The Return of ‘The Muppets’: Kermit, Miss Piggy and Co. Are Ready for Their Close-Up
It may not be easy being green, but it’s about to get a lot more fun for the world’s most famous amphibian when the Muppets make their overdue return to TV this fall.
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” marvels Kermit the Frog, ringleader of the beloved menagerie at the center of ABC’s The Muppets. Indeed it is. The latest entry in the crew’s anthropomorphic oeuvre—a gag-packed, behind-the-scenes look at a late-night talk show, hosted by Miss Piggy, natch—is a joyful mash-up of The Office and The Larry Sanders Show, as performed by felt animals. Including, literally, Animal.
“We are doing something that hasn’t been done before—two shows at the same time,” Kermit says. “One of them, the most important one, is a late-night show called Up Late With Miss Piggy.” The other is a backstage documentary being filmed about the making of Piggy’s chatfest, but if you ask the Up Late hostess, it’s really all about her. Like most things.
“You know, the fans always want more these days, and so we decided, actually I decided, to let a team of documentarians follow me wherever I went,” the ageless blonde diva says. “I’m completely comfortable with giving my fans an all-access pass.”
She’s in good hands (no pun intended). The Muppets comes after multiple attempts to reboot the franchise. “It happens every 20 years: 1976 was The Muppet Show, 1996 was Muppets Tonight, and now this one,” points out Debbie McClellan, vice president of The Muppets Studio. “We had a lot of people trying to bring the gang back in some form.” The popularity of the recent films The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted certainly helped audiences get reacquainted with Kermit and Co. Among their biggest supporters was executive producer Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory). “I started talking about this particular project 10 years ago, and eight years ago we even shot some test footage,” he says of his previous stalled pitches. “Back then, the feeling was that the timing just wasn’t right. Now, apparently, it is!” It’s also right that the obviously patient Prady be the one to bring the Muppets back to primetime: After all, he got his start writing for Muppet creator Jim Henson in 1982 after leaving his job (and eventual BBT inspiration) as a computer programmer.
“Jim was producing a show about technology at the time—though it wound up never getting made—and I was hired to be a production assistant and researcher because I had that computer background,” he says. “The Muppet offices in those days were in this amazing townhouse on a residential street on the Upper East Side of New York City. Imagine what the Muppet-iest old New York mansion would look like if you got it exactly right. It was like going to Kermit the Frog’s house every day!”
After working with writers like Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and several Sesame Street scribes on that project, Prady moved to the company’s licensing and merchandising department, cranking out copy for everything from Muppet-themed computer software to the packaging for Kermit the Frog plush toys. “I looked around and said, ‘I will take any job here. Any job.’”
That willingness earned Prady the attention of Henson, and he quickly moved on to penning Muppet comic books, jokes for the Dial-a-Muppet phone line (yep, that was a real thing) and episodes of 1987’s Fraggle Rock: The Animated Series before landing a full-time position on 1989’s The Jim Henson Hour. That anthology featuring the icon’s top-tier Muppets as well as newbies (who remembers the semirobotic Digit? Exactly) vanished after nine episodes, but it solidified Prady’s place in the puppetverse. “My Muppet experience,” he recalls fondly, “was working with Jim Henson every day.” Fittingly, Prady earned an Emmy nod in 1991 for cowriting the tribute special The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson following the legend’s passing the previous year.
Of course, a lot has changed since Henson unleashed his globally adored puppets. Originally introduced in 1955 on Washington, D.C.’s daily Sam and Friends sketch series, several of the characters soon found a home in 1969 on Sesame Street (a Children’s Television Workshop production, and separate from The Muppets Studio), while a new batch of Henson creations was featured in regular bits on the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1975 and 1976. Along the way, there have been eight feature films, countless guest appearances, TV movies and specials, the aforementioned Jim Henson Hour and 1996’s equally brief Muppets Tonight.
No matter the missteps, it has always been the group’s comedy-variety hit The Muppet Show, which ran from 1976 to 1981, that remains the gold standard. The show was filled with celebrity guests, goofy sketches and fresh furry faces like Gonzo and Fozzie, and the backstage mayhem at Muppet Theater was weekly, wickedly funny proof that these creatures could appeal to kids and their parents. In fact, one of the two pilot episodes for The Muppet Show parodied the growing amount of sex and violence on TV at the time. “The Muppets can go on Good Morning America and Saturday Night Live…on the same day,” McClellan says. “We don’t talk down to our audiences, and we’re never mean to each other. We speak to the fans with a smart, sophisticated humor. That, I think, has always been the key to the Muppets—that kind of comedy.”
For the new series to work, the producers looked to the past for an idea on how to drive that comedy. “When The Muppet Show came on in the 1970s, the dominant form of entertainment on TV was still the variety show,” Prady explains, citing everyone from Sonny and Cher to the Smothers Brothers. “The Muppet Show was mocking [that format]. If Jim Henson were alive today, he wouldn’t make a variety show, because that’s not what’s big on TV. He’d look at the mock-documentary style that came to the U.S. from England—The Office and Parks and Recreation and Modern Family—and say, ‘Let’s try to make fun of that.’”
And we bet he’d be proud. The 10-minute trailer Prady and company pitched to ABC, with its legalized marijuana joke and edgy innuendo-laden gags, is both nostalgia heaven and as sharp and relevant as ever. That’s thanks in large part to the decision to give the Muppets actual backstories—Fozzie is dating a human! Rowlf runs a tavern!—and set them in the real world, while also honoring their Muppet Show roots as the most diverse cast working in showbiz. That’s right: The entire puppet posse is on staff at Up Late. “Kermit is the executive producer of the show and he deals with the very difficult host in Miss Piggy,” laughs cocreator Bob Kushell. “Fozzie is the sidekick and warm-up act, Gonzo is the head writer with Rizzo the Rat and Pepe the King Prawn working for him, and Scooter is the talent coordinator/scout.”
In addition, a parade of celebrity guests will be visiting Piggy’s show. (The original series featured Julie Andrews, Johnny Cash and Elton John, to name just a few.) Up Late’s “live” studio audience will include those beloved balcony curmudgeons Statler and Waldorf, the house band will be Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, the Swedish Chef is handling catering, and Sam the Eagle is sure to be hawking around the wings now that he’s landed the perfect gig in Standards and Practices.
It’s a roster that should entice the most jaded star (and animal control officer), yet at least one key player involved seems to be looking down her snout at the assembled employees. “You know, if I had been hiring, it would’ve been a completely different staff,” confesses the notoriously picky Piggy. “The one thing I like is that Fozzie does my preshow warm-up, and he’s absolutely horrible at it. That’s a good thing for me, because he sets the bar low and then people can enjoy moi even more.”
Miss Piggy’s disdain may be related to issues more personal than personnel, and it is so far the only sign of backstage drama as Up Late—and The Muppets—heads into production. “Coming together to develop and create this world has been such an amazing process,” says Kushell, speaking for, we assume, the show’s human contingent. As for the rest of the Muppets, it sounds like they too are all about making sure their new show reestablishes the rainbow connection with fans. And Kermit, for one, is thrilled to have at least some of that pressure off what he calls his “nonexistent shoulders.”
“You can do anything with them,” he raves, always so supportive of his zoological crew. “And many of them just work for food. That’s always nice.”
Better get busy, Chef!
The Muppets, Series premiere, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 8/7c, ABC