Today, The Muppet Mindset features the first of our (hopefully) many interviews. Who better to start off an interview circuit with than the king of Muppet interviews himself, Muppet writer Jim Lewis? Jim is a hero of mine, and talking to him is a great pleasure in my life. I hope this interview allows you to feel the same!
Dwayne Fletcher and Ryan Dosier. Back in 2004, The Walt Disney Company bought the rights to the “classic” Muppets (Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the gang) from the Henson family. Since then, it has been a roller coaster ride rivaling those in Disney’s theme parks for the Muppets. From slated projects that have long since been dropped, to the many different leaders of the Muppet Studios (previously the Muppets Holding Company), The Muppets have had an interesting last couple of years—to say the least.
Some fans have all but given up hope that the Muppets will ever shine again under Disney leadership. However, there are still the die hard, hopeful fans that feel the Muppets will live on and be better under Disney in the long run.
Even after four and a half years, there are still many intricacies about the Disney deal that we as fans don’t understand. To better understand the details, it would seem that the best course of action is to ask someone who has been with the Muppets since long before the Disney buy, and is still with the Muppets today.
We got the opportunity to ask Jim some questions in an attempt to shed some light on what’s been going on with the Muppets since the Disney buyout. We’ll find out what he has in the works and get his opinion on if the Muppets are now heading in the right direction.
RYAN: Jim, thank you so very much for taking the time to answer these questions we’ve come up with. It’s so great that you take the time to let the fans into the Muppet Studios as much as you can.
JIM: I am always thrilled to talk to anyone who cares as much about these characters as I do. And you two guys certainly qualify.
RYAN: Let’s get started, shall we?
DWAYNE: First off, would you say that I was correct in calling you a “counselor” to the Muppets for Disney? If so what does that mean? Can you also be my counselor?
JIM: Actually and contractually (Hey, the rhyming song!)….I am a Muppet Consultant. How does this differ from being a “counselor”? Well, it means I don’t have to do nature walks or bed checks, but otherwise it’s the same thing. As a consultant, I use my long experience with the Muppets to make sure they don’t do things they shouldn’t – like take nature walks or insist I do bed checks. Seriously, I (like everyone else involved – performers, builders, directors, execs) do our darndest to make sure the Muppets are the Muppets.
As for serving as your counselor – I think that’s what this ongoing Q&A is really all about, isn’t it? Tell me, do you ever dream about Miss Piggy!
RYAN: I am just starting college, I’m sure I could use a counselor too!
JIM: Starting college? That’s easy: just ask yourself “What Would Gonzo Do?” and you’ll do fine.
DWAYNE: In 2004, Disney bought the rights to the Muppets from Henson. Was this an uneasy time for you as a writer and employee? Or were you excited about the possible future in the Mouse House?
JIM: No. Yes. Maybe.
No, because I was around when Jim Henson originally intended to put the characters in the hands of Disney, back in 1989. Jim knew that the folks at Disney knew how to protect, grow and keep characters vibrant. He wanted them at Disney—so having the characters there seemed the right thing.
Yes, because I am always uneasy. This is the result of several things: I’m from New Jersey, aka “The Big Uneasy”. Also, as a writer working in Hollywood, uneasy is the default setting. Expect disaster and never be disappointed.
Maybe because anyone who’s not happy with the ambiguous nature of this answer can use “maybe” as a way to spin conspiracy theories about what I really think. Just another service I offer as a Muppet consultant.
RYAN: It seems that, since 2004, the Muppets have taken a much more welcome place in the Disney family. We’ve seen three new TV specials (Letters to Santa and two installments of Studio DC: Almost Live!), tremendous comic books, the Whatnot Workshop, some other exciting merchandise, and even a planned theatrical movie. Would you say that Disney’s attitude towards the Muppets has changed since then? Or have they always had the same, welcome attitude, and they’ve just now had time to get the ball rolling?
