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

Nov 12, 2010

Interview with Legendary Muppeteer Jerry Nelson, Part 1

Today I am extremely proud and thrilled and giddy to announce a brand new interview! I've had the opportunity to correspond with the legend that is Jerry Nelson, the man behind/beneath Count von Count, Floyd Pepper, Gobo Fraggle, Robin the Frog, Crazy Harry, Lew Zealand, Marjory the Trash Heap, and countless others. Jerry was kind enough to agree to an interview with me--even after he saw how darn long the entire thing (four parts!) was. That alone speaks to the brilliance and kindness that is Jerry Nelson.

Read Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4!
Jerry Nelson Interview
Part 1

RYAN:   First of all, Jerry, I can’t tell you how much of an honor it is to have this opportunity to interview you. You are truly a living legend, sir, and if we were in a crowded banquet hall conducting this interview I would stand up and start a slow clap. But… since I’m not, will you settle for a smiley face emoticon? : )

JERRY:   You are very generous, Ryan, and I thank you.

RYAN:   I honestly don’t even know where to begin, Jerry. I guess we’ll just start from the beginning… How did you get started with Jim Henson and the Muppets?

JERRY:   I guess I would have to start with being born, Ryan. Yeah, you see if I hadn’t been born it never would have happened. You might think I am being facetious but that’s not so. Of course, I didn’t know it when I was ten years old driving my mother crazy, making funny noises, discovering and stretching my imagination, playing with my voice. I only realized recently that my whole life was in preparation to do the kind of job I had with the Muppets.

RYAN:   What was the first Muppet project you ever worked on?

JERRY:   I think it was being a dog’s right hand man for Rowlf. Frank Oz had been drafted and I replaced him. He ended up not going but I finished the season of The Jimmy Dean Show and then Jim and I went on the road with Jimmy Dean.

RYAN:   Can you talk to us a little bit about Scred from The Land of Gorch on Saturday Night Live? Where did his character come from?

JERRY:   I guess Michael Frith did the design and Caroly Wilcox built the puppet. He was reptilian with taxidermy eyes that blinked. He was the most fluid and easy to operate puppet I ever played with. I would describe him as slimy and ingratiating with an underlying sweetness and an engaging charm so the voice just came to me from his appearance and what he said. Where did I get the character? I just found the slimy, ingratiating place in myself and let it out through the puppet, the underlying sweetness and an engaging charm come naturally. Insert smiley-face!

RYAN:   What was it like going from working on Saturday Night Live to almost turning full-circle and working on Sesame Street?


JERRY:   Different jobs with different characters. Did you always just play one thing when you were a kid? We didn’t. We’d play tag then play adventurer, then play ball. Same thing. Watch a puppy or kitten when they play and you’ll see that they are just rehearsing and honing their skills for dog and cathood.

RYAN:   The Frog Prince was one of the first projects where your characters got to shine. It was also the first time you performed Robin the Frog. What is it like to perform a major character like Robin for the first time? Did you realize he would stick around past the special?


JERRY:   Funny you should pick that character, since, though I did voice Robin, he was manipulated by Frank Oz. I am an actor as well as a puppeteer. I had played leads prior to becoming a puppeteer, and since I was only voicing the character, it was more like acting. No, I never thought beyond what I was doing at the moment to speculate what that or any other character might go on to do at some future date.

RYAN:   In The Frog Prince you also performed Sweetums’ body. What was that like? In later years, what was it like to interact with a character you once performed?

JERRY:   This was the obverse of Robin. Here I lip-synced for a character someone else had done the voice for. That was fun too. The actor had done a great voice, full of the character Jerry Juhl had written. Even though he was doing the bidding of the evil witch Taminella Grinderfal, who had put one of her nasty spells on him, he was lovable lout, though somewhat brutish… Smashing up that cell set, trying to clobber Kermit; that was so much fun.

Richard was a great Sweetums. It was always easy to do scenes with Richard Hunt, no matter what character he was doing. His timing and delivery was always spot on.

RYAN:   Of course, Sweetums wasn’t the only full-body Muppet character you performed. You also performed Thog throughout the 1970’s. What ever happened to Thog?


JERRY:   I’m not sure but I heard he was retired and living on an island somewhere in the Caribbean. Bequia, I think it was.

RYAN:   Soon you were given the titular character in Emmet Otter’s Jug-band Christmas. What was it like to be performing the main character in a special?


JERRY:   Are you kidding? It was like a dream come true. Everything about that production was magic.

Just to get to sing all those beautiful songs by Paul Williams was “Top o’ the world, Ma” and singing with Marilyn Sokol, who is one of my favorites of all time. Certainly, it was one of the highlights of my career and believe me there were plenty of those.  

