Yerba Buena Center's upcoming Jim Henson retrospective, "Muppets, Music & Magic," offers laughs surprisingly heartier than any ironic slandering of his characters. Running June 21-24, YBC is screening selections ranging from Henson's movies (Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, The Muppet Movie) and television series (The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock), to the rare gems (Dog City, a film noir flick entirely populated by canines), and the not-to-be-missed "Commercials and Experiments," an intriguing collection of his raw early work. The one other event piquing my interest is the June 23 showing of "Muppets Music Moments," featuring Muppet Show hosts ranging from Debbie Harry to Raquel Welch, Elton John to Paul Simon, and Bernadette Peters to Harry Belafonte.
"We covered everything every genre and every century," says Dave Goelz, a Muppet performer who lives in Marin and has worked on Henson projects for the past 34 years. (So you know, he played Gonzo and Zoot the sax player, among other characters.) "We did Charleston numbers, we did the latest stuff in rock 'n' roll, we did the '40s, '30s, classical," he adds. "I really miss the way we worked with music. Jim was a pretty musical guy." Henson died in 1990, but his work continues through his estate and Disney, which most recently bought the rights to the Muppets.
While the "chemistry" between, say, Animal and drummer Buddy Rich is amusing in their battle of the kits episode, the funniest parts of The Muppet Show are the incessant puns. The Village People's "In the Navy" becomes a visual gag when Henson populates the song with pillaging Vikings. Another Village People hit, "Macho Man," suggests gay-friendly undertones, as the skit brings together Gonzo's disco-rific chicken posse with leather-daddy-clad pigs.
Even without the word plays, though, the Muppets' musical affinity provides for plenty of gut-splitting. A "Danny Boy" riff partners characters with the worst ability to enunciate Animal, Beaker, and the Swedish Chef. Dressed in shamrock-hued berets, each member of the trio destroys the Irish classic in his own hilarious way. Beaker overcomes his terminal anxiety to offer shrill vocal outbursts and jazz hands; the Swedish Chef, per usual, sounds like he's singing through a mouthful of wet sponges; and Animal does little more than repeat "Oh, Danny boy" and make that heavy-breathing grunt thing of his.
But you can't talk Muppets music without discussing Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem band. Growing up, I was always a Jan kinda gal, idolizing the band's tanned, Valley Girl member. But Muppeteer Goelz breaks down some of the other Mayhemers: His guy Zoot was based on a sketch of saxophonist Gato Barbieri; Floyd Pepper was a "terminally hip guy" patterned after the Beatles; Animal was "visceral, very simple. He knew 'woman,' 'food,' 'sex,' 'music,' 'beat drum.'" And bandleader Dr. Teeth was based on New Orleans eccentric Dr. John. "He had his New Orleans voodoo bag around his neck with secret things that Jim put in there, and nobody knew what was inside," says Goelz of Teeth. "I don't even know what was in there," he adds with a laugh.
The Muppet Show was filmed in a town near London called Borehamwood, and showed in the U.S. in syndication. Goelz says this was because American networks initially passed on the concept. "They were afraid to try it and they thought puppets were for kids," he says. "In the wake of all that, Jim had some interest from ATV studios and [another company] marketed it worldwide." He adds, "English people thought it was an English show, even though we had American accents."
Overseas, Henson's team had easy access to London band the Jack Parnell Orchestra, which took care of the show's real instrumentation. Even so, Goelz says that as a bunch of admitted non-musicians, the Muppet actors attempted to really learn how to play every song they covered.
"We used to rehearse these things meticulously," Goelz says. "If our character was playing an instrument, we would rehearse that instrument to the track that we had. We didn't know how to do real musical notation, but we created a system so we could study the visual feedback as well as the track. We were very specific. As a result we had a lot of musical people come to us and ask if the characters were really playing those instruments on camera."
That crazy puppet reality is something no other variety show has attempted to replicate since. And as we rush deeper into our digital era, it's also something that makes The Muppet Show stand alone. "One of the strengths of our simple little crude puppets is that they're really there. They're really talking to people and it's really happening right then," says Goelz. "A lot of the performers worried about it before they came on. They said, 'How am I going to talk to a frog?' The thing is, when you talk to Fozzie, that guy is real, and he is so compelling that Frank [Oz] can be right next to him and you don't look at Frank because it's so exciting to talk to this stuffed bear who's alive. It's a remarkable illusion," Goelz adds, "and it's why I got into this work in the first place."
Up 'n' coming: Noise Pop and Another Planet Entertainment announced this week that they're hosting the premiere Treasure Island Music Festival on Sept. 15-16. The outdoor event is being primed for annual repeats, but the initial kickoff will host an impressive list of electronic (Sept. 15) and indie (Sept. 16) acts. Confirmed performers include M.I.A. , Gotan Project, Ghostland Observatory, Modest Mouse, M. Ward, and Built to Spill, among others, as well as local bands, fashion designers, and tons of munchies. Get the full lowdown at the SF Weekly's new music and culture blog, "All Shook Down," at blogs.sfweekly.com/shookdown/.