In his long and successful career, writer-producer Bill Prady has provided dialogue and scenarios for some of TV’s most memorable characters, from Al Bundy and Seven of Nine to Lorelei Gilmore add Charlie Harper, all the way to Sheldon Cooper in his capacity as co-creator and showrunner of “The Big Bang Theory.”
But it all began with a little green frog.
Prady got his start in the early 1980s as a production assistant for Muppets creator Jim Henson at Jim Henson Productions (known then as Henson Associates), and eventually earned an chance to write scripts for such projects as “The Jim Henson Hour,” “Fraggle Rock” and the Disney theme parks’ enduring attraction “Muppet*vision 3D.” Now, after a storied career, Prady comes full circle, as the co-creator (with writer/producer Bob Kushell) of ABC’s “The Muppets.”
The beloved characters make their eagerly anticipated television return in a mockumentary-style “show-within-a-show,” serving as the creative team behind the late-night talk show “Up Late With Miss Piggy.” It’s a scenario sees longtime paramours Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy dealing with the fallout from their recent breakup.
Ahead on tonight’s premiere of “The Muppets,” Prady joined with Spinoff Online and small gathering of other media outlets to answer burning questions about his past and his future with the characters.
What does it mean to come full circle and take custodianship of the Muppets?
Bill Prady: It’s an incredibly profound, emotional experience that I can’t always quite put into words. Jim was a mentor. I remember him really fondly. I have found myself missing him at points in my career, on days that surprised me, that he isn’t around. I mean, I was very young, and he was very – [chokes up for a moment] it’s a profound impact. I apologize. It’s hard to talk about.
Has there been a “What would Jim Henson do?” moment, as you’re putting the show together?
No. You can’t do that. That’s paralyzing, because that’s trying to imagine what somebody else would do. Can you? I can’t. … He made a television show he liked. And he would say, “You don’t know somebody else’s taste. You only know yours.” And so I try to do that. I try to make a television show that I would want to watch and that I would enjoy. That’s what Jim did. I can’t make the show Jim would make. I can only make the show that I’d make. But I can do it with the same philosophy he did.
How hard is walking the line between making the show fun for adults as much as for kids and still not being too racy?
You make a show that you enjoy. And a show for me is a show that I can sit and watch with my 8-year old son. So that would be part of enjoying it. But you’re not making a children’s show. You’re just making a show. You’re dealing with the Muppet characters. They are adults who live in the real world, who date, who do all of those things. So you’re telling those stories. And the line is apparent and easily paid attention to.
Can you share some memories of your original time working on the Muppets?
Well, I worked on the last thing that Jim directed, the Muppets 3D movie, and I absolutely remember working on that. One of the things: Jim used to like to write in storyboards, and so we were doing the 3D movie, and we had an idea for a sequence and Jim would write it out. And so I would have in, my tiny, little office in the basement of the Muppets, all these storyboards that Jim had written out. And I remember when we would finish something, I threw them away because I was cleaning my office. And it was pages and pages of Kermit and Piggy and Gonzo drawn by Jim Henson. And I think about it backwards, and it breaks my heart.
The only thing that I have in my possession that’s from Jim to me – there are two things. I have a piece of videotape. We were shooting an electronic press kit for something, and you do that thing where you ask the questions to generate the EPK stuff. And I said, “Jim, this project for you is really a chance to work with Bill Prady, was it not?” I’m 24. I am an obnoxious kid. And Jim goes, “Oh, yes, Bill is one of the finest writers working today.” And then he just cracks up. He was such a warm man.
I can remember the first moment when I took the job at the Muppets, I was working in the licensing division, which is like toys and merchandise. And because there were not writers, around because “The Muppet Show” was out of production, there were all these little things that came into the PR department that weren’t getting done, if you think about it – like, if somebody asks for a press quote from Kermit the Frog, and there isn’t a writer around, there’s kind of no way to generate that. So I went into the PR office, and there was literally a stack on someone’s desk. And I picked it up, and I said, “Can I try some of these? If you’re not going to do them anyway?”
And one of them, that year, the Post Office was putting out a love stamp with a puppy on it, and they wanted Rolf the Dog to introduce it. And I thought, “Dogs and mailmen – that’s funny.” And I wrote a piece about Rolf the Dog taking this opportunity to clear up the misunderstandings between dogs and mailmen, and how dogs love mailmen, and how they don’t want them to go, but the mailmen have to go. So maybe the dog tugs on their pant leg, and maybe the mailman really has to leave. So the dogs sinks his teeth into the “sweet flesh” of their calf. And then Rolf collected himself and said, “But I digress.” So I wrote that, and I just handed it back.
And I had a series of offices at the Muppets that were tiny, little offices. And I remember being down there, and Jim Henson, who was tall – he was 6 6 – came in. You have to remember also that Jim and Kermit had the same voice, so when Jim spoke to you, it was like Kermit talking to you. And Jim said, “Did you, ah, write this thing for Rolf?” And I said, “I did.” And he said, “Yeah, I think we’re going do it.” And I said, “OK. You want any changes?” He said, “No, it’s pretty good. We’ll just do it like this.” And that was startling!
Is there a Muppet you’ve got a special affinity to write for?
All the Muppets are fun to write for. I love to write for Piggy. I love writing for Piggy. I always have. … We’ve been having so much fun writing Animal – and because we’re trying to get Animal beyond just the sort of “Want woman!” Animal has been a little surprise what fun he is. I love Gonzo. We’re writing Gonzo as the writer, so writers think writers are awesome. So that’s been a thing. I think writing for Kermit is awesome, but Kermit, I find, is the closest to someone you just know.