RYAN:   What is your favorite moment in the special? Do you have a favorite song from it as well?

JERRY:   Too many tasty moments in that show to list, even if I could remember them all. BUT…
Rowing the boat down the river with the fine remote control mechanics built by Franz Faz Fazakas whilst singing “Ain’t No Hole In the Washtub” was certainly one.  My all-time favorite song though would have to be, “Where the River Meets the Sea”. Such a beautiful song.

RYAN:   Recently, Emmet Otter has been transformed into a stage musical. Have you seen the show? What are your thoughts on it?

JERRY:   Yes, I have seen it. There were some slight story changes that when they first appeared I wondered how they would resolve them. They book-ended the story with a human element, which resolved nicely. Paul Williams wrote a new song and they revived one that had been cut from the special, “Born In a Trunk”.

It was emotional seeing the show brought to the stage. I think Jim would have loved it, I know I did!


RYAN:   Are there any of your early characters that you wish would have been more fleshed out to become used more in the Muppet world?


JERRY:   We only did 12 or 13 shows with Saturday Night Live and since Scred was the sweetest most natural, fun character, I would have loved a chance to have continued work with him to see where he could have gone. The piece with Lily Tomlin was another of my career top picks of play I have done.

RYAN:   Do you have any favorite Anything Muppet or one-shot characters you have performed?

JERRY:   I loved them all, but I suppose Fat Blue and Little Jerry would be up near the top of my list.


RYAN:   When you are handed a new Muppet character, where does the voice come from? You’ve done so many voices over the years; does it ever get hard to keep them all straight?


JERRY:   The voice can come from many things. How the puppet looks, attitudes the puppet has built into it. What the character says, those things begin to give you a sense of who it is and where it’s coming from.

As happens often on Sesame Street, when a role comes up that I haven’t done for a while, I’ll ask to hear a replay. We were so busy we would do it and forget it and move on.

RYAN:   You and Richard Hunt had incredible chemistry when working together. Can you talk to us about Richard a little bit? What are some of your favorite memories with him?

JERRY:   Richard was a brilliant actor, a very good puppeteer and a friend for twenty-two years. I remember going to Martha’s Vineyard with Richard and his brother Adam to visit their sister Kate. I remember meeting the Taylor brothers through Richard on that trip and playing frisbee with Richard and Adam on the beach. I also remember one of the Taylor boys had a Force Five sailboat that Richard said he knew how to sail. After losing it four or five times we had a pretty nice sail. You’ll have to read about anything more in Max Stein’s book about Richard when it comes out, or maybe my own, if I ever get it done.


RYAN:   Matt Vogel has said that along with speaking to him about performing your characters, you also talked to David Rudman about taking on Richard’s. What are your thoughts on Richard’s incredible characters?

JERRY:  Scooter was like Richard when he first joined us, young, eager and enthusiastic. Through Beaker, he expressed, using indrawn breath with sounds and the word Meep, both his acting and puppeteering abilities. Janice saw another carefree side of Richard’s work. Richard had an unerring sensibility when came to making choices about characters, who they were and how to get the most fun out of them.

RYAN:   We’ll discuss your characters more in-depth in the remaining parts of our interview, but who are some of your favorite Muppet characters performed by your Muppeteer colleagues?

JERRY:   I enjoyed everything we all did. I was continuously amazed at the scope of what the entire company could and did do. I’ve always loved Jim’s Kermit, Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, and Link Hogthrob. They never failed to amuse and delight. Frank’s Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy always made me laugh. Frank can get such nuance with a puppet. Very subtle stuff. I already spoke about Richard’s characters. Dave Goelz can make anything funny. Steve and Dave also had a chemistry. Their Rizzo and Gonzo worked together so well as a team. Kathy Mullen’s Gaffer was a strong presence, as were her other one off characters. Louise Gold was not a puppeteer when she joined us but she was a consummate player, actor and singer and she learned really fast. She gave Annie Sue just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence of a beginning ingĂ©nue. I loved working and singing with Lou.

RYAN:   As a Muppet performer you’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the most famous names in show business. What are your favorite memories of working with celebrities?

JERRY:   I have already mentioned one about Lily Tomlin and in The Muppet Show the list goes on and on and is so vast and complex. Peter Sellers, Dizzy Gillespie, Gilda Radner, Pearl Bailey, Madeline Kahn, Roy and Dale Rogers, and so many more, that the list would take up too much time and space. Each one unique in their own way and it boggles my mind when I realize our guest list for the show. I’ll save the stories for my book, if you don’t mind.

RYAN:   On that same note, you’ve become something of a celebrity yourself this year with the release of your album “Truro Daydreams.” Can you talk to us a little bit about your album?

JERRY:   The use of the term celebrity is pretty far off the mark, I think I’ve only sold about one hundred of the CDs.

