Escape from "Saturday Night Live," birth of "The Muppet Show"

Two of the most iconic shows of the '70s have an amazing, awkward linked history -- but needed each other to begin

Published September 28, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

Excerpted from the book "Jim Henson"

At the same time Jim Henson's manager Bernie Brillstein was circulating the "Muppet Show" pitch reel, he was also lining up an opportunity for Jim and the Muppets to become a regular part of a new late night sketch comedy series being developed by another of Brillstein’s clients, a thirty-year-old producer and former "Laugh-In" writer named Lorne Michaels. “He described the show, and I really loved it,” said Jim. In August, then, Jim began meeting regularly with Michaels’s writers in preparation for the weekly late night series Jim referred to on his desk calendar only as the “NBC Show,” but which Michaels was calling "Saturday Night"—and then, eventually, "Saturday Night Live."

"Saturday Night Live" was a comedy variety show, but, as envisioned by Michaels and his scrappy team of writers, one unlike any variety show that had ever been seen before. “We wanted to redefine comedy the way the Beatles redefined what being a pop star was,” Michaels said later. The very idea of it—an unpredictable live show unafraid of taking on politicians, presidents, or pop culture— terrified the network even months before it ever went before the cameras. “NBC was so scared of what Lorne . . . was doing that they insisted on Jim Henson and the Muppets [to] soften it,” said Brillstein. Jim’s inclusion, in fact, had been one of the network’s non-negotiables. “In the first contract for 'SNL,' there were three essential factors,” said Brillstein, who had brokered the deal with NBC: “Lorne Michaels, Jim Henson and the Muppets, and Albert Brooks’s [short] films.”

For his part, Michaels was delighted to have Jim’s involvement. “I’d always liked and been a fan of [the Muppets] and Jim’s work,” Michaels said. “When we were starting 'Saturday Night,' I knew that I wanted as many different styles of comedy as I could possibly have, and I knew some of what the ingredients would be. . . . I just assumed that the Muppets under Jim would be able to do one segment a week.”

Nestled safely in the deep end of late night television, Jim wanted to do something dramatically different with his segments, as far removed from the look and feel of "Sesame Street"—which, he knew, was still what audiences thought of when they heard the word Muppets—as he could possibly get. For Jim, the characters themselves were always the easy part: he knew he wanted monsters of some sort, scrawling out rough descriptions of five characters for a segment he was initially thinking of calling “Muppet Night Creatures.” But the universe in which these characters would exist was more problematic—a matter Jim had struggled with in both of his "Muppet Show" pilots, neither of which had clearly established where things were taking place. Jim made a long list of potential settings and scenarios—a TV game show or sitcom, a therapy session, a rock group—before finally settling on a vaguely described “Mystic set up.” Eventually, Jim would hammer out a typed proposal for his segment and set it in “a place called Gortch,” describing the world rather unhelpfully as looking “either like another planet, or earth, sometime thousands of years in the future.” The workshop began hurriedly constructing new Muppets—with an eye on character designs by Michael Frith, who had translated Jim’s rough descriptions into beautiful, brightly colored drawings—and Jim checked in on their progress most mornings, even as he dashed off to the UNIMA conference in Detroit or business meetings in L.A. “He was the hardest-working person I’ve ever met in my life,” said Dave Goelz.

At noon on Wednesday, October 8, Jim and his team entered the soaring building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and headed for Studio 8H, where they would participate in the read-through for the first show with the entire SNL cast, an immensely talented—and largely unknown—set of young performers skilled in improv and hungry for success. On Friday night, the Muppet team attended a party thrown by cast member John Belushi, mingling casually with the show’s eclectic crew of writers and performers and sizing each other up. After three days of rehearsal, one thing was clear: “They had their style, we had ours,” said Oz—a distinction that would only become more and more obvious in the coming weeks.

"Saturday Night Live," as even Jim was calling it by now, made its debut on October 11, 1975. For that first show, Jim and the Muppet crew had arrived at NBC at 1 p.m. for a walk-through with the entire cast—including guest host George Carlin and musical guests Janis Ian and Billy Preston—that lasted until after 4. Following dinner, there was a dress rehearsal in front of the studio audience beginning at 7:30, with cameras finally rolling live at 11:30 p.m. Lazer, sticking to his vow to promote Jim as more than merely an act, had arranged for Jim to have his own private dressing room, placing him in room 8H3 right next to comedian Andy Kaufman, who was also appearing on the first episode.

