Classic Sketches, Returning Favorites: Inside 'The Muppets' Midseason Reboot

New showrunner Kristin Newman talks with THR about how she plans to bring more "joy" to the series: Adding a human foil ('Mindy Project's' Utkarsh Ambudkar) and sketches to Miss Piggy's 'Up Late' in addition to updating old bits and more.
Courtesy of ABC

ABC's The Muppets was considered the biggest slam dunk of the fall TV season — but so far, it hasn't lived up to any of its hype. Its 10-minute pilot presentation set a high bar. The series scored a rare standing ovation at Comic-Con. A hefty marketing campaign focused on Kermit and Piggy's break-up went viral. A lively panel — complete with a statement from Kermit about their split — helped win over the media in July at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour. And that was all before anyone had even seen a completed pilot.

Then critics saw the first few episodes and the lackluster reviews came in. So it was perhaps no surprise that after a healthy premiere, ratings dropped off to a string of series lows as complaints about a mean Miss Piggy and sad-sack Kermit started to grow louder. Eventually, showrunner Bob Kushell — who co-created the series with Muppets grad Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory) — was let go. In came fresh blood with Kristin Newman (Galavant) taking over day-to-day duties on the series as ABC touted a midseason reboot in a bid to help salvage the franchise.

Here, Newman opens up to The Hollywood Reporter about the lack of joy in the first half of the season (an opinion shared by ABC Entertainment Group president Paul Lee) and outlines her plans to breathe new life into the show. Gone is the cruel Piggy and back are stories about her romance with Kermit (though they're still not together). Also in are classic Muppets characters (including Gonzo's girlfriend) as well as updated versions of decades-old sketches. Also changing? The Muppets are back to working together against a common foil (The Mindy Project's Utkarsh Ambudkar). Read on for more of Newman's plans to save the franchise.

Coming in from Galavant, you've seen the first few episodes of the show — and the reviews. Why The Muppets?

I've been a huge fan of The Muppets since I was a kid. I love the music, I love the heart, the zaniness; I love everything The Muppets has always been, and I love the idea of getting to bring them into 2016.

You mentioned heart — that's one of the things early reviews (and ABC's Lee) said the series was lacking when it opened. How do you plan to bring that back and right the ship?

I came in for episode 10, which was the Christmas episode that aired before the break, and Day 1 of work was rewriting Piggy-Kermit scenes to really bring that connection back. The heart of the whole franchise has always been Piggy and Kermit, and I think breaking them up was really smart. There's always more story to be told and more tension when two people who love each other are apart instead of together. But what's important to remember is that they do love each other, and that was being walked away from completely.

As was addressing the break-up. The whole marketing campaign was based on that, and the show never explored it. There were no ongoing serialized storylines. Is that something you'll be changing?

Yes. I like story arcs, I like some serialization, I love rom-coms and I believe Piggy and Kermit, deep down, are drawn to each other — and always will be, even if they have a hard time working it out. During the Christmas break, Piggy is sad that she was going to be alone at Christmas and realizes that maybe she needs to not be sitting around, waiting and being lonely. She gets on a plane and goes to Argentina on a solo adventure and as a woman to take care of herself and has an incredible time. She comes back really focused on her work-life balance and bettering herself. She's going to start to work on her friendships and realize she's lost herself in little bits.

And became mean.

And she lost the love of her life as a result of it. She's going to be finding her voice again — and Kermit is going to notice.

So the mean-spiritedness of the show will change?

I'm bringing in a human bad guy who will, I hope, be used to unite the Muppets fighting against him — instead of fighting against Piggy and fighting against each other. The human threat is obviously from the network because they work on a TV show. He is a branding guru named Pache — played by [recurring guest] Utkarsh Ambudkar (The Mindy Project, Pitch Perfect) and he has rebranded warlords and network presidents and he has a lot of slick ideas and it's all about new, new, new and slick, slick, slick, which is not The Muppets. The Muppets are all about joy and zaniness and heart and the way that they have to fight this bad guy is by binding together. They're going to bring the people who have been backstage on Up Late With Miss Piggy, doing more sketches and bits and bringing more joy back to her show.

So Up Late will become more of a variety show?

It's more of a Jimmy Fallon-style late-night show where there are bits and sketches. We won't be doing sketches straight out of 1979, but we may be doing some of them updated. We're doing an updated Veterinarian's Hospital, we're doing an updated Swedish Chef where Bunsen is helping him do molecular gastronomy. We're taking some of the inspiration from a lot of the old stuff and trying to think about how would Fallon do it? How would [Jimmy] Kimmel do it? And getting to see the Muppets being zany and not just being guys who are having a hard time at work but also getting to perform and do silly things.  

