The station manager of KMUP-TV explains how one of show business's most famous ensembles got back together after a 15-year absence from television.
The old Muppet Show featured Kermit, Gonzo, and the rest of the gang in a Broadway-type theater setting. The premise of the new show centers around the mayhem involved with mounting a live TV variety show. Classic elements, such as a crazed audience of many species and two crabby codgers, will be affectionately updated. This sense of continuity is important to the Hensons, and to other Muppet stawarts, such as Frank Oz, who, in spite of a flourishing career as a movie director, returns to bring Miss Piggy to life.
"There's very much a feeling of extended family," Brian Henson says. "I want to feel as though it's not just mine, or not just something new, but very much in the tradition my father set down, very aware of the absurb, making fun, and being weird with no meaness in it. That's what's missing in family TV, where even the best things have a certain cynicism."
The appeal, however, isn't just for children; as Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind Clifford, the way-cool host of Muppets Tonight (as well as Sesame Street's Elmo for more than a decade) says, "There's this heart of silliness in it that gets to 3-year-olds. There's just this most happy feeling."
And there's history. "I grew up with these characters," says guest star Paula Abdul. "When they called, I told my agent, whatever I'm doing, move it! I mean, these are the Muppets!" Abdul got so involved with the show that she choreographed her episode. "Working with them was so much fun! It's only people I have trouble with, not pigs and frogs."
But Roseanne costar John Goodman met his share of trouble with pigs while shooting his guest shot. After accidentally saving Miss Piggy's two nephews, Randy and Andy, from sizzling their bacon on a live wire, Goodman found himself an object of worship. The new puppet characters followed him around trying to offer their clumsy help, and proceeded to burn up his suit and massage his hair with glue.
"I'm not relaxing," Goodman complained to Clifford during one of the skits. "You said I'd have fun, and I'm not having fun."
But he actually was. On the set of Muppets Tonight, guest stars commonly put in 12- to 15-hour days without complaint. Says co-executive producer Dick Blasucci, who has performed with the Second City comedy troupe and written for The Tracey Ullman Show and The Larry Sanders Show, "We're very aware that the great stuff arises sometimes when you're hanging on by the skin of your teeth. There's this absence of big egos. Everyone's having fun. There's great energy."
So much so that there will be plenty of surprise cameos, like the moment during "Pigs in Space: Deep Dish Nine-The Next Generation of Pigs in Space" when Star Trek's Leonard Nimoy showed up to chide the hysterical Miss Piggy.
the Hensons and company are banking on the hope that a variety format can work nearly two decades after the heyday of the Muppets. An ingenious web of sets has been painstakingly constructed, including a space-age control panel for the fictional TV station, KMUP, as well as an eerie pet-shop set for the spooky "Tails from the Vet" (a take-off on Tales from the Crypt), which features, among other regulars, a lactose-intolerant cow.
In order for the guest stars to interact face-to-face with the Muppet characters, all of the sets have to be mounted four or more feet off the ground. The human actors work on high platforms, and the puppeteers are then able to operate the puppets without stooping. Some of the regulars, such as the dancing Bossmen, and larger than life-way larger, about 25 feet tall.
Even a trip to the workshop-where Jim Henson's youngest daughter, Heather, is among the designers working on acres on Muppets Tonight creatures-does nothing to diminish a vistor's sense of wonder. A Muppet is more than the sum of its mobile face and the skill of the performer who brings it to life. It's also that most happy feeling.
"We're still working out some of the bugs," says Kermit, not to mention the rats and the chickens. "But we don't mind being close to the edge. That's what we Muppets do best."
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