Nov 20-21, 2004 : NYC
Part 1: Follow That Bird
Oh, the BAM-ness of it all. Two days at the Brooklyn Academy of Music for "Muppets, Music & Magic: Jim Henson's Legacy," a screening series for the discriminating doll-wiggler if there ever was one. Movies, shows, rare junk, special guests, and all the Tough Pigs you could eat. This one was different from the other TP gatherings we've had, where we stayed together in a group almost all the time. The BAM event was more fluid, with little groups going off in different directions for a screening, or lunch, or to pay homage at the Disney Store. So I'm writing up my own experience -- the things I saw and did -- and I'll leave it up to everybody else to describe theirs, in threads like this one and this other one.
I met Cathy in Manhattan, and we traveled in to Brooklyn together. There's like five different buildings that are part of BAM -- maybe more! maybe some are in secret underground caverns! -- but we found the right one pretty easily. The building had four screening rooms in it, with a big lobby and a lounge and a whole bunch of other rooms that we didn't get to see.
I wouldn't say that the lobby was all tricked-out Muppetwise, but there were a bunch of Muppety touches that had been added for the event. There were little bendy Nanco Kermits all over the entrance to the screening rooms. There were big balloons spelling out MUPPETS. There was a nice display card with a picture of the Muppet stamps. A little gift shop booth, more on that later. A TV screen that was playing a loop of Muppet Show songs. During the day there was a little puppet building table for kids, staffed by I don't know who.
The neatest thing was a real Gawky Bird puppet, right there in the lobby. Unfortunately, it was put up waaaay high on a platform, so you couldn't really look at it too closely. I've seen the same puppet at museum exhibits; because this wasn't a museum, they couldn't really guard it in the same way. But it was there.
The first group of folks met up: Me and Cathy, and then Peter, Martha, Andrea and Alaina. This was my first time meeting Peter, and he's lovely -- friendly and funny and always smiling. I don't think I saw him even slightly annoyed the whole weekend. Andrea is a friend of Martha's; she was around back when Muppet Central was hopping, and she's been around TP occasionally. Alaina was super huggy and happy. And Martha had on her cool homemade Big Bird scarf, which looks like Big Bird's feathers and legs. More on the cool scarf later. We were all there to see Follow That Bird, with Caroll Spinney introducing.
A word about our clothes: I had on the Tough Pigs shirt. Martha had the Big Bird scarf. Cathy had a Kermit T-shirt, and so did Peter. Andrea and Alaina had Sesame T-shirts. We were, in short, the coolest bunch of kids that you're ever gonna see.
I was in the restroom before the show, and I was at the urinals when the guy next to me suddenly said: "Quinn!" And I was so hyped up seeing all the TP people, I actually turned to look, thinking, Wait, is Quinn here?
Then "Quinn" walked up from around the corner -- he was actually this guy's son, a little blond apple-cheeked boy the very size and shape of Miles. It was a weird moment, and it made me feel like our absent friends were there with us in some form or other.
Anyway: Follow That Bird. Not a packed house, but it was 10:15 on Saturday morning, so no surprise. An okay little crop of people: a smattering of young kids with parents, and then a bunch of eager 20 and 30somethings.
Craig Shemin did the intro, and as he took the stage, he saw us and said, "Hey, the Tough Pigs are here! That's Danny Horn right there, and the Tough Pigs." We all gave a little whooooo, and Craig explained: "Tough Pigs is one of the best Muppet websites, you should check it out at ToughPigs.com." Which was lovely, and a nice start to the day.
He introduced Caroll, who began with: "It's nice to have a special screening for my one movie." They spent about 8 weeks in Toronto filming the movie, and he thinks it came out well; it's got a lot of cameos, and it's very funny. Then Caroll said, "I have a friend who wanted to say a few words," and he brought Oscar out of his bag.
Caroll by himself standing in front of a microphone was kind of nervous and stuttery. Caroll with Oscar was alive, and funny. The transformation was amazing to watch. It was the difference between a comedian who isn't getting any laughs and a comedian who's knockin' em dead. He brings Oscar out, and there's already some built-in material, with Oscar complaining, "I don't wanna leave the bag!" Oscar gets a laugh before he's even out of the bag.
Caroll switches voices effortlessly, and often. He and Oscar can have whole conversations standing there in front of us.
Oscar: "Yeah, I'm in this movie, and of course I'm the best thing in the movie."
Caroll: "Well, there's lots of good things."
Oscar: "Oh yeah? Overall, I hate this film."
Caroll: "No, you don't!"
(Oscar sees a parent with a little kid walking in front of the stage.)
Oscar: "Hey, you're LATE!"
Caroll: "Stop that. Now, Oscar starts the movie..."
Oscar: "Don't tell them the plot!"
Caroll: "You're not part of the plot."
Oscar: "I am if I want to."
So, like, amazing, right? I've seen live Muppets before -- at Muppetfest, and a couple smaller events -- but I don't think I've ever seen the Muppet and the performer going back and forth like that. They could have gone on forever. As usual with live Muppets, your eye is completely drawn to the puppet; he's just so beautiful and alive. You believe in this.
