5:30pm PT by Lesley Goldberg
'The Muppets' Co-Creator on ABC's More Adult Series, Kermit and Piggy's Media Blitz
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the series premiere of ABC's The Muppets.]
ABC on Tuesday reintroduced The Muppets to primetime television, debuting a more adult-themed (but still family-friendly) reboot of the beloved franchise.
Co-created by Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory), Bob Kushell (3rd Rock From the Sun), the series features Miss Piggy hosting her own late-night talk show, with Kermit and company also on board as the two beloved characters explore their post-break-up lives. The entire process is being filmed documentary style as the series explores the personal lives of characters including Fozzie, Gonzo and the gang in a bigger way than ever before.
Here, The Hollywood Reporter chats with Prady — who started his TV career working for Muppets mastermind Jim Henson — about relaunching the franchise, ABC's Kardashian-like publicity campaign focusing on Kermit and Piggy's split and how big of a role their "relationship" will have going forward.
Will viewers ever meet the documentary crew?
I don't think so. Like in Modern Family and The Office, we're settling squarely into the convention in terms of the look of the show. I'll make a deal with [Modern Family creators] Steve Levitan and Chris Lloyd: If they show their documentary crew, we'll show ours (laughing).
What will become of the footage they're shooting? Could that morph into a special/movie of some sort?
We're only shooting what you're seeing. Conceptually, in the world of the show, that isn't the show within the show. So could that fictional documentary crew assemble what they've shot into an actual documentary, I guess they could! Truth be told, somewhere through my answer I lost track of reality (laughs).
Speaking of which, how hard is it for you to keep the realities of what's the various worlds, straight?
That turns out to be surprisingly easy. It's a weird thing. I don't know how it happened but when you're making this project, you're juggling three to four levels of reality and everybody seems to draw the lines between them in exactly the same place. We rarely have a conversation about: How could they have filmed that? We're all pretty much on the same page when it comes to where the boundaries of which reality are. What's the reality of Up Late With Miss Piggy, then what's reality of the documentary shooting the characters and then we have what's the reality that reconciles the characters with with their public persona. It's three realities we operate in. I remember having these conversations 25 years ago with The Muppets. We were involved in levels of reality discussions where it's, is this Kermit as Kermit or is this Kermit talking about a thing he did in a role as Kermit? These are not new discussions to The Muppets.
In the premiere, Kermit seems so defeated and almost joyless. Will we see him happy?
I think Kermit is quite put-upon. He has moments of genuine joy and happiness coming up. He's going to be OK.
What kind of considerations does the Muppets Studio have when it comes to the liberties the show takes with Kermit and Piggy?
The Muppets Studio is a small group within Disney. It consists of some people I've known for a long time. When you talk about who that pragmatically is, to a great extent, it's the Muppet performers, who have been guardians of these characters for a long time and then [Muppets Studio vp] Debbie McClellan. She was originally at the Jim Henson Co. and came to Disney when they acquired the characters. We've all known each other for a long time. When we started talking about the show, it was a free-flowing conversation. One of the things that's gotten the most attention is the Kermit and Piggy breakup. In 1989, before Jim's death, there was a discussion about reinvigorating Kermit and Piggy. At that point, the Muppet movies had been done and The Muppet Show was off the air for a few years. The notion was could we go out with a campaign that was PR driven and morphed into other things. I remember sitting in a project with Jim Henson, [former creative director for Jim Henson Productions] Michael Frith, Jim Lewis (who is still a writer with The Muppets), me and some other people, and it was a campaign called Pig of the '90s, in 1989. We talked about staging a publicly break-up between Piggy and Kermit. It was a fun idea and there was an unauthorized tell-all biography of Piggy by Kitty Kelley, who did Frank Sinatra's bio and who would write hatchet-job books. The idea was to do a book in her style that was a no-holds-barred tell-all about Piggy. We started doing it and ran a blurb about a Piggy-Kermit break up and then Jim died. And that was the end of that. When people talk about what would Jim think about what we're doing [with ABC's reboot], it's one of the very few specifics I can say that I know what he'd think about breaking them up because I was at meetings with him where we talked about doing it.
There has been some backlash about the marketing about the breakup between Kermit and Piggy? The press, THR included, has been treating The Muppets as if they're real people in a very Kardashian-type campaign.
This is not a question for me, this is a question for media critics. I have no idea how to respond to that. As a person putting a TV show on the air, I can only say I am delighted when people are paying attention to the TV show I am trying to put on the air. Think about this: Every year, every local news station on Dec. 24 has their weatherman give a report about a sleigh being pulled by reindeer that's been sighted and NORAD every year reports the location of Santa Claus. Is that a reasonable thing for people to do? I say absolutely, 100 percent. Granted, it's an audacious comparison because The Muppets are an intellectual property owned by a profit-making corporation and Santa Claus is a jolly old elf, but I think culturally, exercising in group make believe is kind of wonderful. As a viewer, I kind of like it.
What do you think that says about our society that we are slut-shamming a Muppet?
