Interview with Muppet Writer Craig Shemin, Part 1

Mitchell Stein – I had the fantastic pleasure of interviewing Muppet legend Craig Shemin last Thursday. I was very nervous to be interviewing such an amazing Muppet legend, but once we got into it, I realized Craig was such an fantastic guy and so great to speak to.

Craig of course is notable for his work for the Henson Archives and as president of The Jim Henson Legacy. He recently lent his writing talents to publish a new book, The Muppets Character Encyclopedia, and you can read our review of the book right here.

Thanks to Chase Beecher for your help on the questions!


Interview with Craig Shemin, author of The Muppet Character Encyclopedia
Conducted by Mithcell Stein

Mitchell Stein:   How did you come to work with the Muppets and come to work where you are today?

Craig Shemin:   I actually started out as a Muppet fan. The Muppet Show came out when I was ten years old and before that I grew up watching Sesame Street. When I was in college, I saw the documentary Henson’s Place on PBS. I was later looking for something to do over the summer, so I called Henson Co. to see if they had any open jobs for an internship. So that’s what I did, and I worked as a summer intern, summer of 1987, and when I graduated I came back to work at the company.

MS:   What did you intern as?

CS:    I interned in the public relations/PR department and working a little bit with the company archives. I answered the phones, made a lot of photocopies, and faxes and all that. Back then, our clippings services would send us all the newspaper clippings where the Muppets or Jim Henson would be mentioned and it was my job to compile them into clippings packages and make copies and send them all around the company.  Nowadays the services send everything digitally, but back then they would mail us the actual newspaper clippings, so it was incredibly low-tech.

That summer I got to meet Jim Henson at the staff company softball game, and he actually borrowed my glove for a few innings, so at the end of the day I got him to sign it.

MS:   I bet you have that glove framed on your wall.

CS:   Right, exactly. I probably have the only Jim Henson-used baseball glove, with his autograph.

MS:   Did you ever work with Jim Henson personally?

CS:   I did, a little bit. When I was working after I graduated, one of my jobs in public relations was to get Jim Henson’s quotes for various articles, when they would want Jim to comment on a specific article or something. So I would go up to Jim, and he would talk about how he felt about whatever the quote was and I would type it up.

When I was making my transition to writing, one of the first things that I wrote for the Muppets was performed by Jim. It was a speech for Kermit for the Disney Shareholders Meeting back when Disney was in talks with Jim to purchase the Muppets the first time round. It was a lot of fun, and Jim was such a nice man. I was very intimidated by his presence, but not from anything he did, he was just very casual and kind. At that first company softball game when I was an intern, he came over and introduced himself to me because he didn’t recognize who I was. I told him I was an intern and he said “Oh, you’re the new intern! I heard we had a new intern here.” He was very warm and I was nervous when he was around, but he was Jim. He wanted everybody to call him Jim, and that was the way it was.

I was just getting to the point where I could be in a room with him and not get nervous when he sadly passed away. Just a month before that, we were doing The Muppets at Walt Disney World, I don’t know if you’ve seen that one yet.

MS:   I have actually! It’s my favorite Muppet special of all time.

CS:   At that time we got to go down there because at that time I was writing all the press releases and all the public relations writing, so I got to go down to that shoot and write a press kit for the show. When I got there the first day, I see Jim walking towards me. I looked around to see who he was walking towards, but then I realized he was walking towards me. “Oh hello Craig! How are you?” he greeted me. It just really took me aback, for him take off what he was doing to come over and greet me was truly remarkable. So I spent four or five days down there at the shoot and interviewing several puppeteers to write the press material for the show.

MS:   What would you say was your fondest memory of Jim Henson?

CS:   On that shoot was one of them. Y’know, when you’re part of a shoot like that they cater the lunch, and I remember having lunch directly across from Jim and he was really enjoying his macaroni and cheese. I don’t remember a lot of what he was talking about, but I do remember he was so happy that they had brownies for dessert. He seemed to get a lot of enjoyment out of everything — and in this case it was lunch, And that shoot was really special for me, because I got to see how big groups of people react to Jim, because this was shot on location in Disney World.

One setup we were doing at the Grand Floridian, and Jim just left the set to go to the bathroom, and he was just walking to the bathroom and large groups of people were following him. They didn’t know where he was going, but they all knew he was Jim Henson and they’re following him, and I got a feeling what it must have been like for Walt Disney to walk around Disneyland. It’s really amazing that Jim meant so much to all these people, and they were following him, so I knew that was one of my favorite things I ever saw about Jim.

MS:   How is the restoration of the Muppet characters going at the Smithsonian, Museum of Moving Image in NY, and Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta going? What can fans expect from those experiences?

