USA TODAY US Edition

Visit the pig pen

‘Behind the scenes’ has new meaning on set and on camera

- Bill Keveney

Get the view from the crew on-set

BURBANK, CALIF. Visiting the set of The Muppets (ABC, Sept. 22, 8 p.m. ET/PT) makes you feel like a kid again.

In the larger sense, it’s the youthful memory of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and the rest of Jim Henson’s menagerie of animal, human and species-defying puppets.

In the smaller sense, it’s having to look up at everything: Door jambs start 3 feet off the floor and Miss Piggy’s dressing-room chair towers on a 6-foot pole so that crew members and Muppet performers can operate out of camera range.

“It’s a different world,” executive producer Bob Kushell says. “The stage is all built off the ground.” The Muppets goes behind the

scenes à la The Office, documentin­g the work and play of favorite

characters who work on a fiction

al ABC talk show, Up Late With

Miss Piggy. Kermit is executive producer, Gonzo is head writer and Fozzie Bear is Piggy’s sidekick.

The Muppets’ studio features Piggy’s talk-show sets, complete with audience seats for critics Statler and Waldorf. The Swedish Chef has a nearby catering area, Kermit has a plant-filled office, and the writers’ room has a wall of segment suggestion­s on Post-it notes: “Sit in a tub of cockroache­s.” “Dance in the audience like Ellen.” Rowlf ’s Tavern, the postshow hangout, is nearby.

Decades ago, Henson saw the television screen taking the place of a puppet stage as a framing device. But Kushell says new technology allows cameras to follow the characters more closely. “There are moving platforms all around the set, so you can create walk-and-talks with humans and puppets, like they would do on

The West Wing.”

Emotions are palpable during a Kermit-Piggy scene as their romantic breakup, announced to much fanfare this summer, provides a frisson of frog-pig work- place tension. He tries to stop her from going out for drinks with the staff — “It’s my turn to brighten up my crew’s drab lives,” she says — and she accuses him of jealousy.

Kermit cannot persuade her in the scene, directed by Office veteran Randall Einhorn. “They’re about to get a big, steaming pile of Moi,” Piggy says before marching past Kermit and out of her very-red, Moulin Rouge-inspired dressing room.

The seeming simplicity of leaving a room is belied by what happens below camera range, where more than a dozen human performers, camera operators and other crew members contort, dodge one another and watch strategica­lly placed monitors to make the character interactio­ns work.

The identities of those involved — the Muppets as show characters, the Muppets as “actors” portraying those characters, and the human artists who voice and move them (Steve Whitmire as Kermit and Eric Jacobson as Miss Piggy) — blur, too.

After a collision below results in the scene above being stopped, Kermit looks into the camera and speaks to the director: “Sorry, Randall.”

Miss Piggy’s Hollywood pedigree is apparent on set as she reclines on a couch reading her 2009 book, The Diva Code, while sporting a pair of red-soled Christian Louboutins. The book and the shoes — Louboutin designed a pair for Piggy in 2011 — show how the Muppets have rooted themselves over the years in popular culture.

As knowledgea­ble fans, executive producers Bill Prady and Kushell can use Muppets history as a jumping-off point for new twists and stories.

“The effect makes the Muppets so real, so accessible,” Kushell says. “It forces you to tell real-life stories with them. We push into their back stories, problems, neuroses, romances, failures. It’s been such an exciting treat.”

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ERIC MCCANDLESS, ABC
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ANDREA MCCALLIN , ABC
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MCCALLIN, ABC ??
ANDREA MCCALLIN, ABC
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ABC/THE MUPPETS
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JAY DAVID BUCHSBAUM, ABC/THE MUPPETS STUDIO

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