the mucking fuppets -- 2/22/16
Today's selection -- from Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. Flush with the success of Sesame Street, but before the launch of the Muppet Show, Jim Henson and his Muppets were invited to be a regular part of a bold new comedy program called Saturday Night Live. The result was far less than successful:
"At the same time [Hollywood super agent Bernie] Brillstein was circulating the Muppet Show pitch reel, he was also lining up an opportunity for Jim and the Muppets to become a regular part of a new late night sketch comedy series being developed by another of Brillstein's clients, a thirty-year-old producer and former Laugh-In writer named Lorne Michaels. 'He described the show, and I really loved it,' said Jim. In August, then, Jim began meeting regularly with Michaels's writers in preparation for the weekly late night series Jim referred to on his desk calendar only as the 'NBC Show,' but which Michaels was calling Saturday Night -- and then, eventually, Saturday Night Live.
"Saturday Night Live was a comedy variety show, but, as envisioned by Michaels and his scrappy team of writers, one unlike any variety show that had ever been seen before. 'We wanted to redefine comedy the way the Beatles redefined what being a pop star was,' Michaels said later. The very idea of it -- an unpredictable live show unafraid of taking on politicians, presidents, or pop culture -- terrified the network even months before it ever went before the cameras. 'NBC was so scared of what Lorne ... was doing that they insisted on Jim Henson and the Muppets [to] soften it,' said Brillstein. Jim's inclusion, in fact, had been one of the network's non-negotiables. 'In the first contract for SNL, there were three essential factors,' said Brillstein, who had brokered the deal with NBC: 'Lorne Michaels, Jim Henson and the Muppets, and Albert Brooks's [short] films.'
"For his part, Michaels was delighted to have Jim's involvement. 'I'd always liked and been a fan of [the Muppets] and Jim's work,' Michaels said. 'When we were starting Saturday Night, I knew that I wanted as many different styles of comedy as I could possibly have, and I knew some of what the ingredients would be .... I just assumed that the Muppets under Jim would be able to do one segment a week.'
"Nestled safely in the deep end of late night television, Jim wanted to do something dramatically different with his segments, as far removed from the look and feel of Sesame Street -- which, he knew, was still what audiences thought of when they heard the word Muppets -- as he could possibly get. For Jim, the characters themselves were always the easy part: he knew he wanted monsters of some sort, scrawling out rough descriptions of five characters for a segment he was initially thinking of calling 'Muppet Night Creatures.'
"At noon on Wednesday, October 8, Jim and his team entered the soaring building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and headed for Studio 8H, where they would participate in the read-through for the first show with the entire SNL cast, an immensely talented -- and largely unknown -- set of young performers skilled in improv and hungry for success. On Friday night, the Muppet team attended a party thrown by cast member John Belushi, mingling casually with the show's eclectic crew of writers and performers and sizing each other up. After three days of rehearsal, one thing was clear: 'They had their style, we had ours,' said Oz -- a distinction that would only become more and more obvious in the coming weeks. ...
"Under Writers Guild rules, only writers hired for SNL could write SNL sketches -- and it was quickly apparent that the Muppets and SNL's writers weren't a good fit. ... No one wanted to write for the Muppets. 'Whoever drew the short straw that week had to write the Muppet sketch,' said writer Alan Zweibel. The frustration of the SNL writers was often palpable; during one meeting in Michaels's office, volatile head writer Michael O'Donoghue angrily wrapped the cords of the venetian blinds around the neck of a Big Bird doll and stalked out of the room. 'I won't write for felt,' he declared blackly.
"Compounding the problem was that many of SNL's writers were also performers on the show -- and every minute of airtime devoted to the Muppets meant one less minute that could be spent on cast members, who were rapidly developing their own personalities and break-out characters. 'They weren't interested in the Muppets because it kept them off the air,' Juhl said plainly. 'The Muppets were known, but they weren't,' agreed Oz. 'So they wanted every moment they could get.' Even John Belushi, who was otherwise friendly with the Muppet performers, would sneer derisively about giving up his airtime to the 'mucking Fuppets.' "