The Evolution of Gonzo: A Chat With Longtime Muppet Performer Dave Goelz
Celebrating the release of The Muppet Show on Disney Plus, Goelz charts the course of his life as a puppeteer and performer.
Dave Goelz has loved puppetry since he was a kid. When Sesame Street premiered and introduced the world to a pair of puppet masters named Jim Henson and Frank Oz, Goelz became obsessed. He never expected that a few short years later, he'd be flying out to a London studio to work with them both on a new project titled The Muppet Show.
The Muppets have been Goelz's life for almost 50 years. His principal character is a formerly sad-eyed creature known for a short time as "Cigar Box Frackle," but soon morphed into the beloved figure we all know as the Great Gonzo (among the other Muppets Goelz gives life to are Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Electric Mayhem saxophonist Zoot, and cranky theatergoer Waldorf).
With The Muppet Show now on Disney Plus in more or less its entirety, we thought it would be the perfect time to hear about Goelz's evolution as an artist, and by extension, the birth of Gonzo himself.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you first meet Jim Henson and Frank Oz?
I met Frank first. He was appearing at a puppetry festival in the Bay area; I worked in Silicon Valley. I took a day of vacation time to go see Frank perform, and that was because I had started watching Sesame Street incessantly. I was fully obsessed by the time Frank did that appearance, which was on August 15, 1972. I watched two of his shows, I actually had a conversation with him, and I remember walking away after the second show thinking that that's what I ought to be doing, but I had to go back and design boxes for instruments. I didn't realize that there was potential.
A month later, I happened to get a rare business trip to Pennsylvania, so I took a week of vacation and slept on my friend's floor in New York and went to visit Sesame Street every day for a week. I had asked Frank if it was possible to visit, and he said sure, just call me. I met Bonnie Erickson, who was running the workshop, and she saw these puppets I had made and told me I should meet Jim. A month or two after that, he was going to be in LA and he called me — he called me, and I couldn't believe it — and asked if I would like to meet. That's kind of where it started.
You were a Muppet builder before you were a performer, right?
I started as a designer and builder. From the beginning, Jim knew I was interested in performing, so he offered me private workshops with him and Frank. I think they were assessing me, and they were also teaching me. I was already, instinctively, a puppeteer. I think I'd been interested in it all my life. So whenever there was an opportunity for a guest shot or a special, they let me perform.
Within a year or two, we got The Muppet Show, and I worked in the workshop and as a performer for the first season, which was a little crazy and hectic. I felt that I wasn't doing either job well. After the season ended, I asked Jim if I could just perform, and he said sure. Ever since then, I've been exclusively a performer. I also went and built a new Gonzo that had an eye movement, so he could be more excited.
I was going to say, one of the things I didn't realize is how sad Gonzo looks that first season. Take me through that evolution of the character.
There were three distinct phases. The first was that sad phase, and it was for two reasons. One, Gonzo really couldn't look excited. He had sad eyes that were fixed that way. And two, I was just beginning, and I really felt like an imposter in show business. I mean, we had a rehearsal room with two doors and when Danny Kaye or Bob Hope would walk in one door, I would go out the other. It took a good season to sort of get beyond that. When I built the new Gonzo, with the bigger eyes and the ability to get excited, that helped, as well.
The second phase of Gonzo was later on, when Bill Prady, who's now a co-creator of The Big Bang Theory, started writing Gonzo as saying "Cool" and being very bombastic and doing a lot of physical daredevil stunts. Phase three came when we did Muppet Christmas Carol and Jerry Juhl, our head writer, decided to co-opt some of my own personality and have Gonzo read Charles Dickens. That was a wonderful opportunity to read that incredible prose, but to explore the soulful side of Gonzo, which almost took him full circle to the beginning when he was, arguably, more soulful.
Who were your favorite Muppet Show guests?
I hesitate to say that because I was in awe of every single one of them. You know, these shows are made out of air. There is nothing, and then somebody builds puppets, and a talented guest star walks in and they can actually do what they do. I remember gathering around the piano with Elton John, and we all had our cassette recorders recording our harmonies, and he just sat there and played "Crocodile Rock" and "Benny and the Jets" over and over. I'm literally 3 feet from him thinking, "This guy can really do this. He can really play the piano like that. He can really sing every time." It's wonderful. We had Jonathan Winters, this wild unhinged comedian of the era, and again, I just thought, he's exactly who I think he is. He's able to ad-lib with boundless imagination. I was just in awe.
What's the best piece of advice that you'd give to young, aspiring puppeteers and performers when they come to you?
I always just suggest that they find a way to just do it. Like, if they work live, build a little theater and go out into the street. That's fine. Or if they want to work on video, then I say work out a way that you can watch yourself on the monitor, because the image is reversed, and you'll have to get used to that. That takes a few years to really become second nature. It's very hard to make yourself rehearse on video, but that's the only way to really learn. These days, of course, I would say, when you get to a certain level, you might just go online and do your own content. There's some good, good stuff out there.
Do you think about the legacy of the Muppets and how much they've impacted people through the years?
Boy. That's a great question. I didn't think about it until I started meeting them. Mostly, it was just group therapy for us: get into a room where we're locked in for 12 hours and play. Then I started meeting lots of people who are fans and I have realized that this show has helped them. It's affected them. And I know I always feel gratitude for performers that I love. Above all, I want to thank them for doing that art form that I get to enjoy. People come to me with that same thing. They come to me and say, "Gonzo gave me permission to be different." I hear that a lot. And boy, I always thank them because they gave me a job. They gave me a career, which I've really, really enjoyed.