Muppets Gone Missing: Norman Stiles

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Josh Green – Welcome back to “Muppets Gone Missing”. This column focuses on the hidden treasures of The Muppets, Sesame Street, as well as any projects involving Jim Henson. 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 time I talked to the wonderful writer of Sesame Street, Norman Stiles.

normanstilesJosh Green: Why don’t we start with a quick rundown of your professional highlights?

Norman Stiles: Well, I wrote for Sesame Street for twenty-five, thirty years. I came in at the end of the second season.

I also worked on one of the pilots for The Muppet Show, which was called The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence. It was one of the first things I did that was not Sesame Street. I’d been on Sesame Street for a few years as their head writer and Jim called me in asking me to work on it. I took the assignment, but I was a little intimidated by working on this project. First of all, Marshall Brickman was the head writer of the pilot. Marshall had written with Woody Allen as his co-writer on all the early movies. I was really intimidated.

I didn’t really write that much on the show and I have very little memory of it. I do remember that somebody once asked Marshall Brickman what he thought of me, and he said that I was a nice dresser. But I was never asked back on future The Muppet Show episodes. I guess you can use that as a yardstick to how well I did as a writer on the pilot.

I then left Sesame Street for a bit when I moved to Hollywood to pursue other projects.

JG: What kind of projects?

NS: Initially I worked with Mel Brooks and my writing partner at the time, John Boni on a thirteen episode sitcom called When Things Were Rotten, a parody of the Robin Hood Legend.

JG: Was the show at all similar to Mel Brooks’s Robin Hood: Men in Tights film that would come years later?

NS: It preceded Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Other than the kind of tone of the movie with the same characters and the fact it used anachronistic humor, it wasn’t the same.

20140420123740-norm_and_puppets_for_indieJG: What came next?

NS: Well, after that I worked on The Captain & Tennille variety show, America 2-Night and Fernwood Tonight. Fernwood Tonight was a precursor to shows like The Daily Show. It was a fake talk show. It was a lot of fun and I’m very proud of the work we did. I would eventually return to Sesame Street around 1980 and stayed there until I left.

JG: Since you are most well-known for your work on Sesame Street, can you tell me about the lost treasures that you had written which didn’t make it on screen?

NS: I can tell you one that made the final cut but then disappeared.

There was a character named Harvey Kneeslapper. He was the first character I’d ever created and it was, I believe, in the first year I was there. He was always laughing. Frank Oz played the character. You might be able to find some segments still somewhere online. It was all puns, which technically you are not supposed to do because kids at that age don’t understand.

harvey-kneeslapperIt could be Ernie standing behind at the wall, or any other puppet was standing just behind the Muppet wall and Harvey would come saying, “You know where I wanna be?” He’s laughing to himself. After that Ernie would say, “No, I don’t know where you wanna be.” “I want to be here,” and he would put a “B” on Ernie’s chest, the letter “B”. Then he would go, “[LAUGHING] that’s where I wanna be.”

It was a blatant pun, but what I felt, and I think the research department felt the same thing, was that the kids didn’t have to get the pun because they saw this laughing guy put a letter “B” on somebody’s chest. To them that was what was funny. The pun didn’t matter to them.

It worked on two levels, which is what Sesame Street is supposed to do. It’s supposed to have one level that the parents would think is funny and another level that the kids would appreciate or laugh at. What happened was the character annoyed some people and also Frank was straining his voice doing all that laughing with that character. Eventually people felt that Harvey should take a long vacation.

JG: Any other examples?

character-deenaNS: Yup, there was a character that I created named Deena who was named after a very close friend of mine. The character was a monster whose main obsession was play; turning everything, every situation, into an opportunity to play. At the time, the significance of play as a critical element of brain development wasn’t being promoted as avidly as it is today. We know now that free play, encouraging children to play, is, if anything, one of the most critical things that children do and that parents can do with their children that will help their brains develop.

Play for Deena was like cookies for Cookie Monster and counting for The Count. For whatever reason, as we tried the character in a few sketches, Deena’s insistence on playing was more annoying than amusing. I guess I have a penchant for creating annoying characters.

JG: But you created The Count and Forgetful Jones! They’re not annoying.

NS: Yeah, they’re not annoying, but this character was. Creating a character is always a delicate balance. It’s the writing. It’s the concept. It’s the puppeteer. It’s the voice the puppeteer does. You just don’t know whether something is going to click. This one didn’t. I don’t think that we did more than one or two sketches.

sam-the-robotThe other character that we did that just didn’t work in the long run was Sam the Robot. This was a character we all tried to do at a time just when technology was starting to take off. We tried to do this robot character and it just didn’t work. Sam used to try to talk to other machines, like toasters for instance. It just didn’t work. Most of the writers had a hard time coming up with ideas for him, which is a sure sign that the character we created didn’t have legs… or wheels, in this case.

