"Screen Play"
An interview with Muppet Treasure Island writer Jerry Juhl

By Danny Horn for MuppetZine, Issue #16 (Spring 1996)
Illustrations by Chris Smigliano

Jerry Juhl, head writer for the Muppets, has written most of the stuff that you ever liked. He's been a writer on The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, Sesame Street, and The Jim Henson Hour, and he's written or co-written four of the Muppet movies. In fact, his only bad career move was when he agreed to answer some questions for MuppetZine.

After The Muppet Christmas Carol, why did you decide to do another classic adaptation instead of a movie like the first three, in which the Muppets play themselves?

When we did Christmas Carol we got very excited. The Muppet characters had always played themselves, except for short sketches, of course. Here was a whole new way to use our family of characters. We immediately started making lists of other classics, and from that list we eventually picked Treasure Island. Right now we have both kinds of stories in development for future films: adaptations, and original stories in which the characters play themselves.


The great fun of these adaptations is seeing how the Muppet characters bring their own personalities to the novel's characters. Some of the casting in Muppet Treasure Island seems very intuitive, like casting Fozzie as Young Squire Trelawney. (Who else would hire that crew?) Other casting decisions weren't so obvious, like Kermit's and Piggy's. What was the biggest challenge in fitting the Muppet cast to the novel's cast? Were there characters in the novel that you immediately saw as particular Muppets?

Actually, it was difficult. Bunsen Honeydew was pretty obvious as Dr. Livesey, and of course Sam Eagle was born to be first mate Samuel Arrow. Kermit seemed a natural for the captain, but we had to adapt the captain's character so that Kermit wasn't hopelessly miscast. Piggy, of course, was a huge problem, because, basically, there are no female characters in Treasure Island. Then we hit upon the idea of letting her play the person who has been marooned on the island for years. In the book that's a deranged, babbling, filthy old man named Ben Gunn. Of course, Piggy is a smooth-talking, witty, urbane, limo-riding sex goddess, but we hoped that no one would notice the difference.

The other big problem was what to do with Gonzo and Rizzo. For a while we played with the idea of letting them be the heroes. In the first draft Gonzo was called Jim and Rizzo was called Hawkins. But it didn't work. Eventually we made Jim Hawkins a human actor (Kevin Bishop) and let Gonzo and Rizzo be sidekicks.

You say that Sam Eagle was born to play Samuel Arrow, but the way I remember it, Arrow gets drunk, falls off the boat, and drowns before his first "on-camera" scene. Are you guys reading the same Treasure Island I am?

What's the problem? You bought Miss Piggy playing a dirty old man named Gunn.

How did the collaborative process work between you, Kirk Thatcher, and Jim Hart? Between the three of you, were particular people involved in particular drafts? Were there particular things that each of you were best at?

I did verbs, Kirk did nouns, and Jim's a great adjective man. No, no, let me try that again.

I had the eraser, Kirk the paper, and Jim the pencil. That can't be right.

Kirk and I argued tooth and nail over every word and Jim would break up the fights with a 2x4. No. That's wrong too.

I can't remember how it actually worked. I think we stole the script from a fourth guy.

You teamed up Gonzo and Rizzo in The Muppet Christmas Carol, and they work together so well that it seems like they were created as a team -- it's amazing that they really didn't have much to do with each other for their first fifteen years. Since Christmas Carol, it seems that Gonzo and Rizzo have taken over some of the central role that Kermit used to have, and they're acting more as the narrators and hosts. Was there a deliberate decision to move Kermit away from that central role? What kind of role do you think Gonzo and Rizzo play in the Muppet cast now?

The Gonzo and Rizzo team was one of the best things to come out of The Muppet Christmas Carol! As soon as I put them together they started acting like they were brothers -- like they had never been apart. I can't imagine why it took us so long to see this. You've seen a lot of them recently, probably because all the writers have been so excited to have a new comedy team to work with.

But they can never take the place of Kermit. However, Kermit's role is changing. In the new television show (whatever they decide to call it), you'll see that the emcee role has been taken over by Clifford, while Kermit stands off to one side, observing and commenting. These days I think of Kermit as the Muppets' Executive Producer. He's still involved, he's still the main man that holds the team together, but others are out there on the front lines, taking the heat.

