Frank Oz began his career with Jim Henson in the 1960s, creating hilariously memorable commercials and variety show appearances starring The Muppets. As a puppeteer, he originated instantly-iconic characters such as Grover and Cookie Monster on “Sesame Street” and Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and Animal on “The Muppet Show.” Oz has since enjoyed a successful career as a feature film director, helming contemporary comedy classics featuring the likes of Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and Eddie Murphy, among numerous other superstars.
This week he is releasing his first documentary “Muppet Guys Talking,” a retrospective conversation with four fellow Muppet performers about the fun, camaraderie, and occasional danger of embodying some of the most beloved characters in the last half-century of popular culture. The only place to get the movie is MuppetGuysTalking.com.
I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Frank Oz over the phone about why he made “Muppet Guys Talking” and what he hopes audiences take away from the movie. We also touched on a variety of subjects from throughout his career, such as Walt Disney World’s “Muppet*Vision 3D” attraction, the cherished holiday TV special “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas,” and his role as Yoda in the “Star Wars” movies.
Mike Celestino, Inside the Magic: Thank you so much for talking to me. I’ve been a fan literally my entire life, so it’s really an honor.
Frank Oz: That’s very nice of you to say. People say that and I can never get used to [it], but thank you.
ITM: I watched “Muppet Guys Talking” and I really enjoyed it. But I wanted to start out with a story you don’t tell in the documentary. And that’s how you first met Jim Henson and your first experience working with the Muppets.
Oz: I met Jim [when] I was seventeen years old in California, where I lived. There was a gathering, and Jim was there with his wife Jane and his young daughter Lisa, and I performed there. He saw my performance and we talked, and he went back to New York. But then two years later when I graduated from high school and did my European rucksack tour, he asked me at nineteen years old to come to New York just to work part-time with him and see how it would work. So I got my parents’ permission to do that as long as I continued college, and that’s how I got there.
[The company] was just, at that time, on 53rd and 2nd Street, a one-flight walk-up and only two rooms. And that’s with four of us: Jim, Don [Sahlin, puppet designer], Jerry [Juhl, Muppet head writer], and me. As far as the first puppeteering goes with Jim, I was too scared to do voices for many years, so I only performed. But I actually didn’t perform right away. I had to spend about eight months in front of a mirror practicing. I had to understand the way Jim performed, so it took a long time for me to actually perform a character, and I think I probably [first] performed a character in a commercial that we shot.
ITM: I’m also curious about what made you finally step away from the Muppets. It seems since around the late 90s or so, you haven’t had much involvement with the group.
Oz: Well, I’ve had involvement in the group [off-stage]. We’re brothers and sisters. We’re always in contact with each other. But what happened was, I had a directing career and I had four children. I just couldn’t do it all, and while I was gone directing for a year I couldn’t say “Okay, you’re not allowed to use Cookie Monster or Grover.” I couldn’t do that in good faith. So that’s what happened. I didn’t step away completely, though. I did some work, but [within] the past few years “Sesame Street” has not asked me, and Disney has not asked me. So it’s not a question of me not doing it, it’s a question of me not being asked to do it.
ITM: All these years later you’ve made this documentary about what it’s like being a Muppet performer. How did the idea for this movie first come about?
Oz: The way this started was, my wife Victoria [Labalme], who is actually one of the producers with me and Leslie [Converse], she saw in social situations how all of us Muppet guys got along, and she realized that there were stories that she was hearing that other people should hear. And she also realized that we had a work ethic that was very unusual compared to the work ethic of other companies. That was the work ethic that we learned from Jim, which is working very very hard, [for] long hours, but having a lot of fun. No politics, no backstabbing, no tension– just trying to do the very best you can and make quality work.
And she felt that kind of work culture should be seen by many people so that’s really why we’re doing it– to share that with people who may not ever have experienced that way of working. She conceived it, really. It took me about a year to agree to it, because I felt that people would be bored listening to us. But she assured me that wasn’t the case, and so we went ahead.
