I’ve been a fan of The Muppets for as long as I can remember – I even got to visit Jim Henson Studios a few years ago and interview Kermit and Miss Piggy. They have been up to a lot since then – they’ve had two hit movies and now they are starring on a new TV show called The Muppets that airs on ABC on Tuesdays at 8/7 CST.
We had the chance to visit the set of Up Late with Miss Piggy and talk with Executive Producer and Director Randall Einhorn and Executive Producer Bill Barretta who also performs Pepe the King Prawn, Rowlf the Dog, The Swedish Chef, Dr. Teeth and Bobo the Bear!
Producing, Directing and How the Muppets Operate
If you’ve ever wondered what exactly an executive producer does, you’re not alone because even Randall’s mom asked him that. Randall explains, “It’s interesting because even though we’re both Executive Producers, we have similar but different things that actually combine or come together at some point or quite often around. I suppose the top is that obviously the stories and what the stories are gonna be…keeping track of what the characters are doing and advising us whether we’re keeping them in who they are because this has been going on for a long time and obviously, most people writing for the stories are relatively new to this so there’s a lot of it, at the script stage.”
The documentary style that you see in The Muppets television show is unlike anything you’ve seen The Muppets do before and Randall Einhorn brings his own style to that as Director. Bill Barretta shares, “Randall brings obviously to the table – aside from just being a great Director, great guy to work with, is the Documentary style of all of this, that the Muppets are not used to. You know, we’ve always been used to working to a frame that we kind of help create composition with the characters and where they are in the frame. We tend to play more presentational with the Muppets in most things that we’ve done, just about everything.”
“In this case, it was trusting and learning from Randall how to let the camera find the characters. So it’s a very different approach to how we do things, you know. It’s similar logistically because of what was explained briefly about the floors and how we need to prove and uh, and do all this stuff. But it’s Randall who kind of has the raw vision as a director of how these pieces are ultimately all gonna come together.”
As far as the mechanics of operating the puppets, it’s different depending on which puppet you’re working with. Bill explains, “There’s different types of puppets. Kermit for example, is a puppet that you can almost see if you really look. You can almost see the knuckles of Steve Whitmire’s hand and they create those facial manipulations. He’s a very malleable Puppet. He also has arm rods that go into his wrists so he’s what we call a Rod Puppet. A character like Fozzie is usually operated by two people. It’s one person that’s doing the head and the behavior and the body of the character, as well. Most of the characters are performed by 6 people. There’s also kind of peripheral characters that are becoming more involved but the ones who do the core kind of Muppets, there’s 6 guys and so if for example, I’m doing this scene where Pepe and Swedish Chef are in the same scene, I’ll need to have someone like Peter Lintz who’s very familiar with the characters and understands the rhythms and the timing of these characters. They’ll perform the character, one that maybe isn’t driving the scene so much. And then I’ll go in and I’ll do the dialogue later with the voice of the character.”
“Randall takes into consideration when we need to stop – let’s say Miss Piggy and Fozzie are in the same scene. Well, both of those characters are formed by the same Puppeteer. So to really get great performances from both that feel authentic and true to those characters, Randall needs to take into consideration the time and how to shoot this so that Eric can start with Miss Piggy while we have somebody standing in for Foz. And then we come around like you said, and we shoot the other side and have Eric get out of Miss Piggy and go into Fozzie. So it’s a bit of a dance scene to make that happen.”
Filming an Episode of The Muppets
I’m always interested in how a television show is made and I was especially impressed in how much goes into the making of The Muppers! Randall shared, “Well for a Director’s standpoint, we prep an episode for 5 days, and then we shoot for 6 days. We’re trying to do four 10 hour days and two 12 hour days or two 14 hour days depending on if we go on location. A lot of that is just because of the time it takes in order for us to do the simplest thing, we need monitors and monitors and monitors, and floor removed.”
Bill chimed in, “Something we didn’t mention is that we use television monitors so that we can see what the camera sees. That’s the only way that we’re able to see the characters is to see what the camera sees. So the monitors are placed in very specific places depending on what the action is in the scene and what we’re doing. So that’s a whole other level of logistics and where we are and how we find the space to do this.”