How deep are you going into the Muppet bench – like, Scooter and some of the other regulars from the original show?
In many cases, it was very easy to see what they would have become. If you look at what they did on “The Muppet Show.” On “The Muppet Show,” Scooter was a P.A., or a gopher because it was a theater, so he’s the talent coordinator, and we absolutely think that there’s a direct transition. And Sam Eagle is ABC Broadcast Standards, and he doesn’t care for what they’re doing. The band is the band. We gave Rolf a tavern, a bar across the street where he can play the piano. And a big inspiration for that is the scene in the original “Muppet Movie” where Kermit goes to see Rolf, and Rolf’s playing the piano, and he says, “I’ve never seen a guy that green have the blues.” And I love that scene. And I thought, “Let’s make a place where we can have that happen.”
In the presentation reel for this show, we also get a glimpse of Chip, an especially nerdy-looking Muppet who looked a little familiar …
That is a character from “The Jim Henson Hour.” It was designed by Michael Frith, great Muppet designer, been there for years, with whom I worked directly. And [that Muppet] was a computer nerd. He was a computer nerd on “The Jim Henson Hour.” He’s going to be the I.T. guy on this. And if you look at the puppet, he’s an actual egghead. His head is egg-shaped. But if you look at him again – and it took me a while – it’s a drawing of me. Right down to the glasses that I wore then.
And everyone knew, and at one point, I said, “This Frith puppet, it kind of looks like … ” And everyone burst out laughing, so I didn’t know. But what’s really bizarre is that Dave Goelz is, like, giving him this insane voice. It was a different puppeteer on “The Jim Henson Hour.” So Dave’s given him this really weird, this mumble-mouth kind of voice. And so he’s the I.T. guy at the show. He comes in and fixes your computer. And that’s what he’ll be doing.
Dave was on the original show, right?
Dave Goelz is the original performer of Gonzo, goes back 40 years. [And we have] Steve Witmire, who goes back to the original “Muppet Show.” He originated Rizzo the Rat and Lips the Trumpeter on “The Muppet Show,” and other characters. Some of other performers go back varying amounts. Dave Rudman goes back a while to right after “The Muppet Show.”
Will we be seeing you build out some of the characters’ original backstories – things that were never established as canon in the films but were part of their conception?
Yeah, there are things that those of us who have worked with the Muppets have always known. We know Piggy comes from a farm; she’s a farm girl. And so if you know that, it informs what you might see. I don’t know – does she have a relative who embarrasses her? Maybe. What’s it like to go home with her? Does she go home? Or is she one of those people who’s uncomfortable with where she came from? So knowing all of that, you have a rich thing to draw on, stuff that no one ever saw.
Tell me about seeing the actors start to relate to the Muppets as if they are real. I’ve been told by performers so many times that they start to relate to them as if they’re fellow actors.
Because you do. Because you just do. There are a lot of reasons. One is an odd technical reason. Like any actor who’s trying to stay in character, if you have an actor who’s doing an accent, for example. Between takes, they keep the accent going, and it’s not because they’re an affected, method, crazy person. It’s because accents are hard to do. And if you found the groove, you keep it going, so that when you start the scene again, you don’t have to find it.
Puppeteers doing the same thing. They’ve got the groove. You’re doing this crazy thing where you’re talking and keeping your hand moving and keeping all the story. So between a take, you keep it going. So if I’m standing next to Kermit, and also, you might be working on blocking, so you say, “All right. I’ll go here, and Kermit can go there.” So you talk to Kermit. And if Kermit talks to you, you talk back to him. So it’s just a very, very natural and reasonable thing to do.
Is there going to be a cross-promotional aspect with any of the other ABC shows?
Well, here’s what we say in our fictional, little world: we believe that all ABC shows shoot on a lot together, so it’s entirely possible for our guys to walk through the cafeteria and see the star of “Black-ish” and say, “Hey, Anthony, how’s is going?” That’s a thing that could absolutely happen. We know that in a story, there’s a thing that involves knowing that Tom Bergeron is next door doing “Dancing with the Stars.” And that plays into a story. They exist in our world.
Does this prohibit movies for a while?
No, because if this is the Muppets in their real life, then the Muppets can still go out and make a movie.
Was it your idea that Piggy and Kermit break up?
I’m going to have to say that’s Kermit and Piggy’s idea. [Laughs]
How detailed are the ups and downs of Piggy and Kermit’s relationship on the show thought out, as detailed as, say, what you do on “The Big Bang Theory”?
You mean, “not at all?” Is it like what we do on “Big Bang?” No planning whatsoever. Not in any way arced out or planned, but followed moment-to-moment – it is exactly that detailed.
Given that they both tend to have oversized ego, do you see any character similarities between Miss Piggy and Sheldon Cooper?
No. It’s a very different kind of ego. Sheldon doesn’t think he’s smarter or wiser than anyone else. He knows he is. And I think Piggy comes from a place of great insecurity. I think Piggy is one of those people who gets up in the morning and puts on that face. And I think if Piggy’s close to anyone, it’s the Roy Scheider character in “All That Jazz.” I think she gets up in the morning and “It’s show time!” and she goes out into the world. One of the things that I want to do – and Piggy sounded very upset about it, but I’d love to do a scene where we catch her in the morning before she has the makeup on. I don’t think we’ve ever seen her without eye shadow.
“The Muppets” premieres tonight at 8 ET/PT on ABC.
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