One of the things I like best about the album is the cover and over all design of it. My wife Jan did that work and I don’t mean just the layout. She painted the picture on the cover and the one of the beach on the inside. I think she is very talented.

We did the recording part with four and a half hours rehearsal in Nola Studio on June 4th, 2009, came back the next day, Friday, June 5th and with an audience recorded the whole thing in four and a half hours. We went through most of the songs twice except for two tunes, which we only had time to do one take. My Music Director, Paul Rudolph did the rough mix and then came up to Cape Cod where we did the final mix.

RYAN:   What inspired you to record and release Truro Daydreams?


JERRY:   I had tried to record the songs previously, just me and my guitar, but was never happy with the result. I think it was winter 2008 when I emailed Peter Linz and he wrote back that a friend of his, David Stephens, a banjo player was going to be working on Sesame Street when I was so I told him that I would bring my ukulele.

On the day David introduced himself and we started playing some tunes. I played him a couple of my tunes. Matt Vogel was there too and I said that I hadn’t recorded them to my satisfaction. He said that I should do it.

The next day Matt said Kevin Clash wanted to know whether I wanted to make a CD. Well it just kind of went on from there and the following June Kevin had arranged the studio space at Nola Sound and also for some of the Sesame Street musicians to play with my band, the Solberg brothers, Andy and Dick, Bill Evaul, and David Stephens and we had a great time doing it.

RYAN:   I absolutely adore your album. All of the songs seem so personal and touching. My favorites have to be “Alligators” and “Eye of the Storm.” What are your favorite songs on the album?

JERRY:   Hey, I love them all. They’re my babies. Most of them are personal to me as I describe in the album notes. When I’m doing one, that one is my favorite but when I go to the next, it’s my fav.

RYAN:   Based on the liner notes in your album, some of these songs have been floating around your mind for years. Where does the music come from within you?

JERRY:   They’re all spread out over the years. I don’t consider myself a songwriter as such. Sometimes I’ll find a chord sequence I like and I’ll play with it for a while and all of a sudden the Muse whispers in my ear and I furiously write it down. Other times, I’ll write some words and play with them until it feels right and then it just sits inside my head until my subconscious finds some melody that fits the lyric and I tinker with it until it seems like a song. I guess the real test is the first time you play it for someone else. Not always, but usually my wife, Jan.

RYAN:   Would you ever consider releasing another album?

JERRY:   I only have about three other songs that are not on the album so I doubt it. There is a songwriter I quite like named Melvern Taylor. I might think about doing a cover album.


RYAN:   You have many Sesame Street Muppeteers providing back-up vocals on the album as well. What was it like to approach them and ask them to perform?

JERRY:   I told Matt Vogel who I would like to have do backup and I think he told Kevin, and they were all happy to do it, so I didn’t really do any approaching.

RYAN:   And where can your fans pick up or load down your album?

JERRY:    Amazon, iTunes, but for the best price: www.cdbaby.com/cd/nelsonjerry 

RYAN:   Finally, to close out part 1, if one of your Muppet characters was cast to play you in the Jerry Nelson Life Story movie, which Muppet would it be?

JERRY:   That’s a pretty intense question, Ryan... All of my characters contain elements of myself, even the really nasty ones, but I guess I would have to go with Floyd or the Jerry puppet from the Jim, Frank, and Jerry Trio.


 Now... what the heck are you waiting for?! Get out there and buy Jerry's CD! I promise you you will NEVER regret it--and you'll make Jerry Nelson smile, what better receipt can you ask for?






The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier

5 comments:

  1. Awesome interview. I greatly admire Jerry! Thanks for this.

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  2. Good interview! I did not know that Frank Oz did the puppet manipulation for Robin in The Frog Prince special, nor did I know that Jerry is writing a book, which is really exciting. I hope you'll ask him when he plans on having it published.

    I also have to say that Scred is one of my favorite of Jerry's characters, and I'd love to see his return in a YouTube video. Especially if he could re-team with Lily Tomlin. :)

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  3. An amazing interview with an amazing person! Can't wait until part 2! I'm sure it will have a lot of Fraggley goodness!

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  4. This is GREAT! Love the parts about Emmet Otter and Truro Daydreams. I bought 3 Truro Daydreams CDs right off the bat without hearing a single note of music. I just knew it would be wonderful. In fact, I had it specially ordered to be a part of our library's collection. It was front and center in the Sesame Street exhibit I did a couple months ago:

    http://www.library.illinois.edu/ugl/exhibits/sesame/pdfs/Beyond_the_Street.pdf

    And you can bet that Emmet Otter will be a part of our Winter Holiday exhibit, too. it's such a classic special and I love it.

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