My Week with Muppetfest
Dec 7-9, 2001
Okay, what else do ya got?
I'm kidding, of course. I'm home from Muppetfest and I'm just finding it hard to describe how great it was. If you were there this weekend, I was the guy sitting in the middle scribbling notes furiously through the whole thing. I wrote down everything, because I am a dedicated Muppet journalist -- and not, as you might have supposed, because I'm clinically insane. I understand how easy it is to confuse the two. In my mind, I wasn't attending Muppetfest. I was covering it. And boy, was there a lot to cover.
I know some of you want every little detail, but there was just too much cool stuff for me to describe everything here. Instead, I'm going to put together a print zine of Muppetfest Memories, which I'll probably finish sometime after Christmas, and that'll have all the descriptions and quotes and everything.
For now, here's what I learned at Muppetfest.
The huge Kermit on La Brea Avenue
The enormous Kermit statue is dressed like Charlie Chaplin, with a little black suit and a cane, and he tips his hat sheepishly at the traffic going by. Bill and Kynan and Chris and I are standing on the sidewalk, snapping photo after photo. We know we look like tourist fan stalker geeks. Let's face it -- we are tourist fan stalker geeks. We don't care. There's a big Kermit up there, and darn it, a photo op like this doesn't come along every day.
This is the new Henson Company studio lot, of course, which used to be the old Chaplin Studios. And we're all here for Muppetfest, of course, flying in from around the country and across the world to peer through the gates and dream. Kynan is a comedy writer from Australia, who you may know on the Tough Pigs forum as Carl the Big Mean Bunny. Chris (aka Cardboy) is the illustrator who's done cartoons for Tough Pigs, Muppet Central and MuppetZine, and he's flown in from Boston. Bill (aka BKastak) lives about five blocks away in West Hollywood, so when we all converged on his house today, he knew where to take us first. The Hollywood sign? Grauman's Chinese Theater? Rodeo Drive? He doesn't even have to ask. We go straight to the big Kermit on La Brea Avenue. This is my Muppetfest posse.
Driving around LA with a running crew made up of overexcited Muppet fans is just as much fun as I thought it would be. Everything is huge and famous, and we're completely amused by it all. The Museum of Tolerance! Chinese Laundry Shoes! Bob Saget at the Laugh Factory! We're already relentlessly quippy and hyper, and things haven't even started yet.
The first big event is the Muppet Central party on Friday night, which Phil and Cindy Chapman arranged at the Crocodile Cafe. We're late, and by the time we arrive, there's maybe twenty-five people already sitting down at a long table. Everyone has a nametag with their real name and their screen name on it, and I just start working my way down the table, introducing myself to everyone. You're ChadKermit! I'm Danny! You're Fleet Scribbler! I'm Danny! You're Scarecroe! I'm Danny! That kind of thing.
I've never worked a Muppet-fan crowd before, and I don't quite know how to act. I get kind of noisy and overeager, lunging at people who only half-remember who the heck I am. I keep telling everyone that they're not at all what I pictured. Everybody is taller and better looking than I thought they would be. I realize that this whole time I've been picturing everyone as twitchy, autistic twelve-year-olds.
In fact, everybody is an incredibly nice adult, and most of them are actually really hot, not to put too fine a point on it. I didn't tell you guys this at the time, because it would have made you uncomfortable, but Muppet fans are collectively much nicer looking than we have any right to be. I've been to science fiction conventions before. Now, I don't want to talk smack about science fiction fans -- some of my best friends are science fiction fans -- but let's face it, there ain't a lot of supermodels down at the comic book store. But the fans at the Muppet Central party, both the women and the men, are a generally nice-looking crowd. We are taking damn good care of ourselves. I'm astonished. I want to sleep with everybody. Now you see why I didn't mention this at the time.
I sit down at the table, and instantly we all start gossiping about Muppets and Muppet fans. Scott/Scarecroe starts telling me about comparing the Muppet Family Christmas DVD to the original show. He has a lot to say on the subject. Soon, other people sitting all around us get interested in the conversation and join in. This has never happened to me in my whole entire life before. Scott and I get into an argument with DW/Fleet Scribbler and Kevin/FOZZI3B3AR about whether The Great Muppet Caper was a better movie than The Muppets Take Manhattan. I make nasty jokes about The Dark Crystal that people actually understand. I gossip with Mar and Michael (aka StatNWaldorf) about some of our friends who couldn't make it. Every time I meet someone -- Carolyn/Apple, let's say, or David/Beau -- we exchange cursory questions about where we come from and so forth, and then we give up and start talking about Gonzo dolls. This is the best party ever.
