Muppet Stuff - Muppet Mayhem at New York Comic Conby Chris Barry, contributing writer
It's time to play the music. It's time to light the lights.
Fall of 1987. Walk into my first college dorm room at Long Island University and you would see some fairly standard sights. I had my bike stashed in a corner. I had my stereo system and shelves full of actual LP's. We had a beat up old coffee table worn away in spots from late night games of quarters. And on my walls? There were the requisite rock and roll posters, Springsteen: Live at the Bottom Line and some sort of trippy art based on the iconography of the Grateful Dead. But, right there in prime location, center of the main wall above my bed was a poster of none other than Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.
As far as I knew, I was probably the only one in the building with that poster on the wall. Let's face it I was the only one on campus with that poster on my wall. And I was just fine with that. I'll never forget when my good friend and fraternity brother, Jim, walked into my room and looked up and said, "I can't believe you actually have a Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem poster on your wall! That's the best poster I've ever seen!" I'm not gonna lie; that poster always received positive comments from anyone that spotted it. I wish I still had it, but it didn't survive the moving back and forth because trust me, it would be on a wall somewhere in my house at this very moment.
Was it odd for a 19 year-old to have a Muppets poster on the wall of his college dorm? Maybe. Was it odd for me to have a Muppets poster on my wall? Not at all. It made perfect sense. Born in 1968, I was the first Sesame Street generation, raised alongside Kermit, Oscar and Bert and Ernie. In 1976, when they made the jump to prime time with The Muppet Show, I was glued to the set each week. As a matter of fact, I was a charter member of The Muppet Show Fan Club. Didn't know there was such a thing? Here's my original pin that came along with membership as proof. Somewhere deep in my boxes of "stuff" I'm fairly confident that I have the original fan club membership certificate that came in the mail "signed" by President Kermit the Frog and Recording Secretary, Miss Piggy.
It was a lifetime membership and I still consider myself a proud member to this very day. Needless to say, I was there in '79 for The Muppet Movie the day it opened in theaters and sat through it twice, which they unfortunately don't let you do anymore. Same went for The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and The Muppets Take Manhattan and so on and so on.
My fandom and love for Jim Henson's creations never waned, and so it only made sense that three years after I hung that poster on my dorm room wall, I was walking into my college internship with Jim Henson Productions here in New York City. After interning for the company for about 5 months, I got to meet Jim, speak with him privately and even see him on the set performing Kermit, still one of the great moments of my life. Unfortunately, just a few days after I completed my internship, and less than a week after I sat in his office having a brief conversation with him, Jim suddenly and tragically passed away. Five days after that immense loss, I was able to share that sorrow with the whole production department that I had been working with that semester at the remarkable memorial service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. After that solemn but joyous celebration of my hero's life I thought my time with The Muppets was over, but thankfully I was hired on as a Production Associate for several projects including the CBS-aired tribute special The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. I watched as just about every person who performed with Jim throughout all of those years said farewell to him on a cramped sound stage on 67th street just a few doors down from one of his famed Creature Shops where his puppets were brought to life. It was a moment in time that I treasure and that I will never forget.
So it's fairly obvious and it's no understatement when I say that The Muppets were and still are a very big part of my life and who I am. As a writer for MousePlanet I have been able to cover the peaks and valleys of my precious Muppets and their many iterations over my long tenure here, and I thoroughly enjoy writing about them whenever I get the opportunity. One such opportunity happened just a few weeks ago during one of my favorite yearly events, New York Comic Con. I have been covering the world's biggest comic convention for MousePlanet for quite some time now, hunting for as many Disney moments as I can find to report on. This was the first time I received a press invite for a Muppet-centric panel and interview roundtable, and I was beside myself thrilled with the subject matter. Turns out that in 2023 The Walt Disney Company and The Muppets will be presenting a brand-new Disney+ series centered around none other than the one and only Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.
The Muppets Mayhem will be premiering on Disney's streaming service next year and, if the panel and series of interviews are any indication, Muppet fans, and music fans for that matter, should be in for a real treat. The human cast – Lilly Singh, Tahj Mowry, Saara Chaudry and Anders Holm – were all on hand for the panel, as were co-creators and executive producers Adam F. Goldberg and Jeff Yorkes and Muppeteer Bill Barretta – who now plays Dr. Teeth, The Swedish Chef, Rowlf the Dog and Pepe the Prawn, among others. The audience was treated to a few minutes of actual footage from the upcoming show introduced by band members Zoot and Animal in a pre-taped segment expressing their regret for not being able to attend the convention. The show footage consisted of the moment that the band arrives at main "human character" Nora's (Lilly Singh) home and concludes with a shot of none other than Dr. Teeth in Nora's hot tub. The plot of the whole series is that the seminal Muppet rock and roll band has apparently never recorded an album and this is going to be their foray into the Los Angeles music industry. One could only assume that the requisite Muppet chaos – and mayhem – will ensue.