JIM: I think the Muppets are different. They’re characters, much as Disney has many other wonderful characters. But they’re…well, they live on a different plane. (I will forego the inevitable airplane jokes here for the sake of brevity. Please feel free to make up your own. We now return you to our answer….) The Muppets are, among other things, self-aware and a mass of personal peccadilloes and peculiarities. They are alive – because they are literally alive and living in our world – in a way that many other characters are not. All that is a product of Jim Henson’s genius, and the work of Frank, Jerry, Jerry, Richard, Dave, Steve, etcetera. Figuring out how the characters work and making them work well takes a learning curve. I think you’re seeing the curve swing upward. Were this a PowerPoint presentation, I’d share a boring graphic with you, but suffice it to say: these things take time.
DWAYNE: Since the buyout, there have been three different leaders of the Muppet Studios. Can you give us an idea of the vision of each one of these leaders? I’m sure their views on what to do with the Muppets were very different.
JIM: There have? Really? No one tells me anything. I just slip pages under the door and run.
RYAN: It has been rumored that you, along with Jason Segel, have a script floating around the Muppet Studios. Can you shed any sort of light on this? Or do we just have to remain in the dark? If the latter, can I borrow a Big Bird night light?
JIM: I can’t. Part of being a Muppet Consultant means never saying anything you shouldn’t – and never talking about stuff you know nothing about. And I think I’m correct in stating that I really know nothing about this, or pretty much anything else of import. That said, I can not lend you my Big Bird night light. I’m afraid of the dark, too. Sorry.
RYAN: Recently there has been some great Muppet merchandise released exclusively in the Disney parks, including the Star Wars figures and the new Vinylmation series of Muppet figures. And just this past week, Kermit and the gang went out to Disneyland to film promos for the park. Have you heard anything that says this is a sign that the Muppets will have an even bigger place in Walt Disney World and Disneyland—beyond just appearing in Muppet*Vision 3D?
JIM: You guys are amazing! You know everything. Who tells you all this stuff? I barely know this. Come to think of it, I just found out about it from you. Again, you think too highly of me and my powers of persuasion and prognostication. I can honestly say: I sure hope so. And I can add that working with the Walt Disney Imagineers is about the most fun a human being – or Muppet – can have. To quote Gonzo: “they are soooo cool”.
DWAYNE: You have been with the Muppets and the Henson Company for many years and you have seen a lot of projects come out of both. In your opinion, what were the best and worst projects the Muppets have done? (Not necessarily ones you’ve written.)
JIM: I can honestly say that no one – not the writers, performers, builders, designers, producers, directors, executives, et al.—go into any project thinking it will be the “worst”. We all strive to make it the “best”. Every single time. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. And sometimes it works out far better than are wildest dreams, which are quite wild as you might imagine. Such judgements of “best’ and “worst” are really up to the audience. I love it when you love stuff. And I apologize for where we – particularly I – have failed to live up to the Muppet standard. And I consider my loss of hair penance for my sins.
DWAYNE: It also seems that Muppets.com has become a great place for some obscure characters like Beauregard, Bobo, the Muppet Newsman, and Swedish Chef to shine. Is this becoming like a training camp for the performers, writers, and the rest of the Muppet team to get used to these characters again?
JIM: Muppets.com reminds me of “Sam & Friends”. Not that I was around (except as an infant several hundred miles north of Maryland) for “Sam & Friends,” but from what I see of Jim and Jane’s early work, there was a great sense of “let’s play and make ourselves laugh” to that show. The same spirit fills our work on Muppets.com. Unlike television, where everything has to be exactly so many minutes or seconds long, we can try out things that are just as long or short as we want them to be. And the future of the free world doesn’t hang in the balance (at least as far as I know). It is a great “training camp” for stretching the legs (wait a second, they don’t have legs) of old familiar characters and trying out new ones. We love it. ….Oh and a correction and codicil (that’s a cod with a lisp) on your introduction at the top of this interview: I did not write most of the video content on Muppets.com. Kirk Thatcher and I wrote it together. And Kirk directed much of it. And, of course, the performers invented tons of stuff on the spot. So, if you think about it, I’m just there for the craft services’ donuts.
