Now, were you always working on "Sesame" at this time, or were there side projects in-between?
NELSON: Throughout "Sesame", and this gets us back to the adult things, Jim wanted to do an adult show Something that would appeal to all age groups. We did specials One was a Valentines special with Mia Farrow. That was where we tried to mold something. Then we did something called "Sex and Violence". That one had even more of the form of what would become "The Muppet Show".
Jim started taking that around to people, and he showed it to everybody. Eventually, CBS said, "Were willing to give you half the money." So Jim had to find the other half somewhere. Somehow, he got it to Lew Grade. When Lew saw it, he loved it. He said, "Ill put up the other part of the money, provided you do it in my facility."
"Thatll do two things" he said. "Thatll get your people busy, and itll keep my people busy." Lew Grade was great at that The art of taking money out of one pocket, giving it to you, then taking it back with the other hand and putting it in the other pocket. Thats big business, man. Thank God for him. He was one of the true showman. He and his brother.
Very British and reserved
NELSON: They used to be hoofers, he and his brother. So we started "The Muppet Show" in 76. We had gone to England before to do other things We had done a Herb Albert special, a couple of Julie Andrews shows. We did the Julie Andrews show, then we did "Julie Andrews visits Sesame Street". They built the street over there.
Back to "The Muppet Show" In the first season, I did the first two episodes, and we did those in February or March, just to see if everything would work out. Then they went back in the summer to start the rest of the season. I went to Jim and I said, "You know, I want to do the show. I want to work on the show." My daughter had cystic fibrosis, and I spent summers with her. Those were good growth periods for her. Winters are very hard on CF children. Infections in the lungs were one of the things she had to deal with in her short life. I said, "I want to go on, I want to work on the show, but I really think I have to spend this time with Christine." And he said, "All right." As a consequence, I had to give up characters like Statler, whom I had done in "Sex and Violence" and one other show
The Valentine Special?
NELSON: Possibly. I havent seen the Valentine show since it originally aired. The only thing I remember really well is me as Thog dancing with Mia singing "Real Live Girl".
I remember we did Statler and Waldorf in an old gentlemens club. Very stodgy, and there was a big clock in the back going "tick, tock". At some point in the bit, it stopped, and they looked at each other wondering if it was them or the clock. They remain great characters, and Richard went on to do a superb, wonderful job with Statler. So as a consequence, upon returning to England, I became a utility man. I did a lot of the one-off characters. I had some pretty good, fun characters to play. I loved playing Uncle Deadly
And Floyd carried through
NELSON: Floyd was mine through the whole thing. I loved Floyd. I loved Pops, the doorman, who came along in the later years. He was a funny, cantankerous old guy, which is what I can be very easily without trying too hard. Just ask my wife. "The Muppet Show" was a great experience.
If you can imagine working with the people you admired, who were or were becoming star performers. If, for example, you had told me when I was a kid going to Saturday matinees to see Roy Rogers If some seer had walked up to me and said, "Son, someday you will work with that man." I would have thought he was the craziest man in the world. And it happened that I not only worked with him, I sang a song with him.
I wanted to ask you, what was the transition like to the short-lived "Saturday Night Live" gig?
NELSON: That was short-lived mainly because we were starting to do "The Muppet Show". We started doing "SNL", then we left and went to England.
So it wasnt that you were pushed out of the show
NELSON: No, although they would have pushed us out if they could have. I think the only reason we were on the show because I dont think Lorne Michaels ever really wanted us on the show -- was probably because we were part of the deal. We all had the same manager.
The skits still hold up. They werent unfunny
NELSON: No, I think the problem was that those guys would get together at the beginning of the week. They had a big board where they would tack their stuff up and start working out routines, and somebody would be assigned to write for us.
So it was a chore
NELSON: That wasnt the worst part. I think that would have been all right. If it had just been that. But what would happen was that then on Thursday, they would bring it over to Muppets the writers and maybe a director and we would rewrite it. Then they would try another writer. We went through just about every writer on the show, and I think it became a chore for them. I dont think it was a happy marriage from either point of view, except I loved it. One of my favorite moments was with Scred and Lily Tomlin singing "I Got You Babe". And the reason that worked out okay was because I said, "Well, Im going to go there from the beginning." I went over on Monday and went to all the meetings and rehearsals, and was there for the whole week and worked on it and reworked it. I went through a little bit of what they went through.
Did they seem to appreciate it?
NELSON: I think they did. John Belushi always hated the puppets. He just hated them with a passion. He would have been just as happy if we had fallen in a big hole. I think part of it was that it wasnt part of what he thought the show was And it wasnt. We were doing skits and they were trying to make them topical, and they did. They did one revolving around marital aids, which I performed with the girl who played Peuta while Jim and Frank were doing something in England. They were away. So the writers wrote this thing and we did it. Jane Henson was not happy. Jane said, "But thats not Muppets", and I said, "This is a different show. This is real adult comedy. This isnt kids, and if kids are staying up and watching this, theyre in trouble already."
Again, the main problem was that we were never really a part of the show. We were like a tacked on thing that they resented. I guess rightly so, but we only did twelve. One of the shows that really worked well was one that Chevy wrote. It was one where he came into the storage room and all the characters were in a box.
How difficult was it to perform live?
NELSON: Ah, it wasnt that difficult.
Now, like with the skit with Lily, was that done on a side set, or could the audience see you?
NELSON: No, they could see me. I dressed in black, and I think I had a hood on. You know, one of the things that made that so good was that I was very focused. I was studying Tai Chi at the time and I was very heavily into it. I went through as much of the form as I knew and meditated several times on the Saturday that we did that, and on the break my daughter came. Richard, my daughter and I went out to get a bite to eat, and as we were walking back we passed a florist. I went and bought a rose. I kept it hidden through the whole bit with Lily, and I gave it to her right at the very end, and it totally caught her off guard because we never rehearsed it It was just totally spontaneous to her. Her voice caught It was a very real moment. I thought it was one of my best performances of anything Ive ever done, because I felt really focused.
I thought Scred was one of your best character performances
NELSON: I always loved that character. I felt a great kinship with Scred, and he may resurface in the Ubergonzo in the film. It wont be Scred, but it will be his essence.
So it was a mutual split with "SNL", and thats when you moved on to "The Muppet Show".
NELSON: Right, thats when we went to England and began "The Muppet Show" full force.
And you returned to "The Muppet Show" around episode 9
NELSON: Yeah, it would be around 9. I missed 9 weeks in the summer and then rejoined in September. When we came back to the States at the end of that first season, we went straight into "The Muppet Movie", which we did in L.A.
When did the success of the show actually hit? Was it the middle of the first season, or the end of the first season?
NELSON: Actually, it took longer. It was second season, when we got back to England. I had just done "Halfway Down the Stairs", and when we got back to England, it was on the pop charts "Top of the Pops". I believe it got up to seven. It was even on jukeboxes. So the English picked up on the show right away, but it took a lot longer in the states, probably because it was syndicated. People knew the Muppets from "Sesame Street", but I dont think there was a great furor here like there was in England.
Did the movie come up unexpectedly, or was there knowledge that it was in the works?
NELSON: Im sure the film was in Jims head for some time. I know he wanted to make movies. The movie was there in order to "catch the wave". It was the right time to do it. The subsequent movies were that way as well. By the time "The Muppet Show" was over, thats when they moved on to "Dark Crystal".
And thats when people fractured, some going of to "Sesame Street," some to "Fraggle Rock"
NELSON: Yeah, "Fraggle Rock" didnt start right away. "Fraggle" went from 82 - 86, I believe, so there was a two year interim. "Dark Crystal" happened in that interim, as well as "Great Muppet Caper". Definitely while the studios, Elstree, were still there. I believe theyre gone now.
Who was your favorite guest to work with on "The Muppet Show"?
NELSON: Its hard, because there were so many wonderful guests. Roy (Rogers) and Dale (Evans) stick out in my mind, because they were like your grandparents. You just wanted to go snuggle up to them. In the same light, when Spike Milligan was there for a day and a half, because we didnt get through all of his stuff in a day, I think I laughed the whole time. My stomach ached after he was gone. A day and a half of laughing constantly.
What was it like working with Peter Sellers?
NELSON: Peter Sellers was wonderful. Thats another standout in my mind. Often times they would fete the guests - take him out to dinner or something. Sometimes it would just be Dave Lazer and Jim or Jerry Juhl. Dave Lazer was almost always a part of that, because he was the great schmoozer. He has infinite charm. Richard, Dave Goelz and I were included in the dinner with Peter Sellers. I went to dinner with Jonathan Winters also. Those were the moments I remember more than the show, even, because it was more of a personal thing.
As opposed to working with them in a scene on a professional level
NELSON: Theyre just pros to work with. You couldnt ask for anyone better. All of these people were the tops. Working with Dizzy Gillespie was so much fun. I got to sing a scat song with Dizzy. It just blew me away. People ask me all the time who would be my favorite, and it is impossible to pick one. Theres so many of them that were so wonderful.
Any that were difficult to relate to?
NELSON: (Laughing) Yeah, but I dont want to go there
Were there any stars that they tried to get but it never happened?
NELSON: They tried their best to get the Beatles, Paul was willing to do it, but we had to hire the whole band When he was with Wings. It was too big time. We just didnt have the money. I think George would have done it, but they kept trying to negotiate with Paul.
I would think Ringo would have done it in a heartbeat
NELSON: Ringo probably would have to. If they had asked me, I would have said, "Hey! Get them! Dont dicker Get the ones who are ready to commit."