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SYFY WIRE The Jim Henson Company

Brian Henson beams SYFY WIRE into the world of Disney+'s alien talk show, Earth to Ned

By Tara Bennett

When it comes to getting invited to exclusive set visits, we’re pretty sure being summoned to take the hot seat on an alien’s secret spacecraft talk show tops them all. Intergalactic alien commander Ned and his lieutenant/sidekick Cornelius are certainly beyond confident that their Disney+ talk show, Earth to Ned, is headed for terrestrial infamy. Their sleek, hidden ship with its warm, bio-mechanical glow has been retrofitted with a couch meant to lure (or capture, depending on your definition of kidnapping) celebrities for probing (not that kind!) interviews that tend to be equal parts insightful and combative. 

Last December, SYFY WIRE was summoned to the ship where we were given a secret, exclusive early look at Ned’s pad, which just happened to be situated at Jim Henson Studios in Los Angeles. Inside a soundstage (aka, a pretty sweet cosmic parking space), we discovered that Ned and Cornelius had surprisingly conscripted Brian Henson as a minion. Or at least he functioned as one as he ushered us into the ship for our introduction to the soon-to-be “big deals.”

The second Jim Henson Company production to debut on Disney+ since the streamer’s launch (after Muppets Now), the late-night talk show-inspired Earth to Ned features brand new puppet characters Ned (Paul Rugg), Cornelius (Michael Oosterom), the ship’s AI, BETI (Colleen Smith), and a bunch of furry, white critters called CLODs (Cloned Living Organisms of Destruction). As it happens, Ned loves humans despite his dad having assigned him to destroy Earth. But he kinda fell for our messy ways, and especially our celeb culture, so he’s delayed the mission to get to know us more. He does that by adopting our late-night model to crack us open and see what’s inside. And voila — we get new Earth to Ned episodes on Disney+ each week.

Post visit, SYFY WIRE reconnected with executive producer Henson to get the low-down on the origin story for our impending celeb-crazy overlord...

Brian Henson on Earth to Ned

How long has the idea for Earth to Ned been kicking around?

Brian Henson: I had Ned designed for a long time. It goes all the way back to Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge when I worked with Joseph Freed and Allison Berkley from Marwar Junction Productions. Coming out of that, it was a show we really loved and that SYFY loved, but [at the time] the network was slashing all of their budgets so [we couldn’t make more] unless we slashed half our budget. We were very sad that we couldn’t make more of those. So, I sat with Joe and Allison and we came up with the idea of these aliens who have been monitoring Earth through television broadcasts. And all they know about Earth is what they see on television, and they love television. Then it became a talk show.

Was it always an alien named Ned, and was his personality close to what we see now?

He was always named Ned, from the very beginning, and that stayed, which almost never happens. And from the very early stages, what we thought would make this great was that Ned just loves humanity. He loves people and everything about them — what’s weird about them and what’s absurd. He doesn’t understand what’s bad about them. He’s super, super positive about mankind. 

We thought that’s a lovely, refreshing energy to bring into a talk show. And you can do that by having them be aliens. And there isn’t a late-night talk show where the host is ignorant. Hosts try to come off being incredibly intelligent, and knowing everything about their guests. And Ned just has it all wrong. He doesn’t really know anything about his guests, and that creates, in many ways, a more authentic interview. So rather than our guests coming on to talk about their next cool thing and doing publicity, instead they are coming in for an interview to talk about themselves to somebody who really misinterprets everything they’re saying. He’s also completely ungenerous to them. [Laughs.]

Earth to Ned and Muppets Now both lean into the classic improv style that your dad, Jim Henson, used back in the day, and that you cultivate with your troupe, Puppet Up! What does it bring to the creative table?

I wanted it to be an authentic experience for our guests. Usually, if you are doing something with creatures, somewhere between 70% and 100% of the creature isn’t going to be there. It’s going to be in post. But I wanted a real, authentic experience for the guest because it would show they are genuinely having this experience and what the camera is telling you happened, really did happen. It’s a lot more authentic.

