Jul 28, 2011
Interview with Muppeteer Michael Earl
RYAN: Welcome to The Muppet Mindset, Michael. Thanks a bunch for sitting down to talk with us.
MICHAEL: It’s my pleasure.
RYAN: We can read all about your entrance into the world of Muppeteering on Muppet Wiki or your interview on ToughPigs, but I’d like to know how it feels to be a part of such big parts of Muppet history with your roles in The Muppet Movie and the golden age of Sesame Street.
MICHAEL: It feels humbling. I was very fortunate to have had such an amazing opportunity, and at such an early age (19). Who knew that as I watched Sesame Street at age 10 that I’d be on it in nine short years. Yeah, it was pretty exciting!
RYAN: You originated the Sesame Street character of Forgetful Jones. What do you think was the most important aspect of that character?
MICHAEL: He was forgetful and kids forget things. That’s why he was created.
RYAN: You also took over the role of Mr. Snuffleupagus from Jerry Nelson in the late 70’s. What was it like to have to make the character your own after Jerry’s characterization? Did you work more on imitating Jerry’s portrayal or making Snuffy yours?
MICHAEL: It was intimidating. I worked very hard on keeping the character like Jerry’s. I felt it important that there was a consistency to the character...especially for the kids watching. After awhile, I felt very comfortable in the character and added my own touches.
RYAN: How was it to play off of Caroll Spinney’s Big Bird while within the enormous Snuffleupagus puppet?
MICHAEL: Caroll is a very giving performer…and person. He had been Big Bird for so long that it came naturally to him. I had to work a little harder. At that point, Jim Henson’s puppets wee still evolving and were not as refined as they are today. The inside of the Snuffy was a little uncomfortable at the time. But we had lots of fun acting out the scenes.
RYAN: Who were some of your favorite fellow Muppeteers to play off of when you worked on Sesame Street?
MICHAEL: Brian Muehl and I were a good team. We did a lot of work together. In fact, Jim put us in a room with a camera and monitor the summer we were to start working on Sesame Street. We were to practice and get better since we both were new. I taught Brian what I knew about puppetry, and he taught me about acting. We got some old Bob and Ray scripts from the New York Library and adapted them for Muppets. We taped them and Jim took the tape home to show to his family. Years later on the set of Dinosaurs, I asked Brian Henson if he remembered watching that tape as a teen. He said he did. I also enjoyed working with Jim, Frank, Jerry, Caroll and Richard, each one was very helpful to me.
RYAN: At one point you took over Slimey the Worm from Jerry Nelson as well, meaning you performed Snuffy, the largest character on the Street, and Slimey, the smallest. Was this a difficult thing to do or did you appreciate the challenge?
MICHAEL: No it wasn’t difficult. Being a puppeteer is basically acting. You’re just doing it through your hands, or in the case of Snuffy, through your whole body. I got another chance to perform a body puppet for DreamWorks when I was cast as a motion-capture Shrek for a test film for the movie. My Snuffy experience paid off.
RYAN: Eventually you made your exit from Sesame Street as a featured performer. Did this come about from the return of performers from London after The Muppet Show ended? Or was there more to it than that?
MICHAEL: Yes, they were returning, but there’s more to it than that which I talked about in my ToughPigs interview. It was time to move on. I had other goals at that time and my leaving after three seasons was for the best.
RYAN: Was it, or is it still, difficult to see characters you performed such as Snuffy, Forgetful Jones, and others be performed by other Muppeteers such as Martin Robinson and Richard Hunt?
MICHAEL: When you put so much of yourself into a character, it becomes hard to see them taking a different direction. But I understand that each puppeteer has their own way of doing things.
RYAN: Did you or do you have a personal relationship with either Robinson or Hunt?
MICHAEL: I didn’t meet Marty till we both were hired onto The Muppets Take Manhattan. A few years later we both booked an M&M commercial (voice-over) and had a blast working together on that. He also invited me to the Sesame Street set one day after we worked on the Wildlife PSA’s. And Richard and I had a nice friendship over the years. He was the Muppeteer who came to Sesame Street most often, so I have many fond memories of Richard. We met on the set of The Muppet Movie. He was older and always wore nice sports shirts. Because of him, I began wearing sports shirts with jeans.
RYAN: After Sesame Street did you still do some freelancing work for the Muppets?
MICHAEL: Yes, I did Little Muppet Monsters, some wildlife PSA’s, a Target commercial and Dinosaurs.
RYAN: What was your main career focus after Sesame Street?
MICHAEL: My main focus right after Sesame Street was acting. The year after leaving Sesame Street I was a principal in 4 national commercials. Then I moved to LA and began giving concerts for families, traveling around the country. It was sort of like Barry Manilow meets Shari Lewis, my concert act, which combined original songs, singing, storytelling and puppetry. Later I worked for Bob Baker Marionettes and worked on filling out my puppetry resume, working for Sid and Marty Krofft, and on Team America: World Police. Along the way I was also a puppetry consultant for Universal and Disney.
RYAN: And now you have an exciting new project involving puppetry in New York and Los Angeles. Can you tell us about this?
MICHAEL: It’s called Puppet School – Where imagination and creativity meet! It’s a fun place that I started with my friend and business partner, Roberto Ferreira, one year ago. We began by renting a casting studio for me to teach in. Then we moved to our own space across the street in Sherman Oaks, CA, and expended our offices 4 months ago. We added two more teachers: Christian Anderson who was on Broadway and on tour for four years with Avenue Q; and Derek Lux, who teaches a Professional Puppet Making class at Puppet School. And we are training our first teacher in New York, Scott Biski.
RYAN: What are your main goals with Puppet School? Do you see it expanding across the country?
MICHAEL: Every day after class, the students go home with a big smile. That’s my goal. And of course to perpetuate the spread of puppetry. We have so far taught classes in New York City, Seattle and LA. And yes, we see it expanding to other cities across the US as the word gets out.
RYAN: How can those of us interested get involved with Puppet School?
MICHAEL: As it happens, we have new classes starting in New York August 13th and 14th. So if you’re on the east coast, come join us! Also we have Seattle classes happening on September 10th and 11th. And if you want to join our mailing list to keep informed on classes and events, go to www.puppetschool.com and fill in the form.
RYAN: Are you still a Muppet fan? Excited for The Muppets movie this fall?
MICHAEL: Oh, yes, still a Muppet fan. I will see everything they produce. Puppet School is planning on taking a NY and LA field trip to the new Muppet Movie in November, where students and friends can come to the movie with puppets!
RYAN: Michael, thank you for taking the time to talk to us. Are there any final words or thoughts you’d like to leave us with?
MICHAEL: Jim Henson used to say: “My hope still is to leave the world a bit better than when I got here.” And that’s what Puppet School is doing; spreading the love of puppetry!
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org