Muppet Treasure Island was filmed entirely in the studio, with a fake boat and a fake island. Was the studio-bound production different from other Muppet films with location shooting?

The Muppet Christmas Carol was shot entirely on sound stages, too. Studio shooting has lots of advantages. It gives the director a maximum amount of control, helps to keep a film from going over budget, and keeps the cast near their favorite lunch spots. But seriously, it's largely a matter of style. Treasure Island has a certain look about it that could not have been achieved on location. It really depends on what the director decides he wants to see. We've done it both ways.

How much ad-libbing happens on camera? It must be hard to block and film the Muppets, so does ad-libbing happen, or is it filmed as scripted?

Performers play around on the set all the time, and since they are really funny people, they sometimes come up with gems. If the gems are appropriate and better than what's written, who could complain? On the other hand, films are written and rewritten, read aloud, discussed, planned, and storyboarded for months before the filming. Often performers have a chance to give their ideas long before the shooting. The process is hugely collaborative and sometimes includes ad libs.

Who's your favorite character to write for?

I never pick favorites. Maybe the hardest character to write for was Polly Lobster. This character changed with every draft we wrote. Polly started out as -- wait for it! -- a parrot! But the writers hated the old cliché of a parrot named Polly. So we renamed her Amazonia, and gave her a sultry Marlena Dietrich quality. Over the next few drafts she and Long John developed a strange, ephemeral, romantic relationship. It got very weird. Eventually it got too weird. Amazonia was sent to the Home for Unused Characters. Then came a parrot whose name was Robert Louis Stevenson. He claimed to have written the novel. He hated the movie. We all thought that was really funny for a while. And then we didn't anymore. So we decided it should be a lobster. Nothing else had worked, so the lobster had to be it, right? It's a process of elimination kind of thing.


You cut a lot of the novel's violence out of the film, but there was still a surprising amount of gunplay, explosions, hanging skeletons, and sword-fighting. Was there any concern about what could and couldn't be shown in the movie?

The violence in the novel was one of the hardest things we had to deal with. The whole second half of the book is a series of warlike gun battles in which much blood is shed and many people die horrible deaths. The Muppets don't do that, as I hope everyone has noticed. This is the real reason that we departed so radically from Stevenson's story. Brian wanted as little serious violence as possible, and those responsible for it had to be humans, not Muppets, thus proclaiming the moral superiority of felt over flesh. Muppets almost never handle guns in the film, and never shoot them. Well, okay, Bunsen fires a cannon and kills a palm tree. But that's it! The Muppets do take part in the final swordfight, but no one gets injured by a sword. The idea was to do the whole thing in the spirit of playfulness. The fights are like moments out of Gilbert and Sullivan - I don't think anyone could take them seriously.

The main pirates were a lot of fun, especially the adorably dim Clueless Morgan. Is there a chance we'll see Morgan again in another project?

Clueless Morgan's agent calls three times a day. He's demanding a three picture deal. He's moved his dressing room trailer onto Brian Henson's backyard. I think you'll be seeing him again. Seriously, Clueless is a wonderful character performed by Bill Barretta. I certainly will be looking for new ways to use him. (Actually, it's Barretta's trailer in Brian's backyard).

You've been writing for Muppets for about 30 years. Do you think you want to write for humans again?

I don't know. Make me an offer.

What projects will you be working on next?

Can't say yet. Ask me that again in the next round of meetings. But don't expect me to be specific. I never discuss projects until they are definite.

Finally, is there anything you want me to pretend to ask you about?

I'm glad you asked me that, Danny! As a matter of fact, I'm annoyed by those "Making Of" documentaries! How did you know? We've made a couple of genuine "Making Of" films over the years, but the ones that get made for feature films should be called by some other name. They are really half hour previews. They show all the funny parts and exciting bits strung together with a few sound bites from people who worked on the movie. My advice is Viewer Beware! If you know for a fact that you are going to see a movie, never watch the "Making Of" until after you've been to the theatre. You'll enjoy the movie more, because you won't know the entire plot and all the jokes.

So why a lobster?

The kangaroo wanted a fortune.

See also

Archived MuppetZine articles: