Muppets Gone Missing: Joe Bailey, Part 1
Josh Green: Welcome to “Muppets Gone Missing”. This column will focus on the hidden treasures of the Muppets and/or Sesame Street. Examples of this will consist of segments or characters that wound up on the cutting room floor, or were used, but not to their fullest extent. This week’s interview is with the wonderful writer of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Joe Bailey.
Josh Green: Thank you for talking with me today, Joe. Before we get into the nitty-gritty about the bits that you had written that have been lost in the ethers of time, can you give me a rundown of some of your professional highlights whether they involved Muppets or not?
Joe Bailey: I started life as an advertising copywriter. I was a Mad Man on Mad. Ave. in the Mid-60’s, writing the praises of Beefeater Gin, SAAB automobiles and Heineken Beer.
The first TV show I wrote was a children’s show called, Jabberwocky. It was produced by WCVB-TV in Boston.
Then I was a staff writer on both Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. I also co-wrote specials with Jon Stone, who was the Executive Producer of Sesame Street. Jon and I wrote Christmas Eve on Sesame Street and Big Bird in China. We also co-wrote a special for Jim with John Denver and the Muppets and a lot of Sesame Street Live! scripts.
I also wrote collateral material for both Sesame Street and the Muppets — record albums; videos and special appearances in Carnegie Hall and the White House.
Additionally, I’ve written other children’s television shows and for comedians like Robert Klein. I also wrote paint can warnings and Radio Shack catalogues. But, over the years, I seem to have morphed into “Muppet Guy”.
JG: I also understand that you wrote a book about your career, Memoirs of a Muppets Writer: (You mean somebody actually writes that stuff?). Tell me about the experience of writing an autobiography reminiscing about your career.
Even though I did it for years, in looking back, writing comedy was a weird way to make a living. When you sign a contract to write a comedy show, you basically signed a contract to be silly on cue.
What that means is you’re constantly chasing the next bit. When I started on Sesame Street, I wrote close to 25 scripts a year. At a minimum of five sketches a show, that’s over 100 sketches a year; or one every three days including Sundays and holidays. Deep down I guess I knew I was burning up my pituitary gland. But it was worth it.
And, of course, Jim and the Muppets were incredible people: bright, creative, multi-talented and genuinely nice people. But since we were creating lunacy for a living, we were all a little manic most of the time. But the real truth is I ran away with the circus and got away with it for 20 years.
JG: Writing for The Muppet Show must have been a decidedly different experience than writing for Sesame Street. One is an all-ages family show for everyone to enjoy and the other aimed towards a much younger demographic. How do you get in the mindset to write two such different television programs, despite both shows featuring similar rambunctious Muppet characters?
JB: Well, every writing job is a little different. But, since Sesame Street was and is considered an educational experiment, every sketch had to meet one of a series of educational goals. For example: the alphabet.
And since we were writing for two and three-year-olds, the material had to be as visual and as literal as possible to get through to the kids. But the show still had to have adult appeal because another goal was to get parents to watch with the kids.
So, for example, to explain the concept of subtraction, I set up a Muppet piece with two Muppet cowpokes and four Muppet mules. The boss wants to know if he takes three mules away from four mules, how many mules will he have left?
The smart cowboy knows that four take away three is one and solves the problem in his head.
The dumb cowhand had to wrestle three ornery Muppet mules from one corral to another. Then the boss then wants to know if he takes two mules from three mules, how many mules does he have left? So, the subtracting and the mule dragging starts all over again.
But The Muppet Show was written strictly for laughs. I got to work quotes from Senator Joe McCarthy and Nixon Press Secretary, Ron Ziegler, into one Muppet Show piece. That wouldn’t have flown on Sesame Street. But I did once reveal that Oscar the Grouch had an autographed picture of Benedict Arnold.
JB: Well, every Sesame Street script had to be cleared by the CTW (Children’s Television Workshop) Research Department which, in those days, were not renowned for their sense of humor, if you get my drift.
JG: Do tell.