There was a song, “The Loudest Lullaby (You’ve Ever Heard)”. My writing partner Christopher Cerf and I decided it would be fun to have Grundgetta, Oscar’s girlfriend, sing a lullaby to him. What kind of lullaby would a grouch like? Well, it would be a loud lullaby, right?

Check out the sheet music for the deleted song here: CBC-NS.LoudestLullaby.LeadSheet.SSt2704-Item3.1989

Also read the internal lyrics memo for “The Loudest Lullaby (You’ve Ever Heard)” here: CBC-NS.LoudestLullaby.Lyrics.10-04-89

We wrote this great song, “La la la, la la la, it’s the loudest lullaby you’ve ever heard.” It had sound effects of garbage trucks, traffic and horns. It was loud. Jon Stone, the director, absolutely hated it! He had power at the time to change things that he really felt strongly about. The bit that ended up on the show is nothing like the one I wrote, Grundgetta singing it at nighttime to Oscar in his trashcan, who falls asleep while everyone else on Sesame Street, who had been sleeping, yelling and complaining about all the noise that woke them up. It ended up being Grundgetta alone, on Sesame Street at night, singing for only fifteen to twenty seconds of the lullaby to nobody. It had no purpose and made no sense, but I loved it. It was so the perversity of Oscar that he would fall asleep to this while everybody else was saying, “Keep quiet!”.

The main thing about Oscar was that he really was helpful in showing kids something about differing perspectives. When you are a kid, you don’t understand that there may be another perspective, that someone else may see the world differently than you. You might like chocolate ice cream but somebody else might like strawberry. It’s a critical thinking skill. Oscar was helpful in demonstrating that particular aspect of emotional development because he clearly has a different point of view than everybody else. By in large others on Sesame Street understood this and made an effort to include him in spite of his unique preferences and dislikes. They also expected him to return the favor.

bettylougrover-sesameworkshopOther than “The Loudest Lullaby (You’ve Ever Heard)” there was a song by Grover called “Oops!” that Chris and I wrote, which had the same message as “Everyone Makes Mistakes,” which Big Bird sang, but made more personal, from Grover’s point of view. Children make mistakes all the time and they need to know that it’s okay. More importantly, trial and error is the major way that children learn. They shouldn’t be made to feel bad when they try something and fail. We didn’t feel bad when they decided not to record the song. Well, maybe there were a few tears.

Check out the sheet music for the deleted song “Oops!” here: CBC-NS.Oops!.Lyrics.12-05-93

One other song that Chris and I wrote was shot, aired and then pulled. John Candy, as his Polish Character, sang “The Alphabet Polka”. Slimey, Oscar’s worm, accompanied him on a full sized tuba, his whole head inside the mouthpiece. Chris loves to tell everyone how I wrote the lyric in 5 minutes. Not hard. “A” and “B” and “C” and “D”. Hey, do the Alphabet polka. “E” and “F” and How ‘Bout “G”, “H”,” I”, “J” and then comes “K”. Hey, do the alphabet polka!”

However, the Workshop got complaints from Polish organizations complaining that we were making fun of their heritage, asking to have the segment pulled. Which ended up happening.

JG: Let’s talk about your most famous creations – The Count and Forgetful Jones. Were they big hits right away.

NS: Well, not Forgetful Jones, but The Count was a hit right away. It was just one of those things where all the elements were so perfectly together- the name, the character, which was an homage to Bela Lugosi, the famous film Dracula, complete with cape, monocle and that Transylvanian voice. Jerry (Nelson) played it perfectly with such energy and commitment. The character worked for everybody right away.

forgetful-jonesForgetful Jones also worked, but I think it is a more subtle kind of a character, specifically intended to teach children strategies for how to remember. Because that is one of the things we all do. We forget something and what do we do? We go back to the moment before we forgot. What song was playing when she told you her name? Where were you when you last had your keys, pants, whatever? Remembering helps you solve problems, and it is obviously an important skill. Richard Hunt played the character brilliantly. Forgetful was so “Richard” that when Richard died, we just couldn’t pass the character on to another puppeteer.

JG: Are there any other highlights from your work on Sesame Street that you’d like to discuss?

