The Austin Chronicle

The Wonderful World of Frank Oz

It’s time to meet the folks behind Muppet Guys Talking

By Richard Whittaker, March 10, 2017, Screens

Muppets. They taught us to count, the value of diversity, and what vaudeville was. They took us to Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, to the storyteller’s fireplace and the world of the Dark Crystal. In his documentary Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched, Muppeteer-turned-director Frank Oz takes a rare look back at a life under felt. He said, “It was wonderful, but because I was living it, I didn’t understand how wonderful it was.”

As a filmmaker, Oz has been responsible for screwball comedies like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and hard-edged crime caper The Score. Yet this is his first documentary, a lo-fi, long-form interview with four of his fellow Muppeteers. Culled from a single nine-hour, sit-down reunion, it’s just Oz, his cohorts, and occasional shots of the crew – mostly friends and volunteers, eager to be there – cracking up at these unheard anecdotes. “I shot it dirty on purpose,” he said. “I could have shot it with beautiful lighting, I could have shot it with nice camera moves, but that would not reflect the rebelliousness of the Muppets.”

The quartet of co-interviewees represents what Oz described as “the key people, so I wanted to make sure that they got their due.” Each was responsible for a cavalcade of popular characters: Jerry Nelson, who joined the team in 1965, was Count von Count, Mr. Snuffleupagus, and Kermit’s nephew Robin; Bill Barretta, a 20-year veteran who Oz still calls “the new guy,” succeeded Muppet creator Jim Henson as beloved figures like the Swedish Chef, while also originating new favorites like Pepe the King Prawn; Fran Brill gave life to young monster Zoe and pageant-fixated Prairie Dawn; while Dave Goelz won hearts forever as the unstoppable underdog Gonzo the Great, and chivalrous canine Sir Didymus in Labyrinth. That’s just scraping the surface of their résumés and on-set experiences. Oz said, “That’s the first time any of us have sat down together – not even on film, but privately – and talked like this. So there were things they brought up I had no idea about.”

Oz gives credit for the documentary to his wife, Victoria Labalme, who spent a year and a half encouraging him to talk about the camaraderie created by Henson. He explained that she told him, “All these people know about Jim, but nobody knows about these guys, and the spirit they have because of Jim.” Originally, he wanted to take a strictly narrative approach, but she saw an important theme. As a business consultant, he said, “She deals with large companies that don’t have a sense of play, that don’t have a sense of enjoyment of each other, that often work in fear or often work with suspicion of politics. That’s never something we did, and because we didn’t, and because we played, our work got better. She wanted people to know that one can have a working culture that creates great things if one is really not so uptight and fearful.”

Just as his wife inspired him to make the documentary, he credits the forward motion of his career to Henson. “It was always Jim in the background, supporting me and giving me opportunities.” Yet while he lauds Henson as the hard-working heart and hard work of the Muppets, their 27 years of collaboration and friendship was a unique and enduring double act that gave their characters a special life. Sesame Street’s most abiding friendship was between Henson’s amiable Ernie and Oz’s irascible Bert. Equally, while Henson made Kermit the Frog into the Muppet’s green face before there were even Muppets, it was Oz, in dual roles as dutiful best friend Fozzie Bear and self-obsessed love interest Miss Piggy, that gave him true depth. Oz described their bond as “a very rare and wonderful relationship, and I don’t know how to explain it.”

It seemed an unlikely pairing: When they first worked together in 1963, 19-year-old Oz was an amateur puppeteer, and planning a career in journalism, while Henson was in his late 20s, married, with a successful business providing puppets for TV commercials. Oz said, “Jim and I were complete opposites, not unlike Bert and Ernie, but at the same time we both had the same spirit. I can’t really explain why, but somehow after a take, on The Muppet Show or Sesame Street or a variety show, and Jim and I would look at each other and we didn’t have to talk. We would know why we had to do the take over again.”

Nobody could have thought that this little puppet troupe making ads for Tastee-Freez and Linit Fabric Finish would ever reach its fuzzy hands around the globe. Back then, it was four people – Henson, Oz, writer Jerry Juhl, and Muppet builder Don Sahlin – crammed into two rooms in New York. “Then we got a bit more successful because of the commercials, and then it was four rooms.” However, he said, “None of us did any of this to make money. We performed and we worked hard, and as a result whatever money there was came. But that was never the purpose for any of us.”

Yet even as Oz concentrated on bringing life to dozens of creatures and creations, it was impossible to ignore that he was in the middle of a cultural phenomenon. He said, “You have a slow awareness of it. You can’t avoid seeing the reactions of people, the reactions of the fan mail, and reactions of the hundreds of millions of people that saw it, but speaking for myself, my head doesn’t go there. It affects me in the fact that I’m grateful. But I care only about the work.”

Henson died in 1990, but he remains the real rainbow connection, and Oz sees the same rambunctious, rebellious joy he created on-set to this day. After all, Henson wasn’t just a guy who found people with whom he could play; it was playfulness with purpose. Oz said, “It was never chaotic. Jim created a space for us to have a sense of abandon in performing. Chaos is confusion. We knew what we were doing all the time, to the point that once we were allowed to do it, we felt free because of Jim’s support and how Jim worked. ... Even though the Muppets got large, that spirit never changed.”

Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched


Sunday, March 12, 11:15am, Paramount
Monday, March 13, 6pm, Alamo South Lamar
Thursday, March 16, noon, Paramount
Tuesday, March 14: A Conversation with Frank Oz and Leonard Maltin, 2pm, ACC Room 18ABCD

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