Frank Oz admits 'it hurt' to give up Muppets, says they'll never be as 'touching and soulful' (exclusive)

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Frank Oz with Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy (Credit: Everett Collection)

However much you might love the Muppets, Frank Oz loves them more. As Jim Henson’s closest collaborator on The Muppet Show and Sesame Street, Oz was the person behind dozens of fan-favorite characters, including Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Sam the Eagle, Grover, Cookie Monster, and Bert. He performed with the Muppets from the 1960s through the 1990s, juggling his puppeteer duties with a thriving second career as a film director. Eventually, he did stop playing his characters — but to hear Oz talk about that decision is to understand how hard it was for him. “I had to release them,” he told Yahoo Entertainment, “and it hurt, because I still love ’em so much.”  During the conversation, his voice filled with emotion whenever his characters came up; at one point, he referred to the Muppets as “us,” as if his heart too is surrounded by foam and fleece.

Now Oz is returning to his roots with the documentary Muppet Guys Talking (available digitally in March), which revisits The Muppet Show through conversations between the director and four of his original co-stars.  At the same time, the Muppets are in an odd position, culturally. Since Disney acquired the characters from the Jim Henson Company in 2004, the studio has struggled to find the correct outlet for Kermit, Piggy, and friends. There have been some successes (the 2011 feature film The Muppets, a very popular YouTube channel) and some notable failures (the 2015 ABC sitcom The Muppets, which last just 16 episodes). Yet the popularity and visibility of the characters remain enormous. Just look at the proliferation of Kermit memes, or 2017’s internet-wide outcry over longtime Muppeteer Steve Whitmire being fired from the role of the beloved green frog (originally played by Jim Henson, who died in 1990).

So where do the Muppets go from here? During a rare interview with Oz on the occasion of Little Shop of Horrors‘ return to theaters, we asked the director for his thoughts about the state of Muppet-kind. Oz talked to Yahoo Entertainment about Henson’s influence on his career and his own reasons for stepping away from the Muppets. He also spoke candidly about Whitmire’s firing (“It’s so sad”) and his thoughts on the direction that Disney has taken with the characters (“I think Disney really, truly believes that they’re doing the best they can”). While Oz spoke with obvious affection and respect for the newer Muppet performers, he was also blunt in expressing his belief that “they can never be as good as me” because “they don’t know the soul [of the characters] as much.” As to the question of whether the characters can evolve for the new millennium, Oz says the answer isn’t to reinvent the Muppets but to “go back and be true to who they are.” Read the Muppets portion of our conversation with Frank Oz below.

Yahoo: When you made Little Shop you were coming off Dark Crystal and The Muppets Take Manhattan as a director. Was there anything you took from those movies and applied to your experience directing your first non-Muppet film?
Frank Oz:
 If it wasn’t for Jim Henson, I wouldn’t even be here. I mean, Jim is the one I learned everything from. And he had a tremendous love and ability, a talent for music. So as opposed to today, which is bad, the Muppets would never appear without music. Essentially we were always doing music with The Muppet Show, with the Muppet movies. There was always music for the characters that would then move the story along. So I learned all that from Jim, and there’s no question in my mind that I may have not brought it consciously to Little Shop of Horrors, but certainly it was in my genes that Jim taught me that brought me there, absolutely.

Frank Oz and Jim Henson on the set of The Dark Crystal. (Credit: Universal Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Is there a difference between directing Muppets and directing people?
It’s much harder with the Muppets because you have so much technical stuff to get out of the way. Directing people is much, much easier. Much easier. Because you don’t have to play camera tricks, you don’t have to play angles, you don’t have to create story, in order to try and create the Muppets to be believable.

The recent blowup over Steve Whitmire being replaced as Kermit has made me wonder, as somebody who grew up with the Muppets and loves them, whether the Muppets can really continue without the people who created them. Should the characters evolve in different directions? Do you feel that’s even possible?
With Stevie it’s so sad, because the situation with Stevie was a pure business situation, as I understand it. I’d worked with Stevie since he was 18 years old, and on the floor he’s terrific. We had a lot of fun. So when he’s actually on the floor — I think it was something outside that. And it’s very sad.

