Muppets Gone Missing: Joe Bailey, Part 2
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. Thanks to The Muppet Show Comic Book artist/writer Roger Langridge, who designed the incredible logo for this series. Be sure to check out Part 1!
Joe Bailey: No. But I’ll tell you about one that almost didn’t make it and became one of Jim’s favorites.
When Jim and I discussed my writing The Muppet Show, he asked me to write some audition material. I took two weeks and wrote a complete Muppet Show script except for the guest star spots.
One of the pieces in the script was a Swedish Chef sketch. I knew the Chef’s premise was that he was always at odds with whatever he was cooking. So I dreamed up a sketch where he was cooking lobster. The lobster resisted. But Chef finally wrestled the lobster into the pot and started cooking.
At this point we hear galloping hooves and charging Mariachi trumpets! Three lobster puppets, dressed as Mexican banditos with sombreros and bandoliers, crash into the kitchen, guns blazing and rescue the lobster in the pot. The lobsters do a little Federales dialogue, mount up and ride off, guns still blazing.
When Jerry Juhl, The Muppet Show Head Writer, saw it, he immediate put it in the current script. But Jim cut it. He just couldn’t see it. I don’t know why.
Jerry put it in the next week’s script. Jim cut it again. Jerry, to his credit, continued to put it in each week’s script. It became a running joke between Jim and the writers.
Then one week Jim’s daughter, Cheryl, was in London visiting her father. An accomplished puppet designer at 17, Cheryl saw the piece in a script and decided she wanted to make the lobster puppets. In fact, one of the lobsters has the handlebar moustache I was sporting at the time.
Once it was shot, Jim loved the piece. You can judge for yourself. Google Swedish Chef Lobsters.
By the way, there are also a few of my other Muppet pieces on the net: Pigs in Space: Independent Heating (Edgar Bergen episode); Muppets At The Hop; The Muppet Show Peter Sellers Massage, Gonzo Motorcycle and Sam’s Discourse on Nudity.
JG: Who were your favorite characters to write for on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show? And could you tell us why?
JB: I wouldn’t say I had favorites. But, I would get hot on a character for a while and then I’d be on to another one. Since Caroll Spinney was available for every episode of Sesame Street, I wrote a lot for Big Bird and Oscar, two wonderful characters.
But if Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt were available, I might get into Biff and Sully. They also played the Snuffleupagus. And in those days, Snuffy was Big Bird’s imaginary friend.
Then there were what I think of as the ids: Cookie Monster and Animal.
I made Miss Piggy a lady wrestler and matched her with Kermit who was wrestling in drag. I had Gonzo recite the seven times multiplication tables while standing up in a hammock and balancing a grand piano on one finger. When he said, Seven nines are sixty-four, they booed him off stage. I made Sam the Eagle naked on television.
JG: What are your thoughts on what Disney is currently doing with The Muppets? Same question goes with Sesame Workshop and Sesame Street. Do you think that both properties are honoring what came before?
JB: Disney puts out a quality product. Generations of Americans have trusted their children to Disney and were never disappointed: including my own. But the Muppets were really Jim’s art. Most of those characters came out of Jim’s head. It’s difficult to duplicate an individual artist’s work. Disney has to move the Muppets on to the next generation as they did with the original Disney Characters.
JG: Take me through a day in life of Joe Bailey these days. What do you do with your time?
I’m about to go back to work on a book I started before Memoirs. It’s called, Saloon Brat (Why Can’t We Take the Kitchen to the Track!?) My formative years were spent growing up in the completely adult, Guys and Dolls world of my father’s “saloon” business. “Saloon” was his catch word for the many bars, night clubs and restaurants he owned and operated. It wasn’t Little House on the Prairie.
But back to my work day. Writing doesn’t have great visuals. Picture a grey beard staring into a computer screen and yawning occasionally and that’s about it. I work at home and have for a lot of my career when I’m not traveling. Once faxes and then e-mail became popular, producers saw no reason to rent office space for writers.
I like to ease into the day. Basically, I write light stuff and comedy so I like to start off in a good mood. Since I’m an afternoon writer, I spend from 10:00 to 12:00 doing business, answering e-mails, etc.
After lunch it’s “dream time”, when I work on whatever project is at hand. Sometimes I like to start with a crossword puzzle. It’s a writer’s trick to get your mind working with words.
I don’t know how deep in the weeds you want to get here about my writing technique. The last chapter in my book is called, Everything I learned About Writing in 50 Years: The Hard Way. But I think the most important thing about writing is an outline. Whatever I’m writing I always start with an outline.
If you get your characters and story line straight, it’s a lot easier to write the actual scenes. You should also work out your locations and visuals on the outline. Boy can meet Girl on the Champs Elysees or the Lexington Avenue Express. Which is better for your story? I always think a big part of screen writing as Feeding the Director. I try to create the most interesting visuals to carry the story line. If you give a director great visuals, he’ll want to shoot your script.
I lay the story out scene by scene in the computer. I number the scenes and describe them in one or two sentences. Then I print it out in big type and hang it on a cork board.
Now I can point scene by scene and talk my way through the entire show. I can also see how a “B” story line is fitting in, if music numbers are balanced and where the slow parts are, among other things. So, I change and rearrange scenes.
Only when I’m happy with the scene by scene outline do I start to write dialogue. That way, I always know where I’m going.
Is anybody still awake out there?
JB: A few years back I was doing the Sunday Times crossword and the answer was, Man of La Mancha. A light bulb went off in my head and I wrote a proposal called Frog of La Mancha.
Kermit was a medieval blacksmith who dropped an anvil on his head and dreamed he became a knight, Don la Rand de La Mancha, The Frog of La Mancha. But, in order to win the troth of the fair Porcinea, played by the divine Miss Piggy he must slay a dragon.
With his faithful squire, Tuck, played with great nuance by Fozzie Bear, he travels across Spain in search of a dragon. But in his altered state, he keeps mistaking windmills for dragons and tilting at them atop a French restaurant, a catapult factory, a bee keeper and a fish factory with predictable results. The real dragon had four heads and sang barbershop harmony. I know Jim would have loved it.
JG: Indeed! Well, thank you so much for taking the time to let me interview you. It has been an absolute pleasure!
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Josh Green lives in Philadelphia, PA with his lovely wife Lauren. Having worked at Dynamite Entertainment and TV Guide, Josh is now a freelance writer for Graphic Policy and the creator of the “Muppets Gone Missing” column, so that he can still dabble in pop culture. While he is not dabbling, Josh lives a simple life, where his main enjoyment is spending as much time possible with his wife, whose very existence gives Josh purpose for everything.