talks about some unusual situations as a Muppet performer
and what it's like to work on "Sesame Street"
by Scott Wolf
I'm a huge fan of Muppets and puppets so I knew it would be fun
talking to John. He's got so many wonderful stories and some fascinating
insight and we shared a lot of laughs during his interview. It gives me
great pleasure to bring you his interviews.
Scott Wolf: What are some of the crazy things that happened to you as a puppeteer?
John Kennedy: When I was on "Muppets Tonight," Pierce Brosnan was doing a scene in a prawn suit, as James Prawn, and I was playing a female prawn puppet. It had a big curly wig on that was pinned on with maybe twenty or so pins. So those were above my hand holding the wig on and Pierce Brosnan was to hit us with a slingshot after he ran out of alarm clocks. We had hard helmets on because these are real metal alarm clocks! Ping! Pong! Off the top of my head. So he ran out of the clocks and then he started whacking us with this heavy, thick wooden slingshot.
SW: Was that in the script?
JK: I don't know, but it made it in. You can see my character, he whacks it on top of the head and I just go down. One of the pins went right into my knuckle and pinned the puppet to my hand. So I try to take the puppet off and it wouldn't come off.
SW: Did you finish the scene?
JK: I couldn't, no. I thought he broke my hand because I started to move it, thinking, "Is it okay?" and I started to pull it off and it wouldn't come off and then I sort of panicked a little and I just ripped it off my hand and I started bleeding. Fortunately there was no damage whatsoever but they did as a precaution send me to the emergency room and I had to explain what had happened. "Okay, you were in a prawn puppet and James Prawn hit you and the puppet stuck on your hand... okay." (laughing) By that time the bleeding had stopped and all it took was a band aid and it looked like nothing had ever happened. It didn't turn purple or blue or anything. It just was a little tiny pin prick, but it had gone all the way through, probably around the cartilage and through the knuckle. It almost was all the way through. I couldn't really move it, it just felt really strange. I'm sure I was really lucky, but put a band aid on it, went back to work, and was in the next scene.
SW: Are there any other strange things that happened to you?
JK: The first week on "Dinosaurs" they had me come in on a weekend and shoot the opening sequence. The first thing they had me do is laying in manure because the DP thought manure looked better than earth, dirt. So the camera was kind of laying on my head and I'm laying on my back in manure. They put dubitene down but it started to soak through and I'm working backwards and just having to do a simple move, just look around the side of the tree and then duck back in again, but it was so uncomfortable and weird.
I remember doing an interview for my local paper back in Plainfield and the opening line the interviewer had written in there was "Imagine laying in a cold, dark building in manure with a camera resting on your head and a puppet over your head. Now imagine this is your dream come true. Well, it is for hometown boy John Kennedy." I was surprised when one of the producers showed up with my hometown paper on the set.
SW: How did they find that?
JK: I guess they pay companies to put all the press together, so wherever it is in the world they find it. That was the first lesson that I got: be very careful what you say. But, they thought it was a great interview so I was lucky.
SW: You also worked on "Sesame Street." When was that?
JK: It was 1994. It was after "Dinosaurs," Kevin (Clash) had said, "If you move to New York I might be able to use you on 'Sesame Street.'" I didn't do it right away. I moved back to Florida because my family had moved there. Once I moved there the first time everybody came down, so I felt a little guilty moving to L.A. They weren't going to follow me again so I went back to Florida to be near my parents and my sister. I waited a year to go to New York but eventually I did. I stayed with friends and did some small projects and then got an apartment and worked full time. For many years actually, from '94 and I still work on projects now. I stay with my friend Ed now that he's got a place in New York. I did have an apartment there at one time but I always kept a place in Florida.
SW: I know you watched "Sesame Street" growing up. What was it like for you to be working on the show?
JK: It was magical. It's just like it is on TV. You walk on there and it's a street with buildings and there's Big Bird and Oscar's in a trash can. It's all very real looking so that's how they get the kids to be very honest and very real because it's real. Snuffleupagus is this really big elephant walking down the street. It's like, "Wow!"
They do it very much like the old radio shows. They have a foley guy right there doing all the sound effects you hear. You hear the sounds and they're playing it down right there for you. The music's playing. It's not all pieced together later in post. They roll it and that's the way it is. (Hums the musical theme) You're hearing that as Big Bird's walking in and the (camera) crane's coming down and you're looking down the street and there's a character walking in the foreground and Telly comes in and says something. It's just all really happening, and all those sound effects... you hear their feet and the various noises like car horns and stuff and kids playing. That's all right there, pumped on to the stage, even honkers and dingers, it's all in time, all the sound effects are right there.
SW: You worked on "Muppets From Space," right?
JK: "Muppets From Space," I'm in it. I've got a speaking role.
SW: You did? What did you do in that?
JK: (chuckling) I say, "I'm cold. Let's go home." (laughs)
SW: (chuckling) Is that your whole role?