There's a Muppet Impressions contest. Mitch introduces the show in a Kermit voice. Andy does a rendition of Bein' Green that's actually very touching. Kevin and Jeff do an old Ernie/Bert sketch. Chris heckles from the sidelines in a terrific double Statler-Waldorf impression. The highlight, though, is Adam -- one of the waiters at the Crocodile Cafe who just happens to be a Muppet fan. He didn't know anything about Muppetfest or any of the websites, but he does an amazing Dr. Teeth and Rowlf, plus he knows all the words to "I Hope That Something Better Comes Along." And by the way, remember what I said about Muppet fans being really quite handsome? Adam. I rest my case. Mitch and Adam win the contest.
In the excitement of the moment, it almost feels like we don't even need to see the Muppets tomorrow. Just being here, with a whole crowd of people who speak the same language -- it fills me up with love for all Muppet fans. Everybody is so friendly and interesting. I hug indiscriminately.
In fact, I have a message to people on the Muppet forums and newsgroups: Please, please, please stop speaking in character. I always liked FOZZI3B3AR on the forums, but I found his wocka-wocka jokiness to be a little relentless. He turns out to be a really sweet guy named Kevin who's actually much funnier when he's speaking as himself. SuperGrover, who used to chat in a really hyperactive "Hellloooo everybodeeeee" style, turns out to be a mellow, thoughtful guy named Travis. Attention, everybody with a Muppet screen name: We already have Muppets. It's so nice to have the gift of actually knowing you, the real person behind the screen name. When we're back online, I'd love for us to keep going in that direction.
Plus, tomorrow: Real Live Muppets. What could be better?
Saturday, Part 1:
The Muppet Salute
It's so frustrating -- I've been at Muppetfest for four hours and I still haven't bought Thing One. Don't they know that there are Muppet collectors who want to buy stuff at this convention? Why couldn't they put any decent Muppet stuff out for sale?
Kidding again. There's tons of stuff! Bill and I walk through the door of the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and there's huge tables groaning with Muppet Stuff right in front of us. Ping! Ping! You can see two little Road-Runner puffs of smoke as we dash over to check it out. We are Hungry Muppet Collectors and We Must Feed. I've promised my boyfriend that I would stick to a strict Muppet-junk budget this weekend. Bill has made some kind of vague promise to his boyfriend to do the same. (Attention readers: Ironic Foreshadowing.) But we don't care! The first table has all the cool Muppet Show 25th Anniversary stuff on it -- Muppetfest T-shirts, Muppetfest hats, a Muppet Show 25 Years wristwatch, a Muppet Show 25 Years cloisonne pin... Just the fact that I know the word cloisonne tells you how dangerous this is. Within moments, I'm eighty-five dollars poorer. I turn to Bill happily: "And I'm STILL under budget!" A guy standing next to me smiles, "Yeah, it's five minutes before the event starts, and you're under budget." "I know!" I chirp. "I'm doing really well!"
The next table... By the way, here's a little story about my childhood. Whenever my mom would go out to a fancy restaurant, or would go somewhere on a trip, she would always come home and describe the food that she ate in excruciating detail, despite the fact that it clearly bored me solid. I would beg her to stop, but she would say, "Let me just tell you about the dessert!" Even now, I shudder when I think about Mom's Food Stories. So I'm completely self-aware about the fact that this is Danny's Muppet Stuff Story and you probably don't care. But I'm a Muppet Collector, and it's my website, so you're gonna get the Muppet Stuff Story. Here goes.
The next table has a whole set of 8x10 photos. And there's one photo, right in the middle, of Miss Piggy seated against a bright white background, draped in an American flag. She's in a melancholy pose, and besides the flag, she's only wearing a blue evening glove and a red evening glove. It's possibly one of the most stunning images I've ever seen. Bill and I catch sight of it in the same moment -- and we both catch our breaths in this enormous simultaneous Piggy-Fan GASP.
By the way, have I mentioned that both Bill and I are gay? Or is that just redundant information at this point?
Anyway, the Stuff Story gets kind of ugly from here. We buy the photos and the Nanco Kermit dolls. We buy the Bear magnet and the Kermit wine stopper. Andy Wolf has a table of vintage Muppet knick-knacks and we blow some money there too. We are maniacs, maniacs on the floor, and we're collecting like we've never collected before.
Then, about five minutes later, I'm hugging Sweetums. This is something that keeps happening at Muppefest. Every time I think, "Wow, I'm having the coolest time ever," something happens that makes it even cooler. And the show hasn't even started yet.
