Welcome to a special Muppets Gone Missing edition of Muppets 101. This week, guest columnist Josh Green has a very special interview with the wonderful writer of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, Joe Bailey. Josh Green – Thank you for talking with me today, Joe. Before we get into the nitty-gritty about the bits that you had written that have been lost in the ethers of time, can you give me a rundown of some of your professional highlights whether they involved Muppets or not? Joe Bailey – I started life as an advertising copywriter. I was a Mad Man on Mad. Ave. in the Mid-60’s, writing the praises of Beefeater Gin, SAAB automobiles and Heineken Beer. The first TV show I wrote was a children’s show called, Jabberwocky. It was produced by WCVB-TV in Boston. Then I was a staff writer on both Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. I also co-wrote specials with Jon Stone, who was the Executive Producer of Sesame Street. Jon and I wrote Christmas Eve on Sesame Street and Big Bird in China. We also co-wrote a special for Jim with John Denver and the Muppets and a lot of Sesame Street Live!scripts. I also wrote collateral material for both Sesame Street and the Muppets — record albums; videos and special appearances in Carnegie Hall and the White House. Additionally, I’ve written other children’s television shows and for comedians like Robert Klein. I also wrote paint can warnings and Radio Shack catalogues. But, over the years, I seem to have morphed into “Muppet Guy”. JG – I also understand that you wrote a book about your career, Memoirs of a Muppets Writer: (You mean somebody actually writes that stuff?). Tell me about the experience of writing an autobiography reminiscing about your career. JB – Nice segue! Check it out on Amazon and onKindle! Even though I did it for years, in looking back, writing comedy was a weird way to make a living. When you sign a contract to write a comedy show, you basically signed a contract to be silly on cue. What that means is you’re constantly chasing the next bit. When I started on Sesame Street, I wrote close to 25 scripts a year. At a minimum of five sketches a show, that’s over 100 sketches a year; or one every three days including Sundays and holidays. Deep down I guess I knew I was burning up my pituitary gland. But it was worth it. And, of course, Jim and the Muppets were incredible people – bright, creative, multi-talented and genuinely nice people. But since we were creating lunacy for a living, we were all a little manic most of the time. But the real truth is I ran away with the circus and got away with it for 20 years. JG – Writing for The Muppet Show must have been a decidedly different experience than writing for Sesame Street. One is an all-ages family show for everyone to enjoy and the other aimed towards a much younger demographic. How do you get in the mindset to write two such different television programs, despite both shows featuring similar rambunctious Muppet characters? JB – Well, every writing job is a little different. But, since Sesame Street was and is considered an educational experiment, every sketch had to meet one of a series of educational goals. For example: the alphabet. And since we were writing for two and three-year-olds, the material had to be as visual and as literal as possible to get through to the kids. But the show still had to have adult appeal because another goal was to get parents to watch with the kids. So, for example, to explain the concept of subtraction, I set up a Muppet piece with two Muppet cowpokes and four Muppet mules. The boss wants to know if he takes three mules away from four mules, how many mules will he have left? The smart cowboy knows that four take away three is one and solves the problem in his head. The dumb cowhand had to wrestle three ornery Muppet mules from one corral to another. Then the boss then wants to know if he takes two mules from three mules, how many mules does he have left? So, the subtracting and the mule dragging starts all over again. But The Muppet Show was written strictly for laughs. I got to work quotes from Senator Joe McCarthy and Nixon Press Secretary, Ron Ziegler, into one Muppet Show piece. That wouldn’t have flown on Sesame Street. But I did once reveal that Oscar the Grouch had an autographed picture of Benedict Arnold. JG – Can you tell me about stories that you had written for Sesame Street that weren’t used as much as you would have liked? JB – Well, every Sesame Street script had to be cleared by the CTW (Children’s Television Workshop) Research Department which, in those days, were not renowned for their sense of humor, if you get my drift. JG – Do tell. JB – In one piece, to teach the various climates in the United States, I made Cookie Monster a weatherman, complete with a U.S. map and pointer. Cookie explained how it was snowing in Maine and raining in Alabama and very hot in Texas. But then, Cookie’s baser nature took over and he started to eat the map. I guess it was when he proclaimed that, “Chicago is delicious!”, that we lost it. Research declared there was a possibility that somewhere some kids would think Cookie really had eaten Chicago, and the piece was bagged. I will admit I spent several days working on a sketch where Cookie really did eat Chicago but to no avail. JG – Hah! JB – However, my all-time favorite Sesame Street reject was disqualified over a point of Theoretical Physics. We had been told by the Research Department that there were two benefits of teaching the alphabet to a two-year-old. Firstly, the alphabet is an essential building block of education. But secondly, the approval and positive feed-back that the