'Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas' turns 40: An oral history of Jim Henson's holiday Muppet musical

Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Yahoo Movies
“Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.” (Photo: Sony Home Pictures Entertainment/ The Jim Henson Company)
“Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.” (Photo: Sony Home Pictures Entertainment/ The Jim Henson Company)

When it comes to Christmas specials, either Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is among your favorites or you haven’t seen it yet. Jim Henson’s captivating musical, starring an ensemble of delightful Muppet critters, has never attained the holiday ubiquity of, say, A Charlie Brown Christmas (with which it shares a gentle humor and sincerity) or the subsequent The Muppet Christmas Carol, released in 1992, two years after Henson’s death. For years, it was impossible to find on home video. Nevertheless, Emmet Otter and his friends have maintained a devoted fanbase since their special first aired in December 1977, a following that’s bound to grow now that a 40th anniversary edition of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas has been released on DVD.

The 53-minute film tells the story of Ma Otter and her son, Emmet, who live a simple but joyful life by the river in Frogtown Hollow. With Christmas around the corner, mother and son know they’re too poor to buy each other gifts, so each secretly enters the Frogtown Hollow talent contest in hopes of getting prize money to spend on Christmas. Emmet, with his woodland friends, forms the jug band of the title, but must ruin his mother’s income-generating washtub to make a washtub bass; Ma decides to perform a song, and makes a similar, O. Henry-esque sacrifice. When the talent contest takes a surprising turn, Ma and Emmet think all is lost — until they receive the best Christmas gift they never expected.

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In addition to being a heartwarming piece of entertainment, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas was a landmark film for the Henson Company. More cinematic and ambitious than any of the Muppets’ previous television projects — with full sets, animatronics, and puppets custom-built for the story — the special paved the way for Henson-produced feature films such as The Muppet Movie and The Dark Crystal. Even as Henson moved onto bigger things, Emmet Otter remained a favorite project throughout his life. His collaborators, including Muppet performers Frank Oz and Dave Goelz and songwriter Paul Williams, still feel the same way. As Goelz told Yahoo Entertainment, Emmet Otter “got right at the essence of Jim’s philosophy — the decency, the sense of giving. And we need that more than ever these days.”

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas premiere, Yahoo Entertainment had a conversation with Oz and Goelz (soon to be reunited onscreen in director Oz’s documentary Muppet Guys Talking), who spoke together for the first time about their Emmet Otter memories. Yahoo also talked to Williams, who shared the stories behind timeless songs like Ma Otter’s ballad “Our World.” Here is the oral history of Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, from three of Henson’s closest and most devoted collaborators.

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” (Photo: Sony Home Pictures Entertainment/The Jim Henson Company)

Yahoo Entertainment: Jim Henson and his crew shot Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas in Toronto in March 1977. (The Muppet Show had premiered five months earlier, and Henson’s puppets were still best-known as residents of Sesame Street, then in its eighth season.) The hour-long film, based on a children’s book of the same name by Russell and Lillian Hoban, was adapted for the screen by Muppet Show writer Jerry Juhl.  To write the songs that were crucial to the musical story, Henson approached singer-songwriter Paul Williams, one of The Muppet Show’s early guests and the writer of contemporary radio hits like the Carpenters’ “Rainy Days and Mondays” and Three Dog Night’s “An Old-Fashioned Love Song.”

Paul Williams: I just hit it off beautifully with Jim and with the Muppeteers right from the start. I loved their humor. I love that there was kind of a dark edge to them, with all the bright and sparkly stuff they were doing. But Jim said, “We’re gonna do a special based on a children’s book called Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas.” And he also mentioned that down the line they were going to be tackling their first feature-length motion picture, and that he thought this would be a great introductory thing to see how well we worked together. It was interesting because the kind of music that it required was very different than anything I’d ever done. It was what I would refer to as “Americana.” 

All of the characters in Emmet Otter’s world, more than 30 including nonspeaking roles, were played by six puppeteers, Henson included. Frank Oz, the Muppets’ star performer, puppeteered Ma Otter — but unusually, the man behind Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal, Bert, Grover, and Cookie Monster, was dubbed with the voice of another performer, singer Marilyn Sokol.   