But as far as the evolving Muppet characters, here’s the situation. I had to give up my characters on Sesame Street, and I had to give them up because I had four kids, I had a directing career, and I couldn’t say to Sesame Street, ‘Listen, I don’t want anybody touching my characters for the nine months or year and a half that I’m doing a movie.’ I just couldn’t do that, you know? Wouldn’t be fair. So I had to release them. And it hurt, because I still love ’em so much. So that kind of answers your question that, yes, they can go on.

However, Sesame Street today is not Sesame Street as it was before. Sesame Street has turned into a little kids’ show. It’s not anymore written on two levels where it’s hip for adults. So therefore, as a result of the philosophy of Sesame Street now, it’s not what it used to be. That has to permeate to the puppeteers, and the puppeteers don’t have an opportunity to have the characters evolve then. However, people are satisfied with what they see, in my opinion — they don’t know that there could be so much more, and if they had the opportunity to see the characters be more three-dimensional and grow more, they would flock to them more. But nevertheless, that’s the situation with Sesame Street. Also my characters on Muppet Show. Because, again, I can’t say, “No, you can’t do Piggy, you can’t do such and such.”

And I’ve become a director, and I love it — but I love my characters. And by the way, these are good friends of mine who do the characters, and they work really hard. But they can never be as good as me. Just like I could never be as good as them. If they did a character called Joe, and I took over, there’s no way I could do Joe as good as them. Because Joe was in their hearts and their soul.

So they’re in a difficult situation. They’re doing their very best, and they really are trying to be true to the characters. And they actually are. But because they’re not inside me, they don’t know the soul as much. So it’s not fair to them to expect any more than that, because they’re already just trying to do the best job they can. And they’re doing a great job. This is Eric [Jacobson, who plays most of Oz’s characters] and everybody, these are all my friends.

So this is a long-winded answer, but nevertheless, can the characters evolve, continue without the people who do them? Yes, they can. Will they be as good? No. Will they be as touching and soulful? No. But they will be as quotation marks “good”? Yes, in my opinion.

Frank Oz attends the “Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched” panel at the 2017 SXSW Conference on March 12, 2017, in Austin, Texas. (Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for SXSW)

It’s been interesting as a fan to watch Disney’s efforts to reinvent the Muppets. Jim Henson was such a unique spirit, and obviously the two of you had a special connection that translated into these characters. Would it take somebody like that, a unique, creative soul, to come in and do something new with the Muppets?
I don’t think the answer is to do something new. I think the answer is to go back and be true to who they are. There’s nothing new to do except to dig deeper into their purity and innocence; that is what speaks to the audience. The problem was, in my opinion, that they were trying to do something new. And trying to do something new is an intellectual attempt, not an emotional attempt. It’s purely intellectual. And that doesn’t work with us, with the Muppets. What works is what’s emotional, what touches people, what feels right, what has fun, how we can screw around — that’s what people love about the Muppets, and not the attempt to do new Muppets.

And by the way, I’m not putting down Disney. I think Disney really, truly believes that they’re doing the best they can. And I know the people who head the Muppets, and I know they love the Muppets and they’re doing the best they can, especially one person who used to work for the Muppets. And she’s doing an amazing job and she loves them. But when you get into a situation outside of her, when people think they know how to do the Muppets — they truly believe that. They just are wrong. [Laughs] They don’t get it. And it’s like you’re an amazing fan of a Formula One racing car, and you go from country to country and you follow that car and you say, “I love that car.” You know everything about the motor, you just love how it looks, everything. But then when you get in and drive it — you think you can drive it? You can’t. It’s a different situation.

So that’s how it’s happened at Disney. They truly love the Muppets. They really do. And they believe truly that they know how to handle it. But they actually don’t know because they haven’t been part of this for 30 years, and what’s really strong about the Muppets is the people underneath the characters. That’s what it’s all about, not the characters.

So in any case, that’s a whole thing. I just feel sad, because I feel Disney loves it so much. I wish they could really depend on the actual performers more who know so much.

I hope there’s a future for the Muppets.
There needs to be, because I think it’s extraordinary the reaction around the world with the Muppets still. The affection is extraordinary.

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