Sunday, January 7, 2007

An Interview with Jim Lewis

Jim Lewis has been a Muppet writer for more than 20 years and has been responsible for putting words in the mouths of the Muppets. Lewis wrote many Muppet projects including "Wow, You're a Cartoonist!", "Hey, You're as Funny as Fozzie Bear!", "Miss Piggy's Hollywood", "Kermit's Swamp Years", "The Muppet Show Live", "It's A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie" along with being a writer on "The Animal Show", "Muppets Tonight" and "Telling Stories with Tomie DePaola". Lewis has served as one of the Muppets' primary in-house writers, contributing countless line to Muppet interviews, promotional material and appearances. In this capacity, Jim Lewis has contributed a great deal to maintaining the tone and consistency of the Muppet characters in the years since Jim Henson's death. Lewis also wrote the 2006 book "Before You Leap" from the point of view of "author" Kermit the Frog. We asked Jim Lewis for a chance to discuss his career, not just as a writer, but as a key player in the Muppet world for more than 20 years.

When did you start your career as a writer?
I always wrote. In school, it was the one thing I could do pretty well. That and tell bad jokes. (I was overweight and jokes were my defense. Am I starting to sound a bit like Fozzie?) I knew that someday I wanted to be funny for money, but it took awhile to figure out how, where, and for whom.

Where you always a Muppet fan?
John Derevlany, Jim Lewis and Kirk ThatcherI was born the same year as Kermit, and so we kind of grew up together. I discovered the Muppets on "Ed Sullivan" and loved Rowlf’s regular appearances on "The Jimmy Dean Show", but I was too old to get hooked on Sesame Street when it first came out. Like everyone else in the world, "The Muppet Show" knocked me head over kiester. It was new, fresh, and yet old school, with jokes like I told and characters you believed were real. So yes, I was a fan.

Did you ever think you would be a writer for the Muppets?
Never. I didn’t know how to get from what I was doing—writing for newspapers and magazines—to doing that. Then, one day, I saw in issue of Muppet Magazine on the newsstand. Through friends, I found out that they were looking for a new editor. I got the job and started writing for the characters there, in print. (The conceit of the magazine was that it was written totally by the Muppets in their own voice.) There in the mid-80s, when they’d done the first three Muppet movies and weren’t doing a regular show, I was one of the few writing in the voice of these characters. Oh, and there’s the fact that Fozzie is my doppelganger, but let’s not get into that.

What newspaper did you write for, and for how long?
I wrote for a small, now out-of-business, newspaper in New Jersey. I wrote about everything—city counsel, police blotter, sewer pipe, zoning laws, high school band, etc. It was a great training for writing under pressure. I did that for a few years, then took a job in Washington D.C. writing about environmental issues. So, I did do legitimate work for a few years before turning to a life of Muppets.

Did you ever have a front-page article with a really gripping heading?
My favorite was a story about a local waterway that was having environmental problems. The title, which I came up with was..."What’s It All About: Algae". Wocka! Wocka! Honest. My other favorite was a caption for four pictures of four golfing foursomes. The title..."Four For Fore". Rimshot! Thankew! Obviously, I was driven out of the news business for good reason.

How did you get started writing for TV? I believe one of your first writing credits was "Wow, You're a Cartoonist!" in 1988, is that Correct?
While working as editor of Muppet Magazine, I had a chance to write a few scripts for the just-starting-up Nickelodeon Network. Then, when the Henson company started doing original home video productions, they needed someone who could write in the voice of the classic Muppet Show characters. It’s a small niche, but it’s mine.

How is it different writing a TV script from writing a newspaper article?
Writing for TV: More notes. More editors. A lot more visual, of course. And while I’m encouraged to make stuff up with the Muppets, my editors at newspapers generally frowned upon creative fibbing.

Was "Wow! You're a Cartoonist!" your first Muppet writing project?
Actually, it was the second. The first was "Hey, You’re As Funny as Fozzie Bear!" wherein you spent 20 minutes learning to do a comedy and magic act with Fozzie, and the last 10 minutes performing this act (by standing next to the TV and delivering punchlines) with Fozzie. Ahead of its time? Or merely weird. Who knows for sure.

How involved where you in the production of "Wow! You're a Cartoonist!"?
I wrote the script. I worked with the performers, who included Jim Henson and Caroll Spinney and I learned the difference between writing for print and writing for production. I’m still learning, by the way.

