Interview with Bill Barretta
RYAN: Welcome back to The Muppet Mindset. We’re here with Bill Barretta (we’ve let him out for a bathroom break, we swear) for the final part of our interview. Bill, any final first words?
BILL: Final, first words…hmmm…Bye and hi?
RYAN: On Sesame Street, you have the honor of performing Elmo’s father, Louie. Though Louie rarely appears on the actual show, he is used quite frequently in the “Talk, Listen, Connect” specials benefiting military families. How did you get cast as Louie?
BILL: Kevin Clash had this beautiful song written by Mark Radice called “Proud” about a father and son and wanted to record it with Elmo. He asked me if I would sing the dad part and so I did. The song came out beautifully and I think it caught people’s attention at Sesame and so they decided to work with Kevin on developing that relationship further and integrating Louis into some upcoming projects. Oh, and then building the puppet.
RYAN: Why does it seem like all of the bad things happen to Elmo’s family? Louie gets deployed, Elmo’s mom loses her job—Thank goodness for all of the funds from Tickle Me Elmo or else the Elmo family would be in bad shape.
BILL: I think you probably already know the answer to this but Elmo is the platform that Sesame needs to use for these sensitive topics especially when it applies to families and children. And yes, pimping out their son to bring in the cash hasn’t hurt them either.
RYAN: You have performed Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, and Swedish Chef for many, many years. What is it like to take over three hugely iconic characters—especially three characters performed by Jim Henson?
BILL: I think my initial reaction was pure excitement. But it didn’t take me long to realize that it was not going to be easy. I’ve resigned myself to the idea that I am basically doing an impersonation of these characters and only that at best. These characters came from within Jim and were a part of him. There is no way I could ever be comfortable performing these characters as if they were my own. For me, I am honored beyond my wildest dreams to be performing them and I hope that while I am doing them that I am able to capture some of the spirit and integrity that Jim brought to the world with these guys.
RYAN: Did you know Jim at all before he passed? How was it decided that you would take over these characters? What is a recasting process like for characters like these?
BILL: Only briefly was I in his company years ago. Once when I saw him coming through the entrance of Sesame Place – where I ran from my manned post and said. “Mr. Henson welcome to Sesame Place can I show you anything”. He said, “Do you know where the new automated characters are?” That happened to be by coincidence the manned station that I had left unattended. So I took him there. And then again I met him with Brian in New York at his apartment.
I’m not sure exactly how they were all decided. I know Brian asked me to perform Rowlf after discussing it with the family. The other thing was, I never thought I would be performing Rowlf or Dr. Teeth because I had begun performing Bobo and he was my “vocal tribute” to those Jim voices that I always loved. Now it’s quite difficult to separate them all and I have to try and make sure they maintain their character and not be too hung up on the voice. It’s the personality of the character that separates them as individuals.
Recasting is often something that grows out of a pre-existing pool of performers. It’s so important to the creative process if we are lucky enough to fulfill roles with people that we already have relationships with. Again, as I mentioned earlier, it’s the relationships below the puppets that are truly driving the characters. If you throw a total stranger into the mix it becomes a large learning curve to get to that place that seems so easy and seamless to watch as the characters interact with each other. And it’s not that new performers aren’t welcome, but the ideal situation is that it might grow from the core group somehow…We’ve been lucky.
RYAN: I do a few Muppet voice impressions just for fun, including Rowlf and Dr. Teeth. I’ve always wondered how it affects your throat to do such deep, gravelly voices for long periods of time. I only toss around a few lines every once in awhile and my throat hurts. Is there a special trick you use to keep your throat from hurting during long recording sessions?
BILL: Not really. Water’s good or lemon juice works well if you need it, but water mainly.
RYAN: It’s been so great lately that we’ve been seeing more and more of Rowlf, Scooter, The Electric Mayhem, and other classic Muppet characters. Has there been a conscious decision within The Muppets Studio to bring these classic characters back to the spotlight?
BILL: This is a difficult question to answer. I know that Debbie McClellan who is really the most familiar with the characters and their history really tries to keep all the characters alive and well as best she can. But now that David Rudman has begun to perform Richard Hunt’s characters, and very well I will add, and Vogel is doing Jerry’s, I think it is more comfortable for the Studio to try and have them more present.
RYAN: This Christmas the Muppets performed “The Twelve Days of Christmas” on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Do you know how they chose the Muppets to perform? It was so cool to see Rowlf, Scooter, Sam Eagle, and Robin on late night TV.
BILL: As you probably know it was based on The John Denver Special, so the original characters that the core group now performs were in it, but then I believe Steve, Eric and Debbie decided who else should be in it.
RYAN: Whose idea was it to have Rowlf performing with The Roots?
BILL: I think it was people at the Fallon show. In the original John Denver version Rowlf was a cut away shot to him at the piano, so it kind of stayed true to the original in that way.
RYAN: At the D23 Convention in Anaheim last year Pepe, Gonzo, and Fozzie got to meet with tons of fans. How much fun was it to get to socialize with Muppet fans live and in-prawn?
BILL: It was wonderful, but I have to say not the most comfortable way of doing it. Dave, Eric and I would have preferred not having a wall between us and the folks there, but I hope people enjoyed it, nonetheless.
RYAN: When the Muppets rolled in on the river boat, was Pepe singing “Prince Ali” from Aladdin? That’s what it seemed like in the one video Disney released.