Ever since we started Puppet Up!, which was over 10 years ago, the whole idea of training puppeteers not just in the technique of puppetry but in comedic improvisation was to bring that authenticity to their characterizations. I do, in my development, look for places where we can use improvisational content in a meaningful way. And in this show, the improvisational content is substantially the content of the episode. Between guests, they are doing script between Cornelius and Ned just because there is a story to every episode. But when he’s interviewing, they are basically not scripted at all.

There are some Travelling Matt of Fraggle Rock-style segments where Cornelius mingles with humans for more insight. How did they become part of the show’s DNA?

I think we always knew the field pieces would be really great. I wanted to play the David Letterman approach where Ned would be coaching Cornelius in his ear. We weren’t able to do that for scheduling reasons. But what we learned, and was expected, is that Cornelius as purely an observer is not nearly as fun as Cornelius having some sort of experience. Showing what’s absurd about our world, and sometimes it even celebrates our world and what we do.

Watching his life-span of a comedian bit is pretty stellar.

It’s such a stretch of credibility for him to become a huge international star in the span of one sketch. [Laughs.]

Let’s talk about the look of Ned’s ship. There are some strong Moya vibes. Are they both from the Farscape Connected Universe?

 Well, there’s an Easter Egg in that set, but where, you’ve got to look for it.

So, is there an actual connection?

No, but we realized early on that when me and my company are creating science fiction, we tend to make some similar decisions. With Darcy (Prevost), who is a fantastic production designer, I didn’t say to base anything on Farscape, but I did allow it to move in that natural direction. [Ned’s ship] is slightly bio-mechanical and has an organic feeling, which is a very Farscapian choice. And then when it comes to the color palette of the set, I’ll be damned if we’re not right back at the Farscape color palette. And it wasn’t by design, it’s just what looked right. So, we weren’t fighting it and I allowed for that Easter Egg on the set, which I’m sure someone will eventually figure out.

The Henson legacy is to always top yourselves technologically. Where does Ned rank in terms of the complexity of the puppetry and tech?

Ned is the most sophisticated animatronic creature we’ve ever made. And I knew very early on that I wanted to realize Ned in the same way we realized Pilot from Farscape. So, he would be locked into a desk that he cannot move from, he’s got four arms and he’s large. It was so successful on Farscape that I really was hankering to do it again and even better. And Ned being very much a comedic character means that on a personality-basis, he’s almost opposite to Pilot, who is the most sincere and heartfelt character. Ned is the least sincere and heartfelt character that we’ve ever created. He’s a self-centered, narcissist goofball. [Laughs.]

And I’m old school. I love that what you think happened, really did happen. And I love when we can do that. When you can’t do that, then it’s a different thing. But when you can, it’s so nice to do it. Ned’s not a visual effect, or post production magic. Also, as a result of that decision, you end up presenting the artistry much more clearly to the audience. They know it’s not real and it’s not seamless when you do it for real in front of the camera, so therefore the audience is onboard with you in the creation of it, appreciating the artistry. You are appreciating the painters, the costuming and all of it. When you go too much into CG, you disconnect the audience from the creativity that went into it.

Earth to Ned CLODS

What’s BETI’s story? She looks more like us.

I think it was me who said that I want us to do incredibly clever alien designs. I wanted to be intricate with Ned, Cornelius, and even to a degree the CLODS, even though they are very simple puppets. And then BETI is artificial intelligence, so she decides what she wants to look like. I like the idea that she’s not very imaginative so she’s chosen to look like a generic human face. That tickled me in the mix. But she does have another form. On the way to Earth, the way she used to present herself was horrifying. You’ll see it two or three times.

If Ned becomes the splash he wants to be on our planet, what’s the hope for Season 2?

Well, Ned isn’t going to progress much, or become very self-aware. I think Cornelius will deepen. And I am excited about doing future seasons because in booking this season, they had to be very daring guests because most agents and managers won’t allow their clients to go on a show where they don’t know the host, or can’t see them do an interview. They don’t want to put their client on Borat. [Laughs.]

I couldn’t be happier with the guests we have, but if we do a Season 2, all the reps can see what the show is and that allows us to reach wider. But again, I couldn’t be happier with the guests we have, but our casting team had to work very hard.

Earth to Ned debuts Friday, Sept. 4 on Disney+.