I Love The Muppets
BBC, 1 April 2002
Review by Emma Shane
(c) May 2011
When it was first announced in The Radio Times that this documentary was scheduled to be broadcast that Easter, it looked like being a real Easter treat. A day or two before the broadcast however, The Queen Mother died, and I remember thinking that this documentary would surely be pulled, after all the powers that be would probably not think it proper to broadcast such trivial entertainment at a time like that. I was pleasantly surprised, and indeed delighted, that the transmission of this amusing tribute to The Muppets was broadcast exactly as scheduled. It is the first time I can ever remember a major Royal event (particularly a death) not actually clearing all such trivialities from the schedule.
The documentary itself packs a lot into an hour; and this being a BBC documentary it is practically a full hour, as there are no advertising breaks. The shear number of people taking part in it for a start is pretty amazing, ranging from Guest Stars, to production crew, to Muppeteers, Muppet characters themselves, various other notable puppet characters, and even a few people referred to as Muppet fans. Basically every cross section of people who love The Muppets.
This documentary focuses in particular on one of the two television series that made The Muppets into the international success that they have become, namely The Muppet Show itself. The documentary is largely presented by Dave Goelz performing Gonzo The Great, backed up by Bill Barretta performing Pepe The Prawn, and briefly Bobo. There is also a very special role for another Muppet Show veteran Steve Whitmire to perform as one of the contributors to the programme, namely Kermit The Frog (credited as ‘MC of The Muppet Show’).
The documentary starts off with a little about The Muppet Show in general, which includes one of their choreographers, Nigel Lythgoe referring to the programme as “anarchy”. We have a little about the history of The Muppets in general, including some clips from Sam And Friends, plus a few from Sesame Street. Then go on to describing how Lord Lew Grade was really taking a chance with The Muppet Show, given that the big American networks had all turned it down. The documentary quickly settles into a pattern, that throughout it, the comments from the various contributors are interspersed with illustrative clips both from The Muppet Show itself, and some behind the scenes footage largely taken from the best of all Muppet documentaries Of Muppets And Men The Making Of The Muppet Show. Among the footage from The Muppet Show itself, we have Ethel Merman and The Muppets singing There’s No Business Like Showbusiness. I can never watch clips of that particular Guest Star without thinking how ironic it is that barely a year after filming that, The Muppets actually found their very own Merman-style singer (among their puppeteering team). While on the subject of The Muppet Show in general, and Kermit The Frog’s role on it in particular, we have some comments from one of the programmes directors Peter Harris. We also have some comments from Marcus Brigstoke, Shauna Lowry and Ed Byrne who are all credited as being ‘Muppet Fans’ (in fact Marcus and Ed are well known comedians, while Shauna is a television presenter). Later on in the documentary there are also some comments from two other comedians Rowland Rivron, and Peter Kay both also credited as a ‘Muppet Fans’. Rather more sensibly we have some comments from Kermit The Frog, credited as ‘MC Of The Muppet Show’, clearly here performed by Steve Whitmire, totally in character, as well as some comments from Frank Oz, credited this time as simply ‘Muppeteer’. Having covered Kermit, the subject matter then moves on to Miss Piggy. Here we have some comments from Vanessa Feltz, who is actually credited as ‘TV Presenter’, and someone called Adam Bloom credited as ‘Muppet Fan’ (he is actually another comedian). There are comments from quite a few Guest Stars including Julie Andrews, and Leo Sayer among many others. We also have three Muppeteers, the first of these is Bill Barretta, the second, predictably, is Frank Oz, credited as ‘Miss Piggy’; and the third is Louise Gold, who says of the development of Miss Piggy “And then Frank took her on and she developed into this huge superstar”, (Gonzo having already explained that Piggy started out as just a chorus pig). After talking extensively about Miss Piggy, the documentary moves on to another of Frank Oz’s famous characters, Fozzie Bear. This segment is introduced by Bill Barretta performing Bobo. Naturally Frank Oz, now credited as ‘Fozzie Bear’, has a few things to say about this as well, and so does Brian Henson, as well as Kermit performed by Steve Whitmire. The documentary subject then turns to another great character, one of the last of the major TMS characters to still be around and still really completely unchanged in characterisation from his TMS days, this being because he is still in Dave Goelz’s capable hands, namely Gonzo. This segment includes comments from Muppet crew member Rollin Krewson, and of course Dave Goelz himself, credited as ‘Gonzo’. A little later Dave Goelz pops up again as himself, this time credited as ‘Muppeteer’.
