Interview with Muppet Performer Bill Barretta, Part 2

Read Part 1 and Part 3!


Interview with Bill Barretta, Part 2
Conducted by Ryan Dosier

RYAN:   We’re back with Bill Barretta. When we last left Bill, we asked him about Bobo the Bear. Continuing on that same trend is out next question: very recently Bobo has been paired with Beauregard in sketches. How did this incredible pairing come about?

BILL:   You know, I’m not sure. I guess Jim Lewis and Kirk Thatcher made that choice when they were writing…

RYAN:   Let’s talk about some. What an incredible format for the Muppets. It really is the perfect fit for them. Short, hilarious video clips that showcase the characters and their traits. My favorite video is Elevator Bingo for the sheer ridiculousness and hilarity of it. Do you have a favorite video on the site?

BILL:   Yes, I love the elevator bit when they sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. I just love how that simply grows organically.

RYAN:   Topo Sticky: one of the greatest new Muppet characters in years or the greatest new Muppet character in years?

BILL:   Really? All I can say is that there has to be some sort of unstable, bi-polar nut-job performing him. Hard to get through that one, because of the people cracking up on the set, me cracking up at the absurdity of it all, and most of all, enjoying Dave Goelz (who actually operated Topo in Pepe’s right hand) cover his mouth, trying not to laugh to the point of drippy things coming from his nose.

RYAN:   Did Topo Pepe’s pilot ever get picked up?

BILL:   They’re still in negotiations.

   When the Disney web-designers were developing Pepe’s Room on the site, did you have any say in the overall atmosphere of it?

BILL:   Uh, yes they were kind enough to consult with me and we had some meetings about it. But ultimately, it was approved by The Muppet Studio. I like it.

RYAN:   How much creative input do the Muppeteers have in the videos on the site? Do you guys ever just grab some puppets and start wiggling them in front of the camera without a script?

BILL:   Actually, my former production company produced them. The cleverly written web pieces were by Kirk Thatcher and Jim Lewis. I directed them and I always try and get input from the Muppet performers. After all it has to make some sense to them first before it can come to life. In that case, as far as just grabbing a puppet, it doesn’t happen often. We have to carefully plan what we are going to be shooting so that we can stay on schedule and not go over budget. We shot four separate occasions, approximately 40-50 pieces within a two-day shoot schedule…not easy. Also, the Muppet Workshop really needs to know what’s coming, even though they can do magical things in a moment’s notice, it’s a lot for them to deal with on a shoot like this and any surprises doesn’t help their already immense undertaking.

RYAN:   Tell us about filming the “DO NOT TOUCH” button segments. Are these done in front of a green screen? How big does a green screen have to be to accommodate Big Mean Carl?

BILL:   Well, depending on which character you are shooting depends on whether you use Green or Blue screen. Kermit obviously can’t be shot on a green screen and that applies to some of the other characters depending on their coloring and costumes.

Carl is a big one. I love performing him except for the challenge of him being so big. But, the green screen covers about a 20X20 studio wall. We never work right up against it so that there aren’t shadows created so it has to be further away and big enough to stay within the aspect ratio of the camera lens.

RYAN:   Where do you shoot the drive-thru segments? Is it a local LA fast-food restaurant? Or just a random parking lot?

BILL:   It was shot outside of the studio where we were shooting the other pieces. Just a small parking lot that we thought might work fine…and I guess it did?

RYAN:   Of course, was not the only time the Muppets took the internet by storm. The viral videos on YouTube have become their biggest success since… well, in a long, long time. And I’ve just got to know, how did Rowlf ride a skateboard?

BILL:   Uh, well, I was sitting on a small rolling seat that is low to the ground and I basically rolled myself along with Rowlf above me. Is that what you mean?

RYAN:   Another highlight of the videos was seeing The Swedish Chef, Animal, and Beaker finally reunite and perform. Both “Habanera” and “Carol of the Bells” were fantastic and it’s just so much fun to see those three try to sing. Do you think we’ll continue to see more of them as a trio?

BILL:   That would be nice. I’m not one for repeating similar gags or themes. They tend to get old quickly for me, but if people like it and you’re not tired of it yet, then we should do more.

RYAN:   Obviously the biggest success on YouTube has come in the form of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I honestly don’t even know where to begin with questions about it… Did you all know it would take the Internet by storm and become so insanely popular?

BILL:   How could we possibly know? But isn’t that fun? It really came out beautifully. Kirk Thatcher did a fabulous job directing along with the Soapbox production company and Ed Mitchell’s team who created the music track. Oh yeah, and the puppets were pretty good. But everyone involved at The Muppet Studio is really ultimately responsible for getting this out there…really well orchestrated.

RYAN:   Were you involved in any of the pre-production at all? Do you know how they selected all of the Muppets that would perform all of the various parts of the song?

BILL:   I actually don’t. I don’t even know for sure who came up with the idea. I should ask sometime…sorry.

RYAN:   Beyond being insanely awesome throughout the whole video, the highlight for me was seeing The Electric Mayhem finally return to their rockin’ out roots. My gosh, sir, your Dr. Teeth! It was pitch-perfect and absolutely wonderful. Was this the first time you had sung with Dr. Teeth in a production (not on an album)?

BILL:   I don’t know what to do with all of these compliments but to say thank you. Yes, I believe this was a first aside from the Christmas album. But like I said, my memory sucks. Oh, I think the Mayhem did a song in Wizard of Oz, but I can’t remember if they ultimately used the vocals of the song? It was in the Poppy night club.

