My Very Gonzo Life

A conversation with Dave Goelz, the man who for nearly 50 years has served as the voice and puppeteer of Gonzo — the pain-loving, dare-deviling, chicken-dating, Charles Dickens-impersonating, furry blue star of the Muppets
My Very Gonzo Life

When Jim Henson unexpectedly passed away on May 16, 1990, the members of his repertory company had to figure out how to carry on the legacy of his characters without their visionary leader. Some of them, like Rowlf the Dog, were temporarily retired, while others, like Kermit the Frog, were reassigned to other performers.

It also led to a new star turn — that of Gonzo, the beloved furry blue “whatever,” who stepped into the lead role of the first three Muppet theatrical films after Henson’s death. First, there was The Muppet Christmas Carol, where Gonzo narrated as Charles Dickens. Then there was Muppet Treasure Island, where he and Rizzo the Rat were the sidekicks to the human lead. And finally, in 1999, there was Muppets from Space, which centered around Gonzo finding out he was an alien. 

And although Gonzo has since returned to being a “whatever” as well as more of a supporting player to Kermit, he was unquestionably the “Muppet for the Moment” in that time of transition — and obviously an indelible part of Muppet history overall. 

While a lot has changed over the course of that history, the man behind Gonzo — puppeteer Dave Goelz — has not. In fact, he’s going on half a century of playing the blue whatever. I recently caught up with Goelz to talk about his very gonzo life — from the early insecurities that plagued him, to the soulfulness of the character, to why the Muppets are like “religious icons” to him.

Let’s start at the very beginning: When did you first meet Jim Henson?

I started watching Sesame Street in 1972. I quickly became obsessed with what the Muppets were doing with characters. I got curious, really curious, and because of all that I started building my own Ernie — it was a compulsion, I wasn’t in control of it. 

Once I had my own Ernie — which wasn’t great, but it was close enough where people could recognize it — I started getting invited to kindergarten classes that friends of mine taught. I realized that this was a magic trick — it was like being a magician. You can sit there with a character on your hand, right next to your face and talk with your mouth moving and people see the character. Kids just absolutely bought in.

Then, one day I happened to buy a newspaper — which was only a semi-annual event for me back in those days — and I found that Frank Oz was going to be appearing at Oakland College. So, I took a day of vacation, went to see him and arranged with him to visit Sesame Street if I ever got to New York, which I had no plans to do. 

Eventually, though, I got a business trip there, and I hung out for the whole week at Sesame Street. Caroll Spinney was really nice to me — he did Big Bird and Oscar — and he sent me over to see (puppet designer) Bonnie Erickson because I had some puppets with me that I had made and Bonnie said, “These are really good. I think Jim should meet you, but he’s in France.”

I ended up going back home, not expecting anything further to happen. But not long after, the phone rang, and it was Jim. He wanted to meet with me. I flew down to meet him, and we talked about me making some videos on my own because I was interested in performing, but he felt I could be useful in the workshop as a designer/builder.

A few weeks later, he came back to my town in California, and I showed him the videos I’d made. Then he showed me this project he was working on for a Broadway stage play. He asked if I’d like to come work on it in the shop as a designer/builder. I said, “I have a job. Let me see if I can get a leave of absence as a trial for six months.” 

Which I did and that went really, really well. We never did the Broadway play, though.

What was Jim like when you were first getting to know him?

When I met him in Los Angeles, his mother had died. We were supposed to have breakfast at the Beverly Wilshire. He wasn’t there, but Jerry Nelson, one of the other puppeteers, came in his place and explained the situation. I said, “I’ll just go back to San Francisco; Jim and I can meet some other time.” But Jerry said, “No, he wants to meet you. He’s coming back tomorrow.” I thought, “How can your mother die, and you have a business meeting the next day?” 

But that was how little I knew Jim at that point. He looked so gentle and frail, and he was very thin. But he was the strongest person I ever met. 

Anyway, we did meet the next day, and we had a lovely time. He put on a couple of my puppets, and we ad-libbed together. At every stage, I was thinking, “I’ll never forget this. This is the greatest day of my life.” I wasn’t thinking about anything else happening; I just thought, “Jim put on my puppet, and we ad-libbed. We played.”

What were you doing with the Muppets before you began performing Gonzo on The Muppet Show?

The first six months I was there, I was working on a special called The Muppets Valentine Show. I built characters for that and got to perform three characters in the show. I did Crumpet, Brewster — who was an old man with a white beard that I also built — and something else. I can’t quite remember who.

How did Gonzo get assigned to you for The Muppet Show?

I have no idea. (Muppets writer) Jerry Juhl thought of a character who would be a pathetic loser who did stupid acts and thought they were high art. For some reason, Jim thought of me, and he pulled out this old Muppet who had been in a special called The Santa Claus Switch. It was one of the Frackles who lived in a cigar box. So that was what I used, and I did the first season with that puppet.

Was Gonzo intended to be a core cast member, or just one of the many secondary Muppets?

I don’t know. A lot of the Muppets get to appear a little bit. If they work, they stay, and if they work really well, they become major characters. I wasn’t even really thinking about that then, though. That was before we had Fozzie and Piggy — before we knew there were groups of characters. All I knew was that I had to do this thing, and I didn’t have a voice for it. 

Then, the day of the first recording, I was shaving in my hotel at the Swiss Cottage in Marble Arch (England) and thinking, “I’ve really got to think of a voice now.” Because of his long nose, I thought Gonzo should be nasally. And, because he was so scruffy-looking, I thought he should be a little bit raspy, too. In the beginning, his voice was a little bit like baby-talk, you’ll see that for the whole first season. But as I got more confidence, it evolved into a more natural delivery because it was easier to do the acting that way. It wasn’t so contrived.