The Muppet sketch—referred to as “The Land of Gortch”— was featured during "SNL’s" second half hour, coming in right after the commercial break that had followed the “Weekend Update” mock news segment. Jim’s monstrous new Muppets—including the gruff but stupid King Ploobis, his earnest sidekick Scred, and a mystic stone oracle called the Mighty Favog—were all beautifully built and masterfully performed, but it was clear, even from the very first episode, that something wasn’t working. The sketch was too long, and most of the jokes fell flat—and things would only worsen as time went on. Oz grumbled that a new puppeteer, a stand-up comedian named Rhonda Hansome, performing the saucy Vazh, was throwing off their rhythms and ruining their timing, but Jim knew immediately that the main problem was with something over which he had absolutely no control: the writing.

Under Writers Guild rules, only writers hired for "SNL" could write "SNL" sketches—and it was quickly apparent that the Muppets and "SNL’s" writers weren’t a good fit. “Somehow what we were trying to do and what [the] writers could write for it never jelled,” said Jim later. “When they were writing for us, I had the feeling they were writing normal sitcom stuff, which is really boring and bland.” Oz thought it had more to do with a mismatch between the basic comedic DNA of the "Muppets" and "SNL." “I think our very explosive, more cartoony comedy didn’t jive with their kind of Second City, casual, laid-back comedy,” said Oz, “so the writers had a lot of trouble writing for us. They weren’t used to that kind of Muppet writing.”

Jerry Juhl, watching from California, understood that Jim was “very frustrated” that he had little input into the scripts. The "SNL" writers, thought Juhl, “didn’t have any real handle” on Jim’s concept. “Jim would come in with ideas, and sit with them, and give them wonderful ideas, and they wouldn’t know how to fly with them.” Lorne Michaels thought part of the problem lay in the skit’s underlying concept. “It was a very, very difficult premise that Jim had created,” said Michaels. “We didn’t know what the rules of the world were yet.” As a result, no one wanted to write for the Muppets. “Whoever drew the short straw that week had to write the Muppet sketch,” said writer Alan Zweibel. The frustration of the "SNL" writers was often palpable; during one meeting in Michaels’s office, volatile head writer Michael O’Donoghue angrily wrapped the cords of the venetian blinds around the neck of a Big Bird doll and stalked out of the room. “I won’t write for felt,” he declared blackly.

Compounding the problem was that many of "SNL’s" writers were also performers on the show—and every minute of airtime devoted to the Muppets meant one less minute that could be spent on cast members, who were rapidly developing their own personalities and break-out characters. “They weren’t interested in the Muppets because it kept them off the air,” Juhl said plainly. “The Muppets were known, but they weren’t,” agreed Oz. “So they wanted every moment they could get.” Even John Belushi, who was otherwise friendly with the Muppet performers, would sneer derisively about giving up his airtime to the “mucking Fuppets.”

Despite the grumbling, Jim had nothing but good things to say about "Saturday Night Live." He and Michaels liked each other, and Jim showed up without complaint for blocking and rehearsals every Thursday and Friday, then spent most of his Saturdays dutifully performing someone else’s scripts until 1:00 a.m. “Lorne Michaels loved them,” said Lazer, “but it was not a good feeling, going there . . . knowing you weren’t loved there—they were just putting up with you.” Still, it wasn’t all bad. “The good part,” said Oz, “was that every Saturday was very exciting . . . meeting and seeing the beginnings of Andy Kaufman, and the great little films of Albert Brooks, and . . . John [Belushi] and Chevy [Chase] and Danny [Aykroyd]. . . . A live show on Saturday night is always exciting.”

It could get exciting for reasons that went beyond mere performing. The "SNL" cast and writers were notable not only for their talent on-screen, but also for their rowdy weekly wrap parties, where prodigious amounts of drugs and alcohol were sometimes consumed— a practice that could continue on into the working week. Cocaine was a particularly attractive substance to those working on a late night show, as the user could often go for days without sleep. However, "SNL" writer Al Franken—who usually ended up working on the Gortch sketches, with his writing partner, Tom Davis—recalled that while a few writers and performers used hard drugs, for the most part marijuana was the drug of choice. Indeed, with its smoking craters, booze-guzzling Muppets, and explicit references to drugs and sex, there was a distinctive whiff of pot influencing the Gortch skits—and even though Jim and his team had little or nothing to do with the writing of their segment, viewers were nevertheless convinced that Jim, and the Muppet performers, had to be on drugs.

While Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt were known to sneak away to pass a joint back and forth, the Muppet crew was, for the most part, fairly straitlaced. Oz wasn’t a partier at all—he found large gatherings too noisy—and Jim, while he might enjoy a glass of wine or two from time to time—and maybe, said Nelson, “a little grass”—rarely ingested anything more potent than aspirin. He had, however, tried LSD exactly once—and, if asked, would probably confess that it had been something of a disappointment.

In the late 1960s, as he pursued his dreams of a psychedelic nightclub and immersed himself more and more deeply in the counterculture, Jim had become fascinated with the idea of mind-altering drugs. Many of the musicians he had spoken with for Youth 68 had publicly admitted to dropping acid—and had just as openly praised the alleged positive effects it had had on their art and creativity.

While Jim’s artistic vision was already expansive enough, he was intrigued by the possibilities of stretching it even further. He was determined, then, to take an acid trip, but confessed to friends that some of the reports he had heard about bad trips had scared him, and he was worried he might set himself on fire or jump out a window. Finally, he decided to try it in the company of his closest friends—in this case Oz, Don Sahlin, Jerry Nelson, and Jerry Juhl— nestled in the relative warmth and comfort of the Muppet offices. “I remember Jim sitting at his little desk in that Eames chair of his, looking at his sugar cube laced with LSD,” said Oz, who left shortly thereafter with Juhl, leaving Jim alone with Nelson and Sahlin to contemplate his cube. “I took it,” Jim reported later, “and I waited . . . and nothing happened.” Only slightly disappointed, he wished Sahlin and Nelson good night and drove home. If Jim’s experiment with drugs had been a failure, one thing was clear: Jim didn’t need chemicals to take his mind to new worlds; his mind was already there.

The world he had created for "SNL," however, wasn’t showing any signs of life. Even Brillstein admitted that the Gortch idea “was not a great thing”—a criticism at which Jerry Nelson always bristled. “I always loved [Scred],” said Nelson, who thought the characters had real potential if given the chance—it was Nelson, in fact, who fought to have Scred sing “I Got You Babe” with guest host Lily Tomlin, dogging the idea through the show’s weeklong writing sessions. It turned out to be one of the sweeter moments of the show, and a highlight even among "SNL’s" strong first season of skits. Regardless, while Brillstein knew that “Lorne, being Lorne, didn’t want to fire them,” it was clearly time to find something else. As it turns out, they didn’t have to look long; Lord Grade, through his lieutenants at ATV and ITC, was looking for them.

Sometime in 1975, CBS executive Thomas Miller, a devoted Muppet fan, was scouting for original programming that could be shown on CBS-owned and -operated stations—the so-called O&Os— and had reached out to Abe Mandell, the New York–based president of Grade’s ITC Entertainment, to practically beg Mandell to invest in a Muppet series. Mandell appealed in writing to Grade—and Grade, who had already been impressed by Jim’s ATV appearances with Julie Andrews, enthusiastically directed Mandell to approach Jim to “see if he would do a TV series for me in England.” Mandell and Brillstein traded calls for some time—Brillstein typically played hard to get, letting Mandell chase him “all over the country”—until eventually they agreed to discuss the matter at Mandell’s home in Larchmont, New York.

Sitting down to chat with Brillstein and Lazer, Mandell led off by explaining that he and Grade “always felt Henson would be interested in the right primetime Muppet vehicle,” and expressed amaz ment that no network had added the Muppets to their prime-time schedules. Mandell noted that they were specifically “looking for a series for . . . the primetime access period,” that first hour of prime time that the FCC had pried away from the networks for independent and local programming. That meant Mandell—and Grade— wanted to produce and market the show not for any of the major networks, but independently, allowing Grade’s ITC production company to market the show to local stations looking to fill the 7– 8 p.m. access period or earlier. In the case of the Muppets, Mandell was already prepared to take the show directly to five of Miller’s CBS O&Os located in the key markets of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. But this wasn’t a network show, Mandell stressed; this was a whole new concept called prime-time syndication.

