It's so easy being green: Jim Henson's lasting music legacy

Kermit the Frog was never a junkie. But that's how the beloved Muppet character was depicted in a homemade video posted on YouTube earlier this year. With a needle stuck in his arm and a cigarette patched to his mug, Jim Henson's lovable amphibian was satirized covering the Nine Inch Nails song "Hurt" for SadKermit.com. The unsanctioned clip parodies cornerstones of The Muppet Show — the fact that the characters were constantly belting out renditions of popular music, from Gilbert and Sullivan to Alice Cooper, but it also flips the earnest humor that oozed out of that animal farm over the years. Unlike, say, Family Guyor Futurama, Henson kept the humor rated G, yet still created a television series for kids that was sophisticated enough to make adults giggle, too.

Yerba Buena Center's upcoming Jim Henson retrospective, "Muppets, Music & Magic," offers laughs surprisingly heartier than any ironic slandering of his characters. Running June 21-24, YBC is screening selections ranging from Henson's movies (Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, The Muppet Movie) and television series (The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock), to the rare gems (Dog City, a film noir flick entirely populated by canines), and the not-to-be-missed "Commercials and Experiments," an intriguing collection of his raw early work. The one other event piquing my interest is the June 23 showing of "Muppets Music Moments," featuring Muppet Showhosts ranging from Debbie Harry to Raquel Welch, Elton John to Paul Simon, and Bernadette Peters to Harry Belafonte.

"We covered everything — every genre and every century," says Dave Goelz, a Muppet performer who lives in Marin and has worked on Henson projects for the past 34 years. (So you know, he played Gonzo and Zoot the sax player, among other characters.) "We did Charleston numbers, we did the latest stuff in rock 'n' roll, we did the '40s, '30s, classical," he adds. "I really miss the way we worked with music. Jim was a pretty musical guy." Henson died in 1990, but his work continues through his estate — and Disney, which most recently bought the rights to the Muppets.

While the "chemistry" between, say, Animal and drummer Buddy Rich is amusing in their battle of the kits episode, the funniest parts of The Muppet Showare the incessant puns. The Village People's "In the Navy" becomes a visual gag when Henson populates the song with pillaging Vikings. Another Village People hit, "Macho Man," suggests gay-friendly undertones, as the skit brings together Gonzo's disco-rific chicken posse with leather-daddy-clad pigs.

Even without the word plays, though, the Muppets' musical affinity provides for plenty of gut-splitting. A "Danny Boy" riff partners characters with the worst ability to enunciate — Animal, Beaker, and the Swedish Chef. Dressed in shamrock-hued berets, each member of the trio destroys the Irish classic in his own hilarious way. Beaker overcomes his terminal anxiety to offer shrill vocal outbursts and jazz hands; the Swedish Chef, per usual, sounds like he's singing through a mouthful of wet sponges; and Animal does little more than repeat "Oh, Danny boy" and make that heavy-breathing grunt thing of his.

But you can't talk Muppets music without discussing Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem band. Growing up, I was always a Jan kinda gal, idolizing the band's tanned, Valley Girl member. But Muppeteer Goelz breaks down some of the other Mayhemers: His guy Zoot was based on a sketch of saxophonist Gato Barbieri; Floyd Pepper was a "terminally hip guy" patterned after the Beatles; Animal was "visceral, very simple. He knew 'woman,' 'food,' 'sex,' 'music,' 'beat drum.'" And bandleader Dr. Teeth was based on New Orleans eccentric Dr. John. "He had his New Orleans voodoo bag around his neck with secret things that Jim put in there, and nobody knew what was inside," says Goelz of Teeth. "I don't even know what was in there," he adds with a laugh.

The Muppet Showwas filmed in a town near London called Borehamwood, and showed in the U.S. in syndication. Goelz says this was because American networks initially passed on the concept. "They were afraid to try it and they thought puppets were for kids," he says. "In the wake of all that, Jim had some interest from ATV studios and [another company] marketed it worldwide." He adds, "English people thought it was an English show, even though we had American accents."

Overseas, Henson's team had easy access to London band the Jack Parnell Orchestra, which took care of the show's real instrumentation. Even so, Goelz says that as a bunch of admitted non-musicians, the Muppet actors attempted to really learn how to play every song they covered.

"We used to rehearse these things meticulously," Goelz says. "If our character was playing an instrument, we would rehearse that instrument to the track that we had. We didn't know how to do real musical notation, but we created a system so we could study the visual feedback as well as the track. We were very specific. As a result we had a lot of musical people come to us and ask if the characters were really playing those instruments on camera."

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