The muppet creations of Frank Oz, Jim Henson, and their collaborators are fused into my earliest memories as a kid growing up in the 'Sesame Street' generation. The long-running 'Muppet Show' followed, as did films, and a new generation of kids is growing up with the characters online and in mobile games.
On March 16, Muppet Guys Talking will be released online, and it's the first documentary to reveal the unusual creative culture behind Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and all the gang, as told by the living performers behind it all.
I've seen the film, and loved it. My only complaint is that it ends too soon.
I spoke with director, actor, and 'Muppet Guy' Frank Oz, and with the film's producer Victoria Labalme (they're married) about why the world needs more muppet right now and why they're releasing the documentary directly to viewers online–not through one of the major streaming services, or in theaters with the heft of a big entertainment company. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Boing Boing [Xeni Jardin]: Why did Muppet Guys Talking need to be made?
Frank Oz: My intent is for as many people as possible worldwide to see this, so that more of the world can feel and know exactly what it's like to work in a creative atmosphere of support, hard work, and enjoyment.
Xeni: What is it about the creative atmosphere of Muppeteers that inspired you each to make 'Muppet Guys Talking.' Victoria, what did you see in the way they interact with each other and their audience that the world needs to experience?
Victoria Labalme: I was immediately struck by the way they listen to each other. They're so attentive when someone else is speaking. The ability to absorb someone else's ideas, and engage without jealousy, the type of communication where people can be so encouraging, add a joke, both listening and participating in a type of back and forth I hadn't seen.
Xeni: How does that change the creative output? What is it about the 'Muppet magic' documented in this film that makes the creative output different than a top-down, authoritarian project structure?
Frank: It was all Jim.
I grew up with a family that was at times punitive. As a kid, if I didn't eat my dinner or something bad happened, there might be a lot of shouting, or you go to your bed at such and such a time as punishment.
When I came to New York to meet Jim, he was very quiet. He never told me or anyone what to do. If you make a mistake, he'd say, okay, let's try it again. I was shocked. I'd never experienced that type of support or freedom. Jim never told us what to do. Any of us. No notes back, or anything. He'd just have us try again and say – have fun with it.
That kind of support from someone who was both an employer and a friend was so unusual for me. And for everyone else, too.
Now, we all tend to love each other after being together for more than 30 years.
Frank: The reason we have been so successful is because of that atmosphere, and because of the culture Jim lived. We all lived it. There was this sense of support, freedom, of extremely hard work, and having a lot of fun no matter how hard the work was. It was all about going for only one thing — quality, no matter how big or small the budget was. That attitude gives you a wonderful opportunity to work with fellow performers because you know you can try anything. You're safe. Because the environment is safe.
You can't coerce someone into creativity. You won't get their talent, their gifts, or their authenticity. Jim was such a leader, but he didn't lead. Jim and his outlook on life caused us to want to fall in. His nature, who he was, how he lived his life—that's how he led. He became a leader as a result of this, but he didn't work at leading.
Xeni: Victoria, your creative work focuses on how collaborative creativity benefits organizations that don't even see themselves as 'creative' in the first place. What gift do you hope 'MGT' will bring non-performers?
Victoria: One thing I said when we were debuting the film at SXSW — it's likely that none of us will work in the kind of culture Jim Henson generated, but even if we get a little dose of that, maybe 5% of that magic in our lives, hey, that's great. Jim was a genius. He knew the value of accepting everyone's ideas, being open to them, and tolerating the unexpected—welcoming it. That's what makes risk-taking possible. If someone throws out a bad idea, what's the idea behind the idea? You've got to allow people to feel free enough to express what they need to express. Even within families, people can be afraid to open up, because they're afraid of being judged. In American corporate culture, the moment you speak up you're at risk. And that's a very ineffective way to foster innovation.
Frank: Jim was not a leader who had his followers do all the work. Jim led the charge. He always worked harder than anyone else and had fun with us in the pit. He was not a separate leader. He was one of us. We knew he was a harder worker than anyone in the world, so we could not say no to any of his ideas.
Xeni: It'd be amazing to have our government leaders behave like that.
Frank: If they did that they wouldn't feel powerful. Jim didn't need power. He didn't use it like that. Which made him all more powerful.
Victoria: That feeling of safety is important, if you want to get the creative best from people. How to create a tolerance for listening to the softer voice, not just the loudest, that's important internally and externally. What I, too, have experienced about the Muppet culture — and [Muppeteer] Dave Goelz also talks about this in the movie — they all really did come to love each other. Jim would always welcome ideas from cameramen, people in the workshop, it didn't matter who you were.
Frank: And not in a mushy way. We'd insult each other. Egg each other on. We push each other on as performers.
Xeni: I understand you guys had a long tradition of practical jokes among yourselves.
Frank: Jim was the main instigator of those pranks. One we have a video of. Duncan, who was British, worked for Jim in our London studio. They hired an actor to come in to the studio there and say he needed to obtain a puppet for a commercial he was shooting. The plan was to have Jim leave and Duncan continue talking to this guy, and the guy wanted a sheep. And as time goes on, Duncan realizes that the guy wants the sheep for a porno movie. Jim comes back into the room right on time, and says — well, you know, it might just work.
Finally it broke. We all broke and everyone's laughing. It was great. This was all Jim's idea.