How did you come to meet Jim Henson?
When he wasn’t in London or on location, he would be in the New York office, and be very accessible. His approach was exactly like Kermit—surround yourself with crazies, give them guidance and hope (and work and push and strive) for the best. The company was small enough, that he knew everyone around the office. Rumors that I changed my name to "Jim" so he’d remember it are exaggerated.

Was your writing what Jim was looking for?
I guess so. A couple of people I worked with - the great Muppet writer Bill Prady and my mentor, Michael Frith — knew what I’d done and trusted me. They gave me a chance and Jim seemed to like the result.

What was working for Jim Henson like?
Like working for Kermit, or so I imagine. He was exactly what you might imagine: creative, kind, confident, encouraging. My favorite moment was during the shooting of "Hey You’re As Funny as Fozzie Bear" when Jim and Frank Oz called me over and asked if I thought it was okay to cut a couple of lines. They ASKED ME. I was floored. That was class beyond compare. (Naturally I told them "no"...Kidding.)

When you wrote "Wow! You're a Cartoonist!", did you meet Jerry Juhl, and did he help you with the writing?
I didn’t meet Jerry on that project, but later on after I’d been in the Muppet universe for awhile he became aware of me. And even dropped me a line saying it was nice to have someone else who could write bad Fozzie jokes. Gags Beasley, eat your heart out!

In 1989, "The Jim Henson Hour" debuted. Did you help in the writing for that show?
No, I was still very new then, and while they needed TV writers, they also needed writers on consumer products and the myriad of other things the Muppets were involved in. So I did hang tags and toys and greeting cards and waited for my chance... which was co-writing "Miss Piggy’s Hollywood" with the aforementioned Bill Prady.

Did you think that after "Wow! You're a Cartoonist!", that you would write for the Muppets again?
After I’d written a few home videos as a freelancer, they seemed to realize I might be worth having around, and so I joined the staff as a writer-at-large.

On May 16, 1990, Jim Henson passed away. Did you attend any of his funeral services?
Yes. I did. The memorial service at St. John The Divine was both a wonderful celebration and a heartbreaking good-bye. I still feel blessed to have been there.

At that point, did you really think the Muppets would go on?
I think so. Like I said, Jim’s way was to give us all a chance to do what we could as best we could. Now, we had to do it without him. Almost impossible, sure. But there were so many great individuals who knew what to do and knew we had to carry on. So we did.

In 1992, you wrote the story for the cartoon "Frosty Returns". How did that come about? Did you come up with the idea of "Frosty Returns" or did CBS ask you to write it?
A freelancers life is a strange one. That’s something that came to me just after I’d joined the Henson company. They liked my story. I wrote a script. Then it went away and a couple of years later it came out vaguely like what I’d had in mind. Vaguely.

From 1992 to 1996 it seems that you did not have any TV or movie writing credits; did you go back to writing newspaper articles?
I was busy. Honest. I worked on theme park and consumer product and home video and whatever else, but not the high profile stuff. (I did do a UK produced show called "The Animal Show with Stinky & Jake" with Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire. I loved doing that.) I like all kinds of writing, so it didn’t matter that the credits were different. Then, we spent a few years developing "Muppets Tonight".

In 1996, "Muppets Tonight" premiered when you joined the writing team.
I was fortunate to be involved with that show from the beginning, and to work with people who’d made their mark doing one of my all-time favorite shows "SCTV".

How many episodes did you help write?
There were 22 episodes. And I was there for all of them.

You also became a co-producer for the show, how did that happen?
Someone obviously slipped up. Or maybe it was the 20 bucks I gave the guy who typed up the credits at the end of the show. Seriously, those titles are one of the mysteries of writing for television, but since I had involvement from the beginning I felt it was earned.

Did you have more creative control being a co-producer?
Creative control? Never heard of it. I remained a small fish in the big pond.

There were a lot of new Muppets on "Muppets Tonight". Do you think that in the long run there should have been more of the classic Muppets in the show?
It was a great place to work with and develop new characters. I’m glad we did. Should there have been more classic characters, such as Kermit and Piggy? Yes, probably, but you can’t always get what you want to. I wish we’d had more opportunity to develop the show; as it is, I think our learning curve over the 22 episodes was pretty good.

The special guests stars on the "The Muppet Show" where asked if there was anything they wanted to do on the show, and asked if there were any certain Muppets they wanted to work with. Did that happen on "Muppets Tonight"?
Yes, we built shows around the guest star, with other madness going on, of course. The shows were more plot-dependent that most "Muppet Show" episodes (e.g. Animal gets a hobby), which I think was a good thing, but getting the balance of story and silliness down is not easy.

