Mitchell Stein- Last week I sat down with the wonderfully talented and hilarious Kristin Newman, who I’m certain Muppet fans are absolutely familiar with at this point. Kristin joined The Muppets team in December with writing elements of the Christmas episode, Single All the Way. Newman then took over as showrunner when the show returned from winter hiatus on February 2nd, and helmed the final six episodes of the season. Last week I got the chance to ask Kristin about the elements she brought to The Muppets, and her inspiration for the changes that were implemented. I need to thank Kristin for taking the time out of her schedule for sitting down with us for this article.
Interview with The Muppets Showrunner Kristin Newman
Conducted by Mitchell Stein
Muppet Mindset: Can you tell us how you came to work on The Muppets?
Kristin Newman: Well, I have an overall deal at ABC, and I was working on the [ABC comedy] The Real O’Neals, which is set to replace The Muppets’ 8:30. During production on that show, I was approached by ABC who were interested in making changes to The Muppets and asked me my opinion on the show or what I thought should be changed. I shared my thoughts on what I thought the show should be, and they seemed to like it, so I was hired to helm the final few episodes of the season.
MM: How familiar were you with the Muppets before taking on the show? Were you a Muppet fan growing up?
KN: Yeah, I was a fan so I’ve seen all the big Muppet productions previously. What I definitely looked at was the very first Muppet movie and what really struck me is when Kermit is in the swamp and the Hollywood agent floats by and encourages him to go to Hollywood, but Kermit isn’t interested when he hears how rich and famous he can get. But when Kermit hears he can make “millions of people happy”, that strikes a chord for Kermit. That was something I felt I wanted in the series and what was missing from the show was just Kermit delighting people and making people happy. That was something I felt was very important in the characterization and something I grabbed onto from the movie and wanted to pull into our work.
MM: What’s a typical day on The Muppets set like for you?
KN: It’s usually me trying to be six different places at the same time. Usually I’ll come early in the morning around 7am before the writers come in which is around 10am. Sometimes we’re editing early in the morning. Once the writers arrive, I’m usually with the writers from 10am until whenever we’re done that night. Then I’m usually running back between the writers’ room and the set. Sometimes there is casting to go through or read-through to attend. Meeting with wardrobe, with the director or pitching stories to the network president.
Most of my day is spent in the writers room though, writing up the episodes.
MM: When you initially came on board for the series, what were some of the elements that you felt needed to be implemented?
KN: Well, in that first meeting with the network, some of the things I discussed were bringing in a human bad guy, because I felt the Muppets always did really well when they had a human bad guy to fight against and they had some great human villains through the decades. I felt like the Muppets kept having to fight each other and that kind of became Piggy, because you need an antagonist in a story. And so instead of fighting each other, I though bringing in a human bad guy would help reunite them and keep them on the same team. So we brought in Pache, our network branding guru who wants to update the show and make Up Late slick and cool.
I also wanted that whether we do get Kermit and Piggy back together or not, they still have chemistry, they’re still drawn to each other. That heart, that I think is the heart of The Muppets, doesn’t stop beating just because they broke up. I wanted to get rid of the bad feelings between them. I came in for the Christmas episode for some re-writes and I wanted to connect, at least as good friends in that episode.
I wanted Piggy to also find herself. She sort of got lost in her own fame and lost the love of her life over it so I set her off to Argentina to find herself. I wrote a book called What I Did While You Were Breeding, about my single traveling adventures and Argentina was my soul-place. It was where I would go after bad breakups so I sent Piggy to Argentina too and she comes back with ponchos and a penguin named Gloria Estefan, and a refreshed perspective on how good life can be when you’re single. So even if Piggy is always a narcissist, she isn’t the bad guy. That was an important element for me.
I also wanted to take advantage of the fact that they’re making a late-night talk show, which is basically just a modern version of a variety show. I wanted to have them revamp the show, Up Late With Miss Piggy to bring the other Muppets onstage and bring them into the mix and doing sketches and skits like Kimmel and Fallon are doing these days. We had some updated versions of old Muppet sketches like Vet’s Hospital and Swedish Chef or Kermit and Piggy singing together in my first episode. I wanted to bring a lot more music in .
