Be sure to read Part 1 of our interview with Frank Oz here, as we discuss Rapunzel, recording music and the wisdom of Jim Henson, amongst so much more…
Jarrod Fairclough – As I prepared to end my interview with Frank Oz, 20 minutes in to the 15 minute time slot I was allotted, Frank stopped me, and urged me to continue asking questions. At this point, I was equal parts flustered and ecstatic, and everything I asked from here on out was made up on the spot.
Jarrod: Alright, now I’m totally going off book here. Talking about The Muppet Show, obviously the various guest stars were very important. Were there some that worked particuarly better than others? Obviously I’m not looking for names of people that weren’t as great!
Jarrod: But were there some that worked really well in that environment?
Frank: It’s interesting, you know, most worked really well. I don’t recall any that didn’t. Some were better than others, but they all worked well because the characters are very pure. They’re very disarming. So there was an easy rapport because there was no agenda. The characters just enjoyed the guest stars, and the guest stars felt that. Also, when you’re a guest star on The Muppet Show, it’s a very rare situation, because you are the only human. There’s no other humans. So that’s a wonderful oppurtunity for people who were stars, like actors and actresses and comedians. They loved it, because the spotlight was all on them. There was something about the characters, and the purity of the characters, the affection for the characters. It just disarms everybody. All the guest stars were great. There were guest stars that we all enjoyed differently. I loved singing with Elton John, for instance. That was great. I loved doing comedy with Milton Berle. But everybody – me, Davey, Jim, they’d all tell you they had their favorites. We got lucky. They all wanted to do the show. John Cleese, for instance. So many.
Jarrod: Do you have a favorite sketch from The Muppet Show?
Frank: There are a lot! Jim did some beautiful ones, like ‘Time In A Bottle‘.
Jarrod: That song’s beautiful.
Frank: It really is. As far as the funny ones go, I liked ‘Lullaby in Birdland‘, that was fun. I loved ‘Vikings‘, the viking ship was fun. Oh, and all the Muppet performers under motorbikes following Miss Piggy and Link Hogthrob. Those are the ones that come to mind. There’s so many more. What’s yours?
Jarrod: I think my favorite would have to be ‘Hugga Wugga‘ that you did in Season One.
Frank: (amazed) Really!?
Jarrod: I love it! It’s one of my favorite things in the world.
Frank: Wow! Well, I’ll be darned. Hugga Wugga!? The first version of that was actually called ‘Sclrap Flyapp‘. It was done in the late 1960’s, with different characters, but essentially the same outcome. It was slightly different, I can’t remember the difference. But instead of ‘Hugga Wugga’ it was ‘Sclrap Flyapp’. I don’t even know now why we changed it to Hugga Wugga.
Jarrod: Very few things can make me laugh like that.
Frank: It’s a good one. Another favorite of mine is Jim’s ‘Mahna Mahna’!
Jarrod: Oh, of course! That has become a classic for a reason.
Frank: It is. He was absolutely brilliant.
Jarrod: Starting these characters out in 1976, did you know then that The Muppet Show would become a worldwide hit? How did it feel being one of the main driving creative forces behind that show?
Frank: I never thought about it. Never thought about it for a second. If you think about that, then your ego gets in the way and you don’t do good work. So all I did, along with the other performers, was every week, we hunkered down, had as much fun as we could, worked as hard as we could. We rehearsed, we focused. Never once did I think about that. Even when we did a lot of interviews, it didn’t effect me. That fame aspect doesn’t affect me in the slightest.
Jarrod: That’s interesting, you say that fame aspect doesn’t appeal to you. Where then does Miss Piggy’s drive to be famous come from? Is that not coming from you?
Frank: She doesn’t have a drive to be famous. She has a drive to be loved by Kermit. She has a drive to be loved by people. Fame is just a way to do it.
Jarrod: …Wow. Okay. That completely changes her character for me.
Frank: Yeah, she’s very vulnerable inside. She just wants to be loved, and thought highly of, and pretending to be famous is her way of thinking that might happen.
Jarrod: …Okay. That, uh… That has wrinkled my brain a little bit.
Frank: (laughs) There’s always serious stuff underneath the characters. If there’s not, then they’re not funny.
Jarrod: No, absolutely. And I think that’s where, going back to the characters under Disney, that’s the sort of thing the writers need to understand. That these characters have so much history and so much underneath them. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term ‘Flanderized’?
Frank: I am, yeah.
Jarrod: I feel like that has affected some of The Muppets over the last 10 years. And I think it’s important that before we continue on, that we strip that back, and we make these characters, for lack of a better term, ‘human’ again.
Frank: I agree with you 100%. You can’t write for these characters and just make it funny. You’ve gotta go back and see who they are and what their jealousies are. Their pet peeves, their loves, their desires. The obstacles in front of them. You need to do all that in order to make the relationships and the humor work. The trouble is the people writing for them aren’t going that distance, I think they just want to make things funny. That’s never worked for The Muppets. But you’re absolutely right about the ‘human’ thing.
Jarrod: Do you think you could walk in Disney tomorrow and say ‘Let’s give this a go’? I know we spoke about this earlier, but surely the great Frank Oz has some sort of leverage?
Frank: No, it’s a different world. All these companies are owned by large corporations. I mean, Disney as a corporation owns everything else! But I don’t think so. I think it still all comes down to one thing, and that’s numbers. If Frank Oz walks in there and says ‘I’m Frank Oz, let’s do a movie!’ they couldn’t care less. If I were to say ‘Hey, I’m Frank Oz, and here I can show you, I can prove to you, I can guarantee that by making this movie you’ll make a lot of money’, then they’d say yes. It’s not cynical. It’s just true.
Jarrod: Of course, and it’s probably easy for me to say that it would be that simple, sitting in my little house in Melbourne, Australia. But obviously you’ve got the experience to know how it really works.
Frank: Yeah. It’s a numbers game. A friend of mine said this to me recently – it’s called show business for a reason. It’s not called show show.
Jarrod: At the end of Muppet Guys Talking, Jerry Nelson does, I think, a really wonderful job of explaining why he thinks people relate to The Muppets.
Frank: He does an absolutely stunning, stunning job.
Jarrod: Is there anything you think you can add on top of what he said? Or do you think he said it perfectly?
Frank: I think he said it perfectly, and Franny jumped in. Just the idea that all these characters are different personalities, and different species, and they could be considered outcasts to a degree. And yet Kermit allowed everybody to be on board, it was an inclusive situation, where no matter how strange the person was, they were accepted. And that was really beautifully said by Jerry. I’ve gotten mail from people, one guy told me he’d been abused in his childhood, and the only thing that made him feel good was watching The Muppets. So there’s some sort of connection there, it seems.
Jarrod: I have to imagine hearing that is quite heartwarming.
Frank: Oh my god, it’s hard to even grasp. We just do what we do, and the fact that we have that ability to touch people with these characters, it’s too difficult to grasp, you know? It’s wonderful, but it’s hard to understand.
Jarrod: Do you think the idea of these guys being outcasts might have come from a feeling of you guys feeling like outcasts? Especially then you began, because you were the only people at the time doing what you were doing.
Frank: I don’t know. I mean, I was never an outcast, I was a pretty straight kid. I was a people pleaser when I was younger, so I’ve never felt like an outcast. Maybe others did. But when I say ‘outcasts’, I don’t mean like nobody wanted you. I mean, if you look at the characters; Animal would not fit in society, no?
Frank: Piggy would not necessarily fit in society properly. Fozzie wouldn’t, because he’s so insecure and so needy. And you could go on and on and no. So they’re not ‘outcasts’, I think they’re just not what’s considered ‘the norm’.
Jarrod: You’ve directed tonnes of stuff. You’ve directed some of my favorite movies. I’ve rarely laughed in a film harder than the scene in Bowfinger where Eddie Murphy has to run across the highway.
Frank: (laughs) Yeah, that was great.
Jarrod: Do you have a preference? Directing, or writing, or performing?
Frank: Directing. I love directing. No question about it.
Jarrod: Why directing above the others?
Frank: I like bringing the best out of people. I like bringing the best out of a script. I like bringing the best out of a scene. I like bringing a scene to life, or a person’s performance to life, or a moment to life, or an entire movie to life. That’s what I love.
Jarrod: And how often while you’re directing are you thinking ‘Okay, how would Jim do this?’
Frank: Never, no. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t do that. I did in the beginning with The Muppets Take Manhattan, though Jim was alive then, because it was my first movie and I was nervous, and I should have acted more like Jim. After that I started doing my own movies and I felt more comfortable.
Jarrod: Do you have a favorite production you’ve done, Muppet or otherwise?
Frank: I love Death at a Funeral.
Jarrod: Great movie!
Frank: Thank you! I had a great time doing that. I loved doing Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels. Little Shop of Horrors was a huge challenge, but very satisfying. The Score was great fun because I was doing a noir, which I don’t usually do, and I wanted to do that. So it’s hard to say. The films I had the most fun doing were Death at a Funeral and Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels. As far as my favorites go, it’s hard to pick. Each one I really, really like.
At this point, Muppet Guys Talking publicist John Singh chimed in, apologetically interrupting and asking how Frank was going for time. This was 45 minutes in to what was originally meant to be a 15 minute interview.
Frank: I suppose I should go.
Jarrod: No, absolutely! This is far longer than I thought I would get!
Frank: No, Jarrod, I was having a good time with you! Now I realize I do need to go, but I was having a great time with you.
Jarrod: Well this has genuinely been an absolute honor. I was petrified at the start but you’ve completely put me at ease.
Frank: Oh no! I was hoping you’d stay petrified and respect me some more! (laughs)
Jarrod: (laughs) Well I’ll still respect you, but now I’ll do it from a distance!
Frank: (laughs) Okay, good.
Jarrod: Thank you for sitting down with me, I genuinely cannot tell you what it means to me.
Frank: I’m so glad to hear that. Take care.
So that was my interview with the legendary Frank Oz! I cannot thank him enough for taking time out of his Friday night to chat with me. There’s a little more from our interview which you can read in our spoiler-filled review of Muppet Guys Talking tomorrow. And a quick shout out to John Singh, who has has happily and graciously answered every single email I’ve sent him over the last 3 months.