Monday, October 3, 2011

Fraggle Rock

I received this email a while ago - a long while ago - from a fan of the series, Fraggle Rock, which I wrote for when I began my career.

It was the greatest gig I ever had and I'd have been content to work for my boss Jerry Juhl, the 3rd Muppet who wrote everything Miss Piggy and Kermit had to say, for ever.  Unfortunately, Jim Henson, who directed one of my Fraggle Rock episodes, died shortly after the series wrapped and Jerry retired.  The company was taken over by Jim's children and I don't think any of the writers who worked on their shows were used again.

Here's the email:

Hi Mr. Varughese, 

     While doing some online Fraggle Rock research I came across a "Blogger" web page for you with links to your blog "Building the Iceberg", and your web site. I was so glad to find those, and find a couple of contact emails for you.

     I have loved Jim Henson's Muppets ever since I was a little boy watching Sesame Street in the early '80s. Unfortunately I rarely got to see Fraggle Rock, since we didn't have cable in my childhood (I grew up out in the country). My grandparents did get a satellite dish so I got to see the first several episodes of Fraggle Rock, but then HBO got scrambled. After that I wouldn't get to see it unless I happened to be at someone's house at the right time of day, and if no one else was watching anything. So my Fraggle viewings became rare and treasured!
     Then in college I was tickled to get to see many more episodes on the Odyssey network, and now of course I'm thrilled to have the entire series on DVD. It's amazing how crisp and clear the quality is on the discs, even down to the characters actually sounding like they're in a large cave.

     I love doing creative writing, and I know I would have had a blast writing episodes for Fraggle Rock. Your own scripts for the show are so interesting and entertaining. Here are some notes I wanted to share with you on some of your scripts:

  • Sir Hubris and the Gorgs --- I love how in the series we occasionally get these little insights into the history of the gorgs, such as hearing Ma Gorg tell of "King Gorgus the Great" here, even with a picture of him. It's also nice how you wrote Gobo having some compassion for the gorgs in this episode,

  • Doomsday Soup --- What a great adventure to see the fraggles accidentally discover the power of invisibility! Boober's struggle to "take it back" from his worry of impending doom provides a great conflict. The special effects of that episode were really great, too.

  • Home is Where the Trash Is --- How fascinating to see Gunge and Philo get this starring vehicle for hemselves. That was a terrific and original idea of wanting to explore their origins and their ambition to want to "return to their roots". Of course, we fans love seeing them realize they're happiest with Marjory. :-)

  • The Great Radish Caper --- I have to give you special props for this episode, since Mokey is my favorite character in the series. Because Mokey is the most tender-hearted of the "Fraggle Five", it's natural for her to get some understanding into Junior Gorg and have some compassion for his love for Geraldine the Radish. She knows it's odd, but she's so caring that she can't bear to see him lose the one thing that means so much to him. Seeing her pitted against her friends over the radish's fate makes for a great climax to the story. I was especially tickled to see you use this episode as an example on "Building the Iceberg" in response to someone's question of theme vs plot.

  • A Dark and Stormy Night --- I've always loved ghost stories, spooky-type things, and stormy nights, so this episode was right up my alley!

  • Sprocket's Big Adventure --- Getting Sprocket into Fraggle Rock itself...what a brilliant idea! It's so fun to see him get to explore their world, and discover what it's like. He finally gets some relief about these strange creatures he's been trying to catch for years, and it's sweet how he comes to a friendly understanding about them.

  • Boober Gorg --- How funny to see a fraggle think he's a gorg, especially Boober, the most fearful of the fraggles. Plus, we get another glimpse of gorgish lore, with the mention of the very fun-named "Encyclopedia of Gorgish Myth and Wisdom".

  • Ring Around the Rock --- Again, some more interesting insight into the history and tradition of the Gorgs, with Ma and Pa having to get re-wed on their 513th wedding anniversary. It's also fun seeing the Gorg Ring go from character to character to character throughout the episode.

     One thing I was curious about was whether you writers ever interacted with the Muppeteers at all (I assume you interacted with Jim Henson some, since you mention him in your blog). Also, I wondered if you wrote in notes for where any songs would appear in your scripts, or if the songwriters did that on their own, or if you worked together?

     By the way, I've enjoyed looking at your blog, and your web site looks great and is very interesting and fun to explore. And it's great to see how well your career is going these days!

     Well Mr. Varughese, I just wanted to take a few moments to tell you how much your scripts forFraggle Rock have meant to me. Those are some highlight episodes of the series, and are greatly enjoyable. Thanks so much for sharing those talents of yours through this series. You're an inspiration to people like me who find joy in creative writing. 

First, I don't want to use this person's name to protect their privacy, but I do have their permission to reprint their email.  (Finally!  My apologies for neglecting to respond to their query until now!)

Second, I don't know if I can answer well, after so many years, but I'll give it my best shot.

 "Sir Hubris and the Gorgs" - this was a fast write.  The show runner and creative guru of Fraggle, Jerry Juhl and the executive story editor, Jocelyn Stephenson and the producer, Larry Mirkin had been impressed with the 2nd episode I'd written and for reasons I can't recall, there was a hole in the schedule that needed a script quickly.  They asked me to come up with something and as much collectively, (sitting in Larry's office spitballing with him and Jerry and Jocelyn), this idea emerged.  I have no idea where it came from, other than me wanting to write a Gorg show - which I grew to enjoy doing - and I remember Larry came up with the name of the legendary knight, Sir Hubris.  I think it was 3 or 4 weeks from a standing start to shooting this one.

