Gonzo Puppeteer Dave Goelz on Why We Need the Muppets More Than Ever

Gonzo Puppeteer Dave Goelz on Why We Need the Muppets More Than Ever

Have you been binging the classic Muppet Show now that it’s available on Disney+? Instant mood boost! In celebration of the beloved series’ arrival on Disney’s streaming platform, Gizmodo hopped on a video call to talk to the Great Gonzo himself — in the form of his veteran performer, Dave Goelz.

Goelz has been part of the Muppets crew since the early 1970s, with his first starring role coming with Gonzo when The Muppet Show debuted in 1976. He has also performed many other Muppet characters (including Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Waldorf) and worked on other Muppet-adjacent projects like Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth. In our interview below, we asked him about why the Muppets (and Gonzo in particular) are still so popular after all these years, with a detour into A Muppet Christmas Carol because we couldn’t resist.

Cheryl Eddy, Gizmodo: The Muppets have never really been out of the public eye for over 40, almost 50 years at this point. But having all of The Muppet Show episodes available to stream feels like an especially significant milestone. How do you feel about the show now potentially reaching a whole new generation of fans?

Dave Goelz: I’m so thrilled. I gotta tell you, I am beyond thrilled for a least a couple of reasons. One is that it’s gonna be so easy to watch now that I’ll even watch it. When it was on DVD and VHS I never really bothered, so now I’ll be able to do it and I’m looking forward to reliving some of those moments. I’m sure that when I watch the shows I will remember all kinds of little things that happened when we were shooting them. So I’m excited about that.

The other reason that’s at the top of my mind is that it’s really about inclusion. It’s this group of sort of misfit characters who find that they can operate together and they can perform in this show, and it sort of creates a home for them. And then, of course, we find that we really enjoy all these aspects of these misfits. I think the world right now really needs more tolerance — we really need more celebration of the differences between us. And the diversity. That’s what enriches life…we just enrich each other in so many ways, and I’m excited about The Muppet Show being up there and showing this group doing that — and also showing human performers from all over the world, and [in some cases] human performers who have passed away that you can rediscover or that younger people can discover for the first time.

Gizmodo: Looking back, did you have a favourite guest star?

Goelz: I get that question a lot, and I can’t exactly say that I do. Peter Sellers meant a lot to me because I idolised his work. I’d watched him since high school I guess, so I was looking forward to working with him. One of the most satisfying things in my whole life was that when our writers called him a few weeks ahead of time, he said, “I love your show, you know what you’re doing, just write it and I’ll perform it — I’m happy to do it. But if I could work with Gonzo that would be great, because he reminds me of Inspector Clouseau.” And so the writers immediately told me, and I went into like a frozen state — I said, “Peter Sellers wants to work with ME? I want to work with Peter Sellers!” So that was sort of an unusually exciting moment. But really all the guests were masters of whatever they did. And it was a thrill to see them come in every week and do it.

Gizmodo: Gonzo has definitely evolved over the years as a character. You just mentioned the writers, but how much input do you have into that?

Goelz: I had some input into Gonzo. The puppet was originally built by Jim [Henson] for another thing a few years before — The Great Santa Claus Switch starring Art Carney and the Muppets. Jim pulled him out of a box and said “Let’s make this guy be the Great Gonzo.” [The Muppet Show head writer] Jerry Juhl had thought of the character, and Jim said, “Dave, why don’t you try being him?” And that’s how I got put together with that puppet and that character.

But the process is always collaborative. People say, “Oh, you made such a great character.” And I’ll always say, “Well, I did part of it. But the [Muppet] Workshop created the puppet, and somebody there made a costume for it, and one of the writers wrote these lines.” And that’s how all of our work evolves and develops. They get better because we’re all contributing.

Gizmodo: What’s your fondest memory of working with Jim Henson?

Goelz: Well, that would be impossible to answer. Probably every minute, you know? Every minute. There’s a picture over there on my wall that illustrates it [points to a photo of himself with Henson hanging behind him]. That was [taken] up in the Hollywood Hills in 1989, I think. We were shooting a Miss Piggy special in LA, and that was an example of what it felt like; we were just always goofing around, and playing, and having fun and grinning, and inventing silly things for the characters to do.

