D23 Expo 2015: The Magic Behind the Muppets
I realize that D23 EXPO 2015 is old news by now, having taken place more than a month ago already, but I've been saving my write-up of this one panel discussion I attended specifically for this week.
"The Magic Behind the Muppets" was held the first day of the Expo, Friday, August 14, and aside from the "big hall" presentations, it was THE ONE panel discussion I had to see.
Even though I considered myself a bit too old for Sesame Street when it first came out -- I was all of about 9 -- I have to admit that I sneaked a peek now and then when my little sister was watching. And, I couldn't help it, I secretly fell in love with some of those crazy characters, especially Kermit the Frog and that adorable "fuzzy and blue" monster, Grover.
My Muppet Love grew in my late teens and early 20s, when The Muppet Show appeared on the scene. The variety show appealed to adults as well as kids, with corny humor mixed with a bit of anarchy, and featured a range of veteran performers and pop culture celebrities from Ethel Merman to Elton John to Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamil. I didn't miss a show. In fact, after I got married in 1981, my husband and I would race home after work to eat dinner in front of the TV with The Muppet Show syndicated reruns. Evening news, schmews.
So I think you understand why I HAD to see this panel.
The morning of the panel was the first chaotic day of the Expo, so I was a bit later getting into the room than I had planned. I ended up further away from the stage than I would have liked, so most of the photos here are official pictures from Disney, but I was there and that's what mattered!
The session was hosted by Entertainment Weekly's Marc Snetiker, who, judging from the grin on his face, was as pleased to be there as I was. One by one, he introduced the panelists, whose names are probably already familiar to you if you're also a Muppet fan:
Dave Goelz, the elder statesman of the group, who started working with Muppet creator Jim Henson in 1973 and is best-known for his work as the Great Gonzo (but he's also Bunsen Honeydew and Beauregard the bear)...
Steve Whitmire, a part of the organization since 1978; he took over Kermit the Frog when creator Jim Henson died in 1990 and is also Rizzo the Rat...
Bill Barretta, who voices one of my all-time favorites, Pepe the King Prawn (he's not a shrimp, OK?) and Rowlf the Dog, amongst others, has been with The Muppets since 1991...
Eric Jacobson, with The Muppets since 2001, is now many of the characters created by Frank Oz, such as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Sam Eagle...
... and Matt Vogel, a relative newcomer to the Muppets (since 2007), the voice behind more recent characters like Constantine, Uncle Deadly and Robin the little frog.
The camaraderie among this group was evident from the moment they took their seats. Through light-hearted anecdotes seasoned liberally with laughter, they related past Muppeting mayhem and answered questions from the audience both as themselves and along with their fabric and foam alter egos.
It soon became clear in moment like those illustrated in the video below that "The Magic Behind the Muppets" was the chemistry among the people tasked with making that magic.
Besides just giving fans a chance to gawk at these Muppet Men, one of the reasons for this panel was to promote the next chapter in the Muppets story -- a new ABC-TV show debuting this Tuesday night, September 22, at 8 p.m. After showing an in-depth, not to mention hilarious, trailer for the show, the men talked about its premise and what it has been like to work on this project.
Done in the "mock-doc" style of programs like ABC's "Modern Family," which interjects "private" interviews with the main characters into the running narrative, the show is very contemporary and set in the present day. Presented as a show-within-a-show, Miss Piggy has her own late-night television show and Kermit is her producer.
According to Barretta, Kermit has made only one mistake -- he has hired all of his friends to work for him. As a result, familiar faces populate the series. There's Pepe as one of Miss Piggy's writers, while skittish Beaker is handling props. The Swedish Chef is, naturally, in charge of the food (Craft Services), the Electric Mayhem performs as the show's band, and prim and proper Sam Eagle censors everyone in his role of Standards and Practices. Rowlf the dog operates the tavern across the street where everyone congregates after work.
"We are getting a chance to see what happens backstage after we call 'Cut!'" Barretta said. "We're focusing on the characters in their world."
"There's a real depth to the characters that we haven't seen before," Whitmire added, crediting the "very clever writers" that they have working on the scripts.
"The time feels right now," Jacobson noted. "And I'm so excited. I don't think I've ever been so excited about a project before."
Goelz eagerly agreed. "I don't think I've had this feeling since I worked on Fraggle Rock [a mid-1980s children's live-action series that featured Muppets called Fraggles]."
One of the things contributing to the Muppeteers' excitement is the way they have been able to shake things up a bit in this new incarnation of the show. Those of you who follow celebrity news will know that Kermit and Miss Piggy are no longer a romantic item -- a story that made headlines in the real tabloid press. Kermit even posted about it on his Facebook page:
Cue the melodramatic tension! This is bound to lead to some interesting storylines on the show and has allowed the writers to play with what the public thinks it knows about these beloved characters.
"Even the most casual fans have treated this like a real break-up," Whitmire laughed. "But I think it's good for the frog."
"We’re always learning,” Goelz added. “Every day we like to surprise each other with new aspects of the characters.”
After fielding questions from fans, the Muppeteers treated the crowd to a "behind-the-scenes" look at what it takes to make a Muppet scene. Six lucky volunteers were brought up to try their hand at operating their own Muppet.
Taking two recruits at a time, Whitmire demonstrated the proper way to the hold the Muppet (with arm fully extended overhead) and the correct way to make the Muppet speak. After a few minutes of practice, the two new Muppeteers had the chance to dance with the masters. Although the exercise was instructive, the results were simply sidesplitting when the group danced to Beyonce's "Single Ladies," followed by Pepe's rather suggestive dance to Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing."
This latter episode begged the question, "Will the new Muppets TV show be TOO racy?"
"Oh, it will be a little edgy," Whitmire said, "but nothing that parents can’t let their kids watch.”
"We always have worked to amuse ourselves," Goelz explained. "After all, we're stuck there at work all day. That was even true of Sesame Street before me."
"Yes, with love and all due respect to our fans," Whitmire added, "we have always done this work for ourselves. But with this show, I have to say, I am laughing out loud when I read the scripts."
As the program ended after an all-too-short hour, I found myself thinking about how lucky I was to have been in that room to see those talents at work first-hand. That's the amazing thing about the D23 Expo -- the chances it gives you to get a glimpse into creative worlds that have had such a huge impact on you throughout the years. That's what keeps me coming back every two years and has me looking forward to D23 Expo 2017.
But first, I'm looking forward to this week. The Muppets. ABC. September 22 at 8 p.m. As Fozzie Bear would say: Wocka wocka!