ITM: You’ve been working as a director in Hollywood for quite a while. How is the approach to a documentary like this different from a comedy like “Little Shop of Horrors” or “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”?
Oz: It’s interesting. I figured “Okay, I’ve done a dozen big movies, so we’ll do a documentary.” And it really surprised me that it’s so hard. It’s hard in the editing, because in the big movies I have a script, a story. I shoot that and then I edit it. But in documentaries, I realized, it flips. You just shoot and then later on in editing you have to find a story. And that is not only difficult for me, but, I found out, for every documentarian that I’ve talked to. That’s the hardest part, and that’s what takes time. That was a big surprise for me. It’s tough.
ITM: The movie has a very loose, casual feel to it. It really gets across what it must be like when you and the other Muppet performers get together to trade war stories. What made you feel like this conversational approach was preferable over a more structured documentary style?
Oz: Because we’re not structured. In every film I do, I feel the form needs to mirror the content. We’ve always been rebellious in the Muppet group. We’ve always worked outside the lines. We were more scrappy, and so I couldn’t have beautiful lighting and cameras moving. I just couldn’t do a beautiful production because it would be a lie. The form would be a lie, so on purpose I shot it the way I believe our spirit is, which is more rambunctious and off-the-cuff and fun.
ITM: What made these specific Muppet performers– Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson, Fran Brill, and Bill Baretta– the right ones to go to for this movie?
Oz: Because of the spirit. We have the spirit that Jim has, and also because we’ve known Jim for so long. Billy is the newest one, if you call twenty years new, but mainly because we all have the spirit. Jim hired us individually. He was very good at sensing who would have the same spirit he did.
ITM: I was in awe of some of the stories you told in the film, especially the ones about how dangerous it occasionally was being a Muppet performer. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Oz: Jim didn’t think about danger. If you remember the story of the archer shooting the arrow [above a Muppet’s head], Jim was just out there. He had no protection whatsoever. So it [wasn’t just us in danger]; Jim always did the most dangerous [performances], and he was never thinking about the danger. He was always thinking about getting the best shot, getting the best work done. By doing that, he put himself in danger and put us in danger, but we just believed in him and went forward.
There [are] other areas of danger that [are mentioned] in some of the footage we didn’t use. We have many hours of footage, and we’re going to actually cut those stories together and use them for bonus footage. For instance, we were in two helicopters remote-controlling characters in a hot air balloon, and that was kind of scary because I was concerned we’d be smashing into each other a thousand feet [in the air]. But that’s the kind of stuff that Jim did. It’s not done anymore. Only Jim did that. It’s a different time.
ITM: You bring this up in the movie a little bit, but I’m curious which character of yours you most closely identify with, and which character do fans most associate you with?
Oz: The latter question, I don’t know. I hope it’s not Bert. [laughs] They don’t actually bring up individual characters as much. They’ll bring up Piggy occasionally or Fozzie, but what they really [tend to do] is thank me for being part of their lives, which is huge [for me]. As far as the character that I’m closest to, I think I’m closest to both Grover and Fozzie.
ITM: You said on Twitter recently that the Muppets were initially targeted to adults. Why do you think the perception has shifted over the last fifty years to see this as a children’s franchise?
Oz: I think because, first of all, puppets are considered for children, so that’s one thing. But the Muppets have always been hip and always been characters, not puppets. They’ve been believable characters. When one writes for them and one performs them, they need to have the same spirit that Jim taught us, and that is that we are adults and we have fun with it.
Unfortunately, what’s happened is– in much of the [new] material that I’ve seen– they are saying it’s for kids, and they talk down. And so, unfortunately, I think they see it as limited to one [audience], and we never have been. If we were limited, we wouldn’t have had such success. I think it’s probably easy for people to just say they’re for kids. It’s harder to make them complex like Jim did.
Some people think The Muppets are for children. Nope. I never once had the kids in mind when I performed. I mean, what’s the difference between performing for kids and performing for adults, anyway? We were adults and we had fun performing as adults. And the kids got it.
