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Good luck preventing that big, goofy grin from spreading across your face while watching Muppet Guys Talking, a warmly affectionate conversation between five of the talented individuals responsible for many an earliest childhood memory.
Judging from the audience response at its SXSW world premiere, that expression of delight will remain in place throughout the film’s trim but rewarding 65-minute running time.
Subtitled Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched, the relaxed 2012 gathering brings together the legendary voices and hands behind dozens of beloved characters from The Muppet Show as well as Sesame Street — namely Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Bill Barretta and the late Jerry Nelson, who died shortly after filming.
Oz, whose working relationship with the great Jim Henson goes back to the 1960s, serves as the unofficial host, setting the creative stage in a dressing room from the old Jack Paar Show, where, as guests, he and Henson had given a wall of exposed rusted pipes a (still vibrant) Muppet makeover, complete with added hair and appendages.
From there, the voice of the likes of Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear (not to mention Cookie Monster, Grover and Bert) settles into some comfy, well-worn leather furniture to reminisce with Goelz (Gonzo), Brill (Prairie Dawn), Nelson (Count von Count, Sgt. Floyd Pepper) and Barretta (Pepe the King Prawn) to share some terrific professional and personal memories.
By all accounts it was a very happy collaboration, with Henson (who died in 1990 at age 53) fostering a spirit of “joyous competition” even as the tireless workaholic continually pushed himself and his team to come up with increasingly innovative ways of bringing their characters into the real world.
“We totally tried to screw each other over,” Goelz says of the pranks they’d regularly pull, while Brill, the lone female Muppeteer of the group, credits Henson for “making you feel safe to be stupid.”
Oz and company also reveal that their boss’ desire to keep pushing the creative envelope could have put them in harm’s way on more than one occasion — including one potentially disastrous sequence involving an off-camera teenaged archer.
Conceived and produced by Victoria Labalme, Oz’s wife, the film concludes (all too soon) with a few choruses of — what else — ”Mah Na Mah Na,” which is about as easy to get out of your head as it is to wipe that smile off your face.
Cast: Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, Fran Brill, Bill Barretta
Director: Frank Oz
Producer: Victoria Labalme
Editor: Zana Bochar
Venue: South by Southwest (Documentary Spotlight)
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