This is actually my first time getting a chance to interview a Muppet performer, and I’m very pleased that it’s Matt Vogel, who is doing quite a bit of work with both Sesame Street and the Muppets. I thought I might take the opportunity to ask him about the 42nd season the Street, how the OK Go video went down, and possibly see if he can give us some tidbits on this fall’s The Muppets…
LUCAS: First of all, thanks for having this chat with me. It’s a special privilege for me to be interviewing a Muppeteer who is also originally from Kansas City, which is where I grew up. At what age did you start working with puppets?
MATT: I first started making and performing puppets when I was about 7 or 8 years old. That was around the time The Muppet Show was on TV and it was a huge inspiration for me.
MATT: Just to give you a little background… when I was in ninth grade, I started taking acting classes at a place in Kansas City called Theatre for Young America and I really felt at home there. I met a lot of people who were like me, had similar interests. I was in professional shows there before heading off to college to get a BFA in Acting. My best friend in college, Chad Harris, asked me to help him do puppet shows during the summer for money. I did that a couple of times and when I graduated, I moved back to Kansas City and did both acting in theatres there as well as supplementing my income by doing puppet shows for nursery schools and daycare programs. I saved up money to move to New York to be an actor but soon after I got there, I started working for The Jim Henson Company.
LUCAS: Once you moved to New York, it wasn’t long before the people at Sesame Street became interested in your talents as a puppeteer. How did getting hired on at Sesame come about?
MATT: John Henson had chosen me to be his alternate for a Coca-Cola Polar Bear puppet be went around performing. When he was unavailable, I did the appearances. I made a video in my apartment of my puppeteering and sent it to Renee Rachelle, the performer coordinator at the time. She took me under her wing and got my foot in the door at Sesame. I did the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade at first and then wound up on the Street.
LUCAS: I also understand that you’re the puppet assistant captain on Sesame Street. What exactly does that job entail?
MATT: Being the Assistant Puppet Captain on Sesame Street means that I support Kevin Clash as the Puppet Captain, I’m at Production Meetings helping troubleshoot any puppet issues in a script, and I’m there most shoot days if any last minute problems arise.
LUCAS: Did you get to work with some of the celebrities who came on to do sketches for the 42nd season of Sesame Street? If so, who?
MATT: It was a blast working with Jason Schwartzman and David Hyde-Pierce in street stories as well as working with Seth Rogen, Mark Ruffalo, and many others in the vocabulary pieces. It should be said, though, that everyone that comes to Sesame is so excited to be there and really great to work with.
LUCAS: In recent years, not only have you been performing Big Bird as Caroll Spinney’s understudy, but you have also taken up Jerry Nelson’s characters from The Muppet Show as well, (Floyd, Lew Zealand, Crazy Harry, etc.) and have done a terrific job in doing so. What was it like meeting Mr. Nelson for the first time?
MATT: You know, I can’t remember meeting Jerry for the first time. The truth is, I feel like I’ve known Jerry forever. I’ve been really fortunate to get to spend time with him away from Sesame and I just love him.
LUCAS: I read in Ryan Dosier’s first interview with you that there are some characters that are easier to perform than others. What are some techniques you use when matching both the voice and personality of the character?
MATT: For the voice, I have a trigger word or phrase that will help me find where the voice is and for the character—which is the most important thing to me—is to just be in a place of truth for that character, knowing what they want or need, or knowing what drives them, etc.
LUCAS: One character I’ve really missed, but is popping up a lot more lately, is Floyd Pepper, who has always been a personal favorite of mine and you really nail his voice and personality. While accepting a Webby Award last year, he helped Animal win a hilarious staring contest against OK Go’s Danimal. How did the staring contest come about?
MATT: If I remember, there was talk for a week or so before the Webby’s that we might do something with OK Go, and on the day of the awards, Eric and I talked through it a couple of times with the band, threw around ideas on how it would go, then we shot it right in the middle of the Webby Awards. It was one continuous take that we did twice, I think. It was so much fun to do that guerilla style.
LUCAS: Speaking of OK Go, they recently did a cover of “The Muppet Show Theme Song” for The Green Album, as well as shooting a music video with the Muppets themselves, which debuted August 23rd, and fans everywhere just loved it. What was that like?
MATT: I was a part of that and I’m so excited about the video. Kirk Thatcher did an amazing job directing and I really think it’s great. I’m a fan of OK Go and their music and videos so was really thrilled to work with them. It was a two day shoot a couple of weeks ago in L.A. and it was a long shoot. We did the last shot (which is the first shot of the video with Sweetums and the band) around 3AM.
LUCAS: As you can imagine, many fans–including myself–are incredibly excited for The Muppets to hit theaters this Thanksgiving. When did you first hear that you were going to be making the movie? Also, what’s the first thing you guys as puppeteers have to do when you first start shooting a movie?
MATT: We’d heard on and off about a movie for a while; maybe early 2009? We did some read-throughs in early 2010 and didn’t roll cameras until November. The first thing you have to do when you first start shooting a movie is make sure you get your per diem. No. That’s up there, but in terms of the actual filming, it’s probably different for everybody but because you shoot out of sequence, it’s always helpful to know where your characters are at any point in the film (emotionally, etc.).
LUCAS: What were some of the most challenging aspects of filming The Muppets?
MATT: Shooting puppets is always a challenge whether you’re shooting them in a studio or out in the real world. A lot of this film was shot on location, so we had to make things work in real environments. It’s not always easy when characters have to run or move as a group. There are a lot of guys working below those characters and they take up way more space than the puppets do. We worked really hard at trying to not make it seem like there’s a lot of effort involved… that’s part of the magic.
LUCAS: We all saw the Electric Mayhem bus in the movie trailer, and Floyd didn’t seem too comfortable in the car 80’s Robot was driving. Will we see our characters driving the famous bus? Also, will the band be doing their own musical number in the film?
MATT: I can’t tell you too many details about the movie, but I can say the band has a small bit in a great song that Kermit sings.
LUCAS: Without giving too much away, can you give us any tidbits on the Moopets and what we can possibly expect from these guys?
MATT: Without giving anything away that you might not already have guessed from the trailer… if the Muppets are GOOD, the Moopets are… (you fill in the blank). Also, I question the gender of Miss Poogy.
LUCAS: It looks like Uncle Deadly will be working alongside Chris Cooper in the new movie. I’m guessing, since he is a Jerry Nelson character, you’ll be performing him as well. How did bringing him back into the fold for the movie come about?
MATT: Yes, I’m playing him but I’m not sure if it was Jason Segel or our director, James Bobin, who put him in there. I think they were looking back at The Muppet Show and just loved the look of the puppet and his pretentious attitude.
LUCAS: Finally, this movie is essentially about The Muppet Show and getting back to the characters’ roots. After the movie is released, what do you believe is next for the Muppets?
MATT: Well, I hope the movie’s a success and that leads to more movies and maybe a TV show and more fun internet stuff and everything in between. I grew up as a Muppet fan and I still am so I want to see them everywhere!
LUCAS: Matt, thank you so much. This is definitely a treat for me, and I’m sure it will be for the other fans on The Muppet Mindset. Here’s wishing you luck in all your future endeavors, and I can’t wait to see you and all the other Muppeteers this November!
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org