Frank Oz: I would be thrown in jail if I tried to sing those songs. Songs that beautiful needed a beautiful voice; it was always intended that way. I just performed it with the dialogue live, and then in post-production, Marilyn put her voice in. But Marilyn had already recorded those songs, so on set I could sing to Marilyn’s tempo and feeling and everything. And she was a beautiful singer. 

Watch Ma (voiced by Marilyn Sokol, puppeteered by Frank Oz) and Emmet (Jerry Nelson) perform ‘Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub’:

Dave Goelz, best known for the character of Gonzo, had just recently become a Muppet performer. He started out as a builder in the creature workshop, where he built several of the puppets for Emmet Otter. In the special, he played Wendell Porcupine, Emmet’s slow-witted but lovable best friend.

Dave Goelz: Wendell Porcupine was a breakthrough for me at the time, because I’d only done one season on The Muppet Show and I was really a beginner. And I had some success with that character just ad-libbing in the studio. You know, Wendell had a crush on Emmett’s mother. He just loved her and he wanted to spend time with her, and it was all kind of strange. But that was just off-camera.

Oz:  And can I say, since I did the mother: I don’t think that obsession was truly platonic.

Goelz: [Laughs.] I wasn’t gonna go there.

Oz: No, Wendell was a great character, Davey. I love Wendell. He’s so pure. 

Rounding out the cast were fellow Muppet performers Jerry Nelson, who played Emmet; Richard Hunt, who played Emmet’s bandmate Charlie; and Eren Ozker, who played the minor female characters (and had been the only female performer on the first season of The Muppet Show).  All of the performers played multiple creatures; for example, every performer in Emmet Otter’s cuddly jug and doubled as a member of their ill-mannered rock-and-roll rivals, the Riverbottom Nightmare band.

Goelz: In the bad guy group, I had this catfish. And I had fun doing the fish because we built a squirt mechanism into him so he could spit water. That was his wise-guy thing. Frank’s was that he was extremely tough, his word was law. [Laughs.] And it was just fun to do these idiots.

Oz:  My guy [Chuck] — he was the leader of the group. In high school, you know when you’ve got the bad guy everybody follows, and he’s a guy who just is so cool? I saw him that way. He reminds me of guys in high school that I was scared of. [Laughs.]

Goelz: Oh yeah, absolutely. “I’m not hungry, I’m huuuungry. [Laughs.] Oh, I loved it. Frank oftentimes will find a moment like that, and it will just be a standout in a whole television show or film. In Muppet Christmas Carol, it was Sam Eagle talking to young Scrooge about a career in “business.” The obscene lust that Sam Eagle had for “business!” Just finding those little moments that you never, ever forget.

<i>“Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas”</i> (Photo: Sony Home Pictures Entertainment/ The Jim Henson Company)
“Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” (Photo: Sony Home Pictures Entertainment/ The Jim Henson Company)

The songs in Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas are meant to sound like timeless American standards, songs that Ma Otter and her family would have been singing for generations. A few titles were suggested by the book, but the majority were invented from scratch by Paul Williams, who found working with Henson and the Muppets to be uniquely inspiring.

Williams: There’s such an amazing energy that you get working around Jim. I think the more calm you are, the easier the flow of the creative source. If I get tense and say, “Oh my God, I gotta finish this,” things slow down a little bit. But if you can stay as relaxed as Jim seem to be? The songs just poured out of me.

Oz: Paul got the spirit of Muppets and Jim. Not everybody can, you know? People don’t often get the fact of the sense of purity and the sense of play, and the sense of integrity of character. They sometimes, as an adult, try to make things clever or funny. But Paul just approached it the same way Jim did, and we did. He had that ability to, in a way, be one of us in the musical realm.

Williams: I think the big mistake that a lot of songwriters make when they’re writing for a musical is to try to write a hit song. And I never did that.

Goelz: But you know, he wrote this lovely song “Barbecue”  “Barbecue lifts my spirit, I swear it never fails”  you know, it made me want barbecue whenever I heard it. And then he turned right around and created this incredible spiritual, “When the River Meets the Sea,” that seems like it’s been around forever. It’s so eternal and it’s so profound. I used to sing it to my kids every night when we put them to bed.