"Doomsday Soup" was my attempt to write a show about the dangers of modern technology and in particular nuclear power.  Dave Goelz, who performed Boober, said one of his favourite lines from the series was in this one:  "We've reached a new level of anxiety here!"

"Home is Where the Trash Is" is perhaps my personal favourite.  It's actually a tribute to the plays of Samuel Beckett, in particular "Waiting for Godot" if you can believe it.  I was very proud of the dialogue in this episode.  I'm also proud of Wander McMooch and how he was used in the story.  Bob Stutt was promoted from background puppeteer to perform Wander McMooch.

"The Great Radish Caper" was another of my Gorg episodes.  I took a special interest in writing Gorg shows and this one was an attempt to get beyond the surface of Junior and also to see how his relationship with the radishes stemmed from his own personal loneliness.  And Mokey was going to be the Fraggle who'd understand that.  Kathryn Mullen who played Mokey was very pro-active in any Mokey episodes - perhaps to a fault - but in the end, her notes were dead on and she knew the character best.  I learned to listen to the actor in writing for their character!

"A Dark And Stormy Night" was again, a Gorg show.  Just loved writing Gorg shows, I guess.

"Sprocket's Big Adventure" began what would be our final season and I just pitched it to Jerry and Larry as "it's time to send Sprocket into Fraggle Rock."  And they agreed.

"Boober Gorg" and "Ring Around the Rock" What can I say? Gorg shows again.  I remember trying to soak up every moment during the production of Ring because it was going to be my last episode.  Still gives me chills thinking about it.

In response to your question about how much we interacted with the puppeteers, I hope you can see that it was a very good relationship with them, but they ranged.  Jerry Nelson was very laid back and seemed content to do his stuff without much feedback.  Steve Whitmire and Dave Goelz were very helpful and positive.  Karen Prell who played Red was really supportive and Kathryn Mullen was perhaps the most demanding of the cast but always right when it came to Mokey.  As the writer, I was expected to attend not just script readthrus - we had two prior to production - but to be on set during production.  If anything came up, it was the writer who had the vision of the episode in mind.  The directors had to worry about the scene, but could often forget that doing something in a scene would affect scenes that hadn't been shot.  Writers had to keep that in mind and rewrite accordingly on the fly.

One of the toughest jobs was as shows got shot and timed, you'd learn that you were either running long or short - but it was really always long - and something would have to be cut out of the scenes that had yet to be shot.  The edited length of the episode has to be exact and was predetermined by the network so regardless of how great your line of dialogue might be, it could be excised in order to keep the show to time.  That's the tyranny of television.  But an interesting writing challenge.

Responding to your question about songs, the writers always wrote where songs would go in the scripts and what the songs would be about in terms of moving the story forward.  The kind of song and the lyrics were of course left to the brilliant Phil and Dennis who always made my suggestion better than I could have imagined.  And they always respected the story requirement that was called for by me or another writer.

I hope I've answered - finally - your questions.  Thanks so much for writing and being a fan of the show.
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Fraggle Fan Forever said...

Wow Mr. Varughese, thank you so much for your response! It's fascinating to learn anything we Muppet fans can of what it was like behind-the-scenes in the "Golden Age" of Henson, and your response here with your work on "Fraggle" certainly goes along with that. I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions and recalling what you could. The origins of your scripts are interesting to know, and it's so neat to "hear" first-hand what it was like to work the puppeteers and crew, and how different (but wonderful) they could be. And thank you for what you shared about putting songs into the scripts, I was always curious to know exactly how the songs were worked out.

No apology needed for the late response, I appreciate any response I get from Henson folks I've written, no matter the timeline. :-) And on a visual note, I have to say the special effects of turning invisible in "Doomsday Soup" were fantastic! The show always did have terrific special effects, always pulled off so brilliantly.

Thank you very much again for your response Mr. Varughese, it is greatly appreciated and valued. :-)

Anonymous said...

AGREED! I've recently been rewatching the series and I find that -even now- that I am a...*coughcoughadultcoughcough* I STILL enjoy the series as much as I did when I was a kid. The key is EXCELLENT writing and a keen attention to subtlety and detail in puppetry. These characters have depth and are each unique. The stories always illustrate the sharp wit behind them.
Ahhh...Too bad we can't turn back time and do it all over again. BEtter yet...Just do it all again anyway!
How great would it be to have new Fraggle Rock episodes?! (PRoviding you had the same creative team.)
That's it! The day I win the lottery....that's what I'm asking for. Hahahaha.
Thanks for the memories! I continue to relive em.


Sugith Varughese said...

Thanks for the compliment on the writing of the show. Unfortunately, both Jim and Jerry Juhl, my boss and the head writer/creative genius of the show have passed on so I think it would be hard to recreate the magic of the original. Most of the rest of us are still around, though, and I'd do it in a heartbeat. Here's hoping you win the lottery!