Compared to other Muppets you’ve played, like Zoot or Bunsen Honeydew, did anything feel special about Gonzo?

I treasured all the Muppets. They were religious icons to me, so you could hand me any Muppet — major or minor or unknown — and I would have treasured it. What I did notice about Gonzo was, in the first season, they kept wanting me to project more energy from him and having him get more excited from his stupid acts. I was partly inhibited by being so new in show business, but it was also because his eyes were set in this sad expression. So, after the first season, I asked Jim if I could build a new Gonzo, and he said, “Sure, go ahead.” Gonzo’s look changed a fair amount after that, but the biggest change was adding the eye mechanism, which I copied from Big Bird. 

Is it fair to say that this is when the character “came alive”?

It was really my fault. I had to start feeling secure. For the whole first season, I was very aware that the crew really loved when Frank (Oz) and Jim performed. They’d be paying attention and laughing because there was a lot of ad-libbing in between shots. 

When I came out, I could hear all the newspapers going up. It was so boring, and I was so inhibited. I got one laugh the first season — from the crew anyway. I had to say “No!” as in, “You’re kidding!” But I was choking on it, and I was inhibited. Jim said, “Just go ahead and let it out. Make it bigger.” I tried, but I couldn’t do it. Then Frank came over and said, “Dave, your job is to be a fool, just do it. Just let it really be big.” 

So I did it really big, and the crew started laughing. That was a good sound — after the newspapers, this was good. 

The next season, I got another laugh out of the crew. It was getting so that I was getting one laugh a year out of the crew — I was on a roll! You couldn’t stop me now.

By the time The Muppet Movie rolled around in 1979, Gonzo was a core character. What can you tell me about the song, “I’m Going to Go Back There Someday,” which was Gonzo’s big moment in the movie?

It wasn’t in the script, and it wasn’t in the list of songs Paul Williams was asked to write. Then, just before we started shooting, Jim had the puppeteers over to his place in L.A. He had just come from meeting Paul, and he said, “Dave, you’re not going to believe this, Paul wrote an amazing song for Gonzo.” He played it, and it was this mystical thing. Jim said, “We’re going to write it in; we’re going to make a place for it.”

It’s an inspired song, and it certainly fit him. It’s just specific enough that it says something, but it’s also non-specific enough so that you can make it your own. In art, that’s a really hard place to get to.

Why do you think that was the song for Gonzo?

I’ll tell you what Paul says. He identified with Gonzo as a flightless bird, and because of Paul’s stature, he said he always felt like that. He identified with that sort of predicament in life. So the song just came to him, he wrote it and gave it to Jim along with the others.

For the next decade, Gonzo remained probably fourth-billed in the Muppets lineup, but when Jim passed away, Gonzo was thrust to the forefront for three movies in a row. Why do you think that was?

Well, after Jim died, Steve Whitmire came in and did an unbelievable Kermit in a way that you wouldn’t have thought possible. But it was because he’d worked beside Jim for 13 years or something like that. He heard Jim’s real voice. He saw the expressions on his face when he performed Kermit. He saw the body language. Steve took all that on. It was a much bigger acting job than just performing a puppet. He sort of had to become a Jim clone to do that. It was extraordinary.

But we didn’t have a Fozzie at that point because Frank wasn’t available all the time — he was directing films. So that’s what moved Gonzo to be a sidekick to Kermit during those years. 

So it was kind of by default?

Oh yeah. It’s not based on merit. (Laughs)

The Gonzo and Rizzo friendship was also a lot of fun during that period.

That started with The Christmas Carol. It was Jerry Juhl who wrote it. He had this idea because the narrative prose in the book was hugely powerful, yet a narrator in a movie is an intrusion, so he thought of having Gonzo playing Charles Dickens which, on its face, is silly and stupid. But what I saw in it was a chance to do really heartfelt dialogue. It was profound stuff, to get to say Dickens’ words. That was the third phase of Gonzo.

The first phase was insecurity. The second phase was, I got more confident, and Bill Prady came along in the 1980s and started writing Gonzo, saying, “That’s so cool!” So Gonzo’s exuberance came forward in that second phase. The third phase came with Christmas Carol, which is where Gonzo became more soulful. That gives us a palette to choose from with Gonzo. He can be any of those three things. They’re like the rings in a tree, they’re all still there. 

Talking about these different sides to Gonzo, is there a place you’re most comfortable with?

I like it all. I don’t use much of the insecure part anymore. That’s just his backstory. But I definitely use exuberance and I definitely use the soulfulness. 

Do you have a favorite sketch or stunt from The Muppet Show that Gonzo performed?

It’s funny, I don’t think in those terms much because those were just bits that he did. What I do remember about The Muppet Show was the episode where they wrote him quitting. He was going to leave and go to Bombay and become a movie star. He sang “My Way” just before he left. It was intended to be a real emotional moment — a real genuine, authentic one — and I was petrified of doing that because I’d gotten into puppeteering to hide. The idea of doing a real emotion was too scary to me. I didn’t want to reveal anything about myself. 

Funnily enough, after it was done, we found out that people were crying while watching that episode — when he sang that song and then Kermit took Gonzo back because he didn’t really want to go. It was another little milestone for me where I thought, “That was amazing. I didn’t want to do it, but it was powerful.” 

Maybe that was the first hint of soulful Gonzo. 

It was foisted on me. Jerry Juhl and Jim insisted, so I did it. I didn’t want to do it at the time, but you’re right, that was the beginning of the soulfulness.

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