The actors shared stories of what it was like to work alongside The Muppets and the performers that bring them to life. Lilly Singh spoke of "the coolest moment of her life" when she was acting in a car literally full of Muppets. There is, of course, no bottom to the car because the floor is crowded with various Muppet performers. What she failed to realize though is just how many other characters each of these Muppeteers perform. For instance, Muppet performer Matt Vogel is Electric Mayhem bass player Floyd, but he also happens to perform Big Bird and Kermit. Singh recalls that moment when each of the Electric Mayhem performers started doing all of their other voices between takes. She recalled literally having her "mind melted" as she reverted to being more of a raving fan than an acting professional alongside her co-workers. Everyone on the stage spoke about the incredible job that the Muppet performers all do especially in some very trying and odd physical circumstances. Consider the scene I mentioned above. How exactly does Dr. Teeth get to be in a hot tub and how does Bill Barretta get to perform as that puppet submerged in water? That's all part of the magic of Muppet movie making and the cast and creators all spoke about this extensively.
After the actual panel, when all of us members of the press had the opportunity to speak one on one with the whole Mayhem team, several things came to light. I think I can unequivocally say that the actors and the creators all had the time of their life producing this series. Lilly Singh spoke about just how "warm and welcoming" the Muppet crew was to work with. Tahj Mowry referred to everyone as a "huge family down to the crew and the grips…everyone." They spoke about how much fun they had on the set, how nervous they were in the beginning about stepping into this iconic intellectual property and whether the fans would accept them and the show itself. But ultimately, they all agreed that this was one of the best things that they have ever been a part of.
From the creators' point of view, they were really trying to dig into the backstory of each of these characters. Let's remember that Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem have been around for a while, but they have essentially been in the background. With this show we get to find out more than we ever have about each of them. They really wanted this to be a show about the band and their struggles to record an album and get some gigs and figure out how to make it in the crazy LA music scene. The show is apparently filled with music cameos, as any classic Muppet related show should. The one and only tease we got was that we're going to see Zoot have quite a moment with none other than Cheech and Chong, but there will be many more.
The bottom line here though, is that The Muppets Mayhem is being written and produced by two huge Muppet fans. Adam Goldberg and Jeff Yorkes are bona fide Muppet geeks and unapologetically so. Yorkes said that he wanted to create "a show that we wanted to watch that was cool and musical…and I wanted to see them make an album." During the panel he referred to the whole experience as "a pinch yourself moment at every turn for a Muppet fan." Goldberg described the moment that he met Yorkes in college. He looked over and realized that Jeff was drawing Muppets, and he realized that he had found a kindred spirit.
I especially identified with Mr. Yorkes because he too interned at the Jim Henson Productions studio in New York City. He described a very similar moment that we both had at the facility. They were producing the Wubbulus World of Dr. Seuss, and he was left to watch over the set while the entire crew left for an event. He quickly found himself collecting letterhead and all sorts of Muppets and Henson swag that is just seemingly everywhere in a storied place like the Henson Studios. "Don't leave a geek behind…" was Adam Goldberg's comment to that story. I did the same exact thing when I was an intern. Both Goldberg and Yorkes talked about arriving at the Mayhem set and discovering the shed that housed all of the Muppet puppets. They both quickly realized that they were alone with a shed full of Muppets and proceeded to act as the rabid fans that they are and began snapping selfies with themselves and their favorite Muppets. I had a shockingly similar moment when my supervisor and I walked onto a set filled with what are called photo Muppets. They were all set up for a photo shoot, and we both looked at each other, realized we were alone and ran for the Polaroid. Those shots are true treasures to me as I'm sure the selfies are to Mr. Goldberg and Mr. Yorkes.
I tell this last story because I think it sums up just how I felt when I walked out of that round table session and made my way back onto the Comic Con Show Floor. It truly does appear that The Muppets Mayhem is being produced by Muppet super fans. I got the sense that these guys love these characters and their history, and they want to see this show succeed so they can reintroduce these beloved characters to a new generation of fans while at the same time making us "old guys" feel like our Muppets are back and getting the attention that they deserve. Speaking to Bill Barretta, it's so obvious that he has such an admiration and respect for the legacy of Jim Henson. He spoke about meeting Jim while he was an employee at Sesame Place and how, now that he performs so many of Jim's Muppets, he tries to "match the essence and spark of the characters that he created."
It was obvious to me and to some of the other writers there that I was speaking with afterwards that this whole team had a blast creating this series. It really seems that they are following in the footsteps of those that came before them, trying to live up to Jim's whole notion that laughter, music, good storytelling and a little bit of heart can make some lifeless pieces of foam come to life. Personally, I can't wait for The Muppets Mayhem to premiere on Disney + in 2023, so I can, yet once again, watch the Muppet magic unfold. As a Muppet fan, I walked away pretty happy that day. Rest assured, I'll be watching and I'll let you know what I think when it all happens. If you're a Muppet fan like me and like the whole Mayhem crew this just might be the show that we are all waiting for.
That's all for this time. As always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below to share your thoughts and I'll see you next time with more Muppet Stuff.