'The Muppets' return to TV; Miss Piggy swans, Kermit suffers
LOS ANGELES (AP) — It took a decade for Bill Prady to bring his dream of a mockumentary-style sitcom peopled by Muppets to television.
When Muppets owner Walt Disney Co. finally agreed this year, Prady quickly encountered his next key constituency: the puppets' adoring fans, whose congratulations to the producer came with a stern warning.
"'Listen, these were a very important part of my childhood, and if you do anything to screw it up we'll never forgive you,'" Prady recalled being admonished by everyone from his sister to strangers. "'We're going to be watching. Best of luck!'"
The moment of truth arrives at 8 p.m. EDT Tuesday with the debut of ABC's "The Muppets" starring Kermit, Gonzo, Fozzie Bear, Animal and the ever-fabulous Miss Piggy.
She's the host of a talk show produced by on-again, off-now boyfriend Kermit with a staff that sets its own standard of professionalism. Despite that, "Up Late With Miss Piggy" attracts guests that include Josh Groban, Laurence Fishburne and Reese Witherspoon and has caught the eye of a documentary film crew.
They've got plenty to cover: star tantrums (Piggy, of course), office romances (Kermit and an ABC marketing executive, Denise, who happens to be a pig; he likes pigs, the frog concedes) and the Muppets' off-set lives (Fozzie meets his human girlfriend's parents and encounters blatant species-ism).
The show aims for humor that can be appreciated on both adult and kid levels, its producers say, with a gentle reminder that these Muppets, save for Kermit, never mixed with their tamer "Sesame Street" relatives that include Cookie Monster and Elmo.
The jokes aimed at grown-ups likely will go over a child's head. Example: When the staff gathers for a meeting, house band member Zoot jumps up and introduces himself in apparent accordance with rehab protocol. No, he's told, it's not THAT kind of meeting.
"The Muppets" is the crew's first regular prime-time TV gig since the short-lived "Muppets Tonight" aired in 1998, and it comes more than three decades after the 1976-81 success of "The Muppet Show."
The puppets haven't been idle, of course, making TV movies and specials — including one with Lady Gaga — and big-screen hits "The Muppets" (2011) and "Muppets Most Wanted" (2014).
But Prady said he wanted to see the Muppets in a more authentic light and figured he had the credentials for the job: He started as a TV writer with Henson, the brilliant Muppets creator who was 53 when he died in 1990.
"Characters over time, without the boldness of the person who set them in motion, soften," Prady said. "It's a natural thing and it comes from the best place, which is that these are beloved characters, let's protect them."
"But the Muppets, if you go back to 'The Muppet Show,' they were sarcastic, they were snarky, they commented on the world around them," he said.
Prady saw the rise of mock-documentaries, among them "The Office," as a way to achieve a Muppets renaissance. Henson put Kermit and pals to work on a variety show in "The Muppet Show" because the genre was a 1970s TV staple; why shouldn't a mockumentary be another ideal vehicle?
When he brought the idea to Disney about 10 years ago they didn't share his enthusiasm for their newly purchased brand. He tried again, failed, then found a distraction: co-creating and producing (with Chuck Lorre) CBS' hit "The Big Bang Theory."
It was a nudge from veteran Muppets performer and series producer Bill Barretta that sent Prady back to Disney a third time, and this time he scored.
"Part of knowing this would work is in the characters themselves, because this in a way was what they were built for, to try to be real and in the real world," said Prady, who developed the show with co-creator Bob Kushell ("The Simpsons," ''Anger Management"). Randall Einhorn is the director and a producer.
Prady rejects the idea that the mockumentary concept he long nurtured could be stale, instead arguing that it's become entrenched as the sitcom form of today.
Whatever the vehicle, the Muppets shine under the stewardship of performers who typically handle several puppets. They include Barretta (the Swedish Chef, Rowlf); Steve Whitmire (Kermit, Rizzo); Eric Jaconson (Miss Piggy, Fozzie); Dave Goelz (Gonzo, Zoot); David Rudman (Scooter, Janice) and Matt Vogel (Sgt. Floyd Pepper).
"It's the richest world of characters I've ever been a part of, other than maybe when I was writing for 'The Simpsons' back in their fourth, fifth, six seasons," said Kushell. "That was an expansive, exciting world of characters."
Whitmire, with the Muppets since 1978, says the series offers "a nice little progression of who (the puppets) are. We've been talking for years about the idea of finding out more about their personal lives."
And it's no holds barred, Prady told a TV conference in August: "We've been given unfettered access."
"Yep," Kermit confirmed to reporters. "I tried to fetter it, but it didn't work out."
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at http://twitter.com/lynnelber.