On the highly anticipated ABC comedy series The Muppets, The Muppets are back and opening the doors to their homes and offices in this documentary style series that explores these beloved characters as they live their lives in Hollywood. The show will follow Kermit the Frog and the rest of the Muppet gang as they produce the late-night talk show, “Up Late with Miss Piggy,” and you will also learn more about the romances, break-ups and general goings-on in their personal lives.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, co-creator/executive producer Bob Kushell talked about how The Muppets ended up back on television, the careful planning involved, endless possibilities for celebrity cameos, the responsibility of adding backstory to these already beloved characters, the qualities in Miss Piggy that make her a good female talk show host, how much of their dating lives we’ll see, designing Kermit’s house, their hope that this will be a long-running series, and finding that balance in humor that appeals to adults but that kids can also enjoy.
Collider: How did The Muppets end up back on television, and how did you get involved?
BOB KUSHELL: Bill Prady worked for The Muppets and Jim Henson, who was a mentor to Bill, for 10 years, between ‘81 and ‘91 in New York. When he came out to L.A., it was already in his head that he wanted to do another Muppet Show. I think about eight years ago, he created a short presentation, but Disney, for whatever reason, decided that they didn’t want to do this type of show, at the time. In terms of the style, but not necessarily the content, it was very much what this show is, documentary style that’s filmed like The Office or Parks and Rec. Bill Barretta, who directed that presentation and who is our Muppets captain, is an executive producer of the show and many different Muppets, like Rizzo and Bobo. He was always pushing Bill [Prady] to do the show again and to bring it back to Disney. Finally, at the end of last year, he did and they said, “Absolutely, we’ll do this!” At that point, because he still works on The Big Bang Theory, he decided that he wanted somebody to co-create the show with him and run the show. We met and it was love at first sight. We just had this absolutely simpatico connection with each other about what we wanted this show to be, how it should look, how it should feel, and tonally. It’s a match made in heaven. I did not meet Bill until the middle of February, and it’s been a sprint ever since, but it’s been the most effortless and happiest creative experience of my life. It’s been wonderful.
Have you mapped out this show to go for seasons, or are you taking it a day at a time?
KUSHELL: We’re taking it a day at a time and a season at a time. Like most shows that I’ve been on, you’re really just looking at that first 13, and then the back nine, and then hopefully the next 22 or 24, and so on. We’re just trying to create the best show, every week, that we possibly can, and I think we’re doing that.
Is there any additional planning involved because you’re dealing with more unusual circumstances with The Muppets?
KUSHELL: It’s interesting because all of the sets are built four feet off the ground. And the way our set is built is not only four feet off the ground, but all of the floors are movable. It works like a large checker board where floors move out in squares, so that people can be walking next to The Muppets while The Muppets are down below. It’s a magic trick. When you’re looking at it and you’re watching it, it’s effortless and it looks very real, but there is so much behind the scenes that goes into it. It’s crazy. The fun of it is that when you’re on the set, you’ll see the director going, “Kermit, will you do this? Kermit, will you do that?” You never talk to the people because they’re in character, even in between moments. They’re always in character, so you’re always talking to the puppets and not the performers, and the performers want it that way. That’s not out of disrespect. That’s out of respect for who they’re being in their minds while they’re performing. It’s fantastic.
The original show was known for having guest stars. Did you intentionally come up with a format that would be well suited for that?
KUSHELL: Absolutely! That is definitely a part of it. Part of The Muppets that has always been fun, through the years, from the beginning show through the movies until now, is their interaction with famous celebrities. The difference between this and the other times is that our portrayal of those celebrities is not a heightened portrayal. There will be no heightened presentational portrayals of humans. It will always be as real as possible. I think that is generally what the whole show is. It’s really trying to capture reality. The more reality we can play, the funnier it will be and the better the show will be. The Muppets are incredible on their own, but when they’re coupled with humans, it makes that world that much more accessible to people.
