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Remembering Jerry Juhl

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Remembering Jerry Juhl

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"Whatever you do, just make sure that it's silly."

That's supposedly the one request that Susan Juhl is making of writers. All us poor slobs who are now struggling to find just the right words to properly sum up the life of her late husband, Jerry.

So I'm going to try and not be mauldin here. Because Mr. Juhl would have just hated that. Me making other people cry on his account, when Jerry's greatest joy was listening to an audience laugh. Particularly when it was Fozzie or Gonzo up there, performing some particularly awful joke that Juhl had just written.

Mind you, Jerry didn't start out wanting to be a writer. His first love in life was puppeteering. Juhl used to tell the story about how -- when he was a kid -- he spied some puppets that were on sale at a store. Jerry then begged & pleaded 'til his parents finally caved in and bought them for him. Figuring that their son would then play with his new toys for a while and eventually abandon them.

But Juhl didn't abandon his new toys. He kept practicing with his puppets 'til he got good. Damn good. So good that -- in 1961 -- Jim & Jane Henson actually asked Jerry to come work with them on their "Sam & Friends" television show.

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Left to right: Jane Henson, Yorick, Kermit, Jim Henson, Wontkins and Jerry Juhl

But -- as good as Jerry was -- he knew that there were puppeteers that were better than him. Particularly his childhood friend, Frank Oznowicz. Which is why -- when Frank finally became old enough to come work for Jim & Jane (As well as shortening his last name to Oz) -- Juhl stopped performing full-time and moved behind the typewriter.

As to why he became a writer for the Muppets, Jerry used to joke that " ... I did it for self-protection...I never rated much (as a puppeteer) - so I figured I'd better save my job by doing something else."

But that self-deprecating remark really sells Juhl's writing abilities short. Right from the start, it became obvious that Jerry had an almost uncanny ability to create great new material for the Muppets.

I'm not exactly sure how he was able to do it. But Juhl was able to create this seemingly endless stream of brilliant sketches that the Muppets would then perform on  TV. And it was these inspired pieces -- along with the talented puppeteers who actually performed them -- that eventually allowed Jim & Co. to move beyond appearing on local television in the Washington D.C. area and make the big time. Performing on popular variety shows of the 1960s like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Hollywood Palace."

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Jerry Juhl and Rowlf the Dog

And it was those sketches that Jerry wrote that got Jim thinking. Maybe these characters could now carry longer form pieces. So -- at Henson's insistence -- Juhl began writing half hour & hour-long shows. And out of the ashes of unsold efforts like "Tales of the Tinkerdee" eventually came successful TV specials like "Hey, Cinderella!," "The Great Santa Claus Switch," "The Frog Prince" and "The Muppet Musicians of Bremen."

And the success of these shows made Jim get even bolder. Made Henson think even bigger. So when the opportunity came for the Muppets to move into educational television, Jim turned to Jerry and said "How exactly would we do that?" Which is when Juhl would roll another piece of paper into his typewriter and start pounding out some sample sketches.

Did Jerry ever resent how Jim kept throwing bigger & bigger assignments his way? Nope. According a quote from Juhl that you'll find in the recently published "It's Not Easy Being Green ... And Other Things to Consider":

"Jim inspired people to do huge amounts of work; more work, and better work, than they thought they were capable of. And he did that by pushing himself. He was very close to us all. We all worked closely together. We all watched him. And year after year we watched him push himself beyond what we could possibly imagine. You had to try to keep up with the guy -- it seemed only fair."

And out of all the acclaim and recognition that came with the success of "Sesame Street," Henson kept his eye on the prize. Which was the Muppets first appearing on their own TV series and then in the movies.

And when -- after several aborted attempts -- that finally did happen, it was Jerry Juhl who actually helped make it happen. By writing all those jokes, punching up those sketches, fleshing out those characters.

It was this aspect of his job that Juhl took particularl pride in. How -- through the scripts that he'd write -- Jerry was able to help turn the Muppets from these one dimensional pieces of cloth to fully formed characters. Distinct personalities who had these colorful quirks that audiences just fell in love with.

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Jerry Juhl and Kermit the Frog

Perhaps the very best example of this was Gonzo the Great. What was once envisioned as this sort-of one joke character eventually (through the collaborative efforts of Juhl & veteran Muppeteer Dave Goelz) emerged as this full-formed ... thing with personality to spare. Gonzo became such a strong character that he was able to essay the role of Charles Dickens (I.E. The narrator of "The Muppet Christmas Carol") as well as play the lead in "Muppets from Space."

And this was all possible because Jerry Juhl wrote such great scripts for the characters. That -- sure -- were loaded with inspired gags and brilliant bits of business for the Muppets to perform. But -- at the same time -- these teleplays & screenplays were solidly constructed, structurally sound. But -- more importantly -- were lovingly crafted with great care and attention to detail.

Juhl obviously took great pride in his efforts. But after 37 years of regularly churning out sketches & feature films that starred frogs & pigs, Jerry finally decided that it was time to step away from day-to-day involvement with the Jim Henson Company in 1999. So that he and his wife, Susan, could enjoy semi-retired life in Mendocino Village in Northern California.

But as Juhl once joked "You'll know that I'm really retired when they carry me out in a box," this semi-retirement really didn't take. Which is why Jerry eventually found himself teaching writing classes at Puppetfest, taking part in retrospective events like last year's celebration of Jim Henson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, even organizing and then leading the local Halloween parade.

Juhl also kept in touch with Muppets fans and seemed genuinely touched that so many of them thought so highly of the shows & the characters that he'd help create. Jerry took particular pride in the recent release of "Fraggle Rock - Season 1" on DVD. Given that this release had only come about because 30,000 Muppet fans signed an on-line petition, requesting that this classic TV series finally be released in the DVD format.

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Jerry Juhl & Mokey Fraggle

The end ... it came swiftly and was totally unexpected. Rather like Jim Henson's own exit back in May of 1990. Leaving behind many friends and family to mourn the loss of a man who ...

I know, I know. At the very start of this tribute, I promised that I wouldn't get maudlin.

But -- to be honest -- it's hard not to be sad at a time like this. When there are so few people on this planet who can do what Jerry Juhl did. Which is put words in the mouths of these little pieces of felt, fur and feathers ... and make them seem real. Turn them into characters that we can actually care about, empathize with, even love. That's a real gift.

A gift that -- I'm glad to say -- Jerry Juhl was willing to share with all of us. At least for a little while.

My apologies if this wasn't silly enough for you, Susan.

Speaking of Mr. Juhl ... Though no formal arrangements have been made as of this time, Susan has reportedly requested that -- in lieu of flowers -- that donations be made in Jerry's name to the Caspar Community Center as well as the Save the Redwoods League.

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