Jerry Nelson has been with the Muppets longer than any other current featured performer. For over thirty years, Nelson has proven himself to be a gifted vocal actor and physical performer and it’s hard to choose which character he’s best known for: Sgt. Floyd Pepper, the bassist for The Electric Mayhem? Kermit’s nephew, Robin? Perhaps Gobo Fraggle from “Fraggle Rock”?
More recently, health concerns have made Nelson limit his appearances with the company. While a number of his characters appear in the made-for-television “A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie”, Nelson was not available to provide the puppetry work on the set, but lent his versatile voice to the post-production recording sessions.
You can’t begrudge the man for seeking a little time off. Nelson began working with the troupe in 1966, following a recommendation from puppeteer, Bil Baird, performing with Muppets’ founder and creator Jim Henson and his right-hand-man Frank Oz on “The Jimmy Dean Show”. Even then Henson had his sights set on bigger goals. “Both Jim (Henson) and Bil Baird had wanted for years to introduce puppets for adults,” Nelson told me in his soft and very familiar voice. “They were really disappointed and sick of the image of puppets being primarily for children. That isn’t the case in Europe, certainly, and never had been. So they were both interested in trying to find a format for adult-type material. Not exclusively adult, of course. “The Muppet Show”, was for kids of all ages, so to speak. Certainly “The Muppet Show” was the perfect format for Jim to express that feeling. We had done bits on “Saturday Night Live” just prior to “The Muppet Show”, which was more adult even than the Muppet Show. That was our first real foray into broadcasting anything like that.”
A short-lived part of “Saturday Night Live”, specially-created Muppet characters appeared during the landmark show’s first season. It wasn’t a successful match, however. The writers were struggling to bring a new brand of edgier comedy to the television airwaves, focusing on the concerns of adults living during the end of the Free-Love era of the late ‘70s. Sketches with the Muppets took place in the land of Zorch, an alternate reality separate from that inhabited by John Belushi and Gilda Radner, and featured strange and unsettling vaguely reptilian characters performed by Nelson, Henson and Frank Oz. The “Saturday Night Live” writers, particularly first season head writer Michael O’Donohue, hated writing for the characters and could not do so comfortably.
“Certainly their writers didn’t have a sure idea (how to approach working with the Muppets),” Nelson agrees. “The way they worked too was a little different from the way we were working. So it was not the happiest of relationships, I think, because they would work together and build up their routines for their week’s show all week long. Then we were thrust at them and they were told ‘here, write something for these guys, and here’s the characters and the style and everything.’ We were working on other things too at that time and we went through a lot of different writers there. All of them were trying to find the exact format for that. Actually, of the two or three best shows we ever had for that, one was written by Chevy Chase and the other was written by Jim Henson. Normally those characters did not relate to the humans on that show. They had their own little special part. But on that show and on the Chevy and Jim scripts, those took place in the basement in a storage bin somewhere. The puppets were all put away in a storage thing and on one, Chevy came and opened the boxes, so there was some interaction there. And the same was true of the one that Jim did, where it took place in the storage thing. They did that partially because those were the last two shows before we were all to go off to England and to ‘The Muppet Show’. Those were ways to write us off the show in a way. Leading up to our not being on the show. They worked very well.
“A third came at a time when Jim and Frank were in England doing something else. Lily Tomlin was the guest and instead of asking them to write something and bring it to us on Thursday, where we would criticize it and say ‘change this’, which they weren’t too happy about, I went and spent the whole week there, working with Lily at their studios at NBC. That was more like the way they worked by themselves, and I think a better show for that. It was sort of outside their regular mold, because the character (I portrayed), Scred, was not in the land of Zorch, or whatever it was, where they produced the shorts. It was completely with Lily, and it was something that was developed over a week, so it changed and grew the way that most of their other bits did. And I think it worked very well, stepping outside of the normal mold since it was just with the one character.”
Nelson continues, “I think, everybody tried their best, certainly all the writers tried their best. Some of them were funny, some of them were less funny. It was frustrating for them and us at the same time. All in all, still, I think people still enjoyed those segments. Most of our stuff we had done ourselves at that point. Jerry Juhl was the head writer at that time, and both Jerry and Jim figured out the scripts for the pieces we did. Also, that was kind of a different format for us. We had never worked before as a regular slot, except with a guest star on ‘The Jimmy Dean Show’. The other pieces we had done were basically two to two-and-a-half minute spots for a variety show. ‘The Tonight Show’ and things like that. So it was kind of finding the proper format for a regular segment spot. It’s not easy to do that. We certainly had a base of fans, but they weren’t necessarily people who would watch ‘Saturday Night Live’. We did bring a few of our fans into that.”
The story continues in part two of THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH: A BIG HAND FOR THE SUPPORTING MAN – JERRY NELSON>>>