Randall added, “I would say that like for me, in directing any TV Show, be it a Comedy or be it a Drama, it takes 15 minutes at least to rehearse a scene and talk about it and block it. It takes 45 minutes to light that scene and do camera rehearsals for that scene. So if I have a scene like last week, this episode had like 28 scenes which means 28 hours in normal conditions of not shooting, like Fargo, I think I had 56 scenes which is 56 hours of not shooting. This takes double, takes 2 hours to get your first shot off in a proper scene. So we have 28 scenes. That’s 56 hours of not shooting. That’s just to getting to the place where you’re shooting which, you know, in five 12 hour days, is 60 hours, doesn’t leave a lot so we got to move.”
Bill shared with us a bit of info about the rehearsal time too, “Part of our rehearsal, in a normal situation, the rehearsal time is the rehearsal time. The actors are there, the cameras that you’re rehearsing. With us, a good bit of our rehearsal is while we’re shooting because we’re kind of learning for the first time exactly where these characters are in the frame, what they need to do, how they need to pick something up. You know, we’re constantly rehearsing because it’s — it’s these dopey little Puppets that are in the way.”
Bringing The Muppets to TV
It’s hard to believe but The Muppets was created in 1955 by Jim Henson. The show aired from 1976 to 1981 and I asked if they ever looked at old episodes for inspiration. Bill shared, “Well I think the writers took it upon themselves to probably do as much research as they could as well but actually, coming into this, the other performers and myself created a Character Bible that we hoped would at least give people who really don’t have a real sense of who the characters are, some background, some history, possibly some places where the characters could go in the future, some suggestions. So we tried to kind of arm them as much as we possibly could, with material and books, so that they could really get a sense of them.”
“But that’s the other thing. We’re still learning, you know. The characters, you know, Gonzo is not the same guy he was 30 years ago. He’s evolved and I think that’s because we as performers and people evolve and our relationships, you know, the relationships between the Muppets are really, come from a lot of the relationships beneath the Puppets. So we’re always finding new things and new ways of dealing with each other, and we don’t get along either.”, Bill added jokingly.
Randall also shared that they have a fair amount of input into the writing, especially while shooting. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had somebody say to me, I don’t think my characters would do that and this would be the first time that I actually say, OK. You’re probably right, being as you’ve played that Character for 25 years.”
If you’ve watched The Muppets, you’ve seen by now that Miss Piggy has her own talk show called Up Late with Miss Piggy. Randall shared why they decided to show the behind the scenes of a Muppet talk show, “That’s the idea that our Writing Staff came up with for — for the idea that this band, they’ve all banded together and to give Kermit some normal life, where he’s got a real job and he’s got a mortgage, and he’s got banking to do, and all that type of thing. I suppose it could have been any number of shows but I think a talk show kind of places them in the real world where Piggy plays a Celebrity who has a talk show, kind of like Ellen or whatever.”
Bill added, “I think they like the idea of having a Female Late Night Talk that you know, the only person that’s doing a late night Talk Show, I think that was female character, and it gave Piggy I think a place to be a Diva, to make everything about her and the show is all about her. I think it was something that they liked and felt it would be fun to kind of explore and see what we do.”
Watch The Muppets Tonight!
I had such a fun time on the set of The Muppets and we even got to preview tonight’s episode called “Going, Going, Gonzo”.
After a show-stopping duet with Miss Piggy on “Up Late with Miss Piggy,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt joins Scooter, Pepe and the gang for poker night; The Great Gonzo gears up to perform his dream stunt; and Dave Grohl challenges Animal to a drum-off, on “The Muppets,” TUESDAY, DECEMBER 1 (8:00-8:30 p.m., ET) on the ABC Television Network.
“The Muppets” stars Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, The Great Gonzo, Pepe the King Prawn, Rizzo, Scooter, Rowlf and The Electric Mayhem.
Guest starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt as himself and Dave Grohl as himself.
“Going, Going, Gonzo” story was written by Shane Kosakowski and Franklin Hardy, and the teleplay was written by Jordan Reddout and Gus Hickey. The episode was directed by Randall Einhorn.
Tune in tonight on ABC at 8/7pm CST.
Check out some of my pictures below from the set of Up Late with Miss Piggy!
Don’t forget to tune into The Muppets on ABC. It airs Tuesday nights at 8/7pm CST.
Disclosure: Disney provided an all expenses paid trip to Los Angeles including travel, accommodations and activities. All thoughts and opinions are my own.