Muppet Master

Jim Henson created the Muppets, while writer Jerry Juhl created their gags and storylines. In a February 1997 interview with Jimmy Aquino, Juhl, who co-wrote Muppets from Space, recalls his experiences working with the Hensons, Gonzo the Great and another equally gonzo character, John Belushi.

By Jimmy Aquino

  

Behind every great TV comedy show is a staff of ingenious writers. For instance, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen were responsible for Your Show of Shows, and the original Saturday Night Live boasted the demented, cynical counterculture likes of Michael O'Donoghue and Alan Zweibel. Much of the first and best season of In Living Color came from the minds of legendary black comedians Paul Mooney and Franklin Ajaye, while the inspired satirical hijinks of The Simpsons' earlier years were made possible by Ivy League-based comic writers like Conan O'Brien. The writing staff for the much-loved Muppet Show — part Saturday Night Live, part Jack Benny Show, all Jim Henson — included Jerry Juhl, who has helped provide the lines and plots for the late Henson's rambunctious Muppet creations since the '60s.

Juhl also wrote for Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock and five of the six Muppet feature films: 1979's The Muppet Movie, 1981's The Great Muppet Caper, 1992's The Muppet Christmas Carol, 1996's Muppet Treasure Island and the most recent installment, Muppets from Space, about Gonzo the Great's search for his roots, which takes him to — surprise — space. Andie MacDowell, David Arquette, Jeffrey Tambor, Rob Schneider, Hollywood Hogan, F. Murray Abraham and Kathy Griffin are among the celebrities who appear in Muppets from Space, which Juhl co-scripted with Joseph Mazzarino and Ken Kaufman. I interviewed Juhl in February 1997, back when I wrote for City on a Hill Press, and I discovered little-known facts about his career, his favorite accomplishments, what it's like to write for puppets and why Gonzo has a jones for chickens.

  

