Sunday, March 2, 2008

Ask Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis has been a Muppet writer for more than 20 years – writing for Muppet Magazine, authoring Kermit's 2006 book "Before You Leap" and working on such productions as "Muppets Tonight!", "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie", "Kermit's Swamp Years" and many, many others. We conducted an interview with Jim in January 2007 covering many aspects, and elements of his role as a Muppet writer (you can read the full interview here). After the initial interview we continued to keep in touch with Jim, collecting questions from fans in the Muppet Central forums and personally sending them to Jim. And for the past year, Jim Lewis has graciously answered dozens of questions asked by fans just like you. Below is a collection of some of our favorite questions and answers from the past year.

Of all your writing projects, which are you the most proud and why?
My personal favorite among my own projects is "Muppet Classic Theater" which I co-wrote with Bill Prady. It was done relatively soon after Jim’s passing, and it was in many ways a re-gathering of the clan. It was fun. Plus it’s just silly, with no great message. I'm fond of it and hope it sees the light of DVD someday.

Do you happen to know what special effects were used to make bubbles come out of Bill the Bubble Guy's head?
I do know, but if I told you I’d have to kill you... Seriously, that was a brilliant effect (one of millions) created by the Muppet Workshop and, if my memory serves me right, the legendary Fred Buchholtz. With Dave Goelz as Bill, it's another unsung classic.

I have a question about "Before You Leap." Was it a concious decision on your part to give Fozzie a huge portion of the book, or was it an executive decision?
As you probably read in my interview, Fozzie is my hero. Needy, trusting, sweet, with an obsessive-compulsive joke-reflex; what’s not to love…or emulate? So, his major part in the book comes from my heart, not executive mandate. The fact is, they let me loose on the book, so what you see is all my fault. (As told to me by Kermit, of course.)

You've written extensively for The Muppets in both printed material to be read and scripted material to be performed. How would you describe the differences - is one form harder than the other, do you prefer one over the other, what was it like making a transition when you first started, etc.
Great question. I started out in print. Even before I wrote a word for the Muppets, I was most comfortable writing print. In school, I was lousy at science and math, but I loved to write. And so I became a journalist, because that’s the only way I could make money writing. But after awhile, and through the grace of God and Jim Henson, I got to write for the Muppets. At first, in print, at “Muppet Magazine” and then for videos and eventually TV and other projects. But, I’ve always found the print writing easier, not only because it’s the form I began with, but because I find the writer has more control than he does with a script. At the same time, script writing is a joy because you see and hear what you’ve put down on paper turned into magic by the best performers in the world. (And it pays better, too).

You said that you co-wrote "Muppet Classic Theater" with Bill Prady. Did you write all of the story segments together, or did you write some independently while Bill wrote the others by himself, or was it a little bit of both?
It's been a few years, but my recollection is that I wrote "Three Little Pigs," "Elvises & The Shoemaker" "Rumpelstitskin" and "Emperor's New Clothes" and that Bill wrote the "Midas" and "Boy Who Cried Wolf". Eventually, they all went through one typewriter (hey, I said it was a long time ago), but in this particular case, I don't think Bill and I sat in room together and wrote.

I know that nearly 30 minutes worth of footage was cut from "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie", but were there any major scenes, subplots, or running gags that were written in the script but not filmed?
Now here's a question I should know the answer to, but don't. I wrote the first draft of the script, but not subsequent drafts. A good deal of what I wrote is there in the movie, but so much was changed that I really don't know what, if any, major scenes, subplots, or running gags were filmed or not filmed. In any case, the director, Kirk Thatcher, did a fantastic job and I symbolically kiss the hem of his garment, in a purely platonic way, of course.

Can you describe the infamous cut Snoop Dogg scene from "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie"?
Here's how I remember it. We come upon Kermit and Snoop backstage talking in that patented Snoop patois (e.g. "Off the hizzle f'shizzle...etc."). Surprisingly, Kermit is fluent in this lingo and has his own Frog Pound. We then see the Electric Mayhem band sitting nearby. Floyd Pepper asks a typically insightful question, something along the lines of: "Didja ever think that maybe the whole world is a molecule on the big toe of some giant in the cosmos?" To which Snoop gives a long (and to me) totally confusing answer just brimming with "hizzles" and "f'shizzles". Floyd, Animal, and the rest of the band nod sagely and then Zoot says a line that was ad-libbed on the spot: "Man, that's the first thing around here I've understood in 30 years."

I read on The Muppet Newsflash that you had a big hand in writing the sketches for the Muppets' new DxD channel. Can you tell us anything about this incredibly exciting project?
It's been as much fun to work on as it has been (I hope) to view. The goal is to provide maximum entertainment, to give new and old friends a taste of what the Muppets are all about. I personally think this is a fantastic venue for the Muppets. It's a self-contained environment. Like a sketch on a variety show (for those old enough to remember variety shows), it serves no purpose but to entertain! Here the Muppets can truly be themselves. They just do what they do when they think you're not looking. That's been a boon to my co-writer, Kirk Thatcher, and I, but also to the performers who worked on this first round of spots. They could play and explore the characters' personas without having to carry a story or make a certain statement. So far, so good. Everyone hopes we can do more...lots more.

What advice would you give for people interested in a career in writing for television?
Write. Try writing a spec (i.e. speculative) script of a show you like. If you want to write comedy, this is difficult since there are so few comedies on the air right now. If you're truly inspired, write something original. Come up with the story and characters, write an outline, work on it until it is as tight as you can make it, then write it up as a script...and throw it over some transoms to anyone (e.g. agents, friends of friends of friends). The other way is to write something and make it with friends. Put it up on Youtube. It's there for everyone to see. It's a calling card that people can watch, not have to sit down and read. They don't have to imagine what it will look like because they can see it. Of course, my own entry into this world has nothing to do with any of the above: I got into writing for TV and the Muppets by working at Muppet Magazine—a strange route to a strange career.

Whatever happened to Skeeter? Any thoughts on her?
Ahh, Skeeter. I wasn't there for the creation of the "Muppet Babies" animated series, but I suspect she was added to the show so there'd be another (dare I say, more balanced than Baby Piggy) female character on a show aimed at kids. We threw around various bizarre scenarios about what happened to Skeeter after "Muppet Babies," but none of these were ever confirmed. Frankly, I suggest contacting the Federal Witness Protection Program for more info. Let us know what you find out.

How has writing for the Muppets changed since Disney bought the brand?
The process of writing for the Muppets has always been collaborative, with everyone involved devotedly engaged in trying to make the next thing the best thing—to make it funnier, stranger, more appealing and to give you, the viewing public, more chewing satisfaction. Since Disney, that cast of "everyone involved" has changed somewhat, though not completely by any means. But the process remains the same.