JB: In one piece, to teach the various climates in the United States, I made Cookie Monster a weatherman, complete with a U.S. map and pointer. Cookie explained how it was snowing in Maine and raining in Alabama and very hot in Texas. But then, Cookie’s baser nature took over and he started to eat the map.
I guess it was when he proclaimed that, “Chicago is delicious!”, that we lost it. Research declared there was a possibility that somewhere some kids would think Cookie really had eaten Chicago, and the piece was bagged. I will admit I spent several days working on a sketch where Cookie really did eat Chicago but to no avail.
We had been told by the Research Department that there were two benefits of teaching the alphabet to a two-year-old. Firstly, the alphabet is an essential building block of education. But secondly, the approval and positive feed-back that the child receives for reciting the alphabet strongly reinforces his or her desire to learn more.
One day, it occurred to me that if a kid got applauded for reciting the alphabet, what would happen if he recited something a little more sophisticated. So, I created “Tips for Tots!”
The piece opened with a corny theme song and a “Tips for Tops!” logo. Then we cut to Big Bird in front of a blackboard. He writes on the blackboard as he speaks.
Big Bird says: And, now it’s time for “Tips for Tots!” Okay, tots! You know this! This is the letter, “E,” right? “E?” And, these two lines, one on top of the other mean, “equal.” Can you say, “Equal?” Equal means, “the same as”.
And these are your old friends, the letter, “M.” and the letter, “C,” right? Okay. Let’s review. “E” equals, “M,” “C.” Right? “E” equals “M,” “C.”
Now, we need a number. So, here’s the number, “2″. But here’s another new word, just like, “equals.” This little, and it has to be little, number, “2,” means, “Square.”, just like the shape with four equal sides. Hey, there’s that word, “Equal,” again.
So, let’s review. “E” equals “M,” “C,” squared. Try it again. “E” equals “M,” “C,” squared. Once more, “E” equals “M,” “C,” squared. He repeats and encourages through a fade out.
I turned the bit in to Jon Stone. He loved it and gave Big Bird the closing line: “When anyone asks, you tell them you learned that on Sesame Street.”
We just thought it would be great fun to have three-year-olds across the country running around spouting Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It probably would have been a great PR angle for the show, too.
The Research Department rejected the piece, saying I really didn’t explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Really? I fired off a memo to Research asking them to show me exactly where I went wrong. That was around 1975. I’m still waiting for an answer.
JG: That’s such a shame.
JB: If I remember, there were a few other things that didn’t involve the Research Department. For a while on Sesame Street, I became obsessed with destroying pianos on camera. I play piano and love mine. Still, there’s something so satisfying about the sound a piano makes when it hits the pavement after falling from a five-story window.
Sketch after sketch ended with pianos being destroyed on and off camera. I think one involved the Count counting crashing pianos. Finally, Jon Stone sat me down and revoked my piano privileges. And for the rest of my Sesame Street career, I was limited to one piano per season.
I also remember submitting a song for Bert called, “I Don’t Have the Blues, I’ve Got the Grays”. Mercifully, that never saw the light of television. It was awful.
Finally, I recall something about the special, Big Bird in China. When Jon Stone and I wrote it, we had a running gag story line with Grover doing a travelogue from China’s major tourist sights. Except, as Grover explained, say, the history of the Great Wall, an enormous Chinese water buffalo would enter behind him and completely block out the Wall. The same thing was to happen in front of the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and several other sites driving Grover to increasing frustration.
We even had some hapless production assistant scouring every zoo and animal park on the east coast looking for a matching Chinese water buffalo: Jon and I had conceived a closing scene when the gang returns to Sesame Street including Grover, followed, of course, by the water buffalo.
But when they got to China and set up the first scene, Jon discovered that water buffalos stink to high heaven. They also aren’t field-trained. So Jon said he didn’t have the heart to ask Frank Oz, Grover’s puppeteer, to lie down in that slop. So he canned the story line. I understand why. But it would have played like gangbusters.
JG: That would have been hilarious!
Check back next week for Part 2 of Muppets Gone Missing with Joey Bailey!
Follow Josh Green at Comic Book Art