Jim Henson was the mastermind behind the half-glove puppet, half-marionettes made of fleece and foam who made a worldwide impact in The Muppet Show, but the puppeteer-turned-writer Jerry Juhl was the power behind the throne. The Muppet master of ceremonies Kermit the Frog and the argumentative Miss Piggy, along with Fozzie Bear, Rowlf the Dog, Animal and the ageing hecklers Statler and Waldorf, became television legends.
The characterisations were moulded by Juhl, who also wrote many of the jokes, when he became the programme's head writer. His favourite Muppet was the Great Gonzo, the blue, bug-eyed, hook-nosed daredevil stuntman with romantic designs on a chicken called Camilla. Gonzo was memorable for playing the final trumpet note of the programme's opening theme tune but took off as a viewers' favourite only after Juhl reshaped him from an underplayed, permanently sleepy-looking character to one that was wacky and energetic, with moveable eyelids.
The writer described Gonzo's development, from his début in the show eating a tyre to the tune of "The Flight of the Bumblebee" to his role as Charles Dickens narrating the 1992 film The Muppet Christmas Carol, as"an incredible path", adding:
He started out as a sad character and then we see him in Christmas Carol, where we gave him Rizzo, who provides him a great comic to play with. For the first time, Gonzo was actually being a straight man to someone else!
Juhl believed The Muppet Show's wide appeal was its ability to cross generations. "It reminds adults of childhood and innocence," he said. "There's a sweetness we get away with, without being sentimental." He also defended the corny gags, saying: "The innocence of the characters allows us to use bad jokes in a way that makes them funny."
Born in St Paul, Minnesota, in 1938, Juhl developed a childhood love of puppetry and, while studying speech and drama at San Jose State University, worked as a puppeteer on a local television station's children's show, Sylvia and Pup. Then, in 1961, he and the British-born Frank Oz - both members of the Oaklands Park-based travelling Vagabond Puppet Theater - met Jim Henson and his wife, Jane.
Juhl was invited to join the duo as a puppeteer during the final year of their twice-daily, five-minute Washington television show Sam and Friends (1961), which featured early incarnations of the Muppets, including Kermit. "In the beginning, it was just Jim, Jane and me, and the three of of us did the writing," Juhl recalled. "Frank Oz joined later and, with this talented performer with us now, I could concentrate more on the writing, which had been my strong suit."
So Juhl gave up performing, but scripted Muppet sketches for television entertainment programmes such as The Jimmy Dean Show (featuring Rowlf the Dog, 1963-66) and episodes of The Ed Sullivan Show. He further established his credentials during the first six series of Sesame Street (1969-75), the long-running show for pre-school children that boasted friendly Muppet characters such as the Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Grover and Elmo, and won him two Emmy Awards.
Then came The Muppet Show (1976-81). There had been several one-off specials on American television, but all the networks turned down the idea of a series. It was finally taken up in Britain by ATV, the ITV company run by the show business impresario Lew Grade. Each week, a major star from either side of the Atlantic - of the status of Elton John, Liza Minnelli and Julie Andrews - joined the madcap characters to be mock-humiliated as the puppets were seen frantically trying to stage a vaudeville-style variety performance. The show became a global sucess, screened in more than 100 countries.
After scripting for the first series, which was notable for its quickfire gags, Juhl was promoted to head writer. His great achievement was in fleshing out the characters and making them totally three-dimensional. It won him Writer's Guild of America awards in 1978 and 1979, as well as a 1981 Emmy for a "dance marathon" episode of the show featuring Carol Burnett. The television success spawned a feature film, The Muppet Movie (1979), which was followed by four others over 20 years.
When Henson launched Fraggle Rock (1983-87), a jointly produced American-British-Canadian series, Juhl was head writer and creative producer. He was particularly proud of moulding the new characters of different creature races: the multi-coloured, furry Fraggles - Gobo, Mokey, Red, Wembley and Boober - who, along with the smaller, 6in-tall, humanoid Doozers, inhabit a system of natural caves connecting to other worlds, where they meet the larger, 22ft-tall, furry,humanoid Gorgs and the humans they refer to as the Silly Creatures of Outer Space.
Although he continued to work on the Jim Henson Company's productions, including three Muppet films, after Henson's death in 1990, Juhl did not write for the revived television series Muppets Tonight six years later. After completing the film Muppets from Space (1999), he went into semi- retirement at his home in Caspar, northern California, but often gave talks to puppeteers and puppet enthusiasts, and lectured on scriptwriting at universities.
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