Caroll: "We'll be back after the movie to talk a little more, and answer some questions. Thank you all for coming, and thank you, Oscar --"
Oscar: "Never thank a grouch!"
Caroll: "Come on, let's get back in the bag --"
Oscar: "No! No! I don't wanna go back in the bag!"
Just awesome. Caroll and Oscar leave the stage, and then there's Follow That Bird. I know there's a lot of people who like FTB, and there's a lot to like about it. The puppets are gorgeous, the performances are good. There's some good solid funny scenes in it.
But the thing that I noticed -- and this was very apparent in a theater full of kids -- there are a lot of slow spots. You can always tell how engaged the kids are, based on how much they talk, and what they talk about. When they're really into it -- like when Big Bird was saying goodbye to Snuffy -- then the kids are quiet, except for the ones who are saying, "Why is he leaving? Big Bird, don't go!" (Which one kid really did. Cuteness!) But when the kids are bored, they just chatter and cry.
I'm sorry to say this, but once Big Bird runs away from the Dodos, the movie hits a slow spot and barely recovers. It's supposed to be the most exciting part of the movie -- Big Bird has struck out on his own, and all the other characters are chasing after him. He gets in the truck, and they sing "Ain't No Road Too Long," which is a nice rousing song -- and then WHAM! The movie hits the wall. Big Bird settles down in the barn to sleep, and all of a sudden Olivia's singing a four-minute lullaby. It's a beautiful song, I know it's a beautiful song, but it's a lullaby and it's smack in the middle of the movie. As the lullaby ends and the camera pans up from Big Bird to the moon, a kid behind me announced, "It's the end!" and started getting up to leave.
I don't mean to go on about this, but the movie is scientifically engineered to induce sleep. Characters are constantly dozing off on screen. Big Bird sleeps at the Dodos' house. Big Bird sleeps in the barn, while all the other characters also bed down for the night. Then Big Bird has an "Easy Going Day." Then there's an excellent action sequence, which is followed by "The Blue Bird of Happiness," another static, drowsy song which ends with Big Bird falling asleep. The Sesame cast finds out that Big Bird is being held in a funfair cage, and naturally they all decide to fall asleep again. We see the Count, Oscar and a Honker asleep. During the whole climactic rescue scene, everybody has to stay quiet so as not to wake up the Sleaze Brothers (or, presumably, the audience). When they get home, practically the last shot in the movie is Snuffy asleep in Big Bird's nest. I wanted to grab everyone involved and shout, Wake up, kids! We're supposed to be making a movie!
Anyway: the film ends, and then Caroll and Oscar come back on stage.
Oscar: "Heh heh... Boy, I hate that movie."
Caroll notices that a couple of the kids have gotten up from their seats and come closer to the stage area to see Oscar.
Oscar: "Hey, you! Did you have a rotten time?"
Caroll: "Some of these little ones are so young, this might be their first movie in the theater." (A couple parents say that it is.) "And they're still here! Sometimes little ones don't make it through a movie."
That's another neat thing -- Caroll always refers to them as "little ones." It's amazing. He really, really likes kids. More kids come up to the stage, there's a line of six kids standing and looking up at Oscar, mesmerized.
Oscar: "Hey! You know what I like? Oh... I love trash! Anything dirty, or dingy or dusty..."
He does a verse of I Love Trash for the kids, and everybody sings along.
Oscar: "Heh heh. That's why I love this movie."
Caroll: "Hey, I like this movie! I'm very proud of it."
Oscar: "Yeah, you would."
Caroll shrugs. "He's never liked me."
They take some questions from the audience. Somebody asks about Caroll's work in animation. Caroll says that he always wanted to work for Walt Disney when he was a kid. Caroll drew cartoons when he was in the army, and afterwards, he went to Disney Studios, where he knew Clarence "Ducky" Nash, the guy who did the voice of Donald Duck. They looked at his cartoons, and offered him a job at 56 dollars a week. "At the time, you could make that much money working in a supermarket," he says, so he didn't take the job. Instead, he went to Boston and did animation for commercials until he got a puppet job. "Puppets are more exciting."
Caroll: "But it's always changing -- this week, I saw The Incredibles."
Caroll: "Even you liked it?"
Oscar shrugs. "It was incredible."
Someone asks about seeing Elmo in the background in FTB. Caroll says that that puppet's been around forever; he performed that puppet as Baby Monster back in 1970 or 71, just for a few shows. It was just one of the monsters, and lots of people performed him. "It was only when Kevin Clash got hold of him that Elmo came out."
Question: How many Oscars have there been? Caroll says that this is "Oscar 1970," one of the original green Oscars. There were three Oscars built in 1970, and this is the only one that still exists. (This surprised us all, and there's another question about it later.)