Now the documentary has moved on to the subject of actually puppeteering The Muppets. This segment starts with Gonzo and Pepe doing their own brief version of the classic “Don’t look down there’s a man underneath me” piece. They cut to a clip of I Get Around or rather the making of that number, along with some clips from In The Navy (with the puppeteers very visible), and then to them actually puppeteering those gargling fish. Immediately after one fish makes a noise, which could only have been voiced by Louise Gold, we get Louise herself on camera, talking eloquently about working as a puppeteer, or rather (as she is credited here ‘Muppeteer’). She says “For me the strange thing was, because I’d worked as an actress, was putting it into my hand.” At this she indicates with her clever left hand the kind of thing she means. She continues “And then you’d beyond that you’d have to make this piece of felt come alive, and that’s the magic of it”. It this her sparkling brown eyes light up.
Frank Oz has a few things to say about puppeteering, and then it’s back to The Muppet Show’s British puppeteer Louise Gold, who now describes what it was really like on The Muppet Show, in detail. She says. “One of the criterion was that you had to be a bit mad and get on with everyone”. Here the documentary cuts to a clip of a classic moment from Of Muppets And Men, Louise corpsing in the recording studio. Back to the present time, some twenty years on, Louise continues “Because one of the things is its very physically close. And I would be doing, for instance, Fozzie Bear’s right hand. And you’re wrapped around each other and it’s quite intimate. So you just had to get on with each other and not smell as well was quite important”. While she was speaking Louise indicates with her expressive arms the way the performers would have been wrapped around each other. There follows a clip from the John Denver episode of TMS, where John Denver and The Muppets were singing that song Grandma’s Feather Bed. Louise has a lot to say about this, she begins speaking over the scene. “There was a wonderful time in the John Denver show, and the puppeteers were locked in this bed for hours”. Someone was very squeamish. So it involved, I think it was probably Frank, because Frank can be quite evil, just going on about nasty squeamish body parts and bodily fluid all that kind of thing. Going on and on, and there was no escape.”
Still on the subject of The Muppeteers themselves, Frank Oz, Dave Goelz and Kevin Clash have a few things to say about how well Jim Henson and Frank Oz worked together, and how special that partnership was. Frank Oz mentions that his Muppet characters are usually a part of himself. He is not the only one to echo the fact that each of those Muppet characters did usually contain elements of their original performers in them. Then talking of Jim Henson, several people, including a few Guest Stars, mention how Kermit The Frog really was a part of Jim Henson himself, and when you were talking to Kermit often you would totally believe in the character.
The subject then moves on the Guest Stars, and how in those days a sign of having made it was to be a guest star on The Muppet Show. As Louise Gold so eloquently puts it “And I got to meet just heroes of mine”. Several Muppeteers have said this on occasion about the TMS Guest Stars, it seems appropriate that in this British documentary it should be their British Muppeteer saying it. This section also involves Chris Langham explaining how over the five years some resentment did build up towards Guest Stars, and it all came out the week he was a Guest Star, because Richard Pryor who was originally supposed to do it, couldn’t owning to some scandalous accident.
Since many of the Guest Stars are talented musicians and singers, this moves the subject neatly on to that of music on The Muppet Show. Julie Andrews is particularly complementary saying how relaxing it was singing with The Muppets. A good deal is said about Electric Mayhem, particularly by Cleo Laine. While Jerry Nelson puts in a little performing appearance, as Floyd Pepper is one of the contributors. Rowland Rivron has a contribution too, and here he is introduced as a drummer. The music thread then takes us to the chart hit Halfway Down The Stairs. This includes a clip of Robin performed by Jerry Nelson actually singing it on television, introduced by Noel Edmonds. We then get a contribution to the commentary from Jerry himself. He explains “After we finished the first season. The last things we did was a version of er Kermit’s nephew Robin singing halfway down the stairs. And it had made it up to number seven in the charts. That just blew me away.” After a bit more of the clip, Jerry concludes by saying “It was easy sometimes to get a little homesick working in England. So it sort of really touched me in a tender spot when I did that song. And this has always been one of my favourite songs”.
All too soon the segment on the important subject of music in The Muppet Show is over. There clearly had not been time to cover everything, and watching it I can’t help thinking there is an awful lot that got left out. For a start no mention is made of the Jack Parnell Orchestra who provided the real band behind the scenes. They also barely touch on the fact that on The Muppet Show the Muppeteers always did their own singing, and luckily among their eight main Muppeteers they had three excellent singers (plus a few others who were quite musically inclined). However, this documentary only mentions one of those three, namely Jerry Nelson. Meanwhile Richard Hunt seems to be completely overlooked, and even more astonishing, since this documentary has a slightly British focus, so too is the singing talents of the (West End) musical theatre actress who was their British Muppeteer, which seems a startling omission given what Jim Henson himself said about her in the documentary of Muppets And Men.