Are you getting a lot of people asking you if they can do a cameo?
KUSHELL: Yeah, there are a lot of people who want cameos, and who are doing the show. We’re not allowed to talk about it because of contractual things, but there are a great number of wonderful people doing this show.
Are you surprised about some of the people that want to be a part of it?
KUSHELL: Yeah, I’m surprised. There’s everyone from Academy Award winners to singers, songwriters and bands at the tops of charts, and everybody in between, it’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like this. Everybody is like a little kid. They can’t believe they’re there and they can’t believe they’re working with The Muppets. They’re more excited than I’ve ever seen anybody, ever, to work with anybody at any level. This is the first time, ever, in The Muppets’ history that they’re doing a weekly story-drive situation comedy. If you watched the original show, it’s a variety show with some fun backstage set pieces. This is real storytelling, and it’s different than you’ve ever seen them before, ever.
The music has also always played an important role in The Muppets. Will we be hearing current music, or will there also be some original songs?
KUSHELL: It’s going to be primarily music now because it’s not a variety show and we’re not writing songs. On Up Late with Miss Piggy, we might do an original song as a joke, like you might see Jimmy Fallon or Jimmy Kimmel do, because it’s a comedy show. But you’re not going to hear songs like “It’s Not Easy Being Green” or “Rainbow Connection.” That’s just not the type of show it is.
How difficult is it to take characters that everybody knows and loves, and then change them a bit?
KUSHELL: It’s a responsibility. Everything we think about and everything we do, we think about very analytically, in terms of, does it make us happy, do we enjoy it, and do we buy it? And then, we consider, does it stain or taint, in any way, The Muppets themselves? If we ever believe it does, we would never do it. That’s not our job, to rip apart what people love about The Muppets and to change their history. But, we also have a dramatic license here. We’re a weekly show that hopefully will last for many years, and we have to tell deeper stories with these characters. So, we try to balance all of those things. I think it’s a testament to what we’re doing that the people who worked with Jim Henson for so many years – Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire and the puppeteers that have been there back from the original Muppet Show – are still doing the show today, and they come to us and say, “Jim would have loved this.” There’s nobody who knew him better than them, and to have that type of validation from them means the world to us. It says we’re doing the right thing and going in the right direction.
What are the qualities in Miss Piggy that make her a good female talk show host, when we don’t really have human female talk show hosts?
KUSHELL: That’s a great question. She is multi-talented. She’s verbose. She thinks the world revolves around her, so that the actors, actresses and guests that come on the show, in a comedic way for us to watch, are lesser than her. She thinks she’s above everybody. She’s so charismatic and so engaging that you can’t take your eyes off of her. More than any other talk show host that has come before her, in terms of charisma, the person you came to watch the most was Johnny Carson. You came to that show for Johnny, and then you enjoyed the stars. I think the best talk show hosts are like that, and I don’t think there will be any better, ever, than Miss Piggy, for those reasons.
How much of the show will be Miss Piggy’s talk show versus behind-the-scenes stuff?
KUSHELL: There’s very little on air of Miss Piggy’s talk show that you see. There will be snippets of bands and snippets of interviews. Really, it’s about the behind-the-scenes of Miss Piggy’s talk show. It’s not about what’s on air at Miss Piggy’s talk show. What’s on the air can influence what’s happening behind-the-scenes, and vice versa. You really have to think of it like The Larry Sanders Show, although it’s not as centered around show business, the way The Larry Sanders Show or 30 Rock is. It’s really centered around their personal lives.
Since we’re going to get to learn more backstory about The Muppets and what their home life is like, are there any that you’re most excited about getting to explore, in that way?
KUSHELL: Two of my favorite characters have always been secondary characters, and they are Rizzo the Rat and Pepé the King Prawn. Those two characters, you’re going to learn a lot more about. They’re very involved with the show. They’re two of the three writers on the show, with Gonzo being the head writer. So, the more I can watch Pepé and Rizzo, the more I love my life. Everything they say is funny. Those characters write themselves. They’re effortless and fun to write, and I just can’t wait to see what happens with them.
