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The Muppet Years

Lord Grade, that entrepreneur extraordinaire, had the brilliant idea to bring Jim Henson's Muppet characters to Elstree for a series, which Lew intended for worldwide distribution. Jim had brought his Muppet team to Elstree before for inserts into other American aimed productions, of which JULIE ON SESAME STREET was by far the best.

Top writers were employed and the first series was produced by Smith and Hemion and overseen, production-wise' by the American comedian/producer stalwart Jack Burns. The directors for the series were Peter Harris (ATV staff) and Phillip Casson (freelance). Jack Burns sat alongside the director for the entire first series and attended all dubbing sessions. Jack was a brilliant personage. On show one, when Gonzo announced he was going to eat the entire car on set, even the tyres . . . Jack got him to add the words (after a pause)."white walls". As if that was the ultimate task. However, he was a volatile person - on one dub he insisted on a big laugh after Fozzy Bear (on ordering a meal) said . . . "Hold the mayo". I queried this with Jack asking if it were funny. He exploded, left the dubbing suite and didn't come back for two hours. Once, in a phone call a secretary innocently gave Jack's ex-wife his forwarding address - this compelled Jack to leave the country temporarily. 

Sound-wise, I did the first two shows, after which Roger Knight and I alternated on the remainder of the five year run. Each show took around five days to shoot. The following week we sound dubbed the shows then making various different versions for the world. On week one, Monday was music record day with the guest star. Voices would then be put on the musical items with the regular Muppet operators. This usually took until 8pm as the Muppet people would be required to sing and add vocal effects. One item, I recollect, was totally sung in bubbles and gargles. The operators would drink a glass of water and gargle along with the track as in tune as possible. Much laughs emitted from these sessions and they would have provided a show on their own.

The Muppet band, under the direction of Jack Parnell, was a nine piece comprised of the best session musicians of the day. The guest star was met at the airport, or wherever, limo'd to the studio and given the TOP STAR treatment by the Henson Organization's own production star, David Lazer, who could, and did, charm the wings off a bird without batting an eyelid. Political correctness with a constant smile was David's trademark.

Shooting-wise, Tuesday was Guest Star day. The artiste would do a sketch, or two, sing a song or two and say the farewell speech in front of the tabs. Live voice was picked up from the artiste via a boom whilst the Muppet Operators had head-sets for playback with adjacent microphones for dialogue. On camera, the artiste usually stood on a raised platform with the operators beneath them working their dolls whilst following the action on a small TV sets scattered around the floor. Whilst Roger Moore was charming the pants off Miss Piggy on a sumptuous sofa, Frank Oz would be squeezed in under that sofa operating Miss Piggy watching the picture output on a monitor while following a rough script.

Other productions involved multi muppets. A good example comes to mind with the PAUL SIMON Muppet Show. He did ‘Strawberry Fair' walking and singing live among rows of stalls selling all types of market produce. The stalls would be at camera level while Paul walked a narrow plank between them performing. Six feet beneath the plank would be a cacophony of power and talkback cables feeding the monitors and operators. Sometimes one Muppet character involved up to three operators.Interestingly, after a playback of the Paul Simon Muppet Show, Richard Hunt one of the talented operators was overheard saying to Gerry Nelson (another multi-talented guy) . . . . . . .'He should have brought Art'. 

Because the UK had less commercial breaks than other countries, every UK Muppet Show had a ‘two minute spot' - the space had to be filled with a song, usually a UK based item - ‘Any Old Iron' and other cockney songs spring to mind. Incidentally, the two minutes had to be frame accurate EXACTLY.  The sound dub on the Muppet Show was an important factor. Sometimes a show would require a hundred, or so sound effects to be laid onto the track in synch. The eight track dubbing recorder was configurated as follows.

Track 1. Main edited program sound.2-3-4 Music & dialogue laid back from sound studio master recorders.5-6 Laughter tracks7-8 Final mix (ready for layback to VTR and buzz track to enable perfect synchronization. . Every added laugh (and they were ALL added) involved a debate. Jim and Frank attended all dubs and ensured that the laughter chosen for any gag was correct. My job was to mix the whole thing together for a finished show ensuring (at all times) that no dialogue was drowned by laughter or added effects. Today, I often sit dejected in front of my telly deploring the lack of finesse in voice to music mixing.

Re-takes during the dub were multiple. Sometimes an added laugh was too short, too long, too raucous, not raucous enough etc etc. We would wind back time and time again, drop into record and try it once more. After a long track laying day Jim and Frank would appear and the final dub mix would commence. An easy show would be finished by ten thirty. A difficult show could go until the early hours. The remainder of the dub week would involve producing the various other versions for world consumption. Muppet record week was a five day affair. The second week for dubbing and world versions would be three and a half days. This careful (and miserly) scheduling would involve no overtime payments for the Muppet sound crews but we were proud to be an important part of a production that would be seen in a hundred countries around the world.

A word about the laughter machine is relevant. This machine was devised by ATV's Design & Maintenance department (our Mission Control) after consultations with the sound department chiefs and Indians. It had sixteen faders all loaded with a different function. Two faders held coughs. The others had laughs of varying degrees from chuckles to bigger chuckles to even bigger chuckles to small laughs to slightly bigger laughs to much bigger laughs. Applause could be started on one fader, continuous on another and ended on another. Other bands of applause of set lengths were also loaded. All fingers on both hands could be doing different things with this machine and, on the whole, it worked well. Jim often said he would prefer to have done the show without a laugh dub but the Networks in the USA could not countenance that scenario. One Muppet Show had the guest star (Steve Martin) arriving as the theatre was supposedly being redecorated. Without the Muppet audience Jim foresaw this as a ‘no laugh track' production. But it was not be to be, the Network big wigs clamped down.To operate this ‘laughter-machine monster', no schooling could be provided. You may have twenty A levels and be useless. We had Roger Banks (remember Stringbean from the Peter Pan segment?) For some obscure reason Roger had the knack. He had a good (but often strange) sense of humor and he made the machine laugh along with himself. If Roger considered something not funny, the machine wouldn't laugh and he had to be convinced it WAS funny. If he went off track, he would willingly go again, and again. He never lost his cool, never (ever) argued with Jim or Frank or me but managed to do things with that machine that few others got close to.

There were over a hundred and thirty Muppet Shows, of which I was sound director on almost a half. Roger Knight, the other sound director, probably has his top ten favourites but mine were roughly as follows;

Elton John; Buddy Rich; Star Wars; Ethel Merman; Liza Minelli; Roger Moore; Johnny Cash; Debbie Harry; Juliet Prowse and Rita Moreno.

To delve into the making of these and all the others are covered more in CUE TAPE PLEASE, TED.

Apart from doing a marvellous drum break using the back stage props, Buddy Rich was challenged to a drum battle by the near-demented Animal.  Ronnie Werrell (out of vision) played Animals' drum part.  Frank Oz, Animal's operator, had to learn Ronnie's breaks, especially the cymbal hits and act the part as well.  I know Buddy rich was terrific, goes without saying, but Frank Oz wasn't bad either, was he? Click on pic below to see the battle.