The documentary now moves on to talking about how successful The Muppets in general and The Muppet Show in particular became. Louise Gold sums this up rather eloquently “It was huge. And we were like on the A List of all the London parties. Although the day work was very very hard and very gruelling, we were also getting to do fun things.”
So far the documentary has interviewed several people who have been credited as ‘Muppet Fans’, but most of these are people semi in the public eye, comedians and such like. Now however, we get an interview with someone who truly is a puppetry enthusiast, and whom the only reason to include him on this documentary is because he genuinely is one of the major fans of The Muppets, one with an archivists eye view of this stuff, and a real mine of information on both puppetry in general as well as The Muppets, namely, The British Puppet And Model Theatre Guild’s archivist. Michael Dixon. In this documentary, at the age of 25 he is credited as simply a 32 year old Muppet fan (I’m not quite sure why they credited him as being 32, when in fact he was 25). However, he has been a Muppet fan for many many years, and the documentary also includes a clip of him aged 9 on Breakfast television (in 1986), when he got to sit next to and interview Jim Henson and Kermit.
The documentary is heading towards its end point. First Gonzo as narrator explains that after The Muppet Show, The Muppets went on to make a number of movies, and some clips from these are shown, including parts of Hey A Movie from The Great Muppet Caper, and The Rainbow Connection from The Muppet Movie. While the beautiful latter song is playing, it is mentioned that Jim Henson lives on in the memories of both The Muppet fans and, the people who worked with him, several people have some things to say about Jim Henson, most notably three of his Muppeteer colleagues, Louise Gold, and, Jerry Nelson, and Dave Goelz. It is Louise is who really describes what Jim Henson was like. There is absolute sincerity in her voice and her brown eyes as she says “Jim was a kind of gentle kind of hippy kind of guy. His beliefs did come through in the show. Everyone was kind of involved in that. And you felt. You did feel very honoured and special to be a part of that”. At this the camera cuts to a clip (from Of Muppets And Men) of Jim and Louise in the recording studio clearly laying down vocal tracks for a musical number. Then it’s on to Jerry Nelson, who has some moving words to say too. He says “I feel blessed to have been a part of all the productions that I worked with Jim.” Dave Goelz also has some things to say about the fun and specialness of it all. However, Louise sums things up best, because she doesn’t just use vague terms like special, she actually tries to explain in more specific ways. She also attempts to illustrate what she is saying with some expressive hand gestures. Her final words on this documentary are “The thing I remember most is Jim just laughing, and having so much fun, while we created these bizarre scenarios”. At this the camera cuts to a clip of a Muppet Show script read through, where we can easily spot Jim Henson, Louise Gold, and Frank Oz, and its very obvious that Jim and Louise at least are both laughing.
The final words on the documentary are a comical sign off from our narrator Gonzo. Exactly right for those madcap Muppets.
Overall it is a wonderful documentary about The Muppet Show. Yes there are some startling omissions (particularly with regards to the music section), and I’m not sure if quite so many comedian commentators was quite necessary, however the BBC’s ‘I Love’ series seems to like to use a lot of comedian commentators. Some of the Guest Stars were really good, and very informative, particularly Julie Andrews, and Cleo Laine. The best bits in the show, however, are having four of eight Muppeteers on comprised The Muppet Show Eight speaking to camera. I am slightly surprised they did not include Steve Whitmire as well, but at least he was performing Kermit, so in a sense he got quite a lot to say, only in his case it was in character (but he was not credited for it himself). It is very special to have Jerry Nelson speaking about performing Halfway Down The Stairs. However one has to credit Muppet Fan Michael Dixon for a masterstroke of a brilliant idea for a contribution to this documentary, namely the inclusion in it of The Muppet Show’s British Muppeteer Louise Gold. She makes some brilliant contributions, speaking eloquently about puppeteering on The Muppet Show, and has some very touching recollections of Jim Henson. Two years earlier she had been in the documentary The Wonderful World Of Puppets, there it was just great to have her attempting to take her place as one of Britain’s major television puppeteers. But this time she really comes into her own. The interviewers must have been very sensible and kind in their handling of her, to get such a splendid contribution from her. She comes across so well, full of the kind of confidence she normally projects when talking about her acting career, rather than her puppeteering. So it’s really lovely to see her taking her rightful place in this documentary as a Muppeteer.