How much of their dating lives will we see?
KUSHELL: You’re gonna see stuff. We took the story of Fozzie dating a human woman from the presentation and we built it up for the pilot, and we will touch on it throughout the show. It’s not going to be a show about Fozzie dating Becky. That’s not going to be out weekly thing, but he’s dating Becky. He goes to work and he deals with stuff there, and sometimes you see what he deals with, with Becky, at home or wherever they are. It’s the same with Kermit, Piggy, Gonzo, and all of them. But like with Cheers, or any workplace comedy, we needed a workplace that all The Muppets could be at and branch off from, and that’s Miss Piggy’s talk show, Up Late with Miss Piggy. You’re going to see Kermit’s house. They go to the bar across the street, Rowlf’s bar, where he tends bar and plays piano, and it looks unbelievable.
How did you decide what Kermit’s house would look like?
KUSHELL: You think long and hard about what Kermit the Frog would want in his house. It’s going to be nature-based and natural. It’s not going to be the type of mansion that Piggy lives in. He doesn’t live in Bel Air. He might live in Topanga. We think about every one of those choices, for every character. We think about it when we’re writing, and then the set designers and set decorators think about it. By the way, it’s like that in every show. Everybody who’s worth their salt in this business takes their job seriously and comes to work with great passion, and they put themselves in the character’s head. The costume designer of Miss Piggy’s wardrobe said to Bill once that they always design the clothes one or two sizes too small for her because she doesn’t believe she’s as heavy as she is. She will never believe that. That’s something a writer would never think of, but a great costume designer would. We’re working with the best people, and they’re doing a great job. I’m really excited.
Is this a show that you’re hoping will continue indefinitely?
KUSHELL: We hope that this is as successful, or more so, than The Big Bang Theory, or any of the shows that we’ve been associated with. The most fun I’ve ever had on a show is Third Rock From the Sun. I did that for five years, and I ran the show, at one point. I’ve been wanting to find a show that could last for years and years and years, that gives me that type of satisfaction, writing wonderful stories for wonderful characters that has a different slant and a different kind of comedy that you can’t do on any other show. As many wonderful shows as I’ve written for, over the years, I’ve never found one to equal Third Rock, and this is that show for me. I’m so grateful to be a part of it and, god willing, I hope it goes for many, many years. We are prepared to do it, and I’m prepared to do it for the rest of my life.
And you have the benefit of a cast that will never age.
KUSHELL: That is correct. It’s the best. When you look at shows that have lasted the longest, The Simpsons, which I also wrote for, has a cast that never ages.
Is it a tricky balance to have more adult humor that kids can also watch?
KUSHELL: We do think about that. We never want to do or say anything too explicit, but the implications are very implied, whatever it is. If you look at the presentation that Bill and I wrote, there’s a line where Kermit says, “The band is happy legally now.” Adults know what that means and get what makes them happy, but kids will never understand that. It’s a great joke for the parents, and for kids, it’s not even a joke they’d ask about. They wouldn’t ask their parents, “What does that mean?” They’d just smile and laugh. And I think the best family shows have that. Modern Family deals with a lot of very adult situations, but it’s definitely a show that you can watch with your kids. There is no question that this will be the same.
Can you get away with more, when it comes to the humor, because it’s The Muppets?
KUSHELL: No, I don’t think so. I really don’t. I think you have to be clever and creative around it. I don’t think you can just get away with more. I think you have to be really weary, almost more than any other show. They’re puppets, so kids are going to be watching, and you want to respect that and honor that. But as much as I want to respect and honor that, I want to respect and honor that adults are watching, too, and really give them a show they can laugh with.
The Muppets airs on Tuesday nights on ABC, starting on September 22nd.