BILL: That was one of the songs we did. Except the words were changed to “I’m Pepe, fabulous me, Pepe the King Prawn”. Other songs were Miss Piggy’s version of “Cruella DeVille”, titled “Miss Piggy, That’s Moi” and a finale of Rainbow Connection and The Magic Store.
RYAN: When you were shooting the material for the “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day” promotions in Disneyland, were you and the other Muppeteers given some time to explore the theme park and enjoy yourselves, or was it all just business?
BILL: Yeah we did actually have some time one day to go around the park, but we really worked long hours. Some in the day while guests were there, but mostly during the hours when the park was closed. Long nights.
RYAN: In the commercial with Fozzie, Pepe, and Sara Ramirez, was the effect of Fozzie shocking Pepe with defibrillators added in post-production or was a stunt-prawn used?
BILL: Though we do have a stunt Pepe, that was a post effect.
RYAN: After six years in the House of Mouse, it appears that the Muppets are finally being accepted and utilized in the Disney family. Is there a distinct change in the way the Muppets are thought about within the company, or has it always been positive and it’s just now had enough time to shine through?
BILL: Everything takes time. Especially when a large company like Disney who is used to taking 2D or CG characters and exploiting them throughout all of the various outlets that they have available to them. How do you use that same business model with a smaller, reparatory-like group of characters that are not animated? The Muppets live in our world and if you want to stay true to the integrity (original or single performed, not multi-casted characters) and philosophy of the Muppets, it makes it harder to meet those larger scale demands that Disney requires. It has taken time for The Muppet Studio to find the right exposure for this very specific situation and it’s not easy. They’ve hung in there and fought for the right thing and it is now paying off. It’s a selective strategy that can be very risky, but they’re doing it and it’s become quite fun to be a part of. I’ll admit, it was frustrating for a while, but I understand how tough it must be to be in their shoes.
RYAN: Pepe has always been a huge flirt and it seems like he’s been able to say things or get away with things that human actors—or even other Muppets—wouldn’t be able to get away with. Why do you think this is?
BILL: I suppose it’s just because of who he is. His character type dictates that approach to life. In a way he’s like Ralph Cramden. He’s got big, bold and not very gracious opinions, but everyone knows in the end that he’s just a blow hard. Also, I think the Spanish side of him allows him to get away with dialogue that is misconstrued or misinterpreted. And being Spanish, he’s very passionate emotionally, which makes it fun to put him into different situations and see how he reacts.
RYAN: Alright, now I’ve got some random questions for your characters. Do you think they’d mind answering a few?
BILL: I guess it depends on who you’re asking? But give it a shot.
RYAN: For Johnny: Where did you meet Sal and does he work cheap? I could really use a servant monkey.
JOHNNY: Uh…I am currently not at liberty to discuss the details of how we met due to some legal ligamentations going on at the moment between myself and the PETA people.
As far as if you are implying that I pay Sal for his services, I must inform you at this time that he is a friend of the family and asked to be my gentlemen’s monkey as an act of love and respect.
I have to say, I don’t think Sal is going to like the term servant you use; thank God he can’t read too good.
RYAN: For Bobo: I’m trying to work out but the traditional exercise strategies just aren’t working for me. Do you have any special tips?
BOBO: Stop exercising. Any special tips…beef tips?
RYAN: For Pepe: I have a very good friend with a fantastic accent, yet for some reason he’s still single. What is he doing wrong?
PEPE: He’s talking too much, okay. There is the old saying…Accents speak louder than words. It’s true okay.
RYAN: For Pepe: I also have a very good friend who is recently single—and female. Would you like her number?
PEPE: Is it toll free?
RYAN: For All: Who’s the guy underneath you?
ALL: Come again kid? Is that what’s been itching? Unbelievable, okay!
RYAN: For Bill: What advice do you have for Muppet fans who someday want to work with the Muppets?
BILL: Keep practicing. Set up a camera at home and work with it as much as you can. And don’t use reverse image monitors. We still work the way Jim started it all. Right is left and left is right. And more importantly, if you have a character or characters you perform, that you are comfortable with, make sure you can maintain that character while you are performing the puppet technically. And visa versa, if you are technically proficient; make sure your characters are equally strong. Finding that balance is very important.
RYAN: Finally, Bill, what is your favorite flavor of muffin?
BILL: I’m afraid I’m not a muffin man…Do you know the muffin man?
I guess if I had to choose, it would be blueberry…Why?
RYAN: Bill, thank you so much for doing this interview with me. I can’t tell you enough how much I respect and love you and your work. I hope someday that I get to meet you and shake your hand. The Muppet Mindset is in debt to you forever for this amazing interview! If you ever want to be asked random, in-depth questions about you and your characters, The Muppet Mindset is always glad to oblige!
BILL: Anytime Ryan. Hope I didn’t run on too long and I hope what I’ve said makes some sense.
I cannot adequately thank Bill Barretta enough for this fantastic interview. He's a great guy and the Muppets are so lucky to have him. I know I'm not alone in saying that I can't wait to see how Bill will make us laugh next!
I hope you all have enjoyed our interview with Bill Barretta! If you wish to thank Bill, leave a comment here or some where else where I'll see it and I'll be sure to pass it on to him.
Be sure to read Part One and Part Two of my interview with Bill Barretta!
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier