Greetings, Muppet fans! And welcome back to The Muppet Mindset for Part 2 of our 4-Part interview with Muppet legend Jerry Nelson! Part 2 focuses on Jerry’s contribution to The Muppet Show and the stable of characters he performed. Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to ask about every character Jerry performed (since there were so darn many of them) but I think what you’ll find is a wonderful inside look at some of Jerry’s most influential characters (well… except Angus McGonagle–that question was for me) and his incredibly wise, incredibly hilarious thoughts concerning them.
JERRY NELSON INTERVIEW, Part 2
Conducted by Ryan Dosier
RYAN: We’re back with the legendary Jerry Nelson. You know him as the long-time performer of such standards as Granny the Gouger, Thudge McGerk, and arguably the most influential Muppet of all time… the Jar of Orange Marmalade! Jerry, what was it like to perform these universally known characters?
JERRY: I doubt that I ever thought about any of my characters being universally known. However, you can just imagine what a thrill it is to play Jar of Marmalade, or… perhaps you can’t.
RYAN: As you all surely know, those three characters come from The Muppet Show. Jerry, what was it like to work on The Muppet Show? Did anyone ever consider that it would be so influential?
JERRY: After we finished the first season, we came back to the US to film The Muppet Movie. It hadn’t taken off in the states yet. When we returned to England to start the second season, I don’t know about anyone else, but I was surprised to find that the show was a big smash hit there and Robin’s song “Halfway Down The Stairs” was on the Pop charts and eventually made it to #7. Of course, we did at some point realize that the show went to many countries and people, when they found out we did The Muppet Show, would do a big take and say, “You’re a MUPPET!!!!” “Good show, mate”
RYAN: During the first season of the show, Floyd Pepper became very prominent. In those days he had a slightly different voice in some songs. How did his now well-known raspy tone come about?
JERRY: Well, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is maybe what you are referring to. That’s the only one I’ve really noticed.. As I recall it was out of the range of my Floyd register and the song kind of felt Leon Redbone-ish, so I took it in that direction. My wife, Jan, said when she heard it, “That doesn’t sound like Floyd.” To which I replied, “I am he-and he is me-and we are all together.”
RYAN: Where does Floyd come from within you? How did you develop his character?
JERRY: You have to remember he was a new character and you can see that as you become more familiar with a character, the character grows. When he walks, you find his walk. When he laughs you then have to discover all these subtleties about where his humor comes from so what you’re seeing is the personality evolving, much in the way all the characters who weren’t in existence prior to the pilot were. Remember too, that somewhere in his before-life he hung around a lot of jazz clubs and musicians.
RYAN: Personally, I find Floyd to have the best singing voice of any Muppet. What were some of your favorite songs to sing as Floyd?
JERRY: Thank you, Ryan. I’ll start with “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel. Well, here’s a melancholy tune that’s easy to get into if you are NOT in New York, which we weren’t. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by George Harrison, another beautiful sad song. “Blackbird,” a beautiful song from Paul McCartney. How could you go wrong with all that fantastic music? I also really enjoyed singing “Lady Be Good” with Zoot and Dr. Teeth and my little scat with Dizzy Gillespie, a duet with Roy Rogers, “In The Good Ol’ Summertime” with Pearl Bailey, hey, the list goes on and on. I love to sing.
RYAN: Do you have any idea why Floyd’s covers of songs are often better than the originals?
JERRY: I can’t believe you said that. I thank you. But I don’t see it that way. Not that it’s better. It’s my take on song and great professional players behind me, so maybe it’s just different in a way that strikes you as better. I suppose a singer is what I really wanted to be and the Muppets got me as close to that joy as I could be in this world. That and my album, “Truro Daydreams.” I might remind you all that Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Winter Solstice and Flying Spaghetti Monster Day is just around the corner, so head on over to www.cdbaby.com/cd/nelsonjerry/ and give the gift of love to me and my grandson Tolin, by buying your beloved one a copy of Truro Daydreams, with ten songs by yours truly, Jerry Nelson.
RYAN: To you, what is the most important aspect of Floyd? What about the most fun aspect?
JERRY: Music and humor.
JERRY: Mr. Natural’s Truckin’ from the pen and mind of Robert Crumb. Circa 1960’s.
RYAN: When you spoke to Matt Vogel about your characters, what did you tell him about Floyd?
JERRY: My multi-colored wheel is spinning while I try to retrieve that file. Hmm, I think you will have to ask Mister Vogel that when you interview him.
RYAN: What are your thoughts about the importance of the Electric Mayhem in the Muppet world? How do they represent and share the Muppet dream?
JERRY: First of all in The Muppet Movie you saw how they met the Frog following his own dream. I believe at that time Kermit did share that with the band and they did find him in order to join in the dream, as did so many others they met along the way. The Mayhem were an intricate part of the Muppets in everything they did: movies, television, records, CD’s. They had been struggling with the hardships of the road until they met K. the Frog. He (K the F) gave them a stability they had been searching for and they in turn gave the Muppets much of their musical celebrity and humor. They were the Muppet Show house band for the stars who appeared on the show.
RYAN: What did Floyd think about Janice’s brief fling with Zoot?
JERRY: I asked Floyd about that and he said, “Hey Man, I don’t own her. She is her own person. I think people acting that way, before she joined us, was why she left home in the first place.”
JERRY: I am a guitar player so it was second nature to translate that into an arm wire. It was a little more complicated than that though. Normally, for a right-handed person the right hand would control the rhythm playing the guitar. In puppeteering, since the right hand is manipulating the puppet’s mouth, the left hand has to do the strumming, and or picking for the guitar or bass guitar. It’s sort of like patting your head and rubbing your stomach.
RYAN: Can you talk to us a little bit about Floyd’s relationship with Miss Piggy?
JERRY: Miss Piggy has such a gargantuan ego, Floyd finds it diverting to try to bring her down a peg or two, whenever he can without putting himself in danger. Sometimes that doesn’t work out so well and Floyd would end up with a chop to the chops.
RYAN: Moving on from our good friend Floyd, where on earth did you find the inspiration for Lew Zealand?
JERRY: Lew is my tribute to Frankie Fontaine who was a comedian who worked with Jackie Gleason, Jack Benny and The Tonight Show. He was also a talented singer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Fontaine
RYAN: Does Lew have a favorite boomerang fish?
JERRY: Yes, Tommy Tuna, but there were various favorites through the years. I used to make up different names to try to crack up Dave Goelz. Mikey the Mackerel, Ichabod Cod, stuff like that.
JERRY: The time he didn’t get the hook. No, every time the boomerang fish did their job. There were times when he threw the fish a-way but they didn’t come back.
RYAN: How about Uncle Deadly? Why was he phased out?
JERRY: I don’t know that there was a reason. I guess there could be many reasons. Character didn’t payoff any longer, they had used up all the funny bits for him, or they simply had lots of ideas that did not involve him. I never thought about it so I never asked anyone, but you had to bring it up and “Take-a, take another little piece of my heart now Ryan. Break-a, break another little piece of my…” well, you get the idea. I hope you sang that part aloud.
I saw her live, you know, in San Francisco. Ah, those were the times. Out of work and out of money, just like Uncle Deadly. Uncle Deadly was, by the way, my tribute to John Carradine.
RYAN: What about Crazy Harry? Does he have any motivation besides the urge to wreak havoc and laugh maniacally?
JERRY: No, selective chaos is pretty much his game.
RYAN: Did you ever notice that a majority of your main characters have facial hair?
JERRY: No, I didn’t. What do you think that means? Type cast in radical, non-conformist roles?
RYAN: Of course, one character that doesn’t and never will have facial hair is Robin the Frog. When was it decided to make Robin Kermit’s nephew?
JERRY: I have no idea. They said “jump”, I said, “How High.”
RYAN: Did Robin help you to get in touch with your inner-child?
JERRY: No, since I never grew up, my inner child has been extremely close to the surface.
JERRY: It’s called a running gag, but I think Robin feels it makes him appear more grown up…
RYAN: What are your thoughts on why Robin stays with Kermit as much as he does? Is it his desire to perform or is there more to it?
JERRY: Robin looks up to his uncle, but of course he wants to have an impact in show business as well. Secretly he hopes he can grow up like Kermit and wear a nice pointy collar and hang out with great looking Starlets.
RYAN: What about Robin’s relationship with Kermit? What makes it so important to the both of them?
JERRY: Despite the fact that being frogs, they are both cold blooded they do have a warm spot for each other in their froggie little hearts. I think there is also a strong filial devotion.
JERRY: A ukulele or maybe a piccolo.
RYAN: Was introducing Robin’s mother and father ever discussed? Which one do you think is Kermit’s sibling?
JERRY: It may have been discussed, but never in my presence. Is that psychologically important? Because with all those eggs hatching at the same time, and Robin being another generation apart, I think it would be difficult to tell, unless you were a scientist.
RYAN: What do you think it is that draws Robin to Sweetums?
RYAN: Is Robin still five?
JERRY: He would be a young teenager in human years, but in frog years he is five.
RYAN: Are his brothers and sisters in the swamp jealous of his stardom?
JERRY: Hey, all they know is sitting on lily pads, catching flies, and avoiding a whole swamp full of predators.
RYAN: Robin is also actively involved in the Frog Scouts. If he had to choose between the Frog Scouts and the stage, which do you think he’d choose?
JERRY: What? Give up show biz. You must be kidding me. It’s in his cold blood.
JERRY: Ahh, in order of preference they are, “Halfway Down the Stairs,” “Over the Rainbow,” “I’m Five,” “Yellow Submarine,” and “Just One Person.”
RYAN: One of my very good friends is a huge fan of Robin. Do you think he’d be willing to say a few words in the interview to his biggest fan?
RYAN: Who were your favorite Muppets to interact with while performing your characters?
JERRY: I loved singing and working with all of my workmates no matter who I was, or they were being at the time. New character old character, I didn’t care as long as I was playing.
JERRY: I wish there was footage of us trying to gargle and then sing. We all tried it, even Jim. We were all cracking up at each other. It was hilarious. We ended up with Richard Hunt doing the gargling and me singing the lyric. If you want a laugh, try it yourself.
Huge thanks to Mr. Jerry Nelson for this amazing interview and everything he’s done! You’re the best, Jerry! Remember, you can buy Jerry’s beautiful album, “Truro Daydreams,” right here for only $9.99. It really is the perfect Christmas gift for the Muppet fan in your life (or just yourself)!
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org