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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

How do you get six puppeteers to improvise as one alien talk show host? Ask Brian Henson

Illustration for article titled How do you get six puppeteers to improvise as one alien talk show host? Ask Brian Henson
Photo: Disney+

Brian Henson has been involved in the family business, one way or another, for almost his entire life. The eldest son of Jim and Jane Henson made appearances in Sesame Street shorts as a youngster, helped Kermit The Frog and friends ride bikes as a teen, and in recent years oversaw new onscreen additions to the universes of Fraggle Rock and The Dark Crystal. He’s been at the head of The Jim Henson Company for nearly 30 years now, steering it through the wake of his father’s death, in 1990, directing a pair of Muppet features in the mid-’90s, and bringing an improv-informed style of puppetry to productions like the stage show Puppet Up! and the Paul F. Tompkins-hosted news parody No, You Shut Up! The Henson Company’s newest project is in that vein as well: Earth To Ned, a faux-late-night talk show fronted by a renegade alien commander, Ned, who beams human celebrities aboard his spacecraft to engage in games and chitchat with a band of intergalactic misfits. Prior to the series’ debut on Disney+, The A.V. Club spoke with Henson about the qualities of the ideal Earth To Ned guest, the peculiar chemistry of Henson-Disney team-ups (the latter purchased the Muppet Show characters from the former in 2004), and what it takes to get six different performers to work in concert and bring to life one extraterrestrial host who’s fascinated by people but also with himself.

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The A.V. Club: Can you walk us through the origins of Earth To Ned? What got you excited about doing a Henson spin on a late-night talk show?

Brian Henson: Well, it started with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Challenge, where I was working with Joseph Freed and Allison Berkley, who are Marwar Junction Productions, our producing partners on this. At the end of Creature Shop Challenge, we were very sad the show couldn’t get picked up [for a second season], but we were very excited about animatronics coming off of that show and how much the audience loved us doing proper animatronics again. So we came up with something’s that actually quite similar [to Earth To Ned]. Initially it was called Ned Talks—but the TED Talks people said, “No, no, no: You’re not calling it Ned Talks.” The idea was that these aliens have been monitoring Earth through television broadcasts, and they’re super excited about Earth because they’re super excited about television. That’s where it started from, and then we started adding the idea that they can beam in celebrities from television. They don’t realize they’re actors—they think they really are the people that they [play on TV]. And then we were talking to Dan Silver at Disney+, and he said what he was looking for was unscripted shows [where] you could recognize the format, but it was done in such a different way. [Earth To Ned] became a little bit more of a late-night talk show format than it was. It was a little weirder, probably, and Dan wanted you to know that you’re watching a late-night talk show format. Which was really good, because it tethered us. We could’ve gone a little bit too crazy. We’re breaking format on a few episodes, but basically it’s two guests and a field piece in every episode.

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One of the things that excited me the most was this character of Ned, who loves people. Everything about them excites him. He’s had an awakening, because he’s hated his life: He’s a military commander who should never have been in the military. He’s kind of been in the closet his whole life, and now he’s met people, and it’s so exciting—it’s opened up the universe for him. Now he’s finally blossomed. Taking that point of view and putting it in the host’s chair is a very fresh choice. And very positive. Most late-night talk shows are very cool and slightly sarcastic and a little cynical. And this is anything but that. Ned is ignorant and totally enthusiastic about everything. And it creates a show that is a celebration of everything about us: our faults and our strengths.
One would think if you want it to be very clear that it’s a late-night talk show, that it should be on a late-night talk show set. Because they all almost look identical. But Dan allowed us to go the opposite direction, and he allowed us to do really creative worlds. It’s a proper science-fiction spaceship that they’re in, and they plunked an IKEA couch in the middle of the set [Laughs.] where the guests are going to sit. It was lovely that they allowed us to do that because then the late-night talk show grounded it in something you expect, but everything about the way it’s presented is totally unexpected.

AVC: Once you had that defining, humanity-loving trait in place for Ned, how soon afterward did you have Paul Rugg in mind as the character’s main performer? Going back as far to a character like Freakazoid, that type of enthusiasm feels like a note that Rugg is particularly attuned to playing.

BH: And it tends to be my first choice when I’m performing, too. I needed great improvisers, and I needed the combination of Cornelius and Ned to be really special. So we did exhaustive casting among the puppeteers to find out who Ned was, and exhaustive casting to figure out who Cornelius was. And then we basically took the top five from each and did every combination to see what was the greatest combination. And that’s what brought us to Paul Rugg and Michael Oosterom. If you asked me in advance, I have several performers who can perform in that area very, very well. But I’m not surprised that Paul rose to the top.