RYAN: Maybe this is just coincidental, but since Disney we’ve seen a resurgence of some fan-favorite characters such as The Electric Mayhem, Scooter, and Rowlf. Does Disney have a conscious plan to bring back more of these tremendous characters? Or is this just coming about because recasts have been made, and you and other writers are finally getting to include them again? And what are the chances of Angus McGonagle the gargling gargoyle returning?
JIM: I thing the resurgence comes from our own appreciation of what a deep bench the Muppets have. (FYI: This is a sports reference, not a description of our furniture.) Everyone loves the main characters, but there are all these strange and wonderful other characters who add so much to any scene or story. I’m not sure why, but as we get more settled, we take more advantage of this deep bench, enjoying all the grace notes and silly, sweet, scintillating and alliteratively-inspiring they bring.
As for Angus, anything is possible, but some things are just begging to be done, aren’t they?
RYAN: The album, “A Green and Red Christmas” won a Grammy, Beaker’s viral “Ode to Joy” video on YouTube just won a Webby award, the song “I Wish I Could Be Santa Claus” is nominated for an Emmy. Does Disney notice/appreciate that the Muppets have all of these shiny, funny-named statues gracing their mantle once again? Does this persuade them even further to push for more projects?
JIM: Awards are great. They’re the cherry on the sundae, the butter on the toast, the chili on the spaghetti (my wife is from Cincinnati, where this metaphor makes a lot of sense). But I don’t think getting awards is really the motivating factor. What I do see in the question you ask is this: the Muppets are reclaiming their musical legacy. Music has always been a hugely important part of who these characters are. That’s seen a resurgence. And I can honestly say, that’s driven by the performers and musical geniuses like Paul Williams and Ed Mitchell, to names just a few so all the rest will be mad at me. (As for me and music? I can carry a tune, but not very far.)
DWAYNE: Over the years, there have been a lot of changes within the Muppet world. What do you think has been the best change the Muppets have gone through?
JIM: The best change has been the hardest. And it’s been a long process. I’d say it’s that, after Jim Henson’s passing, the people who worked with Jim and those who love the Muppets, have had to step up and kind of figure out how he did the magic that was so much a part of what made the Muppets work. I’ll never ever say we’ve figured it out completely, but we’re all learning and trying. It really isn’t being green, but if you work at it, you can get pretty close.
RYAN: And, finally, very recently there’s been a rumor floating around that 2010 will be called, “The Year of the Muppets.” Any words on that? Can it happen? Will it happen? Should I mark my calendar now?
JIM: If you hear more about this, let me know. I’m going out to buy a calendar now.
RYAN: Jim, thank you, again, so much for sitting down with our questions. Any last words for the Muppet fans reading? Or those asking the questions?
JIM: Thanks for riding out the storms and being such devoted Muppet fans. Thanks, too, for reading my nonsense and for being willing to hear me basically give the same answer over and over again. Eventually I’ll get it right.
And finally, I’ve always wanted to comment on something I once read on a Muppet Central board. I don’t remember exactly when this was up there, but it essentially blamed everything that was “wrong” with the Muppets on me and Kevin Clash. And while I think this is total nonsense (at least the Kevin part), I must say I was thrilled and honored to be mentioned in the same sentence with Mr. Clash. He’s another one of my heroes.
Another HUGE thank you to Jim Lewis for agreeing to an interview with The Muppet Mindset! It’s an honor and a privelege to get to communicate with him! Even a bigger honor for such a new blog like us to book such a high-profile interviewee! Thank you, Jim!
If you or someone you know (or don’t know) has a question for Jim Lewis, visit The Brand New Ask Jim Lewis Thread on the Muppet Central Forum and post it yourself! Jim is always happy to answer questions from the fans!
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org