Friday, February 20, 2015

My Favorite Muppets, Part 4: Jerry Nelson

Now let's take a look at Hunt's standard puppeteering partner, Jerry Nelson.  I wrote a tribute to him back in 2012 after he passed, where I noted that despite his lack of "huge" Muppet characters, he had more than his share of signature roles that showed his heart and humor.  Read that article if you haven't, as I don't want to repeat myself too much.

Nelson was great at the "sweet" character.  The little guy who only wanted to succeed in life, yet was crushed at every turn (physically or metaphorically).  Although he's not on this list, some honorable mentions would go to Emmett Otter, who was the star of his own tragic Christmas special and Mr. Johnson, the put-upon everyman who was constantly abused by Grover's incompetence.

But Nelson was never one to complain.  He remained loyal and supportive as long as his energy would allow him.  His last major performance was in The Muppets where he reprised the role of the Announcer.  He clearly still loved his work, even if it was hard sometimes.


10) Herry Monster - Sesame Street

Herry was definitely more prominent in the '70s and '80s than he was in the '90s when I was introduced to Sesame Street, so I feel like he was often overlooked when it came to the core characters.  But he proved that even though a monster may look big and scary, they can be really sweet when you get to know them.  Sometimes he made mistakes and messes, but he always apologized and try to fix his errors.  And he sleeps with a dolly.  How can you not love Herry?

9) Female Koozebanian Creature - The Muppet Show

Of the core five puppeteers, Nelson had the best "female" voice.  It came in a few varieties and it was mostly used for elderly women, like Fozzie's mother, or chickens, like Camilla.  But I chose the Female Koozebanian Creature because her giddy laugh is so infectious and it makes the sketch that results in her mating ritual sacrifice all the funnier.

8) Count von Count - Sesame Street

Before the Count, children would count to 20 without Transylvnian accents and maniacal laughter.

7) Floyd Pepper - The Muppet Show

Floyd was Nelson's choice as the character he identified most with, allowing his philosophies and interest to shine through in the character's dialogue.  I personally like the groovy strutting that Floyd did whenever he walked from place to place.

6) Dr. Julius Strangepork - The Muppet Show

Man, I wish they had used Dr. Strangepork a lot more than they did.  An elderly German scientist is already great to have in your team of loonies, and the pig element only adds to the visual humor.  In fact, call me crazy, but I think I would have preferred it had Dr. Strangepork replaced Dr. Bunsen in the "Muppet Labs" segments.  Not only would it have paired Nelson with Hunt again, but it would have allowed for more zaniness.  Strangepork usually played the straightman in the "Pigs in Space" segments, and he was sometimes given the opportunity to play a Dr. Frankenstein like mad-scientist, but he always struck me as more endearing than Bunsen.  He's a pig I wouldn't have minded accidentally watching torture poor Beaker.  Bunsen just comes off as a creepy, heartless jerk.

But mostly, I just want more people to know who I'm talking about when I mention Dr. Strangepork.

5) Gobo Fraggle - Fraggle Rock

With The Frog Prince and Emmett Otter, Nelson proved he could play the lead character without issue.  Fraggle Rock was very much a belated gift to the man who deserved star treatment.  Gobo isn't just a generic "leader."  Like many adventurers and heroes before him, Gobo is the small man who comes into greatness.  He is the Frodo of Fraggle Rock.  He's a positive force to all those around him, but he also makes mistakes and gets in over his head.  But he yearns to experience more, even when he fails.  He is one of my few puppet role models.

4) Scred - The Land of Gorch (Saturday Night Live)

I've already discussed the rise and fall of the first attempt to bring the Muppets to an adult audience with the SNL misstep, "The Land of Gorch."  But leave it to Nelson to create the breakaway character from the sketches.  The sly and sarcastic Scred probably dealt with more shady dealings than all other Muppets combined, be he was just so lovable as a character.  Apparently, Scred was the inspiration for the Skek-Sis villains of The Dark Crystal (and Nelson even played the eldest Skek-Sis emperor who dies at the beginning, which leads me to believe that he is just and older version of Scred).

3) Thog - The Great Santa Claus Switch, The Muppet Show

While many of the giant Muppet monsters tend to blend together, the warm-hearted Thog is worthy of iconic status.  He was the only surviving character of the lackluster early Muppet Christmas Special The Great Santa Claus Switch, despite being part of a duo.  His main shtick then involved dancing to romantic ballads with female guest stars because he was basically a big blue teddy bear.  For anyone who has trouble believing that Nelson was just a big softy, look no further than Thog.

