To celebrate the release of The Muppet Show on Disney+, here’s a brand-new excerpt from the Muppet Show chapter of Funny Boy: The Richard Hunt Biography, to give you a sense of Hunt’s role on the show. Enjoy!
On The Muppet Show, Richard Hunt was one of what he called the ‘Original Five’, the quintet of performers who brought the show to life each week: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, and Hunt himself. Hunt’s talents were especially suited to the format of the show, an hourlong comedy-variety program of songs and sketches performed by a wacky, idosyncratic ensemble of characters, each episode hosted by a different guest star. Hunt played a number of major characters, from a mellow Valley Girl to a big shaggy monster to a freaked-out lab assistant, plus over forty minor characters and countless one-offs. By the second season his characters would both open and close the show.
But perhaps most importantly, Hunt’s mischievous, no-holds-barred attitude was crucial to the Muppet Show’s offbeat comedic sensibility. “Richie was the heart and soul of the irreverence,” says Oz. “Jim created it, but Richie intensified it.” Hunt was essential to the spirit of The Muppet Show, to conjuring the “affectionate anarchy” that would make the show such a big hit.
The Muppet performers created a cast of characters who were a tightly interconnected tribe of weirdos. “It was a band of misfits that needed each other,” said Goelz. “It was a metaphor for family.” And behind the scenes, the performers mimicked some of these same family dynamics. Indeed, the characters themselves were often based on facets of their performers’ essential natures. The performers would notice an element of themselves in the character as it was written, and build on or exaggerate that trait to make the character come alive. “All these characters, as I’ve said, are all of us. Very strongly,” Hunt said. “Really, you can’t make it up. You can’t imitate anything.”
The most well-known Muppet Show alter ego is Henson’s Kermit the Frog, who served as the show’s host – a wise choice, as audiences already adored the skinny green amphibian from Sesame Street. If the Muppet characters are a family, Kermit is unquestionably the dad. Kermit resembled Henson as the cheerfully overextended center of chaos, keeping many balls in the air, unflappably patient (for the most part) in the face of nuttiness. Yet it’s misleading to cast Kermit, and by extension Henson, as the straight man in contrast to his wilder counterparts. “Me not crazy?” Kermit quips in a revealing line. “I hired the others!” Henson saw and appreciated his personnel for their full, unique selves, gratefully taking the good with the bad.
But if Henson’s Kermit is the dad in the Muppet family, Hunt also has an alter ego that represents his role in the dynamic: the young, eager apprentice of Scooter the gofer. Hunt openly identified with the character. “Scooter is very much me as a kid,” Hunt said. “When I came I was 18, and I was really energetic. I’d say, ‘Yeah, sure, anything you wanna do, boss, no problem.’ I talked a lot like him, ’cause he’s my voice.”
Like Hunt, Scooter is a born performer. Hunt modeled the character on his affable, tap-dancing childhood hero Fred Astaire. Scooter resembles Hunt in his amiable disposition, his peacemaking tendencies, his nonchalant acceptance of the other characters and their quirks. This acceptance stems from his own quiet confidence in himself – much like Hunt as a kid, happily amusing himself and the people around him. “Scooter is a perpetual kid and very comfortable with who he is,” said Hunt. “It’s certainly a part of me, and certainly who I am…. I remember once getting a birthday card from Jim, ‘[to] the most sensational, perpetual teenager in the world.’ So I play that out that way.”
Just as Hunt cold-called the Muppets, Scooter shows up of his own volition at the Muppet theater, cheerfully eager to work. Viewers met the character early on, in the second episode to air in most US markets. “I’m your new gofer,” Scooter tells Kermit. “I’ll gofer coffee, I’ll gofer sandwiches, I’ll gofer anything you need.” Kermit initially writes him off as too young and inexperienced; only when Scooter plays the nepotism card, casually mentioning, “My uncle owns this theater,” does Kermit hire him. Though Scooter would retain his essential youthfulness, the character would grow and change over the course of The Muppet Show, reflecting Hunt’s own growth.
Perhaps because he identified so closely with this eager young kid, Hunt had trouble relating to a character who was the exact opposite: a sharp-tongued elderly critic, in a rare pairing with Henson. Statler and Waldorf are better known as the two old guys in the balcony. Here’s a handy mnemonic to remember who’s who: Waldorf, played by Henson, has a Wide face, while Statler, played by Hunt, has more of a Slim face. “I never identified with Statler because he was too old for me,” Hunt said. “I didn’t know who he was.”
Statler provided Hunt with a plum role, as the pair in the peanut gallery appeared in every episode, judging acts throughout as well as usually getting in the last word, delivering the final punchline after the closing credits. The writing team of Henson, Juhl, Marc London and first season head writer Jack Burns came up with the brilliant conceit of installing critics in the theater to throw shade at the performers, creating a whole extra layer of entertaining conflict. To this day, Statler and Waldorf remain some of the most popular Muppet characters – everybody loves a smartass.
Hunt’s rare pairing with Henson made the role particularly special. The two had worked together on plenty of one-offs, but a regular duo was unusual. Yet Hunt was ideal for the role. The lifelong snarker showed his appreciation through teasing and criticism, fault-finding because he saw potential, needling his friends if he thought they were holding themselves back. What’s more, Hunt and Henson shared a bone-deep irreverence, a sense that nothing was sacred or off-limits for a laugh. Other performers might be intimidated to play this critical role alongside their boss, essentially insulting their own work, but Hunt had no such qualms.
Playing Statler and Waldorf gave Hunt and Henson an opportunity to get to know each other. “That was the time we would spend together,” Hunt recalled. The duo would be squeezed into the tiny Statler and Waldorf set, an enclosed booth behind shut curtains, waiting in position between takes. It took too long to get back in again once they were out, so they just stayed in place, closed off from the frenzy of the studio. “We would spend two or three hours there. And in between things, you know, ‘So, what’s going on.’ That’s when we would have these talks. We would talk about our families, and our hopes and desires, and politics.” This pairing gave Hunt the opportunity to make a connection with Henson that, despite strains and twists and turns, would last in some form all their lives.
“Richie was the heart and soul”: Frank Oz, interview with the author.
“It was a band of misfits”: Dave Goelz interviewed by Adam Kreutinger. “Puppet Tears ep 64 – Dave Goelz Talks Muppets and Mayhem”. Puppet Tears, video podcast. December 23, 2000. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUBTcRg83CQ&list=UUJJ8gXdnTFLLHzRnWxIIaSA>.
“Kermit, all these characters…” This and all other Hunt quotes (unless otherwise noted) from Richard Hunt Archival Interview, Jim Henson Company Archives.
“Me not crazy?” The Muppet Show, Lesley Ann Warren episode, 1979.
“When I came I was 18…”: “Of Muppets and Men,” 1981.
“I’m your new gofer”: The Muppet Show, Jim Nabors episode, 1976.