Jimmy Aquino: How did you get involved with the Hensons? 
Jerry Juhl: It sort of happened right after college actually. I had taken a degree in theater at San Jose State. I had a summer job doing puppets for the Oakland Recreation Department and was looking at early retirement in September because I had no visible prospects for work after that. I happened to be a writer and performer for a puppetry convention, and Jim and Jane Henson were looking for people. At that time, it had been just the two of them. I was there, Frank Oz was there and Jim wanted to hire him, but Frank was 16 years old and still in high school. Jim said, "When you turn 18, if you still want a job, call me." So Frank did. Frank and I were old childhood friends actually, and we met Jim at the same time. It was 1961. He was in Washington, DC at the time doing a local television show called Sam and Friends. I went to DC to help with that. When that went off the air, we were doing commercials, and a couple of years later, we moved to New York. And then my future wife Susan came through town; we had known each other through college. She hung around, and eventually, Susan was working for Jim. The Henson company is famous for this. In this business, particularly down in Hollywood, people change jobs, maybe a couple of times a year. I've been with this company for 36 years. [Laughs] I've been there longer than anybody, but there are lots of us who have been there twenty-plus years. It's one of those companies that's an extended family. 
JA: What made the Muppets different from other puppet shows and puppet routines in the '60s? 
JJ: All sorts of things. The main difference is that Jim did an amazing thing at the beginning of his career. He had already remade the art of puppetry by the time I got there. He perfected the kind of puppet that the Muppets were. One of the most important things he did was remove the puppet stage. Everybody who was working in puppetry on television were working behind these traditional little stages. Kukla, Fran and Ollie worked behind a little puppet booth, just like Punch and Judy did, and so did Howdy Doody. Everything was shot like a puppet stage. If you're shooting a puppet stage, why shoot the puppets? Jim threw the stage away, and let the camera become the frame for the puppets. The second he did that, he had all the techniques of television and film available to him to allow the puppets to do all sorts of things that puppets had never been able to do before. Jim used to say, "The puppets actually do about 10 percent of what was shot — the rest are all these amazing cheats we could do with film and television." [Laughs] 
JA: What characters did you create or what characters were you instrumental in giving life to? 
JJ: Oh dear. [Laughs] 
JA: It's gonna take all night, huh? 
JJ: There are a couple I feel vaguely parental about. One of them is Gonzo the Great. It's really hard to single out characters. After the Muppet Show years, we went into this intense period in which we were doing Fraggle Rock. Susan was with me again for that. There was a wonderful developmental process for those characters. That was really fun. There's a warm spot in my heart for that set of characters. 
JA: Who was the hardest guest host on The Muppet Show to write for? Who was the most difficult? 
JJ: There were a couple of them that simply didn't want to do the show. The last Muppet Show we ever did was with guest star Gene Kelly. We said, "Let's recreate the old Singin' in the Rain set and do something with it!" It was going to be a running joke through the whole show. We wanted him to walk in at the end and do something. Gene was way into his late 60s by the time he did this, and he didn't dance anymore. We didn't know the depth of bitterness that he had about that. Not being able to dance was really tough, and he didn't want to do this routine. We had this entire show constructed around this set, around this piece. Jim was really good with it, saying, "Gene, you don't have to do this. It's not a dance thing. Just do this. Walk through the set. It's like a little poignant kind of moment. Just cross the set while you listen to the music." And that's what we did, and he said, "Okay, I'll do it once. That's all. I don't want to hear about it." We said, "Right," and we rolled the camera. He walked across the set, and of course, right at the very end, he did a wonderful dance step. 
JA: Didn't he just finish Xanadu or something? 
JJ: Yes, I think so. 
JA: After that experience, I don't think he ever wanted to do musicals again. 
JJ: Yeah, it was a major embarrassment. That's true. 
JA: Mystery Science Theater 3000's former puppeteer/writer Trace Beaulieu once had this great quote about how puppets are able to get away with saying things that humans can't say. That's true, right? 
JJ: Always. Actually, we used to say that. Our characters could always be fairly outrageous to people. Frank Oz is very good with that. Miss Piggy has said some fairly outrageous things to people. 
JA: Do the puppeteers usually ad-lib or do they go by the scripts you write? 
JJ: [Laughs] Well — 
JA: I never know when they're ad-libbing or when they're saying scripted lines. It's hard to tell. 
JJ: Oh, good! That's good. I'm glad to hear that. It varies from situation to situation, so there's no one answer to that, but the main shows are very carefully scripted. There's a whole process that goes on that's a collaboration between the writer and the performer. Often, the performer sees the early drafts of the script, has ideas, sits down with the writers and contributes stuff. We'll incorporate some of that. It gets into rehearsal, the writers see things the puppeteers are doing and then go back and do rewrites based on that. And then sometimes at the last minute, there are wonderful ad-libs. Then the writers claim that every word is ours. [Laughs] 
JA: How was it to work on the first season of Saturday Night Live
JJ: Really, really frustrating. What was really frustrating for me was I wasn't working on it. [Laughs] Where did you see those Saturday Night Live episodes? Have you caught them in reruns? 
JA: I think two years ago, NBC ran a show from the first season, and towards the end, it had a sketch with the Muppets. 
JJ: Yeah, it was a set of characters that were created just for Saturday Night Live. It was this royal family on a distant planet, and they were really strange and bizarre. There was the Great Fa-Vog, the Stone God that lived out in the jungle, and he used to go and sacrifice chickens. What happened was the show was a variety show, and it was under the auspices of the Writer's Guild; there's a rule that all the writing on the show has to be done by the writers hired to do that show. The writers who were hired to do it were basically the performers on the first season — Chevy Chase, John Belushi. They weren't really interested in writing for the puppets because those were the sketches that none of them were in. Meanwhile, Jim wanted desperately to write for the show and couldn't. The guys who could write for it didn't want to; the guys who wanted to write for it couldn't. It was very frustrating. Jim would always try to pitch ideas to the guys, but they had more important sketches to worry about. 
JA: They were worried about the Bees —
JJ: That's right, and the Land Shark — 
JA: "Candygram." 
JJ: Yeah, all that stuff. So it was frustrating. We only did the one season, and then The Muppet Show started. 
JA: Did the late-night format allow you to make the Muppets more risqué? 
JJ: Oh, sure. Risqué, outrageous material that you wouldn't do for a kid audience. Probably the most outrageous sketch we did was about acupuncture, and we had this character — a big, lumpy foam-rubber creature. We took knitting needles and put them right through the head of this character. 
JA: Now that's something you can't see on Sesame Street
JJ: Exactly! [Laughs] In one ear, out the other, out the nose. It was just terrible! 
JA: Which Muppet movie that you wrote are you most proud of? Which one is your baby? 
JJ: My baby is Christmas Carol. It was wonderful to have the chance to make that film because it was the first major project that the characters did after Jim's death. For a long time, we thought we'd never be able to do anything. It took a long time to get over his death. And then we had the chance to do this project. It was a wonderful, heartfelt story, and we were able to be as true as we possibly could to the Dickens story, and yet be kind of crazy. It formed a nice transition for the characters to come back. That was fun to do. I enjoyed it. The first Muppet movie, however, was a very special experience.
JA: For the films, did you have to reduce the amount of jokes that came every second, or did you need to include more jokes? 
JJ: Basically, there's no such things as too many jokes. This is a subject dear to my heart, actually. [Laughs] I will always say that I write for the Muppets, and they say, "Oh, you're the one who writes the jokes." Yeah, but the jokes isn't the part I want to take credit for. The jokes aren't what I'm proud of — it's the characters, their relationships and the stories. Once you get all that in place, then you start layering in the jokes and finding as many wonderful little moments as you can. 
JA: Have any characters changed or evolved over the years? 
JJ: Gonzo's changed hugely. When we first did Gonzo, he was conceived as this completely wacked-out creature who did totally bizarre things on stage and thought of them as high art. The first thing he ever did on The Muppet Show was to eat a tire to "The Flight of the Bumblebee." [Laughs] And that's all we really ever had, this little wimpy kind of puppet. Dave Goelz, who does Gonzo, was just starting his puppeteering career, and he was terrified. He had no idea what to do with Gonzo. In fact, Gonzo was just nothing; he was just a one-liner. We just thought of something funny, like eating a tire to music, for the longest time. Then very gradually, Dave started to find a kind of obsessional quality about him. We started picking up on that. All sorts of things happened to him; he fell in love with chickens, for some reason. This whole romantic entanglement happened with him and a chicken; I have no idea why. 
And then he announced he was quitting the show because he wanted to go to Bombay, India and become a movie star. He was asked, "Why Bombay? Shouldn't you go to Hollywood?" and he said, "Sure, and do it the easy way." He quit on that show, and then we did a moment where we set Gonzo up to sing "My Way" on stage. It was going to be this ridiculous sendup, but he broke down in tears. Kermit had to come out and comfort him, and then Kermit broke down in tears. There was suddenly this warmth thing Gonzo had developed; we discovered a vulnerability there. Eventually, in Christmas Carol, we were able to turn Gonzo into Charles Dickens, and people bought it. He's had this amazing arc. I have no idea where it's going to go next. 
JA: What is Gonzo anyway? [Everyone in the room laughs] 
JJ: No one knows what Gonzo is. Actually, I'm writing a screenplay at this very moment that explains him.
 
 
© 2003 Jim Aquino

 

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