2) Robin the Frog - The Frog Prince, The Muppet Show

I've already said so many wonderful things about Robin, but what I like the most is that he is inspired by Kermit.  Like Nelson to Henson, Robin observed the trials that Kermit underwent to become the star that he became today.  He was the first frog to leave the swamp and make a name for himself.  Robin wants to similarly be like Kermit.  But he isn't a copycat, nor is he overbearing.  He is timid, but self-aware.  He knows that he is smaller and less noticeable than the rest and is therefore unlikely to stand out, so he uses that to his advantage, singing songs that show the power one small individual can have.

1) Uncle Deadly - The Muppet Show

And while Robin is a perfect choice for the best Nelson character, my own personal favorite would have to be Uncle Deadly.  As I said with Link Hogthrob and Sam the Eagle, part of it had to do with the fact that I was more familar with The Muppet Movie than The Muppet Show and these awesome looking creatures with hidden backstories would stare at me from my Muppet memorabilia.  When I learned Uncle Deadly's story, I thought he was just the coolest.

The closest thing that the Muppets could have to a villain (besides general critics/man-eating monsters/squares) was this former star, feeling that that Muppets were disgracing his stage with foolish antics.  He was a thespian of old and he commanded dignity.  But unlike Sam the Eagle, who just complained a lot, Deadly's dignity was well-earned.  He carried himself with grace and his beautiful voice was haunting in all senses of the word.

I wish he had become more of a hit amongst the fans, because I'd like to have seen what else he could have gotten up to.  I'm glad he resurfaced in The Muppets, fulfilling the role he was meant to play, but by then, Nelson was no longer at the helm.

Like Deadly, Nelson was a talented man.  He was strongly devoted to his craft and he held out for a long time, even while others moved on.  He lived to perform and he will forever be remembered for it.  And it goes to show that even though giant talents can make one a monster, one can use those talents to showcase a more sensitive side.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

My Favorite Muppets, Part 3: Richard Hunt

My my, where does the time go?  Let's see...where was I?

Oh yes, my favorite Muppets!  Today I wanted to look at Richard Hunt.  I've discussed this puppeteer at length in my posts on Scooter as well as the failed series Dragontime, but I never actually nailed down who his greatest characters were.

The important things to know about Hunt were that he was born to be a puppeteer.  He never truly felt as free or as outgoing as he did when there was a puppet attached to his arm.  Through his characters, he showed his childlike wonder, his boundless energy, and his array of funny voices.  He loved to help others.  He was often found performing as the extra arm for a live-hand puppet, meaning he'd be right up alongside Henson, Oz, or Nelson as they performed their iconic roles.

But most importantly, he loved to make people laugh.  He was the puppeteer who would most likely entertain guests by grabbing a random puppet and putting on an improvised performance.  These fun-loving elements bled into his characters, and it's a shame that soon after Henson passed away, Hunt followed.  While he may be gone, he is not forgotten.


10) Belmont - The Christmas Toy

I always try to include one Muppet based on a pure-design aesthetic and to me, none of them are cooler than Belmont the rolling horse.  (Even the builder Ed Christie chose Belmont as his greatest creation in 22 years of work back in 2000.)  Hunt plays him as more of a dim-witted character who is at once easily-excitable and slow-talking, creating a strange speaking pattern.

9) Gunge - Fraggle Rock

While Hunt is better known for his turn as Junior Gorg in Fraggle Rock, there is another childish ogre character of his that I prefer more.  So instead, I chose Gunge as the representative from this show.  Along with Philo, the two rat-like creatures serve as right-hand-men to Majory the Trash Heap.  Like Hunt, Gunge is the more naive and energetic of the two creatures.  Hunt tends to find himself playing the "child" character to a more mature counterpart, possibly due to his youth when he joined the Muppet repertoire.  (Of the main five original puppeteers, he was the youngest.)

8) Don Music - Sesame Street

Before I began this blog, I had no idea who Don Music was.  He was cycled out of the show by the time I had started watching it regularly in the early '90s, allegedly due to the bad influence he had on children (namely, banging your head on hard objects when things don't go your way).  Maybe that's true and maybe it was a good thing to remove him from impressionable eyes, but hey, Hunt was an artist.  And artists get frustrated.  And sometimes they need to release that frustration in destructive ways.  Every Muppet puppeteer used their characters to unleash the feelings that they couldn't reveal in public, and Don Music only provided a cushy felt medium that also produced a funny sound whenever Hunt got upset.  If you can't use a puppet to slam against a piano, what can you do?

7) Right Head of the Two-Headed Monster - Sesame Street

Richard Hunt and Jerry Nelson were quite the dynamic duo.  They portrayed many live-hand puppets and puppet pairs together so it was only a matter of time before those were combined into a single puppet with two heads.  The Right Head (named "Stein" according to some sources) always seemed to be the more light-hearted and bouncy of the two heads, fitting with Hunt's childlike wonder.  He was the brother who was more likely to get his ego hurt and his confidence shattered.  Hunt enjoyed playing vulnerable characters, and he especially enjoyed playing off other characters, and the wide-eyed Right Head allowed him to do both.