Gizmodo: The Muppets have also done tons of movies over the years. What’s your preference when performing, movies or TV?

Goelz: I’ve always felt that TV is like calisthenics: You get in shape [because] you shoot a lot per day. We used to shoot like 15 pages a day. A movie is like using those skills; you shoot maybe one to two pages a day, just because of the fact that a movie is single-camera and it’s one set-up at a time, and every set-up is re-lit. It all gives you much more time to perfect. So you develop skills with TV and you perfect them on film. That’s the way it was then; the two have converged a little bit since then, but it’s still kind of like that. If you have to do a lot of material you just develop a lot of skills that way because you have to — and then when you do a film you can really express those skills and perfect them.

Gizmodo: One specific movie that means a lot to people is The Muppet Christmas Carol, with Gonzo front and centre as Charles Dickens. I think that’s my favourite Gonzo performance, but do you have a personal favourite performance?

Goelz: I think of them as my favourite Muppet projects rather than Gonzo projects. But I love that film because it was this wonderful piece of literature, and in spite of the fact that our characters are composed of rats and pigs and chickens and dogs, somehow I think we really service the meaning of the story. I say this in interviews and I hope it’s true, but I’ve read that that the staff of the Charles Dickens Museum in London considers The Muppet Christmas Carol to be their favourite film version of that property. I know I can’t get through it dry-eyed. I always break up because I think it’s just so powerful, and probably the humour catches you off guard and releases a lot of emotion. It acts as a trigger for emotion.

Gizmodo: A lot of that humour comes when Gonzo breaks the fourth wall to talk to the audience.

Goelz: Again, I have to give credit to Jerry Juhl; he’s our head writer and he wrote that movie, and he was the one who thought of using Gonzo for this. That was based on our friendship. I was going through things and doing therapy and learning a lot during that period, and Jerry in his very active right brain thought, “Oh this would be a good fit. This would work. I bet Dave could do this.” So it worked out great, and of course adding Rizzo as a sidekick was brilliant because it’s funny and profound all at the same time, and that’s kind of how life is.

Gizmodo: What do you think it is about Gonzo that makes him such a fan favourite?

Goelz: I can only go from what fans have told me. I have had so many people say that he gives you permission to be different, which is a serious answer, but that’s what I hear from people — they are people who felt like outsiders, they didn’t feel like they fit in, and I think that’s fairly common. We all have some degree of that probably, but somehow he gave them licence to accept themselves. And boy, that always feels good to hear.

Bunsen and Beaker on recent Disney+ series Muppets Now. (Image: Disney+)
Bunsen and Beaker on recent Disney+ series Muppets Now. (Image: Disney+)

Gizmodo: Who’s your favourite non-Gonzo character to perform?

Goelz: I don’t know what my total number of characters is — it’s over 20 characters amongst the different [Muppets] properties. They’re all sort of a specific part of our personality that we isolate and amplify and try to make loveable. And it has a therapeutic purpose in that regard because you can sort of laugh at yourself and not take yourself so seriously. But to answer your question which other ones, I mean love doing [Dr.] Bunsen [Honeydew] because he’s so specific and he completely misses the big picture. I’ve done that a few times in my life! I love Zoot because he’s just out there in space, he’s in some other world, just he loves his sax. And of course, I love all the other characters that I don’t perform. I love Johnny Fiama, I love Pepe the King Prawn because he’s just so selfish. I don’t even know how to stop answering the question.

Gizmodo: I was always a big Miss Piggy fan.

Goelz: Yeah! And so many people are. But you know…if you’re around her a lot? You just can’t stand her. [Laughs]

Gizmodo: OK, one more question specific to Disney+, since everyone’s going to be going there to watch Muppet Show episodes. If Gonzo had to pick, would he prefer Marvel or Star Wars?

Goelz: It’s probably Star Wars. I think that’s because he played Darth Vader in one of the Muppet Show episodes, so it’d probably be Star Wars. Go with the classic.

The Muppet Show is now streaming on Disney+.