DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of TV show, �Sesame Street�)
Mr. PATRICK STEWART (Actor): B or not a B? That is the question. Whether �tis the second letter of the alphabet, or some other merry letter. B or not a B? This letter doth have a stiff, straight back. And the word back begineth with B. B or not a B? This letter doth have two bumps in the front. And I reckon the word bump begineth with B. Zoons, the word begineth, begineth with B, if begineth be a word. Now, by my sword, I declare, B or not a B, �tis B. Good night, sweet B.
DAVIES: That's Patrick Stewart teaching kids about the letter B on �Sesame Street.� Today we celebrate the poetry, music and puppets of �Sesame Street,� which marks its 40th anniversary on television Tuesday. Frank Oz is an actor, puppeteer and film director who helped create and did the voices for Cookie Monster, Bert and Grover, and for the Muppets, Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear.
Frank Oz joined Jim Hensen and the Muppets in 1963. He directed the Muppets on the big screen in �The Muppets Take Manhattan.� He directed a blood-sucking plant and a cast of humans in the movie musical comedy �A Little Shop of Horrors.� And he was directed by George Lucas in �The Empire Strikes Back,� where Oz handled the puppet and the voice for Yoda, the Jedi master. Terry spoke with Frank Oz in 1988, when his comedy with Steve Martin and Michael Caine, �Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,� was released.
TERRY GROSS, host:
You did puppets as a kid. And I wonder what kind of puppet shows you did.
Mr. FRANK OZ (Actor, Director): Oh, I did variety shows, marionette variety shows, three minute little act, strung together for about 20 minutes for supermarket openings and birthday parties and parking lots and fairs and church gatherings and anything like that. I made about $30 for a half an hour show.
GROSS: What do you think is different about the Muppets than puppets which preceded it?
Mr. OZ: Yeah. Well, I think it's the tight shot of cameras. I think the tight shot of television created a particular style that Jim did. And that is when you're working with normal puppets. And again, I'm not crazy about puppets. I care much more about character, and that's why I love Muppets because they do characters. But I think the tight shot, the close-up in a TV situation, forces a puppet not to be just a wooden doll. It forced Jim, I think, in his creativity, to have a mouth that opens and speaks in sync and have a cloth instead of wood and the cloth is malleable and you can be much more subtle with you hand. I think that close-up really made the difference to Jim and it both forced him and allowed him to break some bonds of puppetry. He did that. I had nothing to do with that. I wasn't even there.
GROSS: The puppets were also outside of the proscenium, there's no little puppet theater�
Mr. OZ: That's it, yeah, because in a - you're right - a proscenium situation, you - first of all, it's a wide shot, the puppets kind of wiggle. It bores the hell out of me, puppets wiggling around, but they just kind of wiggle around and move and you have to - your eye shifts to them. In a proscenium situation, they have to make large motions, because it's a proscenium, because there's a lot of space to play with.
In a close-up, that close-up is the new proscenium, was the new proscenium, still is. And you don't have to wiggle the doll, you have to be more subtle. You have to be more succinct. You have to be more specific in your movements. And I think all those - I think that close-up compared with the proscenium really made the difference. It was the germ of what happened with the Muppets and Jim.
GROSS: I think the superstar of all the puppets - of all the Muppets that you created was Miss Piggy. If you could tell us what inspired her�
Mr. OZ: She was a pig as - there must have been half a dozen pigs in the first year of �The Muppet Show,� which we kind of loosely used in the show. And at one point it was Richard Hunt, who's another performer, and myself, we kind of used her at different times. And one show, I did her and she came out of the course and attacked the frog, romantically. And from that moment on, people started to laugh at her and I started to have ideas with her and the writers and then I took over.
I said, Richie, it really seems like I'm getting somewhere with her and he said fine. But I don't know what happened. All I know is that whatever neuroses I have has been filtered through her in some entertaining way or used to have, maybe. And so she is now a - what I like about her, she's a very layered character. There's a lot of neuroses built inside her. And I've always felt that what's humorous about her is that she hides her pain.
GROSS: I want to play a short clip of you - your voice as Miss Piggy from the movie that you directed, �The Muppets Take Manhattan.� And in this scene, Miss Piggy is working at the perfume counter of a department store.
Mr. OZ: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: And working with her is Joan Rivers, and they're selling a perfume called Kel de Feron(ph).
Mr. OZ: I'll tell you about that too.
GROSS: Let's hear the scene first.
