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September 29, 2016

Jim’s 80th Birthday Week: Jim & Dave

Filed under: Feature — Ryan Roe @ 9:00 am

September 24th, 2016 marks what would have been Jim Henson’s 80th birthday!  For this momentous occasion, we at ToughPigs are dedicating a full week to celebrating Jim’s life by focusing on a few of the people he was closest to.  Our “Jim and…” series will give a closer look at Jim’s working relationships with some of the most prominent Muppet performers, including Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, and more.  Happy birthday, Jim!

dave-goelz-jim-henson-edgar-bergen
Dave Goelz joined Jim Henson’s company as a puppet builder and performer just before The Muppet Show started, and he continued to work with Jim on various projects for the rest of Jim’s life.  He was a major performer in all three of the Jim-era Muppet movies, as well as the two fantasy films.  So of course, it’s ridiculously easy to come up with a long list of memorable Jim and Dave character pairings.

For example… hmm.  Well, for example… um.  For… example…?

Huh.  You know what?  Unlike the Kermit & Piggy duo of Jim & Frank, or the Statler & Waldorf duo of Jim & Richard, there is no obvious character pairing to point to for Jim Henson and Dave Goelz.  And then there’s the fact that Dave didn’t really work on Sesame Street, so even if I just wanted to be super-lazy and paste a bunch of “Sesame Street News Flash” videos here, I can’t.  Dang.  I love being super-lazy.

So let me think.  Jim and Dave, Jim and Dave… Okay, Dave played the main character in The Christmas Toy.  There must be something there, right?  Let me think.  In The Christmas Toy, Jim played Kermit… who only appeared to introduce and close out the special and didn’t really talk to the characters.  And I think he played a jack-in-the-box with one or two lines.

nigel-zootOkay, so there’s nothing there.  I should focus on The Muppet Show.  Oh, I got one!  Jim Henson as Nigel and Dave Goelz as Zoot in “Sax and Violence.”  Dave shines as the disgruntled musician who’s way too cool to be working that gig, and Jim’s Nigel is… well, he’s there, in the scene.  Jim is certainly successful at playing Nigel’s blandness as a contrast to Dave-as-Zoot’s coolness.  So there’s that.

Eh?  What’s that you say?  Gonzo?  Hey, you’re right!  Of all of Dave’s characters, Gonzo probably spent the most time interacting with Kermit on The Muppet Show.  As with many other Muppet Show dynamics, Kermit/Jim typically played the part of the straight man while Gonzo/Dave was the wacky one.  And the scenes they shared are pretty representative of how both characters evolved over the course of the series.  In season one, you have Gonzo attempting various strange things onstage, as Kermit doesn’t hesitate to express his misgivings about Gonzo doing acts no one wants to see.  And then the audience hates Gonzo’s acts, and Gonzo is angry or miserable, especially if Joel Grey’s not around to cheer him up.

gonzo-kermit-awwwBut as we’ve heard from Dave himself, Gonzo’s confidence grew as his Dave’s confidence grew, so Jim and Dave’s performances shifted with the characters evolving personalities.  By the time of the Lola Falana episode in season four, when Gonzo plans to leave the show and sings his farewell number “My Way,” it’s Kermit who comes onstage to comfort him when he gets all choked up and can’t finish the song.  It’s one of the most touching moments on the show, and Jim and Dave bring it to life beautifully.

You know who else gets up to shenanigans Kermit can’t control?  Dr. Bunsen Honeydew.  The Kermit/Bunsen dynamic is similar to the Kermit/Gonzo dynamic — Kermit doesn’t understand why Bunsen does what he does — but at least on The Muppet Show, Dave’s performance as Bunsen is generally more subdued than the more dramatic Gonzo.  When Bunsen’s teleportation machine causes Muppets and gorillas to pop up unexpectedly, or when his super adhesive glues everything in the theater together, Bunsen doesn’t overreact… so Kermit handles that for him.

inspector-labrea-kermitLike all the Muppet performers, Dave also played a zillion one-off characters on The Muppet Show, and often those led to some fun scenes with Jim’s characters.  Inspector LaBrea, who threatens Kermit with the show’s cancellation if things get too loud.  Mr. Dawson, Kermit’s old acting coach with some familiar mannerisms.  Banana Nose Maldonado, who outsmarts police captain Link Hogthrob.  And of course, the avocado in Statler & Waldorf’s balcony, who is probably the best-ever Muppet vegetable.  Not to mention Kermit the Pig, an example not of a direct collaboration, but of Dave Goelz playing a character pretending to be a character played by Jim Henson.

Those are all delightful onscreen Muppet Show moments between Jim and Dave, but by all accounts, some of the most fun they had working together was behind the scenes.  In the book Jim Henson: The Works, Dave talks about Jim cracking up by flipping his pig musician upside-down to play a trumpet solo during a musical number.  And he shares a great story about going into a recording studio with Jim and Frank Oz to record some “Dial-a-Muppet” messages, which were derailed when he messed up one of his lines.  Jim and Frank couldn’t stop giggling, which resulted in all three men spending twenty minutes “reeling around the room gasping like morons” before they could resume the recordings.

kermit-and-digitI just thought of one of my favorite Jim/Dave pairings, which is also perhaps the most obscure.  On The Jim Henson Hour’s “MuppeTelevision” segments, Kermit was the director, and Dave Goelz’s Digit was the technical guy, in charge of switching video feeds and pressing buttons.  Digit was just as good as Gonzo or Bunsen at exasperating Kermit. In a way, he combines aspects of Gonzo and Bunsen — he’s weird, but he doesn’t know he’s weird.  He’s just doing his job.

There was the time Digit attempted to explain to Kermit that his voice relay is broken, causing him to say “no” when he means “yes.” Or the other time when he had to apologize for doing squinchy things on Kermit’s eyeballs.  The exchanges between Kermit and Digit were among the highlights of the control room scenes on “MuppeTelevision,” and it probably didn’t hurt that, with Frank Oz and Richard Hunt making only very limited appearances on the show, Dave had more history with Jim than any of the show’s regulars not named Jerry Nelson.

marley-and-marley-mccJust a few years after The Jim Henson Hour, and for decidedly unhappy reasons, Dave was called upon for a completely different kind of collaboration.  After Jim’s passing, starting with The Muppet Christmas Carol, Dave picked up where Jim had left off with Waldorf.  This wasn’t as high-profile a recast as Steve Whitmire taking over the frog whose face was on the company letterhead, but it was obviously important to Dave that he get it right.  After all, everyone knows those two old guys in the balcony, even if they don’t know their names (Their names are Statler and Waldorf, by the way).

In an interview not too long ago that I can’t seem to locate online now, Dave spoke about the pressure he felt taking over one of Jim’s characters, and the fact that for a long time, he felt like he had to do an impression of Jim-as-Waldorf.  Only in recent years has he felt like he could loosen up and make the old man his own old man.

At this point, Dave has been Waldorf’s performer longer than Jim was.  The comedy value of Statler and Waldorf may fluctuate depending who’s writing them, but the continuity of having the character played by the same guy for all this time — a guy who worked with Jim Henson, no less! — is the kind of thing that helps the characters feel real to us and keeps us watching all these years.  I think the avocado would agree with me.

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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com

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