child receives for reciting the alphabet strongly reinforces his or her desire to learn more. One day, it occurred to me that if a kid got applauded for reciting the alphabet, what would happen if he recited something a little more sophisticated. So, I created “Tips for Tots!” The piece opened with a corny theme song and a “Tips for Tops!” logo. Then we cut to Big Bird in front of a blackboard. He writes on the blackboard as he speaks. Big Bird says: And, now it’s time for “Tips for Tots!” Okay, tots! You know this! This is the letter, “E,” right? “E?” And, these two lines, one on top of the other mean, “equal.” Can you say, “Equal?” Equal means, “the same as”. And these are your old friends, the letter, “M.” and the letter, “C,” right? Okay. Let’s review. “E” equals, “M,” “C.” Right? “E” equals “M,” “C.” Now, we need a number. So, here’s the number, “2″. But here’s another new word, just like, “equals.” This little, and it has to be little, number, “2,” means, “Square.”, just like the shape with four equal sides. Hey, there’s that word, “Equal,” again. So, let’s review. “E” equals “M,” “C,” squared. Try it again. “E” equals “M,” “C,” squared. Once more, “E” equals “M,” “C,” squared. He repeats and encourages through a fade out. I turned the bit in to Jon Stone. He loved it and gave Big Bird the closing line: “When anyone asks, you tell them you learned that on Sesame Street.” We just thought it would be great fun to have three-year-olds across the country running around spouting Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. It probably would have been a great PR angle for the show, too. The Research Department rejected the piece, saying I really didn’t explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. Really? I fired off a memo to Research asking them to show me exactly where I went wrong. That was around 1975. I’m still waiting for an answer. JG – That’s such a shame. JB – If I remember, there were a few other things that didn’t involve the Research Department. For a while on Sesame Street, I became obsessed with destroying pianos on camera. I play piano and love mine. Still, there’s something so satisfying about the sound a piano makes when it hits the pavement after falling from a five-story window. Sketch after sketch ended with pianos being destroyed on and off camera. I think one involved the Count counting crashing pianos. Finally, Jon Stone sat me down and revoked my piano privileges. And for the rest of my Sesame Street career, I was limited to one piano per season. I also remember submitting a song for Bert called, “I Don’t Have the Blues, I’ve Got the Grays”. Mercifully, that never saw the light of television. It was awful. Finally, I recall something about the special, Big Bird in China. When Jon Stone and I wrote it, we had a running gag story line with Grover doing a travelogue from China’s major tourist sights. Except, as Grover explained, say, the history of the Great Wall, an enormous Chinese water buffalo would enter behind him and completely block out the Wall. The same thing was to happen in front of the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and several other sites driving Grover to increasing frustration. We even had some hapless production assistant scouring every zoo and animal park on the east coast looking for a matching Chinese water buffalo – Jon and I had conceived a closing scene when the gang returns to Sesame Street including Grover, followed, of course, by the water buffalo. But when they got to China and set up the first scene, Jon discovered that water buffalos stink to high heaven. They also aren’t field-trained. So Jon said he didn’t have the heart to ask Frank Oz, Grover’s puppeteer, to lie down in that slop. So he canned the story line. I understand why. But it would have played like gangbusters. JG – That would have been hilarious! Now, do you have any memories of The Muppet Show bits that didn’t make it to air? Joe Bailey – No. But I’ll tell you about one that almost didn’t make it and became one of Jim’s favorites. When Jim and I discussed my writing The Muppet Show, he asked me to write some audition material. I took two weeks and wrote a complete Muppet Show script except for the guest star spots. One of the pieces in the script was a Swedish Chef sketch. I knew the Chef’s premise was that he was always at odds with whatever he was cooking. So I dreamed up a sketch where he was cooking lobster. The lobster resisted. But Chef finally wrestled the lobster into the pot and started cooking. At this point we hear galloping hooves and charging Mariachi trumpets! Three lobster puppets, dressed as Mexican banditos with sombreros and bandoliers, crash into the kitchen, guns blazing and rescue the lobster in the pot. The lobsters do a little Federales dialogue, mount up and ride off, guns still blazing. When Jerry Juhl, The Muppet Show Head Writer, saw it, he immediate put it in the current script. But Jim cut it. He just couldn’t see it. I don’t know why. Jerry put it in the next week’s script. Jim cut it again. Jerry, to his credit, continued to put it in each week’s script. It became a running joke between Jim and the writers. Then one week Jim’s daughter, Cheryl, was in London visiting her father. An accomplished puppet designer at 17, Cheryl saw the piece in a script and decided she wanted to make the lobster puppets. In fact, one of the lobsters has the handlebar moustache I was sporting at the time. Once it was shot, Jim loved the piece. You can judge for yourself. Google Swedish Chef Lobsters. By the way, there are also a few of my other Muppet pieces on the net: Pigs in Space – Independent Heating (Edgar Bergen episode); Muppets