outside under a porte cochere. It was raining very hard, and he had a raincoat on and a leather hat with a brim. He looked so thin and frail that I immediately, as I drove up in my little Volkswagen Beetle, felt protective of him. Of course, what we came to learn when each of us worked with him for a while, was that he was stronger than any of us. He had a stronger will, physically his endurance was amazing. Jerry Juhl had a great phrase that described Jim. He said he had a “whim of steel.” Jim was so light in the way that he expressed his ideas and worked with people. It was just light and effortless, and he didn’t impose himself on anyone. But he was going to do some great stuff, and we could come along if we chose to accept his invitation.

FO: There are people who think that there’s got to be a dark part of Jim [Goelz laughs]. That a guy like that could not exist. I mean, “What’s really rotten, what’s going on underneath, really?” And I tell you, he was a flawed person — he was not perfect. Thank God, because he’d be a robot. But being with him almost constantly for 35 years, I never saw that dark part.

DG: He was just somebody who was so happy to be alive. He celebrated everything, he loved food, he loved work, he loved all different kinds of people. He drew these people together who were really natural enemies, you know, people who would attack each other without being in his culture. I remember noticing that when I got out there. I just thought, Good lord! These people are so different. They couldn’t hold a job where I came from, you know, when I was in the corporate environment. But over time, I began to realize each of us could do something that nobody else could do. And we came to love each other.

Frank, I know you phased out of working with the Muppets because you were focusing on directing, but were there other reasons for you stepping away?
FO: It was a combination; with my directing, I’d be away from the company for about a year or so, and I couldn’t stop people from doing my characters — it wasn’t fair. And it was also [sighs] I think, once that happened, nobody really asked me anymore. Because they were pleased with the people who were doing my characters, and who are really working very hard to keep them pure.

Dave, you’ve stuck around with the Muppets. Why?
DG: Once I had joined the company permanently, it didn’t take long to start thinking of this as a life’s work. Especially after I had started performing. I imagined Frank and Jim and Jerry and myself in our 80s, jumping around, doing these characters, creating havoc together and being rebellious. I didn’t, of course, know what arthritis was at that time. [Oz laughs.] I didn’t know that there would be pain. But I thought, This is a life’s work. We’re all going to be old guys doing this together and still cutting up. Of course, what actually happened was that we lost some really, really important people. But it still feels like my life’s work. I learned along the way that the Muppets are really part of my identity, and without them I would feel I was missing something very important.

These characters are clearly more than their appearance or mannerisms or voices — they’re an extension of the performers. For me, there’s been a marked change since that original community dissipated, or as people have passed on. When I watch the Muppets now, and see so many characters performed by new people doing imitations of the original performances … it just makes me sad. Something essential, or maybe spiritual, seems to be missing.
DG: Well, first of all, we have to mention that Jim wanted the characters to go on beyond him. That was his desire. And I think for all of us, we do feel those things. Every time a character is taken over by a new person, it sort of jumps to another track. It’s a little bit different. Even when the new person has uncanny ability, it can’t be the same, because these characters come from our souls. And the new character performers, you just wouldn’t believe how conscientious they are and how much they desire to serve the original model.

FO: I do feel sadness, and I do feel loss of my characters. But there’s a conflict inside me, because on the one hand I feel a loss of, number one, playing around with my compatriots, my buddies, my brothers and sisters. I love doing that. And I feel a loss that I can’t do Grover or Cookie or Bert or Piggy or Fozzie or Sam or Animal. It bothers me. And on the other hand, I’m thinking, well, I can’t do it all the time anyway. I’m directing. So I’m grateful that Eric Jacobson is doing it, because Eric is very talented. So that’s my conflict.

Do you guys feel like there is a shelf life to the Muppets?
FO: I think they can live on forever if handled properly. Shelf life, in my opinion, depends on the degree of authenticity they keep — the characters. So if they stay pure and authentic to what they’ve always been, and how the fans and the people who appreciate them … as long as the Muppets stay as those kind of souls, then I think they will have longevity.

What lesson can I take from the culture that Jim created? How do I translate the spirit of the Muppets, at their best, and apply it to my life?
FO: Certainly what I’ve learned is throw your ego away. Accept, collaborate, and do your very best for quality. Jim never cared about credit. All he wanted to do was the very best. We were on a plane over to London, before the [Dark Crystal] script was even written, and he just quietly said, “Frank, you want to direct this with me?” I said “What?” I mean, this is a $200 million film, essentially, and he had never directed a film and I had never directed a film. I said, “Jim, I’ve always wanted to be a director, but I don’t know how. Why are you asking me?” And he said, very simply, “Because it would be better.”

I love the Muppets because they are anarchic and self-aware, but there’s kindness and sweetness at the core. It’s a perfect balance of qualities that I feel we could use a lot more of today.
FO: Absolutely. In one of the gatherings for celebrating Jim’s life, there was a bishop, and he said a very wise thing. He never knew Jim, but he was quite something. He said, “You know, characters who are bad, who are evil, are always interesting characters. But good people are never interesting. But the Muppets were interesting … and they were good.” I thought that was extraordinary.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Muppet Guys Talking Guys on the Muppets — and Mortality