The mind, voice, and hands behind The Great Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, saxophonist Zoot and three-dimes-shy-of-a-quarter Beauregard the janitor, Dave Goelz is the second-longest serving member of Jim Henson’s original Muppet collaborators behind Caroll Spinney, the man inside Big Bird. A former industrial designer, Goelz, 71, came aboard as a part-time puppet builder after meeting Frank Oz (Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy) at a puppetry festival in 1973. “Compared to Jim and Frank, Jerry, Richard and Carroll, I always felt like the new guy,” he says. “Until we had other new guys.”
Goelz, Oz, the late Jerry Nelson (Robin the Frog, Floyd Pepper the bassist), Fran Brill (Janice the guitarist, Prairie Dawn on Sesame Street) and new(er) guy Bill Barretta (Pepe the Prawn) are the subjects of a new documentary Muppet Guys Talking, conceived and directed by Oz. In April of 2012, cameras rolled on an all-day gathering of the five Muppet friends, telling stories and sharing comedic techniques and principles. According to Oz, even though at its height the Muppets were watched by 235 million people in over 100 countries, the performers had never sat down together and discussed on the record how the (talking) sausage was made.
“I think if Jim had lived he certainly would have been open to this at some point,” says Goelz. “Hopefully it really is all about the characters. That’s what people are turning in to watch.”
I talked with Goelz about where his own characters came from, the unique chemistry of the Muppeteers, and how to speak to human folly by throwing penguins at it.
Where did the idea for the movie come from?
Frank’s wife Victoria [Labalme]. She and Frank were newly married, and after spending time with his friends and collaborators from the worlds of television, film, and theater, she saw the unique chemistry of this group of friends who had worked together for so long.
Victoria co-produced. Frank chose the five of us whom he thought would have good conversation … We filmed in a loft in New York with us sitting on couches in a circle. The idea was for the movie to have a casual, dirty look, cameras drifting into the shot, us interrupting each other and laughing.
How would you describe the chemistry between you five?
Playful. We’re like a rep company. It’s so much fun. We were so happy to be sitting down together. I would’ve done it for no other reason than to be with everybody.
Comedy is often about the looseness of the body and the freedom of movement – a standup pacing the floor or the freneticism at the heart of so much sketch comedy. You guys spend a good bit of the movie talking about how puppeteering is the exact opposite, holding your body in awkward positions in order to perform.
Puppeteering hurts. A lot. You have to compartmentalize the pain. Literally, you want to just whine, but you have to say, “I’ll whine later. Right now I’m gonna be this character.” And it does require extreme tension and extreme relaxation at the same time. You have to be incredibly tight and precise and also loose and spontaneous.
The two other kinds of comedy I just named are also designed to minimize whatever could get in the performer’s way – a standup’s bare stage, the defined props of sketch. Puppeteering instead has an embarrassment of things the performer has to think about.
We work to monitors where everything is reversed. Where you move right, the image goes left. It takes a year to get your brain to accept that. Then you have all the other logistics you have to be able to manage while you’re acting.
All the acting things: remembering lines, playing the emotion of the scene, listening to the other character, moving within the scene. Then logistics: not tripping over cables, changing to another monitor when your character moves, or when another puppeteer blocks your view. When picking up a prop, you have to look up at the prop, so you can’t see the monitor for a bit. You have to keep the puppet from going dead. There are so many levels of multitasking that you can only learn by doing. Even then, it takes years.
I’m naturally a mono-tasker. I like to sit in a room and focus on one thing until it’s finished. I think I’m one of the last guys who should be doing this.
In the movie you all talk about how in order to get the puppet to do something relatively minor, below decks the puppeteer has to act very big.
When we did the goodnights for The Muppet Show, we would all go in front of a red drape. And Jim as Kermit would thank the guest and say “We’ll see you next time on The Muppet Show!” If you were standing next to Jim when he was just saying those things, it was deafening. If your head was eight inches away from Jim’s, he was so loud.
And you don’t realize that. You just think Kermit is kind of elevating his voice, but it was really loud. Everything is very exaggerated … for our characters to be mildly startled, we look horrified.
It almost violates one of the basic principles of comedy, which is you don’t oversell a joke.
Maybe there’s different rules for puppets. In the case of The Muppet Show characters, they’re either abstract or they’re animals. Gonzo’s abstract, Fozzie’s a bear. Maybe that allows more latitude than an actor would have. Fozzie’s desperation might be more intense than a human actor.
We don’t have a pre-existing idea of what a desperate bear looks like.
Yeah, that’s right. And Floyd Pepper can be uber cool, uber hip. And we just accept it, whereas if an actor came on and was that exaggerated, we might think that it’s too much.
Is puppet comedy different on television vs. film vs. live?
In television, we shoot maybe 15 pages a day. In film, we shoot maybe one and half at the most. You can really hone things in film because you have the time. On TV you learn spontaneity, and you learn to roll with the punches and to try to save a mistake, because you don’t have time to go over and over it as much.