At The Hop; The Muppet Show Peter Sellers Massage, Gonzo Motorcycle and Sam’s Discourse on Nudity. JG – Who were your favorite characters to write for on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show? And could you tell us why? JB – I wouldn’t say I had favorites. But, I would get hot on a character for a while and then I’d be on to another one. Since Caroll Spinney was available for every episode of Sesame Street, I wrote a lot for Big Bird and Oscar, two wonderful characters. But if Jerry Nelson and Richard Hunt were available, I might get into Biff and Sully. They also played the Snuffleupagus. And in those days, Snuffy was Big Bird’s imaginary friend. Then there were what I think of as the ids: Cookie Monster and Animal. I made Miss Piggy a lady wrestler and matched her with Kermit who was wrestling in drag. I had Gonzo recite the seven times multiplication tables while standing up in a hammock and balancing a grand piano on one finger. When he said, Seven nines are sixty-four, they booed him off stage. I made Sam the Eagle naked on television. JG – What are your thoughts on what Disney is currently doing with The Muppets? Same question goes with Sesame Workshop and Sesame Street. Do you think that both properties are honoring what came before? JB – Disney puts out a quality product. Generations of Americans have trusted their children to Disney and were never disappointed – including my own. But the Muppets were really Jim’s art. Most of those characters came out of Jim’s head. It’s difficult to duplicate an individual artist’s work. Disney has to move the Muppets on to the next generation as they did with the original Disney Characters. JG – Take me through a day in life of Joe Bailey these days. What do you do with your time? JB – Well right now I’m having dental surgery and getting the apartment painted. But I assume you’re talking about a work day. I’m about to go back to work on a book I started before Memoirs. It’s called, Saloon Brat (Why Can’t We Take the Kitchen to the Track!?) My formative years were spent growing up in the completely adult, Guys and Dolls world of my father’s “saloon” business. “Saloon” was his catch word for the many bars, night clubs and restaurants he owned and operated. It wasn’t Little House on the Prairie. But back to my work day. Writing doesn’t have great visuals. Picture a grey beard staring into a computer screen and yawning occasionally and that’s about it. I work at home and have for a lot of my career when I’m not traveling. Once faxes and then e-mail became popular, producers saw no reason to rent office space for writers. I like to ease into the day. Basically, I write light stuff and comedy so I like to start off in a good mood. Since I’m an afternoon writer, I spend from 10:00 to 12:00 doing business, answering e-mails, etc. After lunch it’s “dream time”, when I work on whatever project is at hand. Sometimes I like to start with a crossword puzzle. It’s a writer’s trick to get your mind working with words. I don’t know how deep in the weeds you want to get here about my writing technique. The last chapter in my book is called, Everything I learned About Writing in 50 Years – The Hard Way. But I think the most important thing about writing is an outline. Whatever I’m writing I always start with an outline. If you get your characters and story line straight, it’s a lot easier to write the actual scenes. You should also work out your locations and visuals on the outline. Boy can meet Girl on the Champs Elysees or the Lexington Avenue Express. Which is better for your story? I always think a big part of screen writing as Feeding the Director. I try to create the most interesting visuals to carry the story line. If you give a director great visuals, he’ll want to shoot your script. I lay the story out scene by scene in the computer. I number the scenes and describe them in one or two sentences. Then I print it out in big type and hang it on a cork board. Now I can point scene by scene and talk my way through the entire show. I can also see how a “B” story line is fitting in, if music numbers are balanced and where the slow parts are, among other things. So, I change and rearrange scenes. Only when I’m happy with the scene by scene outline do I start to write dialogue. That way, I always know where I’m going. Is anybody still awake out there? JG – You’ll always have my attention, Joe. Do you ever get new story ideas for new Muppet or Sesame Street stories that you wish you would have pitched in the past? JB – A few years back I was doing the Sunday Times crossword and the answer was, Man of La Mancha. A light bulb went off in my head and I wrote a proposal called Frog of La Mancha. Kermit was a medieval blacksmith who dropped an anvil on his head and dreamed he became a knight, Don la Rand de La Mancha, The Frog of La Mancha. But, in order to win the troth of the fair Porcinea, played by the divine Miss Piggy he must slay a dragon. With his faithful squire, Tuck, played with great nuance by Fozzie Bear, he travels across Spain in search of a dragon. But in his altered state, he keeps mistaking windmills for dragons and tilting at them atop a French restaurant, a catapult factory, a bee keeper and a fish factory with predictable results. The real dragon had four heads and sang barbershop harmony. I know Jim would have loved it. JG – Indeed! Well, thank you so much for taking the time to let me interview you. It has been an absolute pleasure! JB – Second star on the right and straight on ‘til morning! See larger image Memoirs of a Muppets Writer: (You mean somebody actually writes that stuff?) 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