Question: How long does it take to make an episode of Sesame Street? Caroll says it used to take one day to make an episode, but then they picked up the pace after a while and did two episodes in a day. "Now we have much higher production standards, so it takes one and a half to two days to make an episode. Right now, we're only making 26 shows a year, but we're hoping to increase that."
Question about the writing process for Caroll's book. He says that he wrote the book, and J Milligan helped to organize it. He actually wrote the whole book longhand. "It's been a very popular book. It hasn't been a best seller, cause we couldn't get it on Oprah." There were 100 more pages until the very last draft, which were taken out by the publisher. They may go into another book.
There was one story in particular that got cut because it didn't fit the tone of the book. He was going to go into space with Big Bird, and they were going to film some things for Sesame Street. He ended up not going -- it was too complicated bringing the bird in the space shuttle -- so that "educator" slot was filled by Christa McAuliffe. That was 1986, and that was the Challenger space shuttle, which blew up on takeoff. (Everyone is breathless hearing about this.) Caroll says that it was a terrible thing, and he gets a shiver thinking about how he could have been on that shuttle. That story was supposed to go in the book, but the publishers decided that it was too depressing.
Question for Oscar: Why are you such a grouch? Oscar says, "It's my creed," and he does the bit about "I love being miserable, so that makes me happy, but I hate being happy, so that makes me miserable."
Question about who owns the Sesame characters. Caroll talks about Henson selling the characters to Sesame Workshop -- but, amazingly, he doesn't seem to know that the Muppets were sold to Disney. He says that "a German company still has their finger in the Sesame characters." There's nothing wrong with that, and there's no particular reason why Caroll should know what happened to the Muppets, but it's an example for me of how unique he is, how to some degree he lives in his own, beautiful world.
Peter asks about the car-jumping stunt -- did Caroll do that stunt himself? Caroll says, "No, I wanted to, but they said I couldn't. I had a stunt bird."
Then, as Caroll is talking to Peter, his eyes drift over to Martha, sitting a couple seats down, and her Big Bird scarf. He says, "I love your boa!" Martha grins.
There's a question about how Big Bird works. Caroll starts to answer, but catches himself: "I don't want to say too much, because of the little ones. So I'll give an adult explanation." He goes on to explain the bird very well, but only using words -- he doesn't make any hand gestures or show the position he's in when he performs. Again, I'm touched by his sensitivity to the little ones.
And speaking of the kids, at this point pretty much every kid in the room has come up to the stage to touch Oscar, so he does a little meet and greet for the kids. A girl touches his hand, and asks how old he is. "I'm 43!" he says. "Are you looking forward to Christmas? I love Christmas. I love all the wrapping paper when it's all crumpled up!" A little boy blurts out, "I love you!" Oscar looks down at him. "Awww. You're pretty easy to love yourself. The only thing I have to overcome is, you're so cute!"
A dad carries his kid up to the stage in his arms -- she's maybe one year old. Oscar leans over to say hi, and she nuzzles deeper into her dad's arms. Oscar instantly backs off. "Oh, I'm too close... It's a little scary when I get so close." Then he catches himself: "Oh, did I say something nice!" He grabs his head, and rolls over. "Oh, all this niceness from kids is rubbing off on me!" Then he opens his eyes: "Hey, I'm upside down!" By now, all the kids are laughing again, and they're not scared anymore. Magic, magic. The kids are all filing out, and Oscar waves goodbye to them -- calling a couple of them by name.
More questions: Someone asks about how Caroll started on Sesame. He tells the story from the book about doing a very elaborate puppet show, and failing, and having Jim Henson come up to him after the show. "It was like being a drummer and having someone come up and say: 'Hi, I've got a band, would you like to come to Liverpool?' Because the Muppets are like the Beatles of puppetry."
He says they're filming the new season right now; they just filmed episode 4090. "And I have a new three-year contract, so I'll be there for a while!"
Question: How has this Oscar puppet survived for so long? Caroll says that Oscar gets patched, he needs new fingertips every once in a while because they wear off. He's also had several "toupees." Oscar is quietly insulted by this.
Caroll puts Oscar down, saying, "I bore him after a while." He puts Oscar on top of the bag, and someone from the audience asks him to put Oscar into the bag -- it's disturbing seeing him just laying there. "Hey!" Oscar yells. "Don't pick me up like a kitten! I'm being bag-napped!" Caroll stuffs him in the bag: "You're upsetting the audience."
There's a question about Elmo's popularity. Caroll says that Elmo gets more airtime than Big Bird now, because the audience has changed. The show does a lot of research about how kids watch the show, and the audience is much younger now than they used to be.
Peter has another question: How did the Muppets in FTB drive? Caroll says they have a "little person" in the trunk with a TV monitor, which is hooked up to a camera on the grill of the car. The driver actually drives the car by television, from the trunk. Oscar's car was actually wrecked during the filming -- there's a scene where he swerves off the road across an open field, and they hit a rock and ripped the bottom off the car. "We got the shot, but that was the last time that car rolled."
Then Caroll has to get downstairs for the autograph session, so he leaves, to a very warm round of applause.