Additionally, I thought the celebrity guest stars were used in a big A-plot way, but I wanted to use them in smaller more focused capacity so that if the guest stars schedules changed or dropped out, it didn’t blow our entire A-story, which is very likely to happen when you’re working on a network TV show. Also I thought the focus should be more The Muppets than the guest stars, so we’ve been using a lot more musical guests so that we can give them a bit smaller scenes and let them sing a song which helps wrap the emotional elements of the story. In our last two episodes we had Jack White and Willie Nelson and they were amazing and working with them were career highlights.
The show suffered some criticism in its first few episodes, which was in part the reason you were bought on to run the show. How did it affect the way you approached the series, and were there any criticism’s in particular that you kept in mind when writing?
KN: I just kind of tried to start fresh. There are so many versions of The Muppets that live on in people’s hearts. No matter what happens people are always happy or unhappy. I try to drown out all the noise and come in with the big headline I wrote on the writers wall on my first day of work was “JOY”. I wanted to come at it and put in as much joy in the episodes as I could. I wanted there to be happy endings, I wanted them to feel good, and not to be cynical to each other.
They were kind of doing this more realistic version of the characters at first where they were acting more like humans. I thought it’d be a good idea to play with some of the physicality and silliness of the Muppets, like Foo-Foo chasing a ball into Big Mean Carl’s belly, so I’m just trying to have as much fun at it as possible.
When writing for the Muppets, do you often collaborate with the puppeteers to understand the characters best?
KN: Absolutely! Like when we wrote the Robin episode, there was big discussion with the performers over how old Robin is, and how old has he grown? That was a major multi-day conversation.
Kristin Newman with Pepe the King Prawn
Over the course of the first season, do you feel like you had any particular favorite characters to write for, or any characters you felt worked better than others?
KN: Uncle Deadly has by far become my favorite to write for, because his delivery is so perfect. He delivers every line so much more wonderful than I can ever imagine. He’s really great, Matt Vogel is really fantastic with working him. I’m also very in love with Pepe. Everything he says and does makes me happy and we’ve been trying to find ways to use all of his four hands more than they were used before, so we’re having a fun time with those. I’d say those two are my favorite.
We’ve seen the series focus on the specific core Muppets so far, but are there any plans to focus some episodes on more of the side-characters, like Rowlf or Sam the Eagle?
KN: Definitely! They all continue to have stories, and we’ve brought in a lot more Rowlf scenes, including that really beautiful scene where Kermit asks Rowlf for advice at the bar in the last episode. I was craving for Kermit and Rowlf’s friendship. I haven’t seen enough of that. Sam had a nice episode too with A Tail of Two Piggies, in his fight against Piggy’s tail.
We also brought in characters that haven’t been seen before, like Lew Zealand, Robin, and Camilla, so we’ve been trying to expand the universe a lot.
Were there favorite scenes of yours that had to be cut from the show for time?
KN: There was a funny sketch with Big Mean Carl and Beaker where the late night game show sketch idea was Big Mean Carl would get a million dollars if he could go thirty seconds without losing his temper while Beaker annoyed him. Beaker starts and makes his first ‘meep’ and Big Mean Carl throws him across the stage. It was a quick little sketch but it made me giggle.
There was also another one when Pepe does his impression of men in suits, there were a few that he had to cut, like Death of a Salesman.
Aside from all of your work on Muppets and Galavant, you’ve also written a book. Can you tell us a bit about that?
KN: It’s a comic memoir called What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding. I wasn’t married until I was forty, so I was always taking a ton of trips with my friends. Eventually they were all of getting married and having kids and I would keep going on all these trips, sometimes alone or with other friends who just came off broken marriages. So it was sort of this life that I was leading while everyone else was off making families, hence the title. So every chapter is a different trip, so it’s part travel-ogue, partially personal memoir and comic.
We have teamed up with the Muppet fansite ToughPigs to get the hashtag #RenewTheMuppets trending. Besides watching the show on ABC and streaming, is there anything else that fans can do for the show to have a better chance of being renewed?
KN: Well, we just got a new network president, Channing Dungey. So track her down, let her know you’d like to see another season, keep those letters/emails/tweets coming. You guys have been doing such a great job at it and it’s much appreciated, so be sure to keep that going.
Thus concludes our interview with Kristin Newman. Thanks again to Kristin for taking the time to do this interview with us, and for all the great work brought to The Muppets!