Frank Oz would already have his place in pop culture cemented as the director of films such as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, What About Bob? and In & Out, plus his iconic role as Jedi Master Yoda in the Star Wars franchise. But that’s not even counting his most famous career — as the legendary Muppet performer behind Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Sam the Eagle, Animal, Cookie Monster, Bert, Grover and more, on The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, multiple movies and various appearances of the beloved characters.
From 1963 to 2000, Oz dedicated a large chunk of his historic career to the Muppets, and working with Jim Henson and their collaborators. It’s this period of his life that he’s revisited for Muppet Guys Talking, a new documentary available now only through the website muppetguystalking.com. The film, directed by Oz, was shot in 2012, primarily as a freewheeling conversation between Oz and fellow Muppet performers Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew), Fran Brill (Prairie Dawn, Zoe), Bill Barretta (Pepe the King Prawn, the current performer of Rowlf the Dog and Dr. Teeth) and Jerry Nelson (Count von Count, Floyd Pepper), who passed away in 2012, a few months after the documentary was filmed.
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The aim of the documentary, Oz shared, is to celebrate what it was like to work with Jim Henson, and to showcase the spirit of creativity that have helped the Muppets endure for so many years. Oz spoke to CBR for an in-depth and honest chat about Muppet Guys Talking, the type of work environment Henson fostered, what Oz thinks it’ll take for a new Muppets project to succeed, and why the wacky and lovable characters truly aren’t (just) for kids.
CBR: Frank, you’ve been full-swing promoting this for a while now; the film has been screened at festivals including South By Southwest last year. The original conversation in the documentary dates back to 2012. How does it feel knowing that people are now finally able to see this, after years in the making?
Frank Oz: It’s really exciting. Victoria Labalme, who conceived it, she and so many people are working on this, and it’s the first time I think a documentary’s really been released like this, from a private website. There’s a lot of work to do. [Laughs] It’s a big deal for us.
Not only is the release itself different from the norm, so is the structure — it’s not a typical documentary; it’s primarily the conversation between the five of you. It feels spontaneous in that way. What inspired that format?
The format was just basically sitting around talking. Our first thought was to go in a restaurant and buy it out, and it just sounded so difficult and expensive. I thought, let’s just sit around and talk. We got a loft in the Village, and we just sat around and talked. We just wanted to be friends talking. And it was all spontaneous, we had no idea what we were going to talk about.
It feels very natural that way.
Oh, it was. Part of the reason I shot it that way is because Jim Henson was very rebellious, and we were kind of anarchic in the Muppets, and I wanted to reflect that feeling in the shooting, which is why you see shaky handhelds, and you see zooms, and you can see the cameras in the back, and the coffee break. It’s all because that’s the spirit of Muppets.
And the spirit continues in this distribution, because if we had gone through a big company, then that would be kind of status quo, and we wanted to have a direct connection with our fans. That’s why we’re going out to people with it on our website, MuppetGuysTalking.com. You can’t buy it anywhere else, it’s only that place. It’s not on DVD, it’s not on Netflix, or anything. We like that, because that continues the rebelliousenss of it — the idea that it’s just us, and we’re just trying to get it to people without a big bureaucracy in the way.
This was filmed in 2012, and it’s been more than a decade since you were an active Muppet performer. Both in the original filming, and in promoting this documentary as of late, what’s it been like to revisit this period of your career?
It’s a joy, because I’m working with my brothers and sisters. We’ve been together — Billy is the one who’s been with us the shortest, and it’s 26 years. [Laughs] We know each other so well. We’ve always kept in touch over the years — we love each other. That’s the joy. Not only just telling funny stories, but being together.
And also, the joy of letting people know, this is how we worked with Jim. We had a great time, there was no back-stabbing, no politics, no jealousy. That’s part of the reason we wanted to do the film, to show people around the world, you can actually work like this and do good stuff.
It’s striking that in just 65 minutes, a lot is covered — you get a sense of a lot of different aspects of the experience, working with Jim Henson, working with each other, the process and the emotions behind it. What did you most want people to understand about the Muppet experience?
Mostly, that this is how people can actually work if they want to. If you have a leader, and people who just care about the quality of the product, that’s all that matters. You can really be with each other without politics. You can work 24-hour days and still have fun. That’s how we worked, and that’s the most important thing to get across, for us.
Also, being inclusive. Jim was inclusive with everybody.
The creativity in every sense shines through — that story about the scene from The Muppet Show where the Muppets are escaping up the drain pipe, and the performers were stacked on top of each other in a makeshift elevator.
And that was only one, we’ve been in so many other dangerous situations. [Laughs] We shot about nine, 10 hours — we still have about eight-and-a-half hours or so that we’re going to put together for special packages. We have more stuff to come.
As a fan, it was so great to see Jerry Nelson in the film.
Oh my god, yeah.
It must have been just months before he passed away.
About eight months or so.
How meaningful was it to you to have him included?
It almost didn’t happen. It was my wife’s idea [to do a documentary] — I said no, because it’d be boring. I’ve been with Muppets since I was 19 years old, you know? I thought,s “This is nothing unusual, everybody works like this.” I didn’t realize that’s not true. It took about a year of her pushing me, and I finally said yes. And thank god she did that, because we wouldn’t have gotten Jerry otherwise.