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Brian Henson promises more Earth-loving aliens, Muppets, and Henson projects in 2021

By Tara Bennett
Earth to Ned Brian Henson

One of the few bright spots of 2020 ended up being the surprising and delightfully weird Disney+ alien talk show Earth to Ned. Brought to life by the Jim Henson Company, the show follows the conceit that Ned is a space alien sent to destroy Earth but instead he falls in love with our flawed yet compelling planet. So instead, he beams celeb guests onto his ship to explore topics that confound him. It's witty, satirical, and, of course, features seamless puppetry. 

It's everything that executive producer Brian Henson loves, and he's thrilled that those who have watched his team's strange labor of love feel the same about it. Ten new episodes dropped on Jan. 1, so SYFY WIRE got on a Zoom call with Henson to ask about the season's surprise cliffhanger, how the ongoing pandemic is impacting Henson Company projects, and what's up for The Muppets considering the now-infamous Disney Investor Day on Dec. 10 didn't lay out any specific plans for them...

Earth to Ned

Happy New Year, Brian. I have to ask, coming off a holiday season where millions watched The Muppet Christmas Carol, is there a family holiday staple you watch every year?

We don't watch [anything]. I don't know why. [Laughs.] Probably because my wife's [Mia Sara] an actress and I’m a producer so we pick different things. But The Mandalorian was a big hit in this house. And we've been really enjoying The Repair Shop on Netflix. 

The restoration show?

Yes. It reminds me of why my dad created The Creature Shop in London because that's where The Creature Shop was first. The Workshop in New York was where we made puppets, but The Creature Shop was in London because there are artisans there that are fourth and fifth generation. They know what they're doing at such a high level. We don't do [that] so much anymore. It's very rare to find them. 

Speaking of creatures, Earth to Ned dropped 10 new episodes on Disney+ on Jan. 1. You have an array of great genre favorite guests including Kevin Smith, Alyson Hannigan, Alan Tudyk, and perhaps Ned’s greatest foil, comedian Tig Notaro.

Yes! Tig goes back to our Puppet Up! troupe a long, long time ago. One of our early bookings at Bonnaroo [Music and Arts Festival] was with Puppet Up Uncensored. She was working the comedy tent and so were we. She hung out with us for a while. And she became very close with a lot of our puppeteers, so getting Tig on was easy. And Tig is so wonderful, the way she stays so solidly herself. You know, everyone instinctively starts to respond to somebody in the same way they are presenting themselves. It's what we do socially, automatically. We lift our volume to match the volume of the person we're talking to. We match our expressions so when they smile, we smile. Tig doesn't do any of that and she's just wonderful. [Laughs.] It was perfect what she brought to that episode, that whole attitude of, "My thinking is you have family issues that are different than my family issues..." And actually, she shared a lot of stuff about how her family dynamic is with her wife and kids, and a lot of it we couldn't fit in. But I remember at the time, we were like that was an unusual interview because she didn't adjust herself at all for the fact that they were aliens. 

Was there a guest that surprised you in this set of episodes?

Didn't you love what Oliver Hudson did? I thought he was such a lovely guy. He basically came in and we said, "Is there anything that you want us to [lean into]?" And he said, "People always want to talk to me about my parents and how successful they are, and am I following in their footsteps? And about my siblings and how successful they are, and sometimes that makes me uncomfortable." And so we said, "Oh my God! Do you mind if that's all we do, exploring your discomfort in a very funny way?" And he was like, "You know what? That sounds really fun." Paul Rugg does the voice and puppeteers Ned, and he loved that.

All of the episodes work as standalones but the season ends on a significant cliffhanger. Was that always planned?

Well, the truth is that all the episodes had more scripted elements. We opted for a shorter format and that was done with a lot of discussions back and forth with Disney. We knew that the staying power of the show was going to be the relationships between the characters. You needed the overarching story in order to develop the relationships and characters. And we knew that we weren't going to survive as a talk show that people were only going to watch because of the guests. There had to be something more to it. 

And heading towards a cliffhanger, honestly, the one thing I love about cliffhangers is not knowing what's gonna come. I could pretend that we have it all tracked out for five seasons. But we don't. We cornered ourselves, so now we get to have the fun of working ourselves out of the corner that we got ourselves into. By now, I have a whole bunch of ideas of where we're gonna go next season. And I'm actually really excited about that.

Are there formal conversations about Earth to Ned Season 2? And in this COVID world, have you figured out the logistics of shooting again?

Certainly, there's enthusiasm all around to do more of them, and particularly the format we ended up with is that tight, fun, fast format and I really love it. I look forward to making more. But no, we won't know for a little while. I suspect because they've just dropped these 10 episodes, so they know they have a little bit of time. And the other thing is that I can go back into production very quickly and they know that.

Having been to your set, the characters can be socially distanced but not the operators, so is that an issue?

Yes. Working in Canada, we’d have to isolate them as a pod. But then that gets really complicated because if one of them gets sick, the whole pod has to go into quarantine. You can't shoot, so it's a tricky one for a lot of reasons. It's a tricky one. 

Recently, Disney had its marathon investor call and some folks were disappointed that they didn’t announce anything regarding Muppets Now, or other projects featuring the classic characters. Yet one of the most heartening things I saw over the holidays was how The Muppets ended up trending on social media as memes and other fun pop culture moments, which reflects how much they are still loved. Is there a plan for 2021?

To be frank, we're assuming we can be back into almost a normal production environment by the summer. We have some shows that really are designed to be very [socially] distanced, but they're mostly animation and digital puppetry where we can really keep people apart from each other. But the live-action stuff, we're going carefully. But we are assuming that we can go into pre-production, which we can do pretty soon. And then hopefully, we'll see an environment where the workplace can be much safer relatively soon. But [COVID-19] mostly impacted us in 2020 in a major way. We basically shut our production doors for a lot of productions. And now, we're hoping that we're at the tail end of that. We have shows set up that are ready to shoot. And we have some that will start shooting very soon, so I can't really talk about them. 

And talking about Disney, and The Muppets and Earth to Ned, I think they are clearly very enthusiastic about how Muppets Now has performed, and how Earth to Ned is being received. I think right now we're trying to do a big push to tell more people about Earth to Ned so [audiences] can find it. But the people who have found it really, really love it and really appreciate it and understand what we're trying to do tonally. It's got a great energy and a great attitude toward life that's not often presented in that talk-show environment. 

In a late-night talk-show environment, usually everybody's a little too cool for school. You kind of think like, "Oh, those are the cool kids having the conversation that I wouldn't be able to keep up with.” And it often gets a little cynical, a little sarcastic. A little dark. We were really looking for something that was super positive, where the host just loves everything. And yet, he could be a bit of a jerk. He's a jerk to Cornelius [Michael Oosterom]. And he's self-centered. And he's arrogant, and he's wrong most of the time. But he does love life and he does love people. And he loves everything that's weird about us. That's the overarching message and tone that I wanted to put out with the show, which was something that was just super positive, that gets us all excited about being together again. We're also horribly polarized, and all of our conversations are about how those guys are the bad guys and it's just wrong. We just all have to recalibrate.

If you do get that Season 2 order, since you already have ideas, will we get to see the Ned/Admiral reunion on Earth? Or will Ned’s dad be the unseen alien of the series?

The father/son relationship stuff is always so intriguing and weird. And sometimes it's fun to play one side. And sometimes it's fun to explore the other. But I can't say for sure. [Laughs.]