CS:   They all have very different sets of puppets, some are duplications, because we had multiple puppets, but those selections were made for very specific reasons. Center for Puppetry Arts is receiving things that are very significant from a puppetry perspective, unique designs, unique performance qualities. Moving Image is the items that were more unique and more significant to Jim’s role as a creator of the moving image and film. Then the Smithsonian is really significant, cultural icons. The Smithsonian will be also using their collection on a revolving basis as part of their exhibits on television and puppetry. I believe there are already some on exhibit as of now.

MS:   I believe so. The last time I was there, Kermit, Oscar the Grouch and the Sam and Friends cast where there.

CS:   My wife was down there a couple of months ago, and Prairie Dawn was on exhibit there. So like I said they’re going to rotate the puppets that they have for exhibition, because the puppets are rather delicate, so they don’t want to have them out under the light and in the open for too long, so you’ll see rotating exhibits there.

The Center for Puppetry Arts is doing a major renovation, and the Henson exhibit there will be a part of a larger global exhibition on puppetry and Henson will have a very significant part in that. I think 2015 is the date that we’re talking about for the CPA and MMI. We don’t know an exact date yet, but those are the year that is being kicked around. The Museum of Moving Image will have a Muppet gallery which has yet to be named, but we have over 200 puppets that they received, so there will be a significant and prominent exhibit of Jim’s career. There’s talk of creating a traveling museum as well, so that will be a way to refresh and rotate the exhibit that they have permanently. The curator of the museum, Barbara Miller, is working on that as we speak, and there is going to have to be a lot of restoration and renovation on the puppets as well.

What’s also really interesting is that the museum was so excited to make this exhibit that they even had to give up some of their office space for this gallery. They’re creating this new Henson gallery out of what is currently the museum director’s offices and some of the other offices, and for them to give up their real estate shows they’re really excited about this exhibit. There’s also a small theater there that this gallery will be around, and that is going to be mostly dedicated to showing Henson productions. To keep awareness high, we’re doing monthly screenings and events until the opening. Last month, we held an event for my new book and this month we have preview screenings of Muppets Most Wanted, and next month we’ll have something Easter related!

MS:   That sounds very exciting! I’m sure we’re all really looking forward to these openings. They’re going to be a great way to celebrate the life of Jim Henson. I wanted to ask you about another legendary Muppet restoration, and I’m referring to the Muppet Pipes at NBC’s 30 Rockerfeller Center. Where did the idea surface, and who’s idea was it to refurbish that?

CS:   As far as I’m know, that was actually Jimmy Fallon’s idea. He knew about the pipes from being a Saturday Night Live cast member for several years, and it sort of became the thing people would talk about at NBC. For years the pipes were in Max Weinberg’s dressing room when he was the band leader on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. When I saw them for the first time, we went in when it was still his dressing room, we asked if we can go into his dressing room since we were there for an appearance, I believe it was for The Today Show. We got to go in and see the pipes in their original position in the dressing room, and when Jimmy Fallon took over Late Night, they were doing some renovation on the floor and from what I hear, he intervened and made sure the pipes would not only be safe, but also be put on display so they would no longer be hidden in a dressing room but rather they would be under glass. They turned it into a big event and included it on the tour. Not all of the NBC tours include this, so I suggest doing the research prior to your visit, but you can now see it on most of the tours of 30 Rock. They did a beautiful job of restoring it. They put it under glass they put some footage of the Muppets doing the Jack Paar show, they put up some great still photos, and the fact that they had Frank Oz come in and dedicate the pipes made it very special.

MS:   That is interesting. Jimmy Fallon is a fantastic Muppet fan, but I was unaware of this.

CS:   Yeah, he actually rode the Sesame Street float in this year’s Macy’s Parade along with The Roots. My wife, Stephanie D’Abruzzo, works as a Sesame puppeteer and she found out that it was Jimmy Fallon who asked to be on the float, and Sesame Workshop didn’t even approach him.

MS:   What would you say is the most valuable thing in the Jim Henson Archives?

CS:   Hmm… That;s a tough one. I think the most valuable thing is no longer in the Henson Family, and it’s the original Kermit, which was donated to the Smithsonian a number of years ago. I think that was the most valuable thing that was in the Henson family until recently. It’s a beautiful piece, and since it’s all fabric and there’s no foam or anything else to break it down, Kermit has held up well over the years, and I think the Hensons are proud that Kermit now sits in the Smithsonian.

MS:   Do you have a personal favorite item in the archives?