RYAN:   I think you might have performed the most characters in the video. Let’s see… Pepe, Rowlf, Mahna Mahna, Dr. Teeth, Johnny, Bobo, Big Mean Carl, Lew Zealand, and Swedish Chef. Did you perform any of the penguins, bunnies, monsters, bananas or anything?

BILL:   I actually didn’t perform Lew, that is now a character performed by Matt Vogel who is doing an incredible job with Jerry Nelson’s characters. Uh, yes I did the banana “laying down” if it matters? I think a bunny? The monsters…Is that the group of Treasure Island pirates? If so, I did the big one (Angel Marie) at the back, I think I did a flower, can’t remember what else there might have been.

RYAN:   Do you know why they randomly tossed Dr. Strangepork into the video? Not that I’m complaining, it just seems random (awesomely random, though).

BILL:   Sorry, no idea…

RYAN:   This wasn’t the first time you performed “Bohemian Rhapsody” with the Muppets. Johnny and Sal sang it on the MDA Telethon a few years ago with altered lyrics. Was that a live performance? Is Tom Bergeron really as nice as he seems?

BILL:   Ah, so you did see it. We prerecorded the track, but the performance was live for an audience at about 2:00am. Talk about a tough crowd, but I think we woke them up. And yes, Tom is a genuinely nice guy and so smart and fast on his feet with comedy. Wish I had that brain sometimes.

RYAN:   According to Muppet Wiki, you directed the pilot for America’s Next Muppet that never saw the light of day. What is the story behind this pilot? There were a lot of confusing stories buzzing around about it when it was first announced but now it appears to have just disappeared.

BILL:   You know, I don’t know actually know the details of how it actually went away, but honestly, I didn’t love the concept and was fine moving on. Interesting idea and sounds intriguing when you hear the title, but it never really made sense to me. Why were the Muppets looking for people who performed puppets? I know that everyone knows that the Muppets are puppets, but a big part of the Muppets for me is the feeling you get when you believe that they’re really living in our world. It’s a very thin line to walk, but I prefer believing in the ridiculous illusion and not the obvious reality.

RYAN:   Beyond directing, you’ve also acted as producer on many projects including It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. What is it like producing a film that you also play a part in?

BILL:   Sometimes it can be hard to focus when it’s time to perform because I’m involved in various aspects of the shoot and it doesn’t always allow me a chance to just relax and play. Fortunately, there are obviously people who have been doing this stuff longer than me that I can depend on during these times. Often it can be a distraction, but really how bad could it be, I’m doing what I love and I’m just grateful to be a part of it all.

RYAN:   On that same note, what is it like to direct or produce your Muppeteer colleagues?

BILL:   I really love it. Especially directing. It gives me a chance to try and explore with them new ideas or moments that maybe they might not be comfortable with. It’s truly the best part about this stuff for me. I think after all these years of working next to them; I have a pretty good idea as to what makes them tick as individual performers, what challenges them and where their comfort zones are. This allows me to tap into those aspects of each of them when it feels right to do so. Being able to work and play with these incredibly talented, smart and instinctually funny guys challenges me to be better and better as well. We never have any problems with throwing out ideas, criticism or suggestions. All ideas are valid, and you may find that the best idea doesn’t come from any of us, but maybe one of the gaffers, or craft services person, etc. I always make sure people know on productions that we are open to anything and it really makes for a special set and experience. Or I’m just delusional and they all can’t stand me…that’s probably more like it.

RYAN:   Aside from the characters you perform routinely, there have also been characters that you’ve performed in films and haven’t appeared often (or at all) anywhere else. Talk to us a little bit about Clueless Morgan, Bubba the Rat, and Croaker the Frog.

BILL:   Poor Clueless. My first feature-film character. I enjoyed that simpleton. He was so innocent and naïve. And an incredibly simple, highly expressive and versatile eye mechanism created by Tom Newby. He was just a beautiful puppet to perform. Unfortunately, he was lost somehow after Muppets Tonight and has never been seen again. If anyone out there has seen him, please ask him to call home. His family misses him.

Bubba’s fun and different because he’s a rat with a deep voice. I don’t think there have been any other rats with that vocal range. He’s kind of like a Paul Sorvino guy. And he’s veeeery Sopranos Jersey…fun for me.

Croaker – Well, I don’t know what to say about him except I really didn’t spend a whole lot of time working on the character before the shoot. In fact, the Croaker and Goggles puppets were switched in the beginning. Goggles was the blue one. Joey Mazzarino and I put them on and soon realized that the characters we were thinking about doing actually fit better visually the other way around and so we switched. I guess he’s a cross between Marlon Brando and Joe Pesci.

RYAN:   Croaker was such a great character—one of the true highlights of Kermit’s Swamp Years—do you think he’ll ever be used in production again?

BILL:   Who knows? Maybe…I preferred Roy, the corny frog in the pet shop. I think he’d be fun to bring back as a friend of Kermit. You know those people are nice guys but they’re so hard to be around all the time because they’re just so darn corny.

RYAN:   And to close out Part Two… If you had to compare Bobo the Bear to one famous Hollywood actor, who would it be?

BILL:   I don’t know…honestly can’t think of anyone…anyone out there have a comparison?

That’s it for part two of our interview with Bill Barretta. Only one more part to go! Next time we discuss Jim Henson, Jimmy Fallon, “Give a Day. Get a Disney Day.”, pimping out Elmo (no, seriously) and so much more! I know I said that you wouldn’t want to miss part two… but, seriously, you can’t miss part three!

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier,

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