Witnessing the Muppets coming to life before one's eyes is an amazing experience.
On the Hollywood set of the new ABC comedy-variety series "Muppets Tonight!," the puppeteers are about to start rehearsals on "Tales From the Vet," one of the recurring segments on the show, which premiered Friday as part of ABC's popular "TGIF" lineup.
Several Muppets are lying on a table--just lifeless pieces of felt and foam rubber. The puppeteers take their places and suddenly a mangy mutt that had been a furry clump in a cage starts looking around and growling. Another bizarre creature begins to sway back and forth in its cage. Performer Brian Henson, son of the late Muppet creator Jim Henson and executive producer of "Muppets Tonight!," transforms the new character, Dr. Phil Van Neuter, into a crazy goofball just by putting his hand inside the head.
The Muppets have so much personality, it's easy to become oblivious to the puppeteers.
"When Frank Oz is here, you see Miss Piggy just lying there on one of those stands," says another executive producer, Dick Blasucci, Emmy Award-winning veteran of "SCTV," "The Tracey Ullman Show" and "The Larry Sanders Show." "Suddenly, it comes alive, and then you start talking to the puppet basically. You don't talk to the puppeteer, you are looking at the puppet constantly."
Like the classic syndicated 1976-81 "The Muppet Show," the new series features comedy, music and a different human guest star each week. But whereas the old series was set in a vaudeville theater, the new show finds the Muppets operating their own rickety TV station, KMUP, and putting on a "live" show.
Besides having such guests as Billy Crystal, Garth Brooks and Martin Short, the series features the segments "Tales From the Vet"; "Pigs in Space: Deep Dish Nine! The Next Generation of ... Pigs in Space"; "E-I-E-O-/R," a medical drama introducing the Ed Wynn-ish Mister Poodlepants; and "Bay of Pigs Watch," starring that new babe boar, Spamela Hamderson.
Muppet superstars Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and Rizzo are also on hand, along with the show's new host, the supercool Clifford, and Randy and Andy--a.k.a. "two stupid pigs," who are Miss Piggy's nephews.
Henson, who is president of Jim Henson Productions, Inc., says he thought the time was right for "Muppets Tonight!"
"We have talked about doing the next Muppet series for quite a while," says Henson, who also directed the gang's new hit film, "Muppet Treasure Island," and is overseeing another TV series, "Aliens in the Family," that premieres after "Muppets Tonight!" this Friday.
"It felt like we could come back with a variety format," Henson explains. "For a while it didn't feel like variety was working out very well, and it might still not. There just seems to be an upswing in more intelligent but absurd comedy, and that's when our type of stuff works the best."
Dave Goelz, who performs Gonzo, has been with the Muppets for nearly 23 years. Today, he's one of the creatures in Dr. Phil's hospital. Goelz and Henson are busy working out what his creature's reaction should be when Dr. Phil pets him on the nose. At first it's a just a growl. Then it's a bite. Finally, the Muppet spits at Dr. Phil.
"If we can make an improvement, we do," Goelz says. "The sense of play is always there. I don't know what we are going to do [here]. I am not sure if spitting might not be a little too gross."
Goelz finds a "real nice continuity" between the two series. "The whole sense of playfulness is the same," he says. "Obviously now, this is a TV production that these TV characters are putting together rather than a stage production, but otherwise the format allows us to do comedy and variety and musical numbers, and also the backstage thread is there. So the similar format is really an asset. We have a bunch of new characters, which are exciting to create."
The puppeteers began creating the characters in workshops last spring. "The only way we find new characters is by performing," Henson says. "When you are making the show, you are finding new characters all the time, which is great--little walk-on characters that turn out to be so hilarious you want to do something else with them."
In these workshops, Goelz says, "someone will pick up a puppet and do something funny with it. All of a sudden, it sparks a character and the writers will pick up on it and they start writing that character, and then the workshop designs and builds a real puppet for the character. That's how Piggy got started. She was just in the chorus--the Pig Glee Club."
Just as with "The Muppet Show," the producers hope the new series appeals to both kids and adults. Over the decades, Henson says, the Muppets' humor has remained pretty basic. "It's not sort of trendy or hip. It's edgy, but from a character quirkiness. So in that sense, I think the tone of our comedy is much the same."
Blasucci says this series is a tad more satirical than the original. "We are doing a few more parodies," he says. "Obviously, my background with 'SCTV' is parody and satire. When we had Billy Crystal on, we did 'When Harry Met Piggy' and we did the whole deli scene with Miss Piggy and Billy."
"The bottom line is that we keep ourselves amused because it takes too many hours to do this," Goelz says. "So you've got to be having fun. This is our lives. That's why we try to make it work on what we think is an adult level."
"Muppets Tonight!" airs Fridays at 8:30 p.m on ABC.