How involved is Prady? How many days a week is he on set?

He's still an executive producer on the show. I'm running the day-to-day on the show because he's busy with The Big Bang Theory. It depends on his schedule, but not more than two days a week.

Is there a version of this franchise that you looked to for inspiration?

Not specifically. There are moments from different things, but mostly it's the spirit I'm looking to for inspiration: joy and friendship; Muppets take care of each other; Muppets root for each other, even if Muppets drive each other crazy and get in each other's way. Muppets, at the end of the day, love each other. So that's what I try to make every single decision based on. I walked into the writers' room on my first day and wrote the word "joy" on the wall. That's what I'm trying to make every decision based on. What's the most joyful moment we can have here? What's the most fun we can have here? Let's let them do what humans can't do because they're puppets and they're silly. Just because they live in a human world doesn't mean they have to act like humans. Let's enjoy and play with what they can do.

Are there any elements from the first half of the season that won't be seen again?

Nothing that I can think of.

Is there a renewed focus on any specific characters?

I'm letting some characters come back that haven't been around yet: Camilla will be coming back for Gonzo. Lew Zealand will be throwing some fish around. We don't see all of the penguins, but Piggy does tap into her charitable side when she's in Argentina and Tierra del Fuego and decides to save the penguins, specifically this one in her tote bag, so there will be a baby penguin coming into the show. Foo-foo will be around more. For the finale, I'm going to have a lot of the beloved Muppets that all the fans and performers have really been missing come back for the last show. We're going to have some cameos of old Muppets that haven't been around a lot. I'm really trying to spread the focus as far as story goes onto all of the core characters that we've been seeing so far.

Do you have a favorite Muppet?

It might be Pepe. I don't think he can speak without me laughing. I'm trying to use his four hands for physical gags a lot more than they've been used in the past. You can have him typing on a computer and smacking two writers on either side of him at the same time — that's good fun.

The Muppets all working together against a common threat is more along the lines of what we've seen in the past form this franchise. Will there be less of the infighting and negativity from the first half? Is that one of the things you said was broken when you came in?

This show I don't feel was broken. It's a hard thing. As a writers' room, you need an antagonist and a story needs to have conflict. Your options are either the Muppets upset each other and create the conflict or, what they were doing a lot, was having the celebrity guest of the week create the conflict. What that was doing was creating A stories among celebrity guests that took so much screen time away from the Muppets, who everybody tuned in to see. I'm using guest cast a lot more as cameos and trying to up the amount of musical guests we get so that if somebody comes on who can sing an incredible piece of music, we can use that to emotionally help a story finish — which has always been effective for The Muppets. It's a problem to solve when you have Muppets that everyone wants to be delightful all the time but need to tell a three-act narrative story and need conflict and a bad guy all the time. It's a struggle in the writers' room.

How much did you talk to Kushell before you took over? These were a lot of the ideas I'm told he had.

There was a real desire on Bill Prady's part to have things be very realistic. I don't know what Bob wanted and what Bill wanted. I'm friendly with Bob and we spoke on the phone when all of this happened because I felt terribly and this is a terrible town. He was very sweet and wished me well quite a bit — and was very tired. It's a very big ship to steer. Every person on this planet has their Muppets that lives in their heart that they have loved since they were 3 years old and expect to be a very particular way. And every one of those people has a different version of the Muppets in their heart. So trying to make everyone happy is an impossible task because everybody hates and loves different characters. Everybody remembers The Muppet Show often different than it actually was. The Muppet Show was wonderful; it would be dated if we did the exact kind of jokes today that we did then, so we have to update it. But then people can get upset about it getting updated and not the show they remember, which was not even The Muppet Show that was. It's a lot of things to battle, and I'm really sorry that Bob had to go because I don't think he could have done anything any different than he did. It's a very difficult puzzle to solve.

Since you've come in, has there been anything the network or the Muppets Studio has said no to?

Not really. They have notes, but they've been very supportive of what I wanted to do with the show; the performers were really excited about the Muppets getting to do sketches and bits on the Up Late show again and have been so excited about the characters that weren't in the show before coming back.

The Muppets returns Feb. 2 on ABC. Will you check out the rebooted series? Sound off in the comments section below.