— Frank Oz (@TheFrankOzJam) February 10, 2018
ITM: One of my absolute favorite Muppet projects growing up was “Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.” I would watch it over and over again, and I would love if you could tell me any story that sticks out from the production of that.
Oz: That was really huge. Building a huge river inside a studio and the boat being remote-controlled, and the characters being remote-controlled, and then having to work underneath everything to [operate] the puppets. It was a big thing but it was so beautiful. Jim and [songwriter] Paul Williams always worked well together, but Paul really outdid himself with the songs here. He was just amazing.
What I really remember is Jerry Nelson and I had to do like thirty takes for a drum to roll and land exactly where Jim wanted it to– just over and over and over while we were holding up the characters. Basically I remember, like all productions– especially with music– just having a good time with all of us.
ITM: You had a cameo voice appearance as a security guard in the Pixar movie “Inside Out” a few years ago. How did that come about?
Oz: Dave Goelz– who is also in the documentary– and I have known each other for 35-40 years, working with Jim. We have become very close over the years, as Jim was with us, and we became great friends with Pete Docter, who directed the movie. Pete just knows how stupid we can be together, so he said “You want to do these little parts?” And we said “Sure.” We went down there and recorded the few lines, but then Pete asked us to ad-lib and we just had a great time. It was just Pete Docter saying, “Hey guys, I know you’re funny together. Let’s just have some fun.” That was a real joy.
ITM: You also recently reprised your role as Master Yoda in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” I’ve always wondered what the difference is between performing a character like that as a puppet versus performing it in voice-over only, as you’ve done in some of the prequels and “Star Wars” cartoon series. Does the physicality of the puppet alter your approach or the outcome of the performance at all?
Oz: No, it doesn’t change the performance. I still have to dig deep and make the character believable. But doing the voice [only] is 95% easier. Yoda is worked not only by me but three other people, so you have four people doing one character and we all have to be in absolutely perfect sync. So that is always a huge challenge. While sitting in the studio and doing the voice, I get to concentrate only on one thing instead of twenty things.
ITM: One of the last projects you worked on with Jim Henson was the “Muppet*Vision 3D” attraction for Walt Disney World. Do you have any specific memories of that experience?
Oz: Yeah, my memory is sad. Actually, number one it was fun, because we were in Hollywood shooting it, and Jim was there, and it was 3D. We hadn’t worked in 3D before, so it was a challenge, but it was fun. The sad part was that Jim died before it was finished. So my memory of it is mixed with tremendous sadness and grief, but at the same time I also wanted to finish it for him.
I remember the post-production period. I was shooting “What About Bob?” then, and I would be getting footage one second or two seconds [at a time] from some of the Waldo stuff. I would look at it and give comments on it, and be directing that post-production [remotely] from Virginia. So I finished the film for Jim, but it’s still his film. It’s a mixture of great fun and tremendous sadness.
ITM: What do you hope audiences get out of “Muppet Guys Talking”?
Oz: I think it’s what my wife and producer Victoria Labalme who conceived it said, which is showing people around the world– and it is the world, because we have fans around the world– that there can be a way to work that is inclusive, and is generous, and that is going for quality only. No politics, no tension. All people working together in a collaborative way. That’s what Victoria and I want out of this: to have people around the world say “Oh, you can work that way? Really? Wow, I didn’t know that.”
That can be done. It depends on the boss, certainly. It all came from Jim. It all stemmed from him. He was who he was, and we learned by osmosis. When I was in it, for so many years, and working so hard, I was just trying to do the very best I can. But looking back on it, it was a golden time.
“Muppet Guys Talking,” directed by Frank Oz, will be available starting this Friday, March 16th only at MuppetGuysTalking.com.
EDIT: The original version of this article named Muppet performer Jerry Nelson as one of the original inhabitants of Jim Henson’s New York City workshop when Frank Oz came aboard, when in fact it was Muppet head writer Jerry Juhl. The correction has been made thanks to commenter Bob Nelson.