Actually, "the show hasn't started yet" is kind of the theme for the first fifteen minutes of the actual show. There are some minor technical difficulties at first, since they haven't quite figured out how to operate the video, the audio, the lights, or the cameras. They're all getting a little frustrated, but we don't care. They're riding on a tremendous wave of good will at the moment. It all works itself out.
The emcee for Saturday is Kirk Thatcher, one of the Muppet writers, who enters holding the Emmy that he won for Muppets Tonight. He's very proud of his Emmy, and he hopes it'll help him meet hot chicks. He teaches us the Muppet Salute, which is supposed to be the Muppet-fan version of "Live long and prosper." You put your hand up like a puppet mouth and you make the mouth say "Hi ho!" The appropriate response for a male Muppet fan is "Wocka wocka!" and for a female Muppet fan is "Kissy kissy!" We all do the Muppet Salute. I am in the right room.
They're trying to open with a video greeting from Miss Piggy, but they can't get the video clip to work. They keep rewinding it. Kirk is vamping. Then the screen lights up with a live backstage image -- Rizzo, Gonzo, Clifford, Floyd and Pepe. Clifford says, "Kirk, why are you messing up?" Pepe is upset: "Kirk, please -- make this show go all right, okay? This is very bad, okay." The crowd goes wild. Live Muppets! It's fantastic. They get the Piggy clip to work -- she apologizes for not being here, due to the hectic demands of celebritude. Then Brian Henson comes out to introduce the History of the Muppet Show panel.
The History of the Muppet Show panel is lovely and earnest, but there are no Muppets in it. Will I get drummed out of the Muppet-fan corps if I admit that this panel was cool in theory but kind of dull in reality? I hate to say it. It's got Jerry Nelson, producer Martin Baker, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Amy Van Gilder (head of the Muppet Workshop) and Paul Williams. They all tell stories about the creation of The Muppet Show, but... you kind of see why these people usually talk through puppets. They're all really nice, interesting people, and they've had a lot of cool experiences, but everybody in the audience is slightly antsy. We want to see Muppets. Funniest moment on this panel: Amy Van Gilder mentions that she works for Walt Disney now, and there's a murmur of boos from the audience.
They show some Historic Henson Clips -- a couple of Wilkins Coffee commercials, a Sam and Friends sketch, and Kermit and Yorick singing "I've Grown Accustomed to Your Face" from the Steve Allen Show. It's really cool to be in a crowd where a 40-year-old black and white Kermit sketch is getting a big laugh.
Then David Barrington-Holt from the Creature Shop comes out do his presentation on the Creature Shop, and that's my cue to take a break, stretch my legs, and go visit the exhibit room. Later on, I'll find that a lot of my friends are referring to the Creature Shop presentations as "the Creature Shop Break" -- as in, "Did you see the cool stuff in the exhibit room? I saw it during the Creature Shop Break." No offense to Mr. Barrington-Holt, who seems like a really cool guy. It's just that this presentation is mostly clips from movies that I already like (Dreamchild), movies that I already hate (Lost in Space) or movies that I already have no interest in (Jack Frost). So, a little time to myself, then.
Luckily, I come back in time for Kirk to introduce a surprise guest -- Claudia Black, from Farscape! As Claudia enters the stage, she pretends to punch Kirk across the face in a perfect Aeryn-Sun move. She's only on stage for a minute, just long enough to say that she's there because she's a Henson fan too, and that she wanted to get the role on Farscape specifically because she wanted to work with the Henson Company. She thanks us for coming to celebrate Henson's great work. She's so beautiful and cool, and it's such a neat surprise to see her. I'm starting to believe that this weekend is just magic, like it's suddenly going to start raining puppies.
And then -- finally, finally -- Real Live Muppets.
Saturday, Part 2:
Welcome to Hoboken
Johnny Fiama gets a big hand. "It's great to be here in Hoboken," he says. The other Muppets whisper to him that he's in Santa Monica. Johnny turns and snaps at Sal: "Sal! You messed up again!"
Sal shrugs. "Santa Monica? That's not what it said on the outside of the box when they shipped us."
And THIS is what we flew across the country to see. Live Muppets, riffing and mugging and sniping at each other. It's magic. It's a cliche at this point to say that when you see a Muppet being performed by a Muppeteer, it doesn't break the illusion that the Muppet is real. But that cliche really is true. Gonzo, Rizzo, Floyd, Pepe, Elmo -- they're just coming to life in front of us.