Did you mean blaming Denise for Kermit and Piggy's break up? Kermit and Piggy in our chronology broke up some time ago and he met Denise after that. It's a cultural question and not a question about The Muppets: It's how we look at men and women in relationships. To me, the most interesting thing about Denise and Piggy is when you date a famous person — when you date an actor, like Kermit dating Piggy — you share that person with the public. When we talked about why they broke up, they broke up over Kermit sharing Piggy with the public. A very important thing to Piggy is being Miss Piggy, living her life in public like that. She adores that and, for whatever reasons you could ask her about her childhood and get to the bottom of that, but when you're dating a person like that, it's very confusing. There's a lot of fun in walking into a party and, "Here's my date, this famous person," but then on a Sunday afternoon when you want to go to the park and you know you have to deal with the public when you do it, that's awkward. Kermit then turns to a person who doesn't work in show business, she works for ABC, and she is a professional and she's the things Piggy isn't. My question, if I were hanging out in a bar with Kermit and we had a couple of drinks, I might ask him if this relationship is based on who Denise is or who Denise isn't. It's a legitimate question: How much of the attractiveness of this new person is based on who they are and how much is it based on how much they don't have the kinds of issues your last girlfriend or boyfriend had. There's a weird, deep psychology to it.
How much of a focus will The Muppets put on the Kermit-Piggy will-they-or-won't-they going forward?
We have a great episode coming up that we're in the middle of shooting and it's the first birthday that Denise is having now that she's going out with Kermit. He has to go out and buy that first important present. And he's lousy at buying presents. There's so much pressure and Piggy says, "Would you like some help? You know I'm the best at this." Of course Piggy is. Shopping is her superpower. When Piggy helps Kermit buy a present for Denise, and she does, it is dead-on perfect and she loves it. My question is: What is Piggy doing? I think she's doing the kind of messed up thing we do — is Piggy trying to get Kermit back? It seems to me that she does not seem to have moved on. For Kermit, if he selected a girlfriend based on someone who isn't like his ex, have you moved on? If your love life still contains elements you can trace to your last relationship, have you moved on? These are conversations I look forward to having.
How did you decide the different roles the Muppets would have within Up Late With Miss Piggy?
This was really fun to do. We looked at what each did for a living and looked to the real world — what is the natural evolution of their job and how would it fit in? Fozzie is a stand-up comedian and they often become announcers on late-night TV shows. Piggy is an easy one. Some are neat paths. Gonzo, who was this incredibly out-there performance artist, you look at guys like that and think about the kind of stuff that David Letterman did on his early show and he probably had writers with that kind of way out there sensibility. Then you think of Gonzo — we're looking for comedy to be out there and that's a guy you can go to for that. Scooter was a gopher on The Muppet Show, which translates to a production assistant on TV and a PA's standard career path is to become a talent coordinator. We love the way Matt Vogel does Uncle Deadly, a Phantom of the Opera character on The Muppet Show and he's an old Shakespearean actor who haunted the theater and we said, "What if Deadly retired from acting but wanted to stay in the theater and was working on his other love, costume and design?" So Uncle Deadly is Miss Piggy's costumer.
Do any of the Muppets "want" to do anything different? Is Fozzie eternally satisfied with being a warm-up act?
No, there's a lot of aspiration, certainly in Fozzie. I'll bet Fozzie is still stuck in the Seinfeld sitcom paradigm that he thinks he's going to get a show sometime. He loves doing stand-up dates and would love to headline in Vegas someday. That's definitely an aspiration. Scooter would like to become a producer and make episodes of TV. We're going to give him that opportunity in an episode and see if he can take the reins when Kermit is occupied.
What are the core values that are indispensable for Kermit and Piggy?
We've joined Kermit and Piggy in the moment where they're trying to find a friendship that will stand in for the relationship they had. It's cool that we get to do that with the audience instead of coming in fait accompli. That's the journey they're on: to figure out how to get their relationship in a good place again. To remember what they liked about each other before they ran into trouble. If you look at how Kermit and Piggy have been in interviews for the past 10 years, they've been kind of cranky with each other. This is an opportunity to move their relationship forward. The question is if they can get back to things they liked about each other, where that goes.
The show features old favorites and new Muppets. What kind of leeway do you have in creating new Muppets?
We have plenty of leeway. One of things we get to do is debate if a new character is a Muppet or a human character. We went back and forth on Piggy's makeup artist. Is that a person or a puppet? After you make that decision, if the answer is puppet, we have an amazing puppet workshop and ask if they can make it. Denise is an example of a puppet built just for the show.
In the premiere — and second episode sent to critics — there are guest appearances from many people connected with ABC. Will that continue or will there be other opportunities for talent outside of the ABC/Disney family?
That wasn't a factor, except cases where we deliberately went to people, [Dancing With the Stars']Tom Bergeron and [Black-ish star] Laurence Fishburne, because our fun reality is we imagine all ABC shows are shot on the same lot. Elizabeth Banks [who earned an Emmy nom for guesting on ABC's Modern Family]was incredibly specific. We needed person who did a movie a few years ago that there was a poster we could generate that Kermit and Piggy were standing in front of so that we could break them up in front of it and create this rivalry of sorts between Piggy and Banks.
If it were up to you, what kinds of press would you like to see about The Muppets?
I don't know, nice things?! Nice things are always nice! I'm the biggest Muppet fan I know. My Muppet fandom, I saw every episode of The Muppet Show when it aired. I found this show when it came on the air and it was perfectly made for me. In my mind, it was an American Monty Python with absurdist humor and heart and it had an innocent rebelliousness to it. I connected to that and loved that. Everybody said to me when this ABC reboot was moving forward how happy they were about it — and then they'd say, "The Muppets were important to me, don't screw this up!" I love these characters so much but one of the things I love about them came from Jim Henson: taking risks. The only way you can come to something good is to take a deep breath and take some risks. We've taken good risks. We'd like people to wait and see. That's a reasonable thing to say.
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