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And then he brought a lot of Paul to it: He was able to bring more flaws than I thought we were going to be able to get away with. I knew that the audience needed to love Ned, but Paul was very artful at making Ned a real narcissistic jerk sometimes. And when he’s got his guests on, he doesn’t want them to have more attention than him. [Laughs.] And that was largely Paul, who was saying, “We can push this harder.” And he was right.

Illustration for article titled How do you get six puppeteers to improvise as one alien talk show host? Ask Brian Henson
Photo: Disney+
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AVC: Is this the first partnership between Disney and the Henson Company since Disney acquired the Muppets characters in 2004?

BH: No. [Takes a beat.] Maybe? [Laughs.] I was quick to say no, but—we were shooting Bear In The Big Blue House… [At this point in the conversation, Henson was reminded that the Henson Company made 2014’s Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day with Disney —Ed.]

But that’s interesting, because I enjoy, thoroughly, working with Disney. And I have found that the more daring the production—going all the way back to Dinosaurs, and the idea of me making Muppet Christmas Carol, and totally doing a different thing with the Muppets and having them play other roles in a classic story… My experiences working with Disney have all been very good experiences.

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I guess there was a period there where literally we were, “Let us help you in any way we can for you doing the Muppets, and we don’t want to get in the way of that.” So I guess to a degree we were thinking, “We shouldn’t have competing things with Disney that are theoretically competitive to the Muppets.” Anyway, enough time has gone by that we didn’t even really think about it. It’s a really good, powerful combination, really: The Disney brand and the Henson brand, because we bring different things. We overlap in certain areas, but we overlap on the expectation for creative excellence. But there’s a naughtiness that comes from our brand that does a nice thing to the Disney brand. Whenever we do something together, it does work and the audience likes it, and they get how it’s fun to watch those two brands work together.

AVC: What makes a good guest for Earth To Ned?

BH: Being game. Being daring. It’s tough to book a first season of a talk show where the publicist can’t see the interviewer—we were booking while we were building the puppet. So we needed guests that were willing to take the chance on a show that they couldn’t even see what it was. That also turns out to be the defining factor of what makes a good guest: If they are bold, and they’re willing to take a chance, and they’re not hyper-concerned about not humiliating themselves and things like that. They needed to be guests who you could tell by the types of people who were willing to try anything.

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AVC: Kristen Schaal is the second episode’s first guest, and she certainly fits that bill.

BH: Kristen really threw herself into it. Michael Ian Black does something really terrific. They were all great, but when you see Michael Ian Black, the choices he makes are so delightful.

AVC: From a comedy-nerd standpoint, the writing staff is just as exciting: I noticed Eliza Skinner, Nick Wiger, and Jordan Morris’ names in the credits. What type of voices were you seeking out for that writers room?

BH: Funny. [Laughs.] Mostly, people who are really ready to embrace a talk show that’s really emphasizing comedy. We really want a funny show, we want the characters written for funny. That’s what we’re hoping the impact is on the audience: That we make them laugh, from a character that’s celebrating people. If we can make the audience laugh at themselves and each other, and stop being so hard on themselves and each other. If that’s a little bit of what our effect is on the audience, that’s what we set out to do.

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AVC: If you don’t mind getting into the technical weeds for a second: How many performers are operating Ned on set?

BH: There are six performers: three on his hands, two on his face, and one inside. And that’s really hard, and I knew going into it. His closest cousin, in terms of my previous work, is Pilot from Farscape. I loved Pilot, and thought he was the best animatronic character we ever made, so I wanted to do something in that vein. I knew I was going large. The unknown was, can a character that requires six people to perform it improvise? There’s always something in every production that I do where we promise that something will work, but I have no idea [Laughs.] if it’ll really work. And I really had no idea if six performers working a character would be able to improvise in a delightful way. And it was hard for the first couple of weeks, as they were rehearsing. But once they started to gel and figure out what the character was, it was really amazing the way that team became super capable of improvising.

AVC: Were they learning it on the job, or were there exercises that helped them get into it?

BH: I’ve been training my puppeteers through improv for 13 years. We used to train puppeteers in puppetry, and then we’d have a success ratio of one out of 10 in terms of the ones who were then good enough ad-libbers to be real good puppeteers. And then I realized what we really needed to do was to be teaching both at the same time. So we’ve embraced short-form comedic improv as the way we train performers—and we have a show called Puppet Up! Uncensored. And that’s the way you train inside our company: You train into Puppet Up!, and then if you make it to company level in Puppet Up!, then you can be considered as a performer in our other shows. So they’ve all been trained in improvising. And it shows.

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I love when we can showcase how good our performers are at improvising, because we’ve now been doing it for a long time. So it is really fun to have a show that clearly shows off how great they are at improvising.

AVC: Pivoting away from Earth To Ned before we go, is there a possibility of a second season for The Dark Crystal: Age Of Resistance?

BH: We don’t know yet. It’s up to Netflix. We’re not actively developing for it.

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