It was time to meet the Muppets and the crowd was beyond giddy. "The Muppets were my childhood," was a refrain repeated in questions from the excitable audience, and murmurs before the panel began. And one thing "The Muppets" panel Saturday afternoon at Comic-Con International in San Diego wanted to make clear it that these Muppets also want to be your adulthood.
SPINOFF previously reported from the panel that the new ABC comedy series "The Muppets" will be a mockumentary-style look behind the scenes of the fictional late night talk show "Up Late With Miss Piggy." But executive producer and co-creator Bill Prady wanted to stress this premise wasn't the only new thing to expect from the show. It will also boast a more mature sense of humor. To prove his point, a 10-minute video was screened before an audience of mostly grown-ups buzzing with anticipation.
It was not a preview of the pilot, though some of its snippets were released as a teaser for the new series, including a clip where Gonzo laments the lame device of direct address interviews -- in a direct address interview. Prady explained this video was what he and his fellow EPs (Bob Kushell, Randall Einhorn, Bill Barretta) put together to pitch the series to ABC. And because of the specifics of performer contracts (including a cameo from Elizabeth Banks), he told the crowd, "You are the only people in the history of the world who will get to see this."
The ten minutes made it very clear "The Muppets" is breaking new ground with the family-friendly characters. Kermit alluded to the decriminalization of marijuana in California, saying, "The band (the Electric Mayhem) is always happy -- legally now." An awkward "Guess Whose Coming To Dinner"-style encounter between Fozzie and his human girlfriend's parents led to exchanges about sex ("[We believe] in saving the animals, not being intimate with them!") and race (Fozzie declares the assumption that he defecates in the woods an "offensive stereotype.") Piggy got a bit hot and heavy with actor Topher Grace (playing himself in swooning on swine mode), and Kermit -- in the moments most jarring to this long-time Muppet fan -- cursed! Once, he lamented, "We're screwed," and later described the Piggy-run set as "bacon-wrapped hell on earth."
Prady told the crowd he believed this shift into more adult themes was something the late Jim Henson would support. And to the producers' credit, the crowd ate up the whole ten minutes, laughing throughout and applauding like mad as the video drew to a close. But as rare as seeing this pitch was, it was not why these fans came to the panel. We came to see Muppets. And the panel did not disappoint.
After the screening, Barretta, who plays Pepe and Rowlf, was joined by fellow Muppeteers Dave Goelz (Gonzo), Steve Whitmire (Kermit, Rizzo the Rat) and Eric Jacobson (Piggy, Fozzie). As the panel fielded questions about how "The Muppets" production came together, its titular stars would literally pop up from beneath the table to say hello.
First to make an appearance was Pepe the King Prawn, who proved a crowd favorite flirting with audience members and zinging his co-stars (like when he pointed out Kermit's new love interest Denise--who's puppet is currently in the works--is "a little younger than" Piggy, prompting the Muppets' grand dame to crumple her nose in a silent, scathing rage.)
Soon, Pepe was joined by Gonzo and Rizzo, and the three discussed being "writers" on Piggy's talk show. Fozzie stopped by, and the ever-flustered comedian flailed to try to tell a joke on the spot, earning good-natured ribbing from Gonzo, Rizzo and Pepe. Fozzie mentioned Muppet curmudgeons Waldorf and Statler in what seemed a cue, causing the crowd to crane for their appearance. "That sounds like an introduction," Rizzo interject, "But you know they're not here."
"I really don't need them here when I've got you guys," Fozzie replied, winning cheers from the audience.
For obvious reasons, certain Muppets did not share the panel simultaneously. Rizzo had to run off to get Kermit, who he joked was "half in the bag." (Jokes alluding to the Muppets being puppets were recurring, but the best might be when Prady began an answer, "On one hand" only to be interrupted by Kermit, "I'm only on one hand.") Fozzie reluctantly left so Miss Piggy could join them, and Pepe abruptly disappeared so that Rowlf could rise.
Before Piggy made her appearance, Muppeteer Jacobson earned the sole negative reaction from the attendees while detailing the difficulties of working with Miss Piggy's big, foam body. "She's not exactly light," he explained, spurring jeers from the audience. "I can say that okay!," He responded with a smile. "She's dense. I can say that too. (To the crowd) You can't say that."
The panel also went into more technical aspects of the show, like how they built a whole one-piece set for Piggy's talk show that includes Kermit's office. In construction it sounds a lot like how "30 Rock" built their continuous TGS sets. From there, "The Muppets" team created blue prints where raised platforms will be temporarily placed for human co-stars walk along to interact with the Muppets. But the show will also reach into the real world. The producers urged fans in California to look out for the Muppets on location shoot days.
A change that might seem minor but proved major was the shooting style. Typically, the cinematography of a Muppets shoot is tightly choreographed to make sure there's never a risk of revealing the men (and women) behind (or below) the Muppets. But the documentary style would need to feel candid, and so director Einhorn (who went from shooting real documentaries to shooing The Office) was encouraged to work in a less constrained fashion. "Frankly it was scary. I didn't know if it'd work," Whitmire admitted. "It's a new dance with the camera people." But the panel agreed that the whole team pulled together and to the show's benefit.
The panel closed with questions from the crowd, many of which were more comments along the lines of, "the Muppets are the best." One overwhelmed fan confessed her dream was to work with the Muppets and asked how to make that happen. The panel invited her onstage, but security put the kibosh on that, so again she asked how could she get to the place where she could work with them. "First, you got to deck her," Gonzo teased, referring to the slight SDCC worker, before adding, "This may be a good idea, it may not be but why don't all of you come up here." Rowlf concurred, "Just push right through them!"
But instead of ending in pandemonium due to a stampede of Muppet fans, the panel ended with some heartfelt advice from Prady. He said to the aspiring screenwriter:
"Here's what you do: you get really good at it. And you don't rest. You look at what you've got and you say, 'Could this be better?' And if you're a writer, decide what you want to talk about. Decide what's important to you. Because when you succeed at something, you get the attention of a lot of people, and you're having a conversation with them. What we're going to talk about on this show is the conflict between getting things done, the way that works, and being burdened by how much you love your friends and the people around you. And that's the conversation this show is going to have. But if you're a writer, decide what you want to talk about, and then figure out a medium to talk about that in."
"And just push right through them!" Rowlf added, inciting applause that built to a standing ovation and full-throated cheers from a ballroom full of life-long Muppet fans.
"The Muppets" will air on ABC Tuesdays at 8PM, beginning September 22nd.