At one point during this panel, Kevin Clash gets a question about his work on Labyrinth. While Kevin is talking, Dave Goelz reaches into his puppet box and brings out Bunsen. There's a round of applause for Bunsen, which startles Kevin in the middle of a sentence. With all due respect to the Muppeteers, who are funny and interesting in their own right, it's obvious that we don't really want to hear the people talk. The Muppets are the rock stars. Humans just can't compete.
Elmo is the first puppet up, and he takes a couple questions about his goldfish. Then emcee Kirk tries to move the panel along: "We have other characters, Elmo... Don't hog the show! You've already taken over Sesame Street." This gets a big laugh from the Elmo detractors in the crowd. Floyd's up next, and he gets a question from the audience about whether he's still tight with Janice. "Well... Janice ain't so tight anymore," Floyd says.
Then Elmo pipes up: "Elmo doesn't understand the question... Could you explain the question, Mr. Floyd? Cause Elmo learned on Sesame Street -- if you don't understand something, always ask!"
We are only ten minutes into the first Muppet panel. It goes on like this for the next two days.
Pepe says that Seymour is living in a condo in Florida. Bunsen tries to psychoanalyze Dr. Phil, then wiggles Phil's ear. Kermit looks out at the audience: "If something happened here, it could wipe out the entire fanbase."
A young woman named Amy has a question for Pepe: "I'm an eligible bachelorette. Can you tell me more about yourself?" Pepe gives her an enthusiastic answer. "I come from Malaga, which is in the southern part of Spain. I am twenty-one years old. I am not currently dating... and I'm orange." Then he tries to ask Amy to tell him about herself, and invites her to call him sometime. It really stays this good the whole time.
Actually, the most striking thing about this panel is how amazing Dave Goelz is. Again, no offense to the other guys, who are all hilarious -- but Dave is just on fire. They're on stage for about an hour, which is much longer than they usually perform these puppets. During that hour, there are lots of moments when the Muppeteers get distracted, or lose focus, or just get tired, and their puppets droop a little. But the whole time Gonzo is on Dave's arm, he's ON. Gonzo keeps eye contact with everybody who's speaking, constantly reacting to everything that's going on, even at times when Dave is looking the other way. I've never seen such an amazing, sustained Muppet performance. Gonzo's always been one of my favorites, but now I have an even deeper appreciation for him. Dave just seems connected to Gonzo in this incredibly intimate way. Gonzo is clearly alive for Dave -- and that makes him so much more alive for all of us.
Elmo does an impression of Ernie's laugh, which gets a round of applause. "Thank you! Thank you!" Elmo cries. "Money! Throw money!" And there, my friends, is the history of the last ten years of Sesame Street.
Finally, the Muppets are asked if there's anything they'd like to say to the Muppeteers. Pepe turns to Bill: "Yes. I would like to say to Bill Barretta... be very careful with your hands."
They get a huge standing ovation as they leave. Phew, what a great day this has been. Then I look at my watch and realize that it's only 4:00. There's still two more hours. This is the greatest day ever.
Saturday, Part 3:
Karen Prell is the meanest woman alive
Next up: Jerry Nelson, Kevin Clash and Bill Barretta singing Muppet Music with the live band. It's a shame that this segment had to be so short; it's only three songs, but it deserved a lot longer. For once, we actually get to see the Muppeteers acting, without puppets, and Jerry Nelson is just incredible. He riffs and scats his way through "Mahna Mahna," then looks around with actual bewilderment and embarrassment on his face. During "Mississippi Mud," Jerry is the only one that doesn't need to look at the lyrics. "You were incredible on that," Bill says. "No, you were," Jerry says. "I was listening." They're so adorable. Jerry gets a spot next to Dave on my Best Performers of the Day list.
Then there's the Fraggle Rock panel, and producer Martin Baker introduces Karen Prell. Karen bounds out on stage, dressed in a bright red jacket. She whips out a camera and takes a photo of the cheering crowd. Then she sits on her chair and pulls out a hat that has Red's hair, eyes and nose on it. She beams, "I can out-geek all of you guys!" She can, too. It's fantastic. We love her. She's a fan like us, but she gets the chance to sit on stage and be a Muppeteer. In one of the panels on Sunday, Karen tells a story about Richard Hunt sitting and reading a newspaper on the set of The Muppet Show, still wearing Sweetums' legs. She mentions that we may remember seeing a picture of that in the Of Muppets and Men book. Everyone else on stage gives her a blank look. It's a cool moment for the fans -- Karen's memorized Of Muppets and Men, just like we have!
