I asked if he could do a voice for me.
“It’s fine to ask me,” Frank Oz said.
“Can you do a voice for me,” I said.
We laughed. I already knew he was going to say no. We talked about it before we started recording. And he told me why:
“It’s too show offy, it’s too easy,” Frank said. “The characters I have are very pure. And if I did a voice of them, they wouldn’t be pure anymore.”
He went on, “They’d just be party favors, just a trick. They mean too much to me just to throw them off like that.”
I asked him more about this. About falling in love with your creation. And being happy with yourself, your art. I’ll tell you what he said. But, first, I want to reel back to the beginning. And tell you how he got discovered.
Frank’s parents were puppeteers. So he’d been around puppets his entire life. He started working with them when he was 10. He stopped when he was 18 because he wanted to become a journalist. But instead Jim Henson, who created the Muppets, wanted to work with him. He brought Frank to New York and he never left.
“How did Jim Henson know you,” I asked.
“He saw me doing a show when I was 17. And he needed a fourth performer. So he asked me to come out and work part time for 6 months,” Frank said.
He became a part of the beginning of something great. And I think there’s something magical about that.
They became the creators of “The Muppets.” And “Sesame Street.” And it exploded.
I’ve learned that creativity, productivity, efficiency and just pure joy or happiness at work or in any organization always comes from the top down. So I wanted to know what was special about Jim Henson as a leader.
Frank told me, “Everything he did was out of excitement.He just did what he felt was exciting. Not many bosses do that. And not many bosses treat you like a partner. And not many bosses are so collaborative. He valued everyone’s contribution.”
And Frank’s lucky. Because his wife saw how unique they were. She saw they had something special. A work environment where people had fun and loved each other, where people worked like hell and there were no politics. So she encouraged Frank to create a documentary about the creation of the Muppets under the visionary leadership of the late Jim Henson and how he led his team, titled, “Muppets Guys Talking”.
See, this is where the purity perimates through the creativity.
“We have a history here,” Frank said.”The spirit of how we work with Jim is alive always. I don’t care about the money. I care about people seeing how people can be working together inclusively with all different kinds of people and show how people still get along and work for one main goal, which is the quality of the project.”
They wanted to show the world how they created these characters who have characteristics that everyone can relate to. Bert and Ernie. The Cookie Monster. Miss Piggy. Grover.
“They all have their own flaws, their own insecurities, their own weirdnesses. And I think people respond to that,” Frank said.
They save people from their own terrible ideas about themselves. I’ll give you an example.
Frank told me about a woman who came up to him after she saw an interview he did at SXSW. She was crying. She couldn’t speak. Eventually, she was able to tell him… Fozzie was her hero.
“He never gave up,” she said. The woman struggled with dyslexia her whole life, but she never gave up either. She became her school’s valedictorian.
These characters are beyond human.
“It’s extraordinary,” he said.
And it was all because of Jim Henson, the team he built, and their commitment to the characters and bringing them alive.
“Most people create out of experience,” Frank said. But Jim said “I create out of innocence.”
Jim exploded puppetry completely without even knowing it because he didn’t know a thing about it. I wondered how more people can cultivate that feeling of innocence when confronted with a problem.
“It’s the toolbox of knowledge,” Frank said, “innocence creates something original.”
And that’s what Frank, Jim and the other Muppeters did for over 40 years. They created something original and relatable.
Links and Resources
- Watch Frank’s documentary: “Muppet Guys Talking: Secrets Behind the Show the Whole World Watched” only available on muppetguystalking.com for $10
- Frank directs the off broadway production In & Of Itself playing at the Daryl Roth Theatre in NYC