(Soundbite of movie, �The Muppets Take Manhattan�)
Mr. OZ: (As Miss Piggy) Get your Kel de Feron, it's French, it's feminine. It will help you grab one of those rotten stinking men. Kel de Feron�
Ms. JOAN RIVERS (Actress): (As Perfume Saleswoman) (Unintelligible) You were fine this morning. (Unintelligible) lunch?
Mr. OZ: (As Miss Piggy) My frog turned on me.
Ms. RIVERS: (As Perfume Saleswoman) (Unintelligible)
Mr. OZ: (As Miss Piggy) I'm going to fight for him though. I mean, do you think I'm pretty?
Ms. RIVERS: (As Perfume Saleswoman) Of course you are. You're more than pretty.
Mr. OZ: (As Miss Piggy) Gorgeous?
Mr. RIVERS: (As Perfume Saleswoman) Don't push it, pig.
GROSS: You were saying there was a story behind that?
Mr. OZ: I was directing that movie also and we rented Bergdorf Goodman's on a Sunday morning, and Sunday all day, and Joan had to leave. She had an engagement that evening, some performance she had to do. So we only had her for one day and not a complete day either. So I had two cameras going and - in the scene really, although you didn't play it all, it ends with them hysterically giggling and losing control, just laughing like two, you know, two friends laugh. And we - it just wasn't working. I mean, I - it's very hard to if you try, it's very hard to have a spontaneous laughter. It wasn't working. And Joan - because I didn't know Joan that well, I guess she didn't know me. So I said to one of the production assistants, we were close to the Plaza Hotel, I said, Get about four Bloody Marys. And so they came back after looking and I had a couple of Bloody Marys and Joan had a couple Bloody Marys. And we shot the scene kind of like that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OZ: And actually, then Joan left. I had to do some pickup work. And I was feeling really good and I didn't care where the hell the cameras were.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I'm trying to listen to your voice and hear how it's become the characters of Miss Piggy and Bert and Grover and Fozzie Bear�
Mr. OZ: Don't even try. I'm amazed that I do Miss Piggy, first of all. The others I can understand a bit more. Piggy is beyond me. I have no idea how I do that. I mean it's just - fortunately, I don't even think about it. Neither do I have to think about the other characters. They're just there. They just happen - they are there after all this - all these year.
GROSS: When you're manipulating the character of Miss Piggy�
Mr. OZ: Uh-huh.
GROSS: �where are�
Mr. OZ: Which I don't do much anymore, actually.
GROSS: You have other people to do that?
Mr. OZ: No, nobody does my characters, nobody does Jim's characters, nobody does the other performer's characters. I just don't use her that much anymore. I try and save her for special occasions.
GROSS: I can't believe she is allowing you retire her.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. OZ: I'm not retiring her.
GROSS: She is so aggressive.
Mr. OZ: No, not retiring her at all. I'm just saving - I'm saving her for special situations, special TV shows, special moments, because she's, you know, she's a very special character. And also because I'm - I don't have time. I've a family and I'm working on movies and all that stuff.
GROSS: Is that ever frustrating when you're working with real actors, after you worked with puppets for so long. You know, with a puppet, if you don't like the movement, you change it, you move your arm, you move the rod or whatever. Working with an actor, they're a real person and you can't just, you know, do the equivalent of pulling their strings.
Mr. OZ: You mean as a director or a performer?
GROSS: As a director.
Mr. OZ: Well, it's a question that's asked often in some form. And when I direct, which is a misnomer in the first place, but when I - because you don't direct people, you work with them. But when I work with the performers, the puppeteers, I don't work with the puppets. I don't, you know, I don't talk to the puppet. I talk to the professional hardworking people, you know, who work for 20 years. And essentially the difference between them and the normal actors, and they are actors, is that they will use puppets as a tool and the actors will use their own body as a tool. Essentially, there's not much difference.
Mr. OZ: And so I consider myself talking to actors either way.
DAVIS: Puppeteer and film director Frank Oz, who worked with Jim Henson to create the Muppets on �Sesame Street� and �The Muppet Show.� He spoke with Terry in 1988.
(Soundbite of song)
Unidentified People: (As Muppets) (Singing) Asked a girl what she wanted to be? She said, Elmo, can't you see. I want be famous star on the screen. But you can do something in between. Elmo, you can drive my car. Yes, I'm going to be a star. Elmo, you can drive my car. And maybe, I love you. Elmo told that girl that his prospects are good. She said, Elmo, it's understood. Working for peanuts is all very fine, but I can show you a better time. Elmo, you can drive my car. Yes, I'm going to be a star. Elmo you can drive my car. And maybe I love you. Beep, beep, beep, beep, yeah.
DAVIS: This is FRESH AIR.