6) Janice - The Muppet Show

Okay, so Hunt has some very impressive voices in his arsenal, but I always felt his choice for Janice was out of place.  It sounded too much like a more masculine Scooter, which isn't quite the persona that Janice was aiming to capture.  That being said, Janice has an impressive wit.  While based on the valley girl stereotype, she is not a ditz.  She holds her own during the "Veterinarian's Hospital" sketches and she really shines with her ad-libs during the Muppet movies.  Hers is a character I would have liked to see more from outside of the hospital and Electric Mayhem appearances.

5) Placido Flamingo - Sesame Street

Placido Flamingo is just another Sesame Street pun Muppet.  But that bird can sing with the best of them.  It seems as if all of Hunt's Sesame Street characters had a musicality to them (Don Music, Gladys the Cow, even the mute construction worker Sully could play the piano).  But Hunt really showed off his impressive vocal abilities when performing operatic parodies that taught children how to use the phone.

4) Scooter - The Muppet Show

Oh wait, I forgot.  No one cares about Scooter.

3) Beaker - The Muppet Show

I'm a bit of a Muppet hipster, so when it comes to extremely popular Muppets, my knee-jerk reaction is to say, "Yeah, he's funny but he's no Link Hogthrob."  So, I'm always trying to come up with ways as to why Beaker is just a one-note Muppet, unworthy of fame.  But, that one note ("Meep") is such a hilarious one that I can't justify my scorn.  Beaker is quite similar to the character Mr. Bill, in that they both suffer with their falsetto screams.  Even as a child, I was instantly drawn to Beaker because he is such a simple character to grasp, and his lack of a consistent language makes him relatable to everyone, regardless of age or ethnicity.  This was one of Hunt's "fun" characters, and it shows.

2) Sweetums - The Muppet Show

Although he didn't portray him in his first appearance in The Frog Prince, Hunt made Sweetums his own, allowing the giant's heart and excitement to become a central aspect of his character.  (The first Sweetums was a lot meaner initially).  It's clear that Hunt enjoyed playing around in the puppet, as can be seen in behind the scenes photos and footage.  For the first time, Hunt could really get lost inside of a puppet.

1) Mudwell the Mudbunny - Fraggle Rock

I know it seems blasphemous to place a one-shot Fraggle Rock character above all of Richard Hunt's iconic characters, but Mudwell was a truly special creature.  His personality, his mannerisms, and even his voice were unlike any character Hunt had portrayed before.  Hunt usually tries to find the humor in every scene he is in, filling in the role as resident clown when needed.  But, due to the story line of his signature episode, Mudwell is a more serious and introspective creature.  It's hard to discuss Mudwell without spoiling the storyline of his episode, but it's kind of obvious what's going to happen when his only episode is titled, "Gone, But Not Forgotten."

After getting injured in the deep caves of Fraggle Rock, Wembley is rescued by Mudwell.  Although Mudwell is more mature than Wembley, they still quickly bond over fun games and songs and food.  However, after his injuries heal, Mudwell rudely kicks Wembley out of his home, and tells him never to return.  Upset, Wembley returns to confront Mudwell for his rude behavior and learns that a Mudbunny's life is very short.  Mudwell passes away in front of him, crushing Wembley's spirit.

Yes, Mudwell is the center of an episode teaching the Fraggles (and the young viewers at home) all about death, and having someone taken away from you so suddenly.  Much like Hunt, Mudwell provided as much joy as he could in his short time on Earth.  This episode would have been production right as Hunt became diagnosed with HIV, so it isn't too far of a leap to conclude that this storyline was influenced by the sad news.

Richard Hunt passed away five years after this episode aired, and while he may be remembered for his more wacky characters, this "farewell" will always represent Hunt's softer side.  However, there was one thing I left out of my episode synopsis.  After Mudwell literally turns to dirt and dust, a new creature is born from his remains.  A young Mudbunny who, while different, retains some of Mudwell's memories and philosophies.

Hunt also plays Mudwell's reincarnated form and establishes that while his body may leave, his spirit may live on.  Whether it be through a metaphysical means or just through memories of the past, he will never truly be gone.  I almost interpret this reincarnation as Hunt's acknowledgement that he is survived by his characters.

While characters like Scooter were momentarily retired after Hunt's passing, the Muppets have the gift of immortality.  Scooter will return, Sweetums will return, Beaker will never go away.  Hunt left a myriad of gifts filled with life and energy that allows us to always remember him.  And that's why I appreciate Mudwell as much as I do.  He was real.  As real as the man who loved to play pretend.