Muppets go viral with projects such as 'Bohemian Rhapsody' video parody

By Michael Cavna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

Kirk Thatcher did more than learn about Muppets at the fuzzy, felted hand of Jim Henson himself. He closely observed a way of leading a warm and fuzzy life.

"Jim was as nice a person as I've found in real life," says Thatcher, whose hand now guides Muppet videos. "He was always buying dinner and springing for dessert. He was warm and fuzzy. He was genuinely above and beyond what you would consider 'nice.' "

Thatcher, then an effects supervisor, first met the late Henson in 1987 -- after finishing "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home," he recalls -- and by the next year was working full time for the Father of the Muppets. (Henson died in 1990.) Now, decades later, it is the 40-something Thatcher who helps bring such warmth to Kermit and Miss Piggy. And in doing so, he is directing the Muppets to fuzzy viral-video success.

Thatcher and his fellow puppeteers just released "Beaker's Ballad," which features the "meeping" scientist Beaker -- he of the bulging eyes and shock of Day-Glo orange hair -- straining to strum the '70s Kansas chestnut "Dust in the Wind" before being barraged by labels signaling his "epic fail." As of Friday night, the official video was closing in on the platinum-viral standard of 1 million views.

With recent videos, Thatcher says, "the Muppets are capturing people's attention again. . . . We do Muppet TV movies, but they don't ignite around the world like the videos." Thatcher won an Emmy in 1998 for "Muppets Tonight."

Last Thanksgiving, director and crew had their most popular video yet, with the Muppets -- including Gonzo, and the frantic Animal at the drum kit -- parodying Queen's classic "Bohemian Rhapsody." The official video on the studio's YouTube channel has been viewed more than 13 million times.

Nostalgia "is definitely part of it," Thatcher says of the videos' virulence. "We had a list of 50, 60 songs -- ['American Pie'], big ballads that everyone sings along to -- but 'Bohemian Rhapsody' rose to the top. It lent itself well to filming 60 to 70 characters."

The videos "are very much a group effort," notes Thatcher, who grew up on the "Sesame Street" Muppets and "The Muppet Show." The core troupe of about 20 people, he says, shot the "Bohemian" video in one day on a small soundstage in North Hollywood. He also notes that 70 muppets in a scene is "epic in scale" for Muppeteers.

"It's fun, it's happy, it's nostalgic, it's safe -- and it's like an homage," says Thatcher, who early in his career worked on creatures for such projects as "Return of the Jedi" and "Gremlins." "It's light, fun and in keeping with the spirit of the Muppets."

So what song or film scene might the Muppets tackle next?

Thatcher says he and Muppets writer Jim Lewis once joked about spoofing Quentin Tarantino. With Kermit-esque characters. The title, naturally:

"Reservoir Frogs."

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