Last spring, ABC boss Paul Lee boasted of one of his new comedies, “This is not your grandmother's 'Muppets.'” At press tour this weekend, Lee admitted “The Muppets” needed some creative tweaking, because, “We didn”t quite feel it had the joy, the laughter, and the heart we were looking for.”
In other words, they now want something very much like your grandmother's “Muppets,” which is as it should be.
The version of “The Muppets” that debuted in the fall had funny moments, but for the most part the characters seemed cynical and bitter and occasionally mean in a way that doesn't at all fit what Jim Henson's creations should be doing. The last couple of episodes that aired seemed to finally be bringing the sweetness back to the Muppets, and it sounds like new showrunner Kristin Newman (who arrived in time to do some rewriting of the Christmas episode) wants to go even more in that direction.
At ABC's press tour party Saturday night, we spoke for a few minutes about her plans to retool “The Muppets,” which returns with new episodes on February 2.
When you came in, what did you feel the show needed?
Kristin Newman: More heart, more zaniness. I wanted to see the Muppets getting to perform sketches and bits on “Up Late with Miss Piggy,” so we could use the fact that a late night show is really the modern version of a variety show, and getting to see the Muppets doing sketches and bits of things like they used to do. Not the old ones, but modern versions of them: Fallon-esque and Kimmel-esque sort of bits. I wanted to see a human bad guy that could cause the Muppets to come together and fight against an outside antagonist, instead of having to fight each other and fight Piggy. I wanted Piggy – she gets a little lonesome in the Christmas episode, and realizes her work/life balance might be a little off, so she's going to Argentina during this break by herself. She has a lady's trip of discover, and comes back realizing she needs a better work/life balance, that she's maybe lost herself a little bit, which caused her to lose Kermit. And it's going to be in a very Piggy way, which is, “Oh my gosh, the world is so wonderful when you're single and famous.” She's going to get out there, to make new friends and do new activities. And Kermit will notice.
Piggy has always been a very aggro character, but the redeeming factor always was her deep and abiding love of Kermit —
Kristin Newman: And her insecurities.
When we came in and they had broken up, everything felt out of balance, and she was just steamrolling everybody.
Kristin Newman: I think the heart of the Muppets is Piggy and Kermit. That love, and that chemistry for each other, is something that has been the driving engine for a long time. I don't want to just get them back together, but I want to feel that chemistry between them.
What can you tell me about this new human villain?
Kristin Newman: He's played by Utkarsh Ambudkar, who plays Mindy's brother on “The Mindy Project.” You may be surprised to hear that he works at the network. He's a branding guru. He's rebranded warlords and network presidents, and anyone you can think of. He comes in and wants to change up everything about the show. He wants to replace Fozzie with a YouTube star who makes noises with his mouth. He wants to just do terrible changes to the show, and Kermit's got to figure out a Muppet-y way to change “Up Late with Miss Piggy,” in a way that's Muppet-y, which means turning to each other and the joy that they have backstage, and putting it onstage.
Are there Muppets who either haven't been used at all on the show, or haven't been used much, who you want to use now?
Kristin Newman: Yes. I brought back a lot of Muppets like Camilla, returning for Gonzo. Lew Zealand with his boomerang fish.
Lew Zealand is my favorite Muppet. What is he doing?
Kristin Newman: He's mostly throws fish at people in Japanese game show-type segments. We don't have a lot of stories for him, but he's throwing fish.
I don't know that you can do a full-on Lew Zealand story, anyway(*).
Kristin Newman: Not yet. Next year, maybe. Also, Robin is coming back. We're breaking the finale now, but the idea is that we're having a Muppet reunion, so we're going to be bringing a lot of characters back.
(*) You may recall that when I interviewed producer Bill Prady about the show in the summer, he suggested that Lew would be a tough character to incorporate into the vision he and Bob Kushell had for the show. Lew is certainly not essential to any Muppets story, but his harmless weirdness is a kind of tonal bellwether for these characters: a Muppets show doesn't need Lew, but if he fundamentally doesn't belong there, something's not quite right.
Is Walter going to be on the show?
Kristin Newman: That's up for debate. What are your thoughts?
I think Walter served his purpose in that first movie, and I don't know that you need him anymore.
Kristin Newman: He's very divisive. What I have learned as the showrunner of “The Muppets” is that there are as many opinions on the Muppets as there are humans on the earth. Everyone has this very strong feeling about what the Muppets are in their heart, that was formed when they were three, and different from everyone else. So it's impossible to please everyone. But I'm going to try to put in as many candy pieces for as many people as possible.
And I'm sure that will infuriate somebody else.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com