1 The Muppet Mindset: Interview with Legendary Muppeteer Jerry Nelson, Part 3

Jan 10, 2011

Interview with Legendary Muppeteer Jerry Nelson, Part 3

Ryan Dosier - We're back once again with the indescribably awesome Jerry Nelson! This is the second to last part of our wonderful interview. I fully believe that this is the greatest thing The Muppet Mindset has accomplished thus far and I can't thank Jerry enough for his kindness, friendliness, and all-around awesomeness. But... enough about that. Enjoy the wisdom and brilliance of Jerry Nelson as he and I discuss Fraggle Rock!

Check out Part 1 and Part 2 of our interview with Jerry!
Jerry Nelson Interview
Part 3

RYAN:   Welcome back! I’m still here with Jerry Nelson: the man, the Count, the legend. Jerry, how do you like The Muppet Mindset so far?

JERRY:   Tough questions, Ryan. I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, but thanks for giving me some space to try my memory and imagination yet again. Some of the events these questions refer to happened so long ago, they seem to have happened to some other mug.

RYAN:   The topic of part 3 of our interview is Fraggle Rock. Jerry, what was it like going from the well-known characters on The Muppet Show to starting all over again with the Fraggles, Doozers, and Gorgs?

JERRY:   This is a story-oriented tale. Whereas The Muppet Show was a series of strange, bizarre, comedic, entertaining and even beautiful showcase acts, stitched together with backstage pandemonium.

Fraggle Rock was an entirely different world inhabited by a panoply of creatures large and small. Their foibles were not unlike our own. I think we moved comfortably into that world and the spirit of that world and the inter-species relationships it created. Getting used to maneuvering in the caves was new but nothing we couldn’t handle and, in fact, revealed comedic and dramatic opportunity for all.

RYAN:   Another new aspect that came with Fraggle Rock was putting on a show without the eye of Jim Henson or the hand of Frank Oz on set. What was it like to sort of go out on your own to make this new show?

JERRY:   We didn’t really go out on our own. Jim Henson was there at all times in a way. With the exception of Frank, he had his A team there in all aspects of the production. He didn’t leave until he had worked with enough directors with correct focus to make the show work in a seamless way. And of course, he came back from time to time to join in the fun.
Once he got the show going and things kind of established, Jim, for the first time would leave us on our own to do other things. We understood this trust, realizing it was up to us to maintain the spirit of the show in Jim’s absence, to make sure the show was up to his standards. Everyone, in all phases of the production, was involved in that way. When we would finish shooting on Friday night, or sometimes early Saturday morning, director, writer, cast, production team and crew would all gather for refreshments (Frosty Friday) to discuss that weeks shoot, problems that arose and were dealt with and how we could better resolve those issues if they came up again.

RYAN:   For the first time, you were handed the “hero” character for an entire series of a show. What was it like to become Gobo? Was it difficult for you to become the leading character?

JERRY:   I think I said earlier that being an actor on stage prior to coming to puppets gave me a good foundation. I had played leads in some stage productions since returning from military service in the mid 1950s. Don’t forget too, I had been a kid, still am, yeah, I’m an old kid now.

RYAN:   Can you talk to us a little bit about Gobo’s hat collection? I always loved the episodes when he wore hats—if for no other reason than the fact that he was wearing a hat.

JERRY:   I am a hat man. I have always been into hats, even as a kid they were always telling me that if I wore my hat inside it would make me go bald. When I first started traveling, doing shows, I would buy a hat in each new town. At some point I asked our very capable shop people, if Gobo could have a variety of hats to wear. They applied their magic and Gobo had a fun variety of headgear for the series.

RYAN:   How do you think Gobo’s character changed throughout the run of the show?

JERRY:   Almost any Fraggle fan can answer that better than I. Did his character change? He certainly went through some changes, as did they all. I don’t think I intentionally changed anything but it would be strange if there were no growth over the course of the series. I’ll have to watch the entire series now, I guess, to find out.

RYAN:   One of my favorite aspects of the show was Gobo’s friendship with Wembley. Did this come from a rapport you have with Steve Whitmire, or was it more a scripted element?

JERRY:    Though Steve and I do have good working history and have played music together so we play well together, this was I think, character driven. Leader/sidekick always works well.  Of the five Fraggles, Boober is the loner, I suspect because he is so fussy about things (laundry, cleanliness, food, germs etc.). Since Wembley has a difficult time making up his mind, Boober would have been a disaster for Wembley as a roommate (think The Big Bang Theory), though they did get along well. Gobo is a better influence on Wembley because of Gobo’s basic optimism.

RYAN:   Kermit sometimes seems to sort of resent his role as leader of the Muppets, but Gobo was always very defensive of his position of leader of the Fraggle Five. Why do you think this is?

JERRY:   The Fraggle that challenges Gobo the most often is Red. They are both very competitive and Red never misses an opportunity to dispute the status quo. It’s usually good-natured, but as with anyone who is competitive there is an edge to it. Sometimes feelings are hurt but never in a mean spirited way.

RYAN:   Where does Gobo’s competitiveness come from? Is it his desire to hold his leadership role, or is there something more?

JERRY:   Gobo assumes he will follow in his Uncle Traveling Matt’s footsteps. He, of course, does not see Matt’s bumbling nature until later, so he thinks of Matt as explorer supreme, who is fearlessly facing the world of the Silly Creatures on his own. This is a role he wants to be ready to assume at some point in his life and as we see, he gets frightened by the simultaneous night time workshop, storm and hairy monster confrontation.

The caves too, can be very dangerous and of course these continuously test his mettle, so Red’s dares and confrontations are things that must be met bravely and with a desire to win.

RYAN:   Why does Gobo have such a strong desire to compete with Red that he doesn’t show with any of the other Fraggles?

JERRY:   I think I’ve just answered this. Anyway, she is the only one who really challenges Gobo in a confrontational way.

RYAN:   Gobo seems to both admire and compete with his Uncle Matt. How can you describe this extremely complex relationship the two of them have?

JERRY:   With tears in my eyes and joy/difficulty in my heart! It’s not easy to watch a lifelong hero turn into a bumbling fool, but there you have it.  In spite of all that, Gobo still adores his Uncle Traveling Matt, for after all, this is the hero of his youth and the benchmark of all his own explorations and adventures to come.

RYAN:   Arguably the most powerful moment of the entire series was when Gobo reached out and touched Doc. What was it like shooting this huge moment?

JERRY:   In that reaching out and touching, were we all touched deeply with the import of better contact and understanding in our micro/macro world. The entire studio felt it. That was a momentous occasion, in anybody’s book. Mine too.

RYAN:   Sprocket and Gobo always had a very interesting relationship. How did Gobo go from fearing the hairy beast to riding him through the Fraggle caves?

JERRY:   Of course originally Sprocket’s barking almost scared the Fraggle puck out of him, but Gobo spent many hours studying the large shaggy creature that is Sprocket and so, as is often the case, curiosity begins to tip the scale of relationships toward interest and as we all know that can lead to understanding and cooperation. Or at least wanting to ride the beast to save time when there is danger for the Fraggles. Let’s just say, it was a great adventure for them both.

RYAN:   What do you think is the most important aspect of Gobo’s character?

JERRY:   Though he is at times conflicted, he wants to do the right thing and usually works it out so that the right thing ends up getting done. Sometimes he comes to it on his own, sometimes with the help of his friends and at times even those he might think of as his enemy. The important thing is that he strives to be loyal, compassionate and honest.

RYAN:   What were some of your favorite songs from Fraggle Rock?

JERRY:  “We Always Say Goodbye” “It Maybe Trash, Bit It Sure Ain’t Junk”,   ,   ,   Unequivocally, there were no songs I didn’t like in that show. Philip Balsam and Dennis Lee put together a songbook for that show that in my opinion is unparalleled by anything else with the exception of Paul Williams songs in Emmett Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, or The Muppet Christmas Carol. No wait!  How about, I loved every song I got to sing and was even envious for the ones I didn’t get wrap my vocal chords around.

RYAN:   Speaking of songs, can you talk to us a little bit about Marjory the Trash Heap? Where did she come from within you? Did she smell?

JERRY:   Marjory is my homage to Maria Ouspenskaya, a great Russian actress who was often cast as a Gypsy woman but that was Hollywood’s shortcoming, not hers. I think you meant, “How did she smell?” “With her nose, nyock nyock nyock!”

RYAN:   What do you think is the greatest advice that Marjory has ever given?

JERRY:   The most fun was, “Don’t cry over spilt milk.” Since that is not an adage in all languages, the idea of crying over spilt milk had to be demonstrated. Steve had lots of fun putting Wembley into that one. Red or Mokey was part of that also, I think.

RYAN:   Was it difficult to play off of Philo and Gunge and the Fraggles at the same time?

JERRY:   No, it wasn’t. Those guys always gave me everything I needed to play the character fully and then some. Did I mention their timing was great? It was!

RYAN:   Did anyone ever pitch a story that involved both Marjory and Cantus the Minstrel? It seems like that would be an electric combination.

JERRY:   Never in my presence. I would have loved it though. I always enjoyed working with Jim. Cantus and Convincing John were wonderful characters and it was even more fun to be in the studio when they were in a script.