Brillstein didn’t blink, but he may have flinched. He knew Jim was skeptical of syndication—the television equivalent of free agency—which provided no real guarantees; after a significant financial investment, a show could be picked up by five stations, or fifty, or zero. Brillstein knew he would have to talk to Jim about it, but he thought Jim might be persuaded if Grade and ATV would agree to provide Jim with the resources he needed to produce the kind of show Brillstein knew he was capable of creating. At the moment, most weekly shows were budgeted at $80,000 per episode; Brillstein would make sure ATV did better than that—but before he could open his mouth to discuss the higher rate, Mandell said they needed one more thing: a new Muppet pilot to take to the CBS O&Os. Brillstein roared with laughter. “I said, ‘I’ve saved you a lot of money,’ ” Brillstein told Mandell, “ ‘[because] I have the best [twenty-five] minutes of film you’ve ever seen in your life!’ ” As he and Lazer got up to leave, Brillstein promised to send over the Muppet Show pitch reel for Mandell to watch, after which he and Mandell would speak again. Now that ATV wouldn’t have to produce a pilot, Brillstein was certain he could negotiate a higher weekly rate.

The pitch reel was immediately dispatched to Mandell; the next day, Mandell phoned Brillstein with the news: “We have a deal.”

Still, Brillstein didn’t want to commit until he had a firm number from ATV on the budget. After back-and-forthing with Brillstein, Mandell finally called Lord Grade in London, where the producer agreed to raise the budget for the first season to $3 million. With twenty-four episodes per season, that gave Jim $125,000 to spend per episode, making it one of the most expensive half-hour series produced for syndicated television at that time. The only condition Grade had imposed on the deal was that Jim had to tape his show at Grade’s ATV Studios in London. Brillstein—without even checking with Jim first—eagerly agreed. The deal was done.

Vibrating with excitement, Brillstein immediately called Jim. “We finally did it!” the agent shouted into the phone. Brillstein waited for Jim to inquire about the details, certain he would ask how much they were getting per episode. But Jim didn’t—and his response made the crusty Brillstein smile even twenty years later: “I love you,” Jim said.

The details could be discussed later—and on the morning of Saturday, October 18, Jim met with Mandell to run through the fine print. The details were already spectacular: less than twenty-four hours after reaching their agreement with Jim, Mandell had sold "The Muppet Show" to all five CBS O&Os, who wanted it in their lineups for the 1976–1977 season, starting in September. Following the meeting with Mandell, Jim headed over to Rockefeller Plaza to join the Muppet team in rehearsals for "Saturday Night Live." During a break, he pulled Oz to one side. “We’re doing twenty-four half-hour shows,” he told Oz excitedly, “guaranteed!”

Four days later, Jim and Mandell stood side by side at a cocktail party and press conference held at the posh “21” Club on West 52nd, where reporters had been told to come prepared “for a major announcement.” With Kermit on his arm and flashbulbs popping, Jim quietly reported the news of his deal with Grade—and was stunned when the room erupted into applause. Mandell touted the show as a “network-budgeted, high quality series . . . designed as the perfect all-family vehicle,” while Jim reassured reporters that he would continue to perform on "Sesame Street" and make guest appearances on other shows “as the opportunities arise.” Kermit nodded at the end of Jim’s arm. “We’ll do anything for money,” said the frog.

At last, Jim had the opportunity to pursue his dream; and yet he was concerned that his new obligations—he would have to leave for London to begin production in May 1976—meant letting down Lorne Michaels. Brillstein was prepared to begin the messy formal process of getting Jim out of his contract with NBC, but Jim wanted to discuss the matter with Michaels personally. Michaels—who was already weathering increasingly heated calls from "SNL’s" writers to dump the Muppets from the show’s lineup altogether—could afford to be gracious and magnanimous, releasing Jim from his contract without penalty, even making clear that Jim had complete ownership of the characters he had created for "SNL." “I always figure people stay if they want to stay,” said Michaels diplomatically. “[The Muppets] had the opportunity to do their own show. You never stand in the way of somebody.” Jim—who also knew the Muppets’ days on "SNL" were numbered—was equally magnanimous in his praise of Michaels. “I really respect Lorne,” he said later, “[and] at no time did I ever lose my respect for the show. I always liked what they were doing. We parted on very good terms.”

Well, mostly. Years later, Jim took great pleasure in displaying a copy of a postcard the Muppet team had sent from London to the cast of "Saturday Night Live," pasting it to a piece of paper under block letters asking where are the mucking fuppets? “Dear Gang,” the postcard read, “We’re having a wonderful time here in England. We’re doing our own show and it’s a big hit.”

Within a year, Jim and the Muppets would be the biggest act in England; in less than two years they would take the United States by storm. And before the decade was over, "The Muppet Show" would be the most popular show in the world.

Mucking Fuppets indeed.

From the book "Jim Henson" by Brian Jay Jones. Copyright © 2013 by Brian Jay Jones. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books.  All rights reserved.

By Brian Jay Jones

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