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'The good stupid': How 'Muppets Now' taps into Henson's heart and legacy for Disney+
Listen, if you’re looking to make a TV show that's entirely about making everyone happy, then you go to the frog. Kermit the Frog.
For 44 years, the maestro and his merry band of Muppets have made it their felty mission to sing, joke, and contort themselves in whatever shape needed to gather laughs and smiles. Whether it was in a dusty theater with Statler and Waldorf heckling from the rafters in The Muppet Show (1976), on a road-trip across America in The Muppet Movie (1979), or their more recent travels to re-group onscreen in The Muppets (2011), they’re the experts in collecting a caravan of weirdness that transports audiences away from what ails them.
Which means there’s no better time for them to return than now, in the new Disney+ streaming series, Muppets Now. Dropping July 31 with six episodes of insanity featuring Muppet A-listers Miss Piggy, Honeydew & Beaker, The Swedish Chef, Pepe the Prawn, Fozzie, and even Gonzo the Great, the new series has Scooter coordinating segments from all of the collaborators into some semblance of a show.
Executive produced and directed by long-time Muppets performer Bill Barretta, Muppets Now is the latest evolution in the Muppets' approach to entertaining for today’s generation. The show’s overall aesthetic has all the familiarities of the YouTube and social media generation, but the bits themselves are pure old-school Muppet energy. "Okey Dokey Kookin" with The Swedish Chef, "Mup Close and Personal," "Lifestyle with Miss Piggy," "Muppet Labs," and more showcase their talents, but also mix up the expected with new slants or approaches. And all of it feels like the spirit of Muppet creator, Jim Henson, has been retained.
While Barretta never worked with Henson, he did start officially with the Muppets shortly after Henson’s passing in 1990 and has since taken on the mantle of performing some of his characters like Rowlf the Dog, The Swedish Chef, Dr. Teeth, and others. “Fortunately, I met Brian Henson when I was 17 years old. We were friends,” Barretta tells SYFY WIRE. “We worked in a theme park and we stayed in contact over the years. But when Jim passed away, we reconnected again. And there was clearly a feeling and an approach to Jim's work that was contagious. The people that he brought around him thrived on it and just loved being a part of that bubble of creating. And so I was around these people who clearly have this spirit about them.”
The Muppet performers have a long legacy of staying with the characters over films, series, commercials, and shorts. Barretta’s going on 30 years, while Dave Goelz — who still performs Gonzo and Boober Fraggle, amongst others — has logged 45 years of Muppet miles. Barretta says their tight-knit community of performers is key in retaining Henson’s spirit throughout.
“I think I learned through them a sense of who Jim was, even though I never got to work with him,” he explains. “I met him twice, but it's really what he passed on to all these other performers that you fit in that group. I've been fortunate in that I've learned a lot from each and how they approach things, but it all has the same root to it. And I think that's Jim's heart.”
Barretta says they made sure Jim's heart was infused in Muppets Now, along with the sense of fun that comes with their unscripted approach to the show. “I think the atmosphere of play and that all ideas and suggestions are valuable and valid was something that Jim loved to do as well,” he says. “[Jim] was open to any good idea. So, I really wanted [this] to be a very collaborative experience between the writers and the directors and the performers and the Muppet studio folks who were coming in, just making it feel very collaborative. And so, when people feel like we're moving into a 'new era' now — whatever that means — and that this is a 'new way,' I just think if you stay true to who the characters are, then the characters grow themselves, as we do. They're always growing and changing, but there's a little path that we all walk along that we know when you go too far and when you don't.”
Barretta says he’s very proud of what they’ve put forth in Muppets Now, and that the show is arriving at a time when everyone around the globe really needs what the Muppets have always provided so masterfully: lightness, fun, and wit.
Asked to pick favorites, he offers, “Well, my favorite new character is Joe the lawyer. And I'm going to say that there are some really great moments in the 'Mup Close and Personal' segments. But it is hard to pick because, to be perfectly honest, there are some of the shows that, let's say we did four to six segments of each segment, so maybe my second one of the 'Okey Dokey Kookin'' is not my favorite, but I love a few things that happened in that one. So it's a mixed bag of all kinds of crazy, silly things that happen. And I think they each have a lot of fun in them. We’re all just so stupid... the good stupid.”