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Thursday, February 11, 2016

How The Muppets Reinvented a Brighter, Funnier Midseason (and redeemed Miss Piggy)

From Entertainment Weekly

If the Muppets know anything, it’s how to reinvent themselves — they’ve had to do it for 40 years. And just a few months after rebranding once again for last fall’s mockumentary-style sitcom revival The Muppets on ABC, the famous gang is doing it again, this time helmed by a new leader in the googly-eye trenches who took over the reins during the winter hiatus in the hopes of solving the tonal and narrative issues that faced the fall felt comedy.

Now it’s February and The Muppets are back — and in many ways, it’s the Muppet show audiences have been waiting for, provided they show up to see all that’s changed behind the scenes of Up Late with Miss Piggy.

“There are as many opinions about what the Muppets should and shouldn’t be as there are people on this planet,” concedes The Muppetsexecutive producer Kristin Newman, who in November was tapped to replace series co-creator Bob Kushell on daily showrunning duties. “There are people who want it to be more adult, and people who want it to be less adult, and people who hate this character and the people who love that character — so my job is to listen to what everybody is saying in common, and what they were all saying was, we want the tone to be more joyful. We want the Muppets to be the Muppets.”

Newman had just finished work on the second season of ABC’s Galavant and the upcoming sitcom The Real O’Neals when the network sought her input on how she might approach the back half of The Muppets. Having watched all the episodes, Newman laid out a plan for a happier, more positive Muppets, and her pitch seemed to quell the network’s doubts about where the second half of the season could go. Newman was hired before production even broke for the holidays.

“Joy was the main thing that I wanted to bring in more of — there was a very hyper-real, human approach to writing the Muppets at first,” she says. “The Muppets are friends, they love each other, and they’re excited to be making a TV show. Kermit left the swamp to make millions of people happy, not because he wanted fame or money. I wanted to feel that he wasn’t this jaded, cynical Hollywood guy.”

How did The Muppets get into this situation in the first place? Nielsen ratings declined week-to-week since the September premiere (leveling out relatively around the 4-million viewer mark), and even in its introduction, the show faced conflicting response: Critiques levied against the show included parent groups ballyhooing the much-publicized effort to make an adult-tinged primetime Muppet show; a backlash from offended pundits who seemed programmed to reject the show because of the press’ treatment of Piggy and Kermit as real celebrities; and a swath of viewers who felt that the ensemble’s pejorative, gang-up treatment of Miss Piggy — the show’s only female lead — wasn’t just funny, but chauvinistic and hurtful.

Newman’s revitalization hopes to fix all that, and in The Muppets’ first few episodes back, the creative changes have worked miracles (although ratings are still down). Among Newman’s biggest shifts: the addition of zanier characters beloved but forgotten to the annals of Muppetry (like Lew Zealand, Julius Strangepork, Link Hogthrob, and the Mahnamahnas); bigger use of musical guests for episode-ending emotion rather than story-driven participation; and the introduction of a human villain for the Muppets to band together against (Utkarsh Ambudkar’s Pizza, a nefarious hipster of a network executive hell-bent on rebranding Up Late With Miss Piggy). Newman argues that the fall’s celebrity guest stars were taking up too much screentime, and one central villain would unite the group — and offer an inspired idea for both producer Kermit and real producer Newman.

“He forces Kermit to come up with a way to update the Late Show in a way that’s Muppety and joyful and not slick and douchey — so Kermit gets the idea to use all the Muppets backstage and bring the joy and magic he sees onto the stage,” says Newman, adding that every Muppet had its own classic bit that she and the show’s writing staff have tried to update. It’s yet another area of comedy the fall series hasn’t quite hit yet: the fun playground of late-night TV. “A late-night talk show is really a modern variety show, so I wanted to take more advantage of that and get to see the Muppets’ zany weirdness and physicality and music, which after all is really what the Muppets are so great at.” (Example: The Swedish Chef’s cooking segment on molecular gastronomy with Bunsen and Beaker.)

Perhaps most importantly, Newman’s changes have lightened the pressure backstage and paved the way for a crucial experiment: the redemption of Miss Piggy.

“Since we’re not making Piggy the bad guy anymore and since she lost the love of her life because she lost herself in her own celebrity, I’m having her work more on her work-life balance,” says Newman, who mirrored Piggy’s self-exploration trip to Argentina over the hiatus after a similar one in her own life. When Piggy and The Muppets returned in midseason, the Up Late host brought with her a new cast member (a scene-stealing penguin named Gloria Estefan) and some added heart: In the Feb. 9 episode, she embraces a wardrobe malfunction and encourages a young piglet to embrace her species. “She comes back inspired and invigorated to work on her herself, her friendships and bigger issues.” And as for her relationship with Kermit? “I wanted to see that even through they were broken up, they still have chemistry and they’re still drawn to each other,” says Newman, teasing a possible reconciliation between pig and frog by season’s end. “She’s working on some bigger things, and Kermit’s going to notice.”

Other storylines from the fall will also be shifted to make way for bigger changes, like Fozzie’s relationship with his human girlfriend Becky. The story will wrap up, and instead viewers will get some zanier romance from Gonzo as he reconnects with his girlfriend, Camilla the Chicken — who is exactly the kind of joyful Muppet purposefully left out of the show’s initial inception.

“Camilla was kept out of the show for that very reason, because she didn’t feel grounded to the prior showrunners,” says Newman. “But I feel like we’ve got a talking blue thing, so we can have a talking chicken. We have a lot of conversations around here like that: Do we have Marvin Suggs and the Muppaphones, these talking fuzzballs that get hit over the head and make music on this TV show? I think maybe, we do.”

Newman continues: “At the end of the day, Pepe has become a human character to us in so many ways, but he’s still a prawn. And you have puppets—so let’s use them to be what they can be. They’re still in the human world. They still go to the regular Trader Joe’s. They drive a regular car. They still live in an apartment, not a swamp or a sty. But they’re puppets who don’t die, so playing with that—with Foo-Foo chasing a ball into Big Mean Carl’s stomach or Gonzo getting shot out of a cannon across a parking lot into a vat of butter water — let’s just enjoy it.”
 

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