Watch (from left) Harvey Beaver (Jim Henson), Charlie Muskrat (Richard Hunt), Emmet Otter (Jerry Nelson), and Wendell Porcupine (Dave Goelz) sing ‘Barbecue’:

Williams: I remember eating barbecue, and that I would always get it under my nails. I think maybe the first line I got was, “The sauce mama makes’ll stay there forever if you dare to get it under your nails.” And I think that because I was such a middle-of-the road writer, writing for the Carpenters and Three Dog Night, that that first line is very personal: “When you meet somebody who don’t like soul food they still got a soul, and it don’t mean that you ain’t got rhythm if you don’t like rock and roll.” There’s probably a little bit of something defensive in that about, no, I’m not part of the Laurel Canyon, Crosby-Stills-Nash-and-Young crowd, or that hardcore rock-and-roll; Rolling Stones music is not what I wrote. But just because I don’t write rock and roll doesn’t mean that I don’t have a soul. [The next line is] “If your taste’s like mine, you like cider not wine” — which is interesting because I’m 27 years sober now, but at the time I definitely preferred wine. But I thought: it’s for the kids. 

Oz:  The music was just the most beautiful stuff. Paul’s written other stuff for us and it’s beautiful, but somehow this is really extraordinary.

Williams: I love the way that “Our World” and “Brothers” come together at the end. You know, I’m an old hippie. In the ’60s I was up in San Francisco with flowers in my hair like everybody else was, and my love beads and my tie-dyed T-shirts and camouflage pants and work boots and long hair and a top hat with a feather in it. So “Our World” is very, very much in that spirit. It’s a little hymn, you know? It’s like a little hymn. 

Watch The ‘Our World/Brothers’ medley from ‘Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas’:

When characters perform songs in the story, they actually “play” their individual instrument parts. The tracks were pre-recorded, so they weren’t making the music live — but the Muppeteers put enormous effort into getting it right.  

Oz: We all worked hard on that. If you look at Wendell playing the jug — Davey got that jug track, and he rehearsed that jug track alone. I got the washtub track with a single string. We each got our own part and rehearsed it, and then when it was mixed together, we knew our parts. And we always took pride in the fact that we didn’t fake all that stuff; we really rehearsed that very well. We’d do that for The Muppet Show too.

Emmet Otter was a labor of love for all involved, but days of shooting with puppets could be repetitive and tedious. This is illustrated, hilariously, by an outtake reel of a single shot included on the DVD. (Watch it below.) In the 10-second shot, Ma (Oz, pre-voice dubbing) and Emmet are standing outside a music store that is being trashed by the Riverbottom Nightmare band. A drum is supposed to come rolling out of the door and land in front of them. When the drum doesn’t land in the right place, Henson resets the shot again, and again, and again — a total of 33 times — while the puppeteers ad-lib between takes.

Oz: The drum rolling was classic. I remember we rehearsed it. Jerry and I were underneath the set just like all the other performers, so we’re in two holes. And in the rehearsal it landed beautifully, perfect  — so we thought, we’ll do it again. It must have been 30, 40 takes? But Jim would not give up. We’d be there all day long.

Watch: The outtakes reel for the drum-rolling scene:

Goelz: That’s the thing that differentiates the Muppets: Nobody else is crazy enough to do this.

Oz: It’s true. These days you have CG, and it’s just not as much fun because you can always throw money at something and do it. But when we did it with Jim it was real time. And so you had to be a little bit crazy – and Jim was, in that regard. He would just do anything. And I think Davey’s right; nobody actually understood the depth of experience we went through to fulfill Jim’s vision.

Goelz: That commitment is so deep and so persistent. It was actually a lesson about life, too, for me anyway. I went on from there and I thought: If something’s really important, you do whatever it takes.

Oz: What was funny to me was, that take was like shooting dice. There’s no way you could control that drum! [Laughs.] It was just blind faith that it would do it again.

Goelz: It’s probably worth saying that Frank and Jerry were in a lot of pain during that, because underneath that set, when you have your arm stuck in a hole, there are all these beams that go right through where your head is supposed to be. And so your head can’t be where it normally is on your shoulders; you have to put it off to the side somewhere. And it hurts like crazy. And when you go over and over like that for as long as that was, you’re in a lot of pain. And in spite of that you have to perform; you have to compartmentalize it.

Oz: And that’s what we learned from Jim. And Dave does the same thing and Richie Hunt did the same thing — all of us did the same thing, where I say, we just sustained the pain to get the performance. All of us did.

Goelz: And at the same time, Frank was still throwing in ad libs after every failure. 