Stage work is utterly unforgiving. We just did the Hollywood Bowl, and you get one take and it was highly complex. We had monitors, teleprompters, sound cues, video cues, the orchestra was playing behind us. The conductor had to have ear buds that told him when to start conducting the orchestra so it would be in sync with our prerecorded track, and on and on and on. Somehow, it went perfectly.
Then there’s live audiences. I’ll give a talk someplace, and maybe during Q&A I’ll bring Gonzo out so people can ask either one of us questions. I find that the easiest of all. Gonzo sits on the lectern and I stand next to him, and nobody’s paying attention to me. Every time I go out there, it’s a chance to celebrate how magical this medium is.
You started your career building puppets. When conceiving and building a character, is the plan for the puppet to be physically funny? Or is the puppet’s body a vessel in which you pour funny?
I think it’s great when the puppet shows you who he or she is. Angry. Aggressive. Meek. Silly. Conflicted. Of course, other times if you have a very bland looking puppet – well, he’s still telling you he is: “I’m really kinda a bland guy.” We have the greatest puppet makers in the world.
If I hear you right, you can’t have a puppet that looks like Scooter, but has a personality like Floyd Pepper.
Right. I guess if you just think about the design, why would a hipster’s face be shaped like Scooter’s? Floyd’s just hip because of the way he walks.
The idea for character comes first.
I think so, yeah. There’s also a lot of give and take along the way. When Bonnie Erickson built Link Hogthrob, we all sat in the shop together and had these discussions about what a male chauvinist pig would be like. We added the gold chain and then somebody said Link would feign chest hair, even though he was a pig. So that got added. Jim would come by every morning and saw these things and thought, “That’s great, that’s great.” It all became bigger than the original idea because of the collaboration.
Where do your own characters come from?
An exaggeration of my own flaws, which I then try to make lovable. Gonzo is reckless but free. Zoot is disconnected from others but makes beautiful music. Bunsen is exacting but misses the big picture. It’s kind of therapeutic.
The nature of the Muppet properties are all different kinds of people in a predefined environment, be it a theater, be it a street on Sesame Street, a civilization below ground in Fraggle Rock. There’s always, as you put it in the movie, a kind of a Noah’s Ark quality to it.
Yeah, the environment sort of defines what kinds of things can happen there, so it’s a limitation. And limitation spurs creativity. Different things happen in a cave than a theater. Without limitations, we wouldn’t know what to do.
How would you say the chemistry between the “Muppet Guys” has evolved over time? Because I imagine it’s a different feeling when it’s the five of you in the early days, to after Jim Henson died (in 1989), to there being more new guys. Bill Barretta, the fifth person in the documentary, is a generation removed from you and never worked with Jim.
I think the original group were pretty distinct, unique characters. Jim was light and playful. He was much more easygoing. He just wanted our work to feel good. Frank was an aggressive comedy player, who was extremely focused and very serious. Jerry Nelson really was kind of a hipster. Richard Hunt was extremely outgoing and playful.
Richard Hunt (who died in 1992) was a very, extremely outgoing, playful guy, who our guests always remembered afterward. They knew Jim and Frank because they were kind of in charge. And then they remembered Richard because he was just so outgoing and so out there. He would literally, if he found himself driving to the studio next to the limo that was carrying our guests, roll down his window and start screaming. They would look over and say, “Who’s this crazy guy?” And the driver would say, “Oh, that’s Richard.”
How was Jim Henson so good at bringing performers together with the chemistry you guys clearly have in this movie?
Well, Jim made so few mistakes in terms of hiring people. If he hired somebody who didn’t immediately fit in, he would just say, “Let’s keep at it, it’ll settle out.” And it almost always did. It was one of the great lessons for all of us.
Jim’s philosophy was something he did not articulate, but he demonstrated every day. He believed there was enough for everybody. Jim was generous. He believed if he treated people well, they would probably treat him well too. And they almost always did. It would be hard to find anyone who had a bad word to say about Jim.
You get the last word in the documentary.
Without giving it away, I’ll just say we’re engaged in folly constantly. Everybody tries so hard to be accepted. We comb our hair in certain ways. We think, “If I could just have his socks…” There’s all sorts of things that we do that are kind of ridiculous, but we do them anyway, and I think the Muppets celebrate that.
Comedy is about surprises. Once we establish a reality, we start stretching it. You’d be doing “Lullaby on Broadway” sung by Eskimos that are fishing through holes in ice, and up through the holes came prairie dogs. And then it got to where we would just throw penguins. That was a go-to near the end. No matter what was going on, you just find penguins flipping through the air. Just make it surreal. Surprise us again.
Muppet Guys Talking will be released exclusively on muppetguystalking.com tomorrow.
Kevin Smokler is a writer based in San Francisco and the author of the book Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to 80s Teen Movies.