Passion and Purpose: The Characters of Jerry Nelson

Ryan Dosier – We’ve all be thinking so much about Jerry Nelson over the past few days. Personally, I’ve been listening to his music almost nonstop and reading testimonies and seeing pictures of my hero Jerry Nelson all over the place. But one thing that I avoided doing until just last night was watching my favorite of Jerry’s performances. I didn’t know if I could watch Floyd Pepper or Count von Count or Gobo Fraggle or any of the other hundreds of characters that were and are Jerry. But I am so glad that I did.

Put in any episode of any season of The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, or Fraggle Rock… watch any Muppet film, TV special, or project that Jerry worked on, and you’re treated to something magical. You’ll discover just how omnipresent Jerry Nelson was. No, none of his characters ever reached the heights of Fozzie Bear or Animal, but the sheer number of characters that he performed–and performed incredibly powerfully–is mind boggling. For instance, in the Madeline Kahn episode of The Muppet Show alone, Jerry performs a yodeling clam, a lobster bandito, Dr. Strangepork, Doglion, and Floyd. You can’t overstate how incredible that range is.

What amazes me the most isn’t the quantity that Jerry performed, but the unbelievable quality of life which he breathed into any character he was given. Take, for example, one of The Muppet Show‘s most random characters: Lew Zealand. As a boomerang fish thrower, this clown of a character could have easily been used for one episode and never reused, much like countless other characters before and after Lew Zealand were. Instead, Jerry Nelson performed with such verve and hilarious passion that Lew Zealand continued to appear throughout the run of The Muppet Show and has appeared in a speaking part in every single Muppet feature film, always with a boomerang fish and a goofy laugh.

In a way, the same story applies to Jerry’s most popular and well-known character, Count von Count. The Count was written for Sesame Street as a new character in Season 4, but it was obviously because of Jerry that he sprang to popularity. Whether it be the passionate way which he counted everything or the legendary “Ah! Ah! Ah!” that accompanied each count, Jerry’s performance brought the Street another glorious character. Again, the Count never became as popular as wildly popular as Elmo or Cookie Monster, but because Jerry imbued him with life for 40 years, the Count remains one of the greatest characters on the show. Not only does he teach millions of children their numbers, but he does it with a passion and pride that makes children want to count with the Count.

This is what Jerry Nelson gave to his characters: purpose for the viewer to enjoy the character and purpose for the character’s life. Look at Marjory the Trash Heap, Jerry Nelson’s hilarious and brilliant oracle character on Fraggle Rock. Undeterred by being literally a pile of junk, Marjory still exploded with passion in every scene she was in. To the viewer, she was an all-knowing giver of valuable advice such as “Do stuff you’ve always done before,” “Don’t cry over spilled milk,” “Go with the flow,” and, of course, “You cannot leave the magic.” But Marjory herself had purpose as a character thanks to Jerry, whose performances exuded such pride in her work that it was clear that Marjory enjoyed helping Fraggles with their troubles, pain, and woe. Plus, her singing voice is dynamite, as with all of Jerry’s characters.

Gobo Fraggle was Jerry’s first lead character on a series, and he took the role with as much greatness as you would expect. Gobo was smart, stubborn, proud, meek, caring, selfish, and everything in between. Jerry gave such emotion to Gobo in so many different performances. Songs like “Shine on Me,” “Petals of the Rose,” and “Once Upon a Time I Knew My Name” show Gobo’s somber, tender side. “Get Goin’,” “I Knew I Was Good,” and “Catch the Tail by the Tiger” display Gobo at his most proud. Perhaps my favorite Gobo episode is “The Bells of Fraggle Rock.” In this perfect piece of television, Gobo knows that he is right about the existence of an actual Bell of Fraggle Rock, even when Cantus implores otherwise. Gobo is wrong, of course, which makes him realize that he has doomed his friends. The beauty of Jerry’s performance when Gobo sees his frozen friends is unmatched as he shows Gobo go from cocky to heart broken in a matter of minutes.

This is why Jerry was chosen so often to perform so many characters. He imbibed them with more than heart… he gave them soul and purpose and meaning. Whether through Herry Monster’s tough exterior but gentle demeanor, Sherlock Hemlock’s undying commitment to solve mysteries (no matter how inept he was), Emmet Otter’s love of his Ma and his reluctance to put a hole in that washtub, Crazy Harry’s explosive reflexes, Pa Gorg’s love for Ma, Angus McGonagle’s goal of spreading the art of gargling Gershwin, Robin the Frog’s desire to be seen and to be taken seriously (“They Call the Wind Maria,” anyone?), Mr. Johnson’s refusal to eat at any other restaurant… Jerry’s characters were all real and existed for everyone who watched them on screen.

No other character explains Jerry Nelson’s brilliance at giving life to a puppet than my personal favorite, Floyd Pepper. Floyd does not need anything more in his life than music. He’s hip and smart and understated while still being an over the top Muppet. Watch how Jerry makes Floyd react to things while around other characters and you’ll be amazed at how alive he truly is. The episode where he is charged with babysitting Miss Piggy’s dog, Foo-Foo, is not only hysterical but speaks volumes about the character. Fed up with the pampered pooch, Floyd stuffs Foo-Foo in a drawer with that perfect raspy laugh. This isn’t to say that Floyd doesn’t care about other people, he just thinks that people who care too much are funny. That’s why he laughs at Gonzo’s stunts, Fozzie’s attempts at assertiveness, and everything Miss Piggy does.

Interesting that Floyd should laugh, however, because it can be argued that he cares the most about what he loves. His music is an act of passion always. The soulful way he performs his greatest pieces such as “New York State of Mind,” “Blackbird,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” show us that Floyd (and Jerry) is at his most passionate when he is alone with his bass and simply emoting through the music. Everything you need to know about Floyd can be appreciated in the album version of “New York State of Mind.” Before the song, Floyd states, “Hey, the frog is not around. Time to lay down some serious sound.” Floyd enjoys messing with people, like the frog, but he is always looking for an outlet to play his music and express himself so powerfully.

Jerry’s characters stand out for so many reasons. They are funny, they are fun, they are crazy, they are loud, they are soft, they are giant piles of trash, they throw boomerang fish, they cause explosions… but to me, the reason Jerry Nelson’s characters stand out is because they are all so fully realized and dynamic. Jerry Nelson brought versatility, personality, and passion to his characters every time that he performed, leaving the world with countless hours of some of the best character acting work of all time.

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier,

3 thoughts on “Passion and Purpose: The Characters of Jerry Nelson

  1. I haven't commented here yet on the subject of Jerry Nelson's passing because, frankly, I don't know what I could add that you and all the contributors of both art and words to The Muppet Mindset hadn't said or drawn already and probably better than I ever could.

    At the same time, there is one character and performace of Mr. Nelson's that no one has mentioned and it is my favorite Jerry Nelson moment in Muppet history.

    Mr. Nelson performed the character of Scred on Saturday Night Live in the SNL 'Land of Gorch' sketches. In one appearance, Scred sang a duet with Lily Tomlin. At the end, Scred presents her with a rose, which of course was Jerry presenting it to Ms. Tomlin in an unscripted surprise for the actress.

    I've watched that scene, that moment, many, many times. To me it is the perfect example of what Jerry Nelson was…a singer, an actor, a talented puppeteer who could breath life into the most unusual of characters and more so, a gentlemen.

  2. This really does sum up what I've been thinking about Jerry lately. That his characters are ALIVE with meaning. And don't need to just SAY what they do, they DO what they do.

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