“A Conversation with Frank Oz” at NYC’s Museum of the Moving Image
Alison Durkee - Last weekend I had the incredible opportunity of seeing the one and only Frank Oz in person at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. The museum is currently housing the amazing "Jim Henson's Fantastic World" exhibit, and has been hosting Muppet/Henson-related screenings and events every weekend. I've been attending these events pretty regularly (and if you're anywhere near NYC and have the means to do so, I suggest you do too), so of course when they announced Frank Oz would be appearing at the museum, I leaped at the chance to attend. And I was certainly not alone. The museum announced that the event was the fastest selling one they'd ever had (tickets sold out minutes after being released to the general public), and they even set up a live feed of the event, which was broadcast to another of the museum's theaters for those who could not get in.
Interviewing Frank Oz at the event was Craig Shemin, longtime Muppet writer and Secretary on the Board of Directors for The Jim Henson Legacy. And while Frank Oz might have been the man of honor at the event, the audience was filled with numerous people who were instrumental to the Muppets' success, including, among many others, Fran Brill and Bonnie Erickson. After being introduced by some short clips from his live-action film roles, Frank Oz took the stage, greeted by a standing ovation from the audience.
Frank began by telling us that while, he was the one up onstage, he was really there to represent not only himself, but also Jim, his fellow Muppeteers, and everyone that helped to create the Muppets and contributed to their success. Craig set up the event by dividing it up into topics. Each topic was introduced by a compilation of clips, and then Frank and Craig would talk about the clips and the topic as a whole.
First up was a series of clips from Frank's earliest work with the Muppets, including The Jimmy Dean Show, a Wilson's Meats Sales Presentation, a commercial for Munchos, and the "Java" number on The Ed Sullivan Show. Frank talked about how scared he was initially to perform voices because of his low self-esteem. He then turned to the audience to remind us and make sure we knew that those with low self-esteem WILL get over it and WILL get better, just as he had. The first time that Frank performed a voice, he used the motto, "If you can't be good, be loud!" ...and, of course, the rest is history.
Frank also talked about the core Muppeteer group's routine in the Muppets' earliest days, explaining how each week they would work all day in New York City, drive to Washington DC, flip coins to determine who slept in a room with who, film in DC at a studio that Jim had a deal with, and then drive back to NYC. Money made on the many commercials that they filmed would go toward working on "Time Piece" on the weekends. When they had free time, Jim would suggest other projects for them to work on, showing how much he truly loved to work and push the boundaries of what could be done.
Next up were some most sensational and inspirational clips from The Muppet Show! The main topic of conversation here was Miss Piggy... which, of course, is just how she would want it. Frank called her success "weird," as it's strange to think of himself, a "6 foot 2 guy who looks like a professor," as the person behind such a famous female icon. Miss Piggy, Frank explained, plays coy and feminine, but is really a "truck driver" underneath. She never purposely tries to be funny--rather, her humor comes from all the pain she's holding down. Though she has many flaws, her biggest asset is her "extraordinary bravado," and she always attempts things that she can't do. Craig commented that he always loved how attentive Frank was when Craig wrote for Piggy, even referencing a note that Frank had made in the 1980's suggesting that Miss Piggy should "branch out" and try new activities. Frank explained that when a character becomes so popular, the audience claims that character, and it's hard for the character to grow or get tremendous depth. To bring a character to life and give it depth, Muppeteers and writers have to aim for "transcendent" performances, rather than good or great ones, as the character can't just be treated like a puppet; it is the aura and transcendence of the character that brings it to life.
We then moved from television to the big screen with a look at some of the Muppets' film appearances, including some test footage from The Muppet Movie. One of the clips shown was Miss Piggy's water ballet sequence from The Great Muppet Caper. To show how Jim could do the impossible, Frank explained how the puppeteering for that sequence was done. It involved him, underwater, with his foot tied to a brick, breathing from an air tube between takes... for 10 days. Sounds fun, right?! If there were any audience members who didn't respect how hard Muppeteers work before that point... I think their minds were quickly changed.
The next batch of clips featured some of the Muppets' improvised appearances, including TV promos for The Muppet Show and talk show appearances. Frank explained that he always loved doing these appearances, but Jim would get extremely nervous. When Jim would do an appearance without Frank, Frank would always show up anyway because he enjoyed those appearances so much... and when it was just Frank, Jim would show up because he was glad it wasn't him performing.
Finally, we moved on to Frank's directorial career, with clips that included "Skid Row" from Little Shop of Horrors and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (It was also at this point that Frank commented about the clips, "Could this be any more aggrandizing?"). Frank discussed the inspiration for a shot of people climbing up a fence during "Skid Row," which came from his performances with a puppeteering group on playgrounds when he was a teenager. And fans of Little Shop will be happy to hear that Frank also announced Warner Brothers will be releasing a 2-disc DVD/Blu-ray set of the film next Halloween, which includes the original ending!
At this point, the conversation was opened up to a Q&A session, and Frank took questions from the audience. Questions that were asked included who Frank's favorite character was, to which he responded that Grover is the character that appeared most organically and is easiest to perform; and his thoughts on the "Muppet Man" script that was circulated a few years ago, which he thinks is "completely ridiculous" and would have no part in, were it to be produced. Another question asked was about Leo and Grump from the "Muppet Meeting Films," which Frank used to discuss how well he and Jim understood each other. If they had to do another take of a scene, they would simply look at each other and know what they had to do to fix their performances, without saying a word.
One of the most charming moments during the Q&A was when a young boy asked if Frank could sign his Fozzie doll. Frank agreed and had the boy come down onstage (try to contain your jealousy), where he then proceeded to demonstrate, using the boy and his Fozzie plush, how the Muppets were puppeteered. Seeing Frank with his arm up as if puppeteering, next to one of the characters that he created, was truly an incredible moment.
I'm pretty sure this goes without saying, but getting to see Frank Oz discuss his work with the Muppets was an unforgettable experience. Even hearing stories that I already knew, like how he and Jim initially met, seemed fresh when being heard from the man himself, and nothing compares to hearing about Jim and his work directly from his closest collaborator. Frank was extremely gracious and pleasant throughout the entire event, often joking with Craig or double-checking to make sure that those in the back of the audience could hear what was being said.
He was also incredibly humble, always quick to recognize those behind the scenes, or tell a story about himself just in order to illustrate something that he admired about Jim. Frank said that he knows when people thank him for his work with the Muppets that they're really thanking him, Jim, and everybody that works with the Muppets. Considering that the Muppets would truly not be who they are without Frank, to hear him give so much credit to those he worked with and be so humble was truly inspiring. While his live appearances are few and far between, if you ever have the chance to see Frank Oz speak in person, it is an opportunity that no Muppet fan should pass up. And if you're in the NYC area, come check out Jim Henson's Fantastic World at the Museum of the Moving Image! There will be Henson/Muppet-related events there every weekend until early January, and while they may not feature Frank Oz in person, they’re sure to be exciting for any Jim Henson fan.
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org