CS:   There’s so many! I love Rowlf, so I love all the Rowlf sketches and puppets in the archives, so my favorite will probably have to be the original Rowlf puppet. There’s something so lovable about the character, and I just always love looking at him when he’s on display anywhere. I also love a character named Sir Linit from a commercial for “Linit Fabric Finish”, He’s a beautiful puppet – he’s a spray can knight. When they first opened up the box for that puppet, it was all in pieces, and they did a great job of re-assembling the puppet from all the parts in the box.

MS:   Is there a separate archive for the Disney-owned Muppets and the Sesame owned Muppets from the main Henson archive?

CS:   Karen Falk, the head of the archive, she keeps everything all in one archive collection. When the company sold the characters to Disney it was agreed that Disney got the production photography and franchise but Jim’s drawings and sketches and all archive material stayed at Henson Archive. The Disney archive doesn’t maintain material for their acquired properties, only for their main original Disney properties, so it worked out well to keep all the material at Henson.

MS:   My next question is related to your book: When you were writing this book, did you discover any new info that you didn’t know prior to writing this encyclopedia?

CS:   Yeah, I’m always learning things that I didn’t know. I couldn’t think of one specific thing, but yes, many things that I didn’t know before have come up that I learned. The thing was with this book that if I didn’t have all the full info or I couldn’t find the info I basically just had the ability to make it up.

MS:   And in a very humorous fashion!

CS:   (laughs) Thanks. I was trying to be as funny as I could, because I didn’t just want it to be a reference and we wanted to target it to everyone, as originally it was just supposed to be a children’s book. Originally when I was approached, the publisher, DK was planning to do it as a children’s book — they generally do children’s books and they saw it as part of their regular line for kids. Jim Lewis, the consultant on the book, and myself, we wanted to not just target at children, but to a broad range of Muppet fans, and I wanted it to be as entertaining as it could be. I sent some material to Jim Lewis to look at and he would tell me that he was laughing out loud. Once the publishers and Disney saw what we were doing and that it was suitable for kids even though they might not get all the jokes, they agreed that this was the approach to take.

MS:   You mentioned this was also supposed to originally be intended for children as well, I guess that’s why The Muppet Show pilot title was only referred to as “Muppet Show pilot” in the book instead of “Sex and Violence.”

CS:   Well, I sent in my manuscript and it had the original title on it, but it still needed to be suitable for all ages so they decided to just call it the “Muppet Show pilot.” It’s interesting to know that the TV Guide listings when it aired in the 70’s referred to the episode as “The Muppet Show” and not by the title “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence.” Basically, that’s generally the reason it was cut out of the books. The book needed to be suitable to all ages.

MS:   Where did the idea for this book come from? Were you approached by Disney, or DK or was it one of your own ideas?

CS:   It wasn’t one of my own ideas. I was approached by Jim Lewis, if you don’t know Jim, he’s been involved with the Muppets for a long time. He was the editor of the Muppet Magazine way back when it was in publication. I worked beside him for a while and when he moved to LA, I took over his job and Jim was involved in a lot of Muppet stuff over the years, he is involved still at Disney and I get called in occasionally when Jim is busy. When Disney and DK decided they wanted to do this book they went to Jim and he didn’t really have the time so he approached me but he agreed to be a consultant. He gave my info to DK and they approached me later. It all happened very quickly. The thing about this book, I only started writing it in July of last year.

MS:   Speaking of Disney, what do you think about the Muppets being remade for new movies and TV shows? How does I match up compared to thirty years ago?

CS:   Well, it’s always gonna be different. I think that the fact that they are still around and people are still going to see them so many years after they were created is wonderful. I think Jim saw that these would be characters that would live on as long as people would keep going to see them. I think that certain shows are more successful than others, but that’s always been the case, but I think the fact that they keep cranking out new specials and new movies is fantastic.

MS:   So have you seen Muppets Most Wanted yet? (EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was conducted before the film was released).

CS:   I haven’t got a chance to see the film yet, but I got to read the script because I had to write pages for Constantine and the Leprechauns and I thought the script was really great. It improved on the previous Muppet movie by letting the Muppets really take over the center of the story. A problem that I had with the last movie was that I felt it wasn’t as much of a Muppet movie. I understand why they had to take that role in that film, but based on this script, this second film is more of a Muppet movie.

MS:   I guess they really had to undergo the phase to re-introduce the Muppets to the general audience again. It was necessary, I guess.

CS:   I understand why they thought it was necessary for them. I guess they needed to feature a “journey” for the Muppets so they needed to feature them as “washed up.” There are different ways to do things, I probably would have taken another way to tell that story, but that doesn’t mean what they did was wrong. There’s many different ways to tell that story. I think that the fact that it came out and it did well and people went to see it was a wonderful thing.

Check back soon for Part 2 of our interview with Craig!

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier,

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