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"Beaker Wouldn't Do That!"
As part of the Muppets Tonight writing staff, Jim Lewis is used to chaos and pressure. So he felt right at home when he was asked to participate in a MuppetZine interview...
You were one of the writers on The Jim Henson Hour. Was that the first Henson show you worked on? How did you get involved with writing for the Muppets?
Actually, I was not on the writing staff of The Jim Henson Hour. I did, however, co-write (with Bill Prady) "Miss Piggy's Hollywood," a half-hour special that aired as part of JHH. That was the first time I'd written for the Muppets for network TV. Before that, I wrote Muppet home videos, speeches, T-shirt copy, you-name-it...
How did I get involved with writing for the Muppets?
Well, I started out as editor of "Muppet Magazine," where I wrote for the Muppets in print, and learned to think like they think. Then I tried my hand at a few home videos ("Hey, You're As Funny As Fozzie Bear!", "Neat Stuff," etc.), and the next thing I knew I was writing you-name-its.
Muppets Tonight does more than just update The Muppet Show; it also changes the setting from an old-fashioned vaudeville show to a combination variety/sketch show and late-night talk show. Why did you decide to give the show the structure it has? Did the premise of the show change during preproduction?
We decided on this structure because it's so flexible. You can tell backstage stories, but still present on-stage Muppet craziness. Structurally, it's very close to The Muppet Show - it's a show about putting on a show (and it's the show that's being put on). The switch from vaudeville to television was simply a way to update the context. Making it a television station allows us to present pieces and hit comedic targets that would have seemed out of place in a vaudeville theater. As for changes during preproduction: No, the basic premise didn't change, but the balance of on-stage versus backstage changed, and continues to change. We're still looking for the perfect mix. We came close in several of the shows from the first season. (And thank goodness, we'll get a chance to get it right with a second season!)
Some of the writers who are working on the show haven't worked with the Muppets before. Did it take them a while to be able to write Muppet-style? Is there a Muppet sensibility that they needed to adapt to?
We all know there's a Muppet sensibility (or is that nonsensibility?). But if you watch enough of The Muppet Show and the movies, you can pick up on it pretty quick. All of the writers are very funny folks and quick studies, so there wasn't much problem with them adapting to Muppet style. Oh, sure, every once and awhile, I'll say to my fellow writers, "Well, Beaker really wouldn't do that." But then they smack me around, and we move on to the next sketch.
It gives Muppets Tonight a different feel from The Muppet Show. We all hold The Muppet Show in such veneration that we didn't want to seem to be repeating ourselves completely. Plus, we believe that Clifford is a fine, funny character with a lot of potential, and this is a chance to develop that potential. That said, I think you'll be seeing more of Kermit during the second season. So hang in there, Kermit fans. (And who isn't!?)
How do you strike a balance between using the new characters and the familiar old characters?
Oh, if only there were some formula for striking a balance. We do our best to mix them all in together. The familiar characters are great because everyone knows and likes them. But we -- the writers and the performers -- want to create new characters and give them a chance to grow. It's a chance to stretch, to try something different, and maybe to come up with a new character that everyone loves. The other factor in this is availability. As you know, a performer is the character and no one else performs that character. So, when Frank Oz is away directing a movie, he can't be performing Fozzie, Miss Piggy, etcetera. He's been very generous with his time (and promises to do so in the future), but sometimes we must work around his characters.
Which of the new characters do you think are working best? Who's the most fun to write for?
The show is a work in progress. I think it's too early to pass judgment on which characters are working best and which aren't working. We're all working as hard as we can to make it all work together. That said, I love Bobo, Johnny Fiama and Sal, Andy and Randy Pig. Figuring out who exactly they are and how they all fit into the Muppet family is the puzzle we're trying to solve.
How much input do the puppeteers have in creating the characters? To what extent is the show a collaboration between the writers and the performers?
It is a collaboration to the maximum, ultimate, total and 110 percent extent. As with the Muppets themselves, the process is usually chaotic, but the results can sometimes be nonsensically sublime. That's the way it has always been with the Muppets. Characters come from both the performers and the writers. And while the writers can create situations and dialogue and assorted shtick, it's the performers who bring the character to life and take it to the next level.
A lot of the humor on the show is very directly aimed at the adults in the audience -- "NYPD Green," "Match Game," Bobo's pass at Cindy Crawford... it's pretty amazing what you seem to be getting away with in what is ostensibly a kid's show. Do you wonder what people are going to make of all this?
We don't think of it as "ostensibly a kid's show." (And I think if you asked those who created The Muppet Show, they will tell you the same about that production). Like all of our work, it's for a family audience. And some of the jokes are aimed at the older members of the family, but never at the expense of being offensive to younger members of the family. We are very careful about this. People come to the Muppets with certain expectations, and we don't ever want to disappoint them. But, especially in these days and times, we need to stretch so that we aren't just a show for kids.
You guys don't seem to like musical numbers as much as the producers of the original show did. In fact, it seems like you cut away for a joke about two bars into most of the songs. Have you decided to downplay the music?
We love music. And there's lots more in the first season shows that have yet to air, and I'm sure there will be more in the second season. What we realize is that, since the original show, there's been this music video onslaught that's changed the way people look at musical numbers. So we have to figure out fresh ways to do music that are simultaneously lilting, funny, and, at times, poignant.
One thing that seems to be missing from the show is strong new female characters. You've introduced a whole bunch of male characters, but the only new female is Spamela, who hasn't had a very meaty role so far, if you'll excuse the expression.
We're trying. Honest. We are very aware of this deficiency and our rewriters and performers and experts of every stripe are working on this situation. In our defense, remember that every female Muppet necessarily falls in the shadow of Miss Piggy. And as we all know, that's one BIG shadow. (She's gonna kill me when she reads this!)
Now that you've finished the first thirteen episodes, what have you learned about putting the show together? Has anything changed over the season?
As I said earlier, the whole process is all about finding the right balance between backstage and on-stage, and finding out who these characters and what's the perfect mix. It takes time, and I believe we're getting better as we go along. (For instance, we really appreciate the feedback we get on the newsgroups. They help us to identify what's working for everyone who's watching.)
Can you tell us anything about what we'll look forward to when the show comes back in the fall?
Honestly? Truthfully? I can't. More Kermit, probably. And more viewers, hopefully.
Anything else I haven't asked about that you want to talk about?
Yes, you neglected to ask about my son, Danny, who is 11 months old as of this writing, and the cutest child on the face of the Earth if I say so myself. Would you like to see a picture?.... No, really, it's no problem! I have some right here.... Don't go away! I'm not finished.......
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