Victoria: Being accepting and loving doesn't mean being saccharine and mushy. It's a fine edge. Honesty, ribbing, and really pushing one another can be part of it too. Acceptance in the creative process doesn't mean every idea someone has is going to be a great idea.
Frank: When we were doing 'The Muppet Show,' there was a cafeteria that had this large mural, 25 feet high on one side. Late at night, we got out these big ladders and cut out pictures of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Kermit, Miss Piggy, all the characters. So we cut out their faces, and stuck them on the faces on the mural to see what the reaction would be next morning when everyone came in for breakfast.
And then, at NBC we were doing a TV show and Jim saw these pipes and we had some time one day, and he said hey let's go paint 'em. He always did things for fun, not fame or money.
Jerry Juhl was a friend of mine who played some tricks on me. So one I decided to put Jell-o in all the drawers in his office. He'd open it up to get pencils and it was full of green Jell-O.
Victoria: Frank is still a prankster. We had interviews on camera at SXSW about the documentary, and we were doing one on video. Frank said right before we went on, hey guys, let's pretend we're really pissed at each other. So they mic us up, lights, cameras. We're sitting with our arms folded, eyes cast down to the floor, acting like we hate each other…
Frank: It was my idea and five minutes into it I broke.
Victoria: I love that about Frank. The spirit of fun.
Frank: You should have seen that guy. He was sweating, wondering what he was doing wrong.
Xeni: Frank, you just recently joined Twitter —
Frank: I'm not good on social media. I never wanted to be on Facebook or anything. I believe in this documentary so much, though, and I've been encouraged to speak about it there. But I don't want to, I just want to speak about life. I think the reactions on Twitter are the most fun for me. They give me information I don't know, or correct me, or thank me. I know that's not me but what I represent — Jim, all the workshop guys, not just me. Those reactions are really great.
Xeni: Why did you choose to distribute the film independently like you did? Boing Boing is also boss-less. We've been around for 30 years as a flat, collaborative, creative group. I think this is a special thing that others can try, and it's part of why I loved this movie. Boing Boing has always been independent, and we believe that when you have greatest creative control, it's the best.
Victoria: The internet is a place where most everyone can have access and be included. Because of the spirit of the Muppets, we wanted to reach everyone, people who are far away — to have no one feel excluded if they can't get to a movie theater. Releasing it this way allows us to be more inclusive, and reach more people.
Frank: I was talking to Harry Belafonte one time, when we were doing 'The Muppet Show.' He was so fantastic. He was talking about back when he did his goodwill tours around the world — and said he was in South Africa or it may have been another African country — so he says, there's not much going on in this village he's visiting, but then he saw a hut, he walks closer, and he goes inside the hut and they were watching 'The Muppet Show.'
That's the person we want to reach everywhere. I wanted also to have a more intimate one on one relationship with the people who are drawn to the documentary rather than having a big entertainment company between us. The Muppets have always been, through Jim's spirit, rebellious.
Frank: We made this documentary in a rebellious form, and doing all of this on our own was a rebellious idea. Rebellious ideas are what we love.
I don't know anything about social media. Victoria is an artist and performer, but she has learned it. My job with our online project is one thing — I'm the gatekeeper, because I am the one who experienced the magic of working with Jim. I kind of tweak what we're doing to keep it in line with what it was like to work with Jim.
Xeni: How did working with Jim change you?
Frank: It changed me 360º. Here is someone who took a chance on me and didn't punish me. My dad had a station wagon he used for his work. I'd ask to drive the station wagon as a teen — he'd say, you gotta be careful, and he'd tell me what to do… I come to New York, to visit Jim — he'd say, here, wanna borrow my Porsche? And he handed me the keys. That was all. That attitude was new to me. Being honorable, loyal — he wasn't perfect. He was not an elf. There are things wrong with every human being. But he was different.
Jim was the most inclusive person in the world. He chose the people in the documentary. We've been working together for over 30 years. He chose us individually, and chose us because there was something in us that matched his spirit.
Working with Jim changed my life but working in the joyous crucible with all my fellow performers, that really changed my life too. If I couldn't do something, someone else would, and we'd move forward. Jim was inclusive in terms of wanting to include minority representation, but also just his manner of being.
Xeni: Victoria, what's being around Frank Oz like, creatively?
Victoria: Victoria: He raises people to a higher level. He encourages people to let go of what they've tried that works, and says, maybe you can move on from that to something new. If I write something that's not as well articulated as it could be, he'll call me on that, and hold me to a higher standard. He always wants you to just try.
Xeni: So Frank, is that like saying, 'there is no try only do'?
Frank: I don't know. This is all very interesting to hear.
Xeni: Why do people need to see this film, and why now?
Victoria: I think in each of us — and it's true no matter what country we're from- there's great potential. We tend to hide it and hold it back for fear we're not enough or that we won't be accepted. The spirit of the Muppets is one of creative expression. Because as they say in the film, it's about all types of creatures, chickens, dogs, humans, bears, all of us coming together. It's about variety. It's for me about creative expression, and the possibility within each of us that makes it worth putting it all out there.
Frank: —-Now in particular, in the United States, because it feels like we've gone to a lower level in our culture, and in empathy. It's important so people can understand that you can work very hard, have fun, enjoy people around you, no politics, just quality, you can be inclusive and supportive of each other. That's a rare culture. That's the culture I've lived for almost 40 years.