Goelz and The Great Gonzo were not a perfect match at first. The puppet itself had been created for an Ed Sullivan Christmas special called “The Great Santa Claus Switch”, starring Art Carney. The hook-nosed creature had been dubbed The Cigar-Box Frackle, due to its habitat. Recycled into The Great Gonzo, the character didn’t have the charm of Kermit, or the inherent sweetness of Fozzie. Gonzo was unpredictable, wild. In the first season, he was a sad-sack cipher, a bizarre performance-artist who didn’t automatically inspire audience enthusiasm. Still, he was a primary character, and Goelz was determined to make him work.
“Gonzo is an interesting character, especially to me,” he says. “Of all my characters he’s the one that has evolved along with myself. That has happened really because (head writer) Jerry Juhl did it unconsciously as a writer. Jerry wrote the show and he seemed to pick up what was going on with me and sort of incorporated it into Gonzo’s character. In the beginning, Gonzo was very much a misfit. Which was parallel to my situation. When I came to “The Muppet Show”, I found myself suddenly with a different and enormous star every week, and I had absolutely no credentials. I felt so out of place. So that came into the character, and for the first season, he was very self-effacing and he felt like a misfit. Then when I got that first laugh from the crew, I felt limited because he couldn’t look excited. His droopy eyelids always made him look pathetic. So after that first season, I asked Jim if I could build a Gonzo with an eye mechanism. He said ‘sure’, so I went back to New York and did that. Now he could convey his excitement and enthusiasm for his silly acts, and it was much more entertaining. Along with this I was becoming more comfortable with performing. So it started to work better. I think he grew because I was growing, and I was capable of doing more. As time passed, he developed a manic side. And then many years later, when we did “The Muppet Christmas Carol”, he developed a soulful side. He played the part of Dickens, and I just loved doing that. It just paralleled my own growth. Jerry Juhl wrote it as a way of getting Dickensian prose into the movie. But the fact that he chose Gonzo was very satisfying to me. And I think it was because he saw me changing and I think he felt that Gonzo could change too.”
Goelz continues, “The reason the Muppets work is that each character is an aspect of the performer’s personality. We’ve all got lots of aspects to our personality, so you grab one of them and you isolate it and amplify it and build it into a character, and it is part of you. You can then ad-lib with that character.”
Goelz insists that he doesn’t have a “favorite” per ce. Nor can he say which character he is “most like”. He does enjoy the flexibility that comes from doing a wide array of characters. “I will say that, there was a period in the ‘80s where we were doing the Fraggles (on the HBO series “Fraggle Rock”), and we were still doing “The Muppet Show” group quite a bit, along with our fantasy films, “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth” – during that period we were moving back and forth between characters. I would be doing Boober Fraggle, who was a very fear-based hypochondriacal character, and then suddenly, on the weekend, we’d have to shoot something with “The Muppet Show” characters. And it would be so stimulating to get into Gonzo and have the freedom of his craziness. And in contrast, to go from “The Muppet Show”, which in the ‘70s was not so much narrative as it was surprising and entertaining, to “Fraggle Rock” where we did have a narrative story and there was an emotional through-line, was very stimulating. So I don’t really have a favorite. I also enjoyed doing Rugby Tiger, who many people may have never even heard of. He was in “The Christmas Toy”, and then he was in “The Secret Life of Toys”, a series that we shot in Germany. I had such a good time. He’s just a naive, self-centered and self-satisfied, little tiger cub, and he was just so much fun. He was just completely unaware of the feelings of others. The crew loved him. It doesn’t show up much on the show, but it was just a fun thing to do with the crew.”
There was one character in particular he found difficult to connect with: the Electric Mayhem’s saxophone player, Zoot. “Back when I was in my 20s, I would say to Jim ‘look, I can’t do this. He’s a 50-year-old burnt-out jazz musician, probably lives in a series of cheap motels, and I just don’t know how to do that character’. So whenever I got lines for Zoot, I tried to give them to Floyd. I got rid of almost all his lines. But now, I’m a fifty-six year old burned out performer, and if we were using this character a lot, I probably could find a new interesting direction for him.”
Shooting the first season, no one had any idea of the success that “The Muppet Show” would enjoy. While Jim Henson’s defining characteristic was undying optimism, most of the rest of the Company were simply holding their breath and waiting to hear if they would have a job come the next season. “I never really thought in terms of what might happen in the future. I was enjoying the moment,” says Goelz. “But there was an interesting experience. During the first season of “The Muppet Show”, on Saturday mornings, I used to go to this little bakery and get coffee and toast. And the ladies who worked in this bakery, mostly older women, were very, very sweet. They thought of me as this young American who was doing some television show. They had no idea what I was doing over there, as the show hadn’t been aired yet. Then we finished up our first season and went away, the show aired in England, and it was a huge hit. When we came back the next year, I went in to get my coffee and toast, and as soon as I walked in the door, I saw one of the ladies grab one of the younger ladies and point at me. When I got to the counter, they asked for my autograph. That was the first time anybody had asked for an autograph. It struck me immediately how strange it was to sign your name to a piece of paper, and somebody keeps it. It was just odd. And as I sat there and drank my coffee and ate my toast, I could see them pointing me out to other customers. Then I gradually stopped going, because the scrutiny was a little uncomfortable.”
The story continues in part three of THE GEEKS SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH: DAVE GOELZ UNDER THE STAGE>>>