In fact, Karen is so happy and warm and loving on stage that at dinner, Kynan and I decide to spread the rumor that she's incredibly mean in person. We tell people that on the autograph line, Karen kicked Kynan under the table, then poked him in the eyes with her Red hat. And then later, we saw her biting the heads off Doozers and just throwing them away. It was horrible. Nobody has any idea what we're talking about. Anyway, her new name is Karen "Ice Queen" Prell. Pass it on.
Meanwhile, back in reality. The Fraggle Rock panel seems to be something of a turning point for the con. Up to now, the Henson folks on stage have been very funny and enthusiastic, but they've seemed kind of uncomfortable, like they're not quite sure how much to reveal about themselves. But in the Fraggle Rock panel, they all get really passionate about how much they loved working on "Fraggles." Dave says: "Fraggles, for some reason, had more meaning than everything else. It was always about something. We're all sad that that's over. We'd all jump at the chance to do something with the Fraggles again. Maybe not a five-year series again, but something." Jerry agrees that there was something special about Fraggles: "We were all on a quest for quality. We knew if we were upset with something and let it go by, Jim would be unhappy. And we didn't want that to happen."
After a while, the people on the Fraggle panel stop talking to the audience, and just start talking to each other. It's the first time all day that it feels like we're eavesdropping on a real conversation. They're all so earnest and engaged when they talk about how great Fraggle Rock was, and how much they believed in it. It's beautiful, and I think Karen's enthusiasm is the key. At one point, she just blurts out: "Okay, quick survey -- If all the Fraggle Rock episodes came out on DVD, who would buy them?" There's a heartfelt smattering of applause, and Jerry shrugs, "Well, there's five sold." Karen is the most open about her love for the Fraggles, but it's obvious that on some level, she's personifying the love and passion they all had for the show.
And from then on, the con gets even better. The panels get more enthusiastic, the performers get more revealing and intimate. It's like Karen makes it okay for them to love doing this. She's fantastic. If she would just stop biting the heads off Doozers, she'd be perfect.
Saturday, Part 4:
Get outta Johnny Fiama!
The final panel of the day is Creating the Classic Muppets, where the Muppeteers talk about how some of their characters came to be. The Henson folks are all getting more comfortable talking on stage, and they start saying the most lovely, passionate, revealing things...
Brian, on Sal: "We all fell in love with this stupid monkey."
Dave, on Gonzo: "Over the years, he sort of evolved along with me... I was an impostor in show business. In the first season, Gonzo is always self-effacing and embarrassed. But he knows he has something special."
Steve, on Rizzo: "Rizzo was the character who grew out of my desperation to do something on The Muppet Show... As I get older and more crotchety myself, so does Rizzo!"
Jerry: "My wife will tell you that I'm the laziest man on earth... I may be lazy, but I'm loud."
A mention of Muppets Tonight gets a hand from the audience. Brian responds, "Yeah, it was a good show!"
Amy van Gilder, from the Muppet Workshop: "There is no thrill like building a puppet and having one of these guys put their hand in it, and have it turn around and say something to you. I'd recommend it to all of you."
It's obvious that they just love doing Muppets, and they're starting to love playing on stage, too.
At one point, puppet-builder Jane Gootnick is describing building Johnny Fiama, so Johnny gets up to visit her. Johnny talks to Jane and Floyd, and then suddenly notices Bill: "Good God, there's a man under me!" He calls to his monkey across the stage: "Sal! There's a man directly under me. Could you help me out?" Sal comes over to help. "All right! You! Get outta Johnny Fiama!" Sal starts to pull Johnny off of Bill's arm, but it's hurting Johnny: "Ow! Oo! Ow! It's not gonna work. Leave him alone, it's better this way." Sal warns Bill: "Okay -- you just be very, very careful."
Finally, Gonzo gets the last word, which turns out to be one of the most beautiful moments of the whole day. He describes the puppet-making process: "Y'know, when you're a new Gonzo, and you're a block of foam, and you're in the middle of it... They're just rolling you around on the table. And then you hear some snipping, and you know you're in there, but they haven't gotten to you yet. And then you see a little bit of light... and then Jane nicks you! Ow! A little off the tip of your nose. You can see it getting lighter and lighter, and then she's doing the nose -- and you can see it, it's right in front of your eyes... And then you're born."
Awww. They start organizing the autograph session, and first they call up to the line anybody who has special needs. And I can't help thinking: Special needs? We're Muppet fans. We all have special needs, kid. And everything I've seen today -- the passion, the energy, the wit, the spirit -- it's fulfilled my own special needs more than I even expected.
And tomorrow we get to come back and do this all over again.