"Muppet Babies and Me"
Early in 1984, I learned that Marvel Productions was planning to start production on a new animated series for CBS' upcoming Saturday morning lineup, Jim Henson's Muppet Babies. The Muppets I already knew and loved, but Muppet Babies? Images of bizarre frog-pig hybrids pranced through my fevered brain...
It turned out that the Muppet Babies were (thankfully) not the offspring of the established Muppet gang, but the gang themselves as toddlers. Their live-action versions (Babies Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo, Rowlf, Fozzie, Animal and Scooter) were to be introduced in a flashback sequence of the feature film, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and this new show would be the first time for Muppets to be presented in animation. Scooter's sister, Skeeter, was introduced in the series to add another female character. (As for the adult Skeeter, Henson Associates art director Michael Frith once explained that she's now a famous explorer, never seen again after an expedition to the jungles of the Amazon!) The baby versions of Bunsen and Beaker, Bean Bunny and Janice were also created specifically for the cartoon show.
I interviewed with the show's producer, Bob Richardson, who hired me to draw storyboards: my official title was "story director." (Storyboards are detailed multi-panel drawings, often hundreds of pages in length, that illustrate and describe an details of the show's action, dialog and technical info that is essential for all animation production to follow). I started working in May 1984 on the Muppet Babies pilot episode titled "Noisy Neighbors," written by Jeff Scott, grandson of Stooge Moe Howard! Due to my experience writing and drawing DC Comic's Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew, I was assigned a sequence detailing Baby Gonzo's fantasy of "Super Gonzo" fighting a King Kong-sized version of Baby Animal.
Since the series was still in the process of development simultaneously with production, we soon were faced with the unforeseen prospect of designing literally hundreds of costumes, props and auxiliary characters for each episode, often in radically different styles to reflect the art direction of each fantasy sequence. I was soon assigned the task of supervising the creation of these "model sheets" in addition to my storyboarding duties, and continued to juggle these chores for the first two seasons of the show. By the second season, I was also "writing" and storyboarding song sequences; this involved dreaming up and timing gags and visuals to match each show's music interlude.
Since Jim Henson's Muppet Babies received excellent ratings throughout its first season, CBS decided to renew and expand the series with a second half-hour of new material, "Little Muppet Monsters." They renamed the entire hour-long package Muppets, Babies and Monsters. The concept of this second half-hour was neither simple nor particularly well-developed: a trio of new (live-action) Muppet Monster Kids, working from the basement of the adult Muppets' home, create their own television station which broadcasts only to the TV sets in the house upstairs. Their "shows" were such regular segments as "Pigs In Space," "Kermit and Fozzie, Private Eyes, "Animal’s Exercises" and "Fozzie's Comedy Class," among others. Although eighteen episodes were produced, only two of them ever aired: Henson Associates and CBS agreed that the concept had never been properly thought out and just wasn't up to Henson's high standards. To Jim's credit it was his idea to pull the show from the Saturday morning lineup. (I've always felt that the juxtapositioning of live-action and animated Muppets invited an unfavorable comparison, to which the cartoon versions inevitably suffered; the puppetry was just too good. The combination of Muppet Babies, adults and kid monsters was very disorienting. Also, due to a lack of development time, the concept—and therefore, its writing and designs- never quite jelled.) The now-vacant second half-hour was filled with repeats of the first season's Muppet Babies episodes, and the ratings stayed strong. Once again, the series was renewed.
For the third season, a theme of "Muppets at the Movies" (to be hosted by Statler and Waldorf) was considered but ultimately dropped, although the use of live-action was noticeably increased, and the writing reflected a more intricate interaction with old film footage. One episode was originally built around an old "Flash Gordon" serial; when the studio learned the rights were prohibitively expensive, it fell to myself to re-write and re-storyboard the entire revamped episode around footage from "The Phantom Empire" starring Gene Autry. But for myself, the high point of working with such live-action footage was coordinating a spectacular pie-fight between the live-action Three Stooges and animated Baby Fozzie!
In addition to storyboarding, the story directors often had the unprecedented freedom to alter, delete or add new dialogue to a show as appropriate to gags or acting. (For example, at the end of "Piggy's Hyper-Activity Book," I contributed the bit with Gonzo's nuclear reactor built from paper plates!) Eventually, at producer Bob Richardson's invitation, I began to submit story premises for the show's third and fourth seasons. To my surprise, quite a few of my ideas were used in part or whole.
By the fourth season's end, after receiving four Emmy certificates for story direction (the show itself won for "Best Animated Series" all four years), I was disappointed to find myself re-assigned to work on another Marvel series, Jem. This was a wretched animated soap opera based on a line of grotesque "fashion dolls." Neither my talents nor tastes were suited to such material (and I admit, I was more than a bit spoiled by working on such a "class" project as Muppet Babies for four years!) I reluctantly quit Marvel Productions and signed back on at my old alma mater, Hanna-Barbera Productions, employed as a designer, writer and, ultimately, producer (of The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley, starring Martin Short and many SCTV alumni). Eventually, I moved on to other studios and projects, including Camp Candy (featuring John Candy) and Garfield and Friends.
I did miss the Muppet Babies though, especially my absolute favorite, Baby Gonzo, and occasionally did freelance storyboarding and character designing (including the newly-introduced Baby Janice), right up through the show's final season. Along the way, I even did a few product designs directly for Henson Associates, including a Muppet wall clock, party plates and favors, McDonald's Happy Meal packaging and the cover art for the first Muppet Babies record album ["Rocket to the Stars"].
Working with the Henson organization was a real pleasure, and Jim Henson was actively involved in the show's direction. Once, as a "thank you" to the Muppet Babies crew, he arranged a private party at the Beverly Hills retro-diner Ed Debevic's. In addition to dinner and Muppet goodies, we were treated to Jim and Frank Oz performing in person a live skit with Kermit and Piggy! As if that wasn't enough of a thrill, also in attendance was the show's voiceover cast, including the voice of Nanny, Barbara Billingsley! What a kick it was to come face-to-face with a living icon like June Cleaver!
I'm currently Senior Art Director at the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather, supervising the creation and production of the Post Pebbles Cereal commercials (featuring the Flintstones). But I still enjoy watching Jim Henson's Muppet Babies on Nickelodeon; my favorite episode being "The Weirdo Zone." I have very fond memories of the Babies and the incredibly talented crew I was privileged to work with. Long live the Muppet Babies!
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