NS: I came up with the title and premise for the Sesame Street special, “Out To Lunch.” I collaborated on the sketch I wrote for the special with Robert Frost. Actually, he wrote all the words, I just came up with the scene. Grover drove a Muppet horse drawn sleigh into a snow filled wooded country setting, stopped and recited, “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”. It’s one of my most favorite scenes.

putdowntheduckieI also came up with the idea for song “Put Down the Ducky” one night while eating dinner by myself at a restaurant. The phrase, “You’ve got to put down the ducky if you want to play the saxophone,” came to mind after one vodka on the rocks. Chris Cerf and I wrote the whole lyric around a week later and then he wrote that great tune. The idea to include cuts of celebs came soon after it was recorded and shot. Any celebrity who came to do Sesame Street did their version. I got goose bumps when Ladysmith Black Mombassa did it.

JG: What did you do after you left Sesame Street?

NS: After that Chris Cerf and I started the company, Sirius Thinking, and we, with Michael Frith, Cathy Mullen, Lou Berger and Louise Gikow, created Between the Lions, a show designed to teach beginning reading. We produced 10 seasons with WGBH for PBS. Lions didn’t have Muppets per say. It wasn’t a Jim Henson show. The puppets were designed and by Jim Kroupa and John Orberg (3Design). You can still go online and see it. Then Chris and I did a thirteen episode show with puppets for PBS Plus called Lomax: The Hound of Music.

title-betweenlionsJG: What projects are currently keeping you busy these days?

NS: In April 2014, I launched a crowd funding campaign for an online video series, The Baby & Toddler Parenthood News Network, with my wife Ellen Dillon and child development expert Amy Hatkoff. Did we raise our money? Well, we didn’t raise what we wanted to raise, and realized that we’d have to start a not-for-profit company to get the kind of funding we’ll need from to go to organizations that are foundations and private individuals who have foundations we started the First Years First Foundation. We’ll start doing some new production after the first of the year, and use the completed videos as part of another pitch to raise foundation money to move the project forward in a much bigger way.

If you want to learn more about the project, you can search it on parentingsmarts.org, and you can see what I mean about how it’s done.

writers-stiles-cerfThe way it all started, my wife, Ellen, she was a teacher for a long time, starting with teaching sixth grade. When she came in the first day, she noticed that some kids were ahead, some kids were behind. After that she said, “Alright, next year I’ll go to fifth grade and see what’s going on there.” She slowly worked her way down and finally ended up in kindergarten, realizing that children in kindergarten were coming in with vastly different abilities and a readiness for school.

She started doing some research and what she found was that the parents’ influence on children from the years from zero to three on their brain development is determinative of how well prepared they are going to be when they get to school. The big headline is that by age three, approximately eighty-five percent of the structure of the brain is built! What we discovered is that the cognitive readiness to learn, social and emotional skills that are necessary to function in school, some of the executive functions which have to do which with being able to delay gratification and manage your emotions are built by the time you are age three.

When she was in school, there were all different parents from all different socio-economic backgrounds always asking for help, “What can I do?” One of them came to her at one point and said, “The only thing I have time for is to watch a few minutes of Supernanny.” Ellen got the idea that probably what would be great to do is to give parents some information in short segments that would be videos. She thought it should be entertaining in some way to grab them. Something that could watch that was short because they don’t have a lot of time and easily accessible when they need it.

After a while we came up the idea for what is now called The Baby and Toddler Parenthood News Network, which has more baby and toddler puppet anchors, correspondents and pundits than any other news organization in the business. The idea is that they report in short segments what is going on in the lives of real parents. We use real families and parents who are doing all these little things that parents typically do with their kids in their every day lives, and showing how there are ways to do those things that maximize brain development and make your life easier with your kids.

It’s not complex; it’s a very simple process. Parents have been doing a lot of this stuff for centuries. Only now has the brain science come into play to prove and show what all these little things that we should do with our little ones, what kinds of big results these things have. It has to do with how you are responding to your children in the everyday moments that you have with them from birth to age three, and the kind of interaction that is responsive, that understands baby’s point of view, and builds a kind of bond and trust that is necessary for the brain to develop properly.

We treat these little things just as big new stories and we have a puppet news team. One of the anchors is Todd Lerr and Di Perr and Anderson Pooper and Terry Biltooze and Andrea Bassinette. We have segments like Access Babyhood that looks a lot like Access Hollywood. There’s a newsroom. These are done like real news stories. Terry Billtooze, it’s the No Baloney Zone. He interviews experts and he doesn’t trust anything that they’re going to say. The name of his show is the O’Really Factor, named for his repeated skeptical reply to a guest’s statements, “Oh, really!?”.

Huge thanks to Norman Stiles for his time and contribution!normanstilestelly

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josh-lauren-caroll-spinney-and-oscar-the-grouchJosh 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.

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