As a puppeteer, Goelz had his own unique physical challenge on Emmet Otter set: performing the catfish in a full tank of water during the Riverbottom Nightmare Band’s performance. (Watch it below.)

Goelz: That was a scary thing, because the set-up was, the fish tank was built into the set. It had a hole in the upstage side, away from the camera, and a wetsuit arm glued securely into it so you could fill the tank with water, put the arm inside the wetsuit on, and then somebody would put the puppet on your hand. And I was sitting on a forklift truck; there was a pallet on a forklift truck that held me at the right height so I could put my arm into this tank. I remember just the whole time I was terrified that somebody might come along and turn the switch, and if that pallet went down, my arm would just be cut off like a guillotine! [Laughs.] I think Frank knew that and he really loved it.

Oz: I love anytime when somebody else is in pain. Sure. [Laughs.]

Goelz: Especially me, for some reason.

Oz: Oh, there’s many reasons.

The Riverbottom Nightmare Band performs their signature song. Performers include Dave Goelz as the catfish dancing in the water tank and Frank Oz as lead singer and keyboardist Chuck. 

Though filled with old-fashioned charm, Emmet Otter actually employed a savvy blend of age-old puppetry techniques and cutting-edge animatronic technology. Engineering wizard Franz “Faz” Fazakas, a frequent Muppet collaborator, designed the rowboat that could be steered along the set’s 50-foot river, and rigged versions of Ma and Emmet that could be operated via remote control while they were on the water. 

Goelz: The boat was super high-tech. The radio-controlled Emmet and the radio-controlled boat worked together so Emmet could row it around, just like a real rowboat.

Oz: And while the boat was being rowed around, Ma could be singing, because of the remote control. However, when it got into a closer shot, Jim just put the boat in front of the river — so we’re on the studio floor, and the camera’s shooting at us past the river in the background.

Goelz: For close-ups, they wanted to use hand puppets for better manipulation than you can get with a remote-control figure. Same thing was done in The Dark Crystal, actually — same exact technique. But then on the same shoot, we also had puppets marionetted. So occasionally in long shots, you’d see Emmet walking across this big, wide shot as a marionette. And that was very primitive; they looked pretty silly walking along with their feet kicking out as they walked. But to me it’s all part of the charm. I just love that it’s that way.

“Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” (Photo: Sony Home Pictures Entertainment/ The Jim Henson Company)
“Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas” (Photo: Sony Home Pictures Entertainment/ The Jim Henson Company)

Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas premiered on Canadian television in December 1977, followed by an HBO premiere in 1978 and a network premiere on ABC in 1980. The critically acclaimed special provided a groundwork for the Muppets’ feature films, which took Henson’s detailed world-building, groundbreaking special effects, and Muppet-specific cinematic techniques to a new level.  Williams went on to write songs for The Muppet Movie, The Muppet Christmas Carol, and the 2008 stage adaptation of Emmet Otter. The tale of Frogtown Hollow continued to hold a special place in the hearts of those involved — including Henson, who included one of Emmet Otter’s songs in the musical program he designed for his memorial service (held in New York City on May 21, 1990, five days after his death).  

Williams: The last thing that I ever expected was to hear “When the River Meets the Sea” at Jim’s funeral. It was an especially emotional moment in the funeral for me. But I think that the songs in Emmet Otter, and the way that Emmet Otter rolled out, is exactly what Jim wanted. I think it’s a gorgeous little jewel of the Muppets at their best.

Oz: If people made Emmet Otter these days, they would make it for little children. We never made it for children. We just did it for ourselves, and so we enjoyed it for ourselves.

Goelz: None of us talked about it — especially Jim — but I think that this show represented Jim’s philosophy very accurately. And I think in all of our work, a part of it may have been that we were trying to show a world the way we’d like the world to be.

Oz:  It’s such a chancey thing that Jim always did, which is take a chance on real purity and sweetness. We don’t want cloying, we don’t like cute — but sweet is legitimate. And Jim just went for it.

Goelz: You know, we just did two shows with the Muppets at the Hollywood Bowl back in September. They were literally like these long, extended Muppet shows. And we had packed houses — 18,000 people in the audience. You could just feel their hunger for decency and innocence and whimsy. The world really wants that right now.

Watch Ma Otter sing ‘When the River Meets the Sea’: 

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