Jerry Juhl did not write anything for "Muppets Tonight". Did he have any creative say in what was written for the show?
Jerry wasn’t involved directly, and didn’t have a creative say, so to speak. But he helped to invent the wheel we were spinning, so inevitably his influence was felt.

In 1999 "Muppets From Space" was released. Did you work on this project?
No. Although I am very proud of the material I provided on the DVD release of this movie. There’s an alternate track featuring comments from Rizzo, Gonzo, Kermit and the director. I helped write that...except for the director.

2002 was a very busy year for you wasn’t it? You had not one, but two, Muppet projects going on. Was it sometimes confusing with keeping the scripts separate?
Not really. Projects sometimes get released close together but are developed and written at different times. I’d never been so responsible for projects as I was for those, so it was a real challenge and a major learning experience.

Who came up with the idea of doing a story about Kermit’s early years?
Me. I’m a big fan of Jean Shepherd, the radio raconteur from the 1960s who’s best known as the writer/creator of "A Christmas Story" ("You’ll shoot your eye out!"). That kid’s-eye-view of life was something I admired and wanted to emulate. What was Kermit’s life like before that Dom DeLuise moment at the top of "The Muppet Movie"? I wanted to know.

Did you interact with the Muppeteers?
Always. When you write for the Muppet characters you are working with the people who created those characters and who are, to a great extent, their alter egos. The performers are the ones on the line and what I do as a writer is to give them the best place to start and see where they take it.

There was a lot of hidden Muppet references for us die hard fans. Was it hard to find places to put them in the movie?
Not really. I wish we’d been able to do more...

Steve Whitmire has really taken Kermit to a new level. Did you help him do that with a different kind of writing for Kermit to fit Steve’s style?
Steve is fantastic. I didn’t help him. I just wrote the character as best I could and with his help shaped things that worked well for him. It’s a treat to work with him, but I don’t feel like I’m writing for a different character.

You also produced "Kermit Swamp Years". What, if any, challenges did you have in the making of this movie?
It was a new direction for the characters, exploring a different world for our signature character. That was rife with possible pitfalls. But all of the people involved, from the performers, producers, our director David Gumpel, to the puppet builders who created a younger Kermit, were old hands with the Muppets, so we did our best to try to get it right.

There was a lot of young and new Muppet talent working on "Swamp Years". Did this help recasting some of the "classic Muppets"?
Really the only "classic" character—besides a cameo appearance by Statler and Waldorf and me in the movie theater—is Kermit. And Steve shaped this younger Kermit with help from us, but mostly by dint of his talent.

You also helped write "A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie". Which brought the Muppets back to the Muppet Theater. Where did the idea for that come from?
What would the Muppets have been like if Kermit were never born? That’s a "What if" that felt ripe for exploring.

In "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie", it was the first time in a long time that some of Frank Oz’s characters had really big roles. How important has Eric Jacobson been in the writing for those Muppets?
Having Eric do these characters is a great opportunity for those characters to appear and grow. Frank - excuse me, Mr. Oz - is quite busy as you know. And Eric is a wonderful performer.

Kirk Thatcher once said that the Kermit and Piggy relationship was not to be taken serious, as it is "just a frog and a pig". In "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie" you go deeper into their relationship. Was there any discussion on set about that?
Huh, Kirk said that? Where is he!? Let me at him! I’m not sure what that means, but I’m sure he had a punchline for it. I wasn’t on set much for that shoot, so I’m not sure what discussion took place. I have my views, which are that theirs is one of the great love affairs of all time, but then again I’m contractually obligated to say this.

The scene where Scooter is dancing in the cage has caused quite a bit of buzz on the fan web sites about it being "too much". When writing and filming that scene, did anyone think it was too much?
I can’t say. I wasn’t on set. I didn’t have much to do with that scene. Nuff said.

In all your years as a writer, what is the most important message you could give to young people who want to become writers?
Write faster and funnier... Seriously, it’s just a matter of keeping at it. Find things you like and see how they’re done. Then try your own hand at it, and as you write and write and write, you’ll develop a style of your own. You have to give it everything and hope for the best...and while life doesn’t always work out the way you expected, it often turns out better than you could have imagined. I believe that and so does the bear. And if it works for Fozzie, that’s good enough for me.

Thank you Jim, for taking time out of your busy day to answer these questions for us fans. We love our Muppets, but we also love to know what the people behind the scenes are doing and what they think.