SXSW: Nine takeaways from ‘Muppet’ master Frank Oz’s chat with Leonard Maltin

From left, Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson and Bill Barretta in “Muppet Guys Talking.” Contributed by 2017 Vibrant Mud LLC

Frank Oz is at SXSW with this new documentary “Muppet Guys Talking.”

It is just what it says in the title: A movie about the original crew who formed around Jim Henson and gave us the “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street.”

Oz sat down with critic Leonard Maltin for a chat.

Guest stars thrived on “The Muppet Show.” The guest stars on “The Muppet Show” (1976-1981) were a who’s who of ’70s entertainment.”We would often hear stories about people who were hard (to work with),” Oz said. “You have to consider the source, because that would mean they want to work hard and some people don’t want to work hard. We found that once they were in an environment in which they knew they were supported, they relaxed and  believed in the characters and had a ball.”

Young people will giggle at the existence of Edgar Bergen. Which is fair. “Understand something, this is the most bizarre thing,” Oz said to the audience, “Edgar Bergen was absolutely, extraordinarily popular. And he was a ventriloquist. On radio.” (Cue massive laugh from crowd).

It is clear Oz still, for the best reasons, absolutely reveres Jim Henson. When asked who his inspirations were, Oz said, “I wasn’t really inspired by one person until I met Jim. I moved to New York when I was 19 years old because Jim asked me to.”

Bert and Ernie match Oz and Henson’s personalities, in that order. Originally, it was the opposite. “But that didn’t work, so we switched characters, which really mirrored our relationship,” Oz said. “At that time, I was neurotic, rigid, and Jim was always playful. And the design by the Workshop mirrored that. Bert was vertical, straight, rigid. Ernie is horizontal and playful.”

^This is a stone classic. “Brad, do you like swans?”^

“Little Shop of Horrors” tested reeeeeeely badly. Oz said the audience absolutely hated that the leads were killed at the end of the movie. “You want a 55 percent or greater on the score card under ‘Would you recommend this movie to a friend?’ We got 13 percent.” Time for reshoots and a happier ending.

What does he want to be remembered for? “It’s gonna sound corny, but I just want to be a good father.”

On pushing puppetry forward as an entertainment technology: “That was all Jim,” Oz said. “We were with Jim, and he took us on those journeys. Jim always wanted to break new ground.”

On how Henson would feel about streaming technology: “He would have been ahead of you all,” Oz said to a round of applause. “He believed in R&D.”

The moment everyone started to maybe tear up a bit: A gentleman in the audience asked Oz about an article in Salon called “How the Muppets created Generation X”  and how the piece suggests that a lot of the values that Gen-Xers tend to have in common were communicated by the various Muppet venues. “Tell me in your opinion what those values are,” Oz said.

“Acceptance, tolerance, curiosity, enthusiasm for diversity,” the gentleman said.

“You could just say one word for that, and that’s Jim,” Oz said. “That’s what we learned. He never shared his philosophy verbally, he just was who he was and we followed him because all those words and more were Jim’s moral compass.”

 

 

 

 

 

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