JK: (chuckling) Yeah, I'm the low point of the movie. Everybody gives up on Gonzo.
SW: Was it just a generic muppet?
JK: No, I was myself. I was me in like a silver jumpsuit. I was one of the people on the beach and I got to say my own line. They would do that I guess in movies. They would have Jim (Henson) or Frank (Oz) or Jerry (Juhl) or whoever would be saying a line or get to do a little small part in the movies.
SW: In "Kermit's Swamp Years," you did Arnie the Alligator, were you the voice as well?
JK: Yes, and I was Blotch the Bullfrog as well, and I was coordinator on that, too. Puppeteer/coordinator.
SW: What is that?
JK: I would communicate with other departments to say where monitors ought to go and I'd run and get rollies or whatever the puppeteers need.
SW: What are rollies?
JK: Little low rolling dollies that a puppeteer might need to get a shot. I'd go ahead of time and talk with the crew and see what we'd need for the whole shoot and things like helping to design the tank that the frogs are swimming in. We had to perform from below the water and try to make that shot work like they're in the swamp, and we're destroying puppets as we do it so we have to plan it in the shoot just right.
SW: So when a puppet gets wet, can you use them again?
JK: Not really. They had to have duplicates.
SW: Was it all done on location? It all looked real.
JK: It was. It was in Florida. We were back behind Disney World and there's like a swampy area back there and they do shoots. I worked on a show called "Sheena" and we shot back there, too. And there's real alligators and real snakes and we're right in there. We were shooting one day and there goes an alligator. We were like, "Yikes!"
As we were scoping out the location before we shot anything a little water moccasin jumped from out under my feet and went into the water. I was like, "Yikes!" We were laying tarps down and whatever we could to make it safe but we were really dangling out there over the water.
SW: Sometimes what goes on behind-the-scenes is quite elaborate. What's one of the more elaborate scenes you worked on?
JK: Well, the first thing I ever did was pretty elaborate. I was inside of an ice cream cart in that commercial (to promote "Here Come the Muppets" stage show at Walt Disney World). I was in an ice cream cart that was on the front of a bicycle so it was small. My knees were up in my face and I was in there a couple hours. They had just taken the ice out of it so it was freezing! And I cut my fingers going in because it was raw sheet metal in under the lip of this thing so I had band aids on all my fingers and I was freezing. In fact, Jim Henson had said, "Let's initiate the new guy," and he wasn't kidding. It really was like a hazing. But, it was what they needed for the shot.
They planned it, let's find a small guy that'd fit in this thing and I showed up.
SW: I would've thought you would cut out the bottom of the cart to do it.
JK: Well, they ride it across the frame so it had to be working. They had Muppets pinned all around it and Dr. Teeth is in the middle in the ice cream cart. Jim's there and he's telling me what to do.
The other crazy thing was the "Muppets Wizard of Oz." The biker scene where they're all sort of attacking the main Muppet characters. They encircle Gonzo and his head spins off. So it's an animatronic Gonzo head so Dave (Goelz) was performing the head off camera and someone is performing the body in the middle of this table which is spinning with puppeteers on Muppets on bikes. So they're spinning around and there's a crane overhead and I'm on the crane overhead and I've got a drill with a long bit on it attached to the top of his head and I'm supposed to spin it.
There are two people doing Gonzo's arms and his body and one of them has a bag full of smoke under his arm while he's doing the body and the other person's got both arms. So there are people spinning around, and I'm up above spinning the head on a drill bit to match the bikes going around like his head's looking at them and then at the right moment there's little pyrotechnics in there and you hear (a sound effect like sparks) and the smoke rises and his head pulls off. So coordinating all of that was a huge deal. I was the assistant coordinator on that. Bill Baretta was the main coordinator and I was helping him.
SW: Have you ever looked at any scene and you think, "Oh my gosh, how will I ever do this?"
JK: Well, all of them are like that. Everything you do is like, "Oh, how do we do this?" and they look to me for answers so I've got to come up with two or three ideas and run them by everybody in the production meeting.
SW: When you finally see these things you never know how much work went into it.
JK: Well, hopefully. That's the idea, that the magic is pulled off and nobody realizes that anybody was involved other than the characters.
SW: I still remember seeing Kermit riding the bike in "The Muppet Movie" and just thinking that's amazing.
JK: It was great that Jim Henson was open to showing how all that worked. People love behind the scenes anyway and Jim was forefront with that stuff. I think if it had been all top secret that it just wouldn't have been a great inspiration for other artists. In seeing that you go, "Wow, there's really people who work on this and maybe I can do that, too." That's what really drove me to wanting to be a part of it. Seeing how it was done.
SW: Do you have a favorite memory in your work?
JK: Well, nothing's ever topped that first job I ever did because it was just so overwhelmingly wonderful to be at Disney, to meet Jim Henson, to work on the set, my dream coming true, and just the fantasy of everything around me, it was just the best job ever. My first commercial.