RYAN:   What is the Marjory moment you enjoyed the most?

JERRY:   Singing. Did I mention I love to sing? She had several nice Blues to sing. I also loved the banter between Philo and Gunge. Nyahh!

RYAN:   Marjory was as much a set piece as she was a character. What was it like to perform a location?

JERRY:   Performing a location is similar to portraying a prop, but more prodigious.

RYAN:   Let’s move on to your third main character on the show, Pa Gorg. How satisfying was it for you to finally get to boss Richard Hunt around?

JERRY:   I never bossed Richard around, well, okay maybe in the early days when he was an over exuberant puppy. You are maybe referring to Pa Gorg bossing Junior Gorg around? Loved it, but I had to be careful because that was a combination of Richard Hunt and Rob Mills which can crack you up faster than a nano-second can shout Boy Howdy! Okay, a nanosecond can’t shout anything that we know of, but if it could…

RYAN:   How did you “become” Pa? Was he based on anyone you know?

JERRY:   My bad impression of Wallace Beery. If I did a good impression, people would say, “Oh, he’s just doing Wallace Beery, or Jimmy Durante.”

Doing bad impressions makes it seem like I do all kinds of characters. Shh, don’t tell anyone.

RYAN:   Why does Pa hate those Fraggles so much? Is he really that much of an avid gardener?

JERRY:   “They are scooty, sneaky little critters with tails, who are constantly raiding the garden.” No, Pa is not and avid gardener. Looking at his girth should tell you that he is an avid eater though.

RYAN:   What was it like to perform the main Fraggle while at the same time performing the character who despises the Fraggles the most?

JERRY:   Gobo is Gobo and has Gobo feelings. Pa is Pa and only has Pa feelings. Hey come on, you’re talking to a ex jar of marmalade. Does acting ring a bell?

RYAN:   How do Ma and Pa still keep the romance alive after 513 years together?

JERRY:  They are made for each other. She still cooks Peach/Garlic pie for him and he still warmly speaks to her with loving endearments. He’d do anything for her, except climb on the roof again.

RYAN:   Has anyone approached you or talked to you about coming back for the Fraggle Rock feature film being developed?

JERRY:   As far as I know they aren’t talking to anybody from the series yet, at least, that anybody has said. I can only guess. Maybe they are doing something totally different for this and since none of the people are involved to my knowledge, what we’ll have is a whole other thing. It could be Pre TV Fraggle Rock. Don’t ask me how I feel about this, but I would love to do something in Fraggle Rock the movie. Maybe Dr. Teeth could drive me out to Hollywood in their bus.

RYAN:   If you were one of Fraggle Rock’s three main species, which would you be? A Fraggle, a Doozer, or a Gorg?

JERRY:  I think I would opt to be a Fraggle, since they are the bridge to understanding between the species and that would be the role I would prefer to see myself in.

RYAN:   What do you think Fraggle Rock’s lasting impact is?

JERRY:  We are all dependent upon one another because we each make up a different piece of the whole.

RYAN:   What is the greatest lesson that Fraggle Rock can teach the world?

JERRY:  Until we learn to treat every person with humility and compassion, and the World with respect and not something to steal from, we fail as humanity.

RYAN:   And to close out part 3, Jerry, is there any advice that the All-Knowing Trash Heap give me?

JERRY:  Marjory would tell you and so would I, “Keep your sunny side up.” My friend Leslie Carrara Rudoplph would tell you, “Joy to you and pass it on too!”

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier

1 comment:

  1. Awesome interview with my favorite Muppeteer and one of my all-time favorite performers in general. I’m doing a puppet project with my 2nd and 6th grade classes (I’m an elementary/middle school art teacher), and was doing some Muppet refresher research when I happened upon this interview. It’s great to see that the incredibly talented Jerry Nelson is willing to reach out to fans like this!

    I was a big fan of Sesame, the Muppet Show, and Fraggle Rock back when I was kid in the late 80s and early 90s, but it’s been a while (I think I’m enjoying this puppet project as much as the kids). Coincidently, nearly all my favorites were Jerry Nelson characters. I included a big muppet/fraggle section in my puppet PowerPoint presentation for my students. Sadly, most were only familiar with the Sesame characters. One 6th grader, however, is a big fan of The Electric Mayhem (figured that out earlier this year when I found him drawing a dead-on Floyd).

    Oddly, the two Muppets the kids took the biggest interest in were Crazy Harry and Uncle Deadly. Although most students are inventing original characters for their puppets, four decided to go with existing Muppet characters: I have one Elmo and four Crazy Harrys. Gonna be an explosive month!


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