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The Muppets: Behind the scenes with Kermit, Miss Piggy

With ‘Up Late with Miss Piggy,’ this ain’t your mother’s Muppets.

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Michael Desmond/ABC

As you walk the hallways of Miss Piggy’s new late-night talk show, dozens of portraits and magazine shoots from her years in front of the camera line the walls. There’s Piggy evoking Mary Tyler Moore, channeling Barbra Streisand, waxing Elizabeth Taylor. The photos span a lifetime of styles and moments with celebs that have made this sophisticated swine shine as a celebrity in her own right. “It’s a rotating exhibit,” Miss Piggy tells EW. “Some pictures are on my wall, some are in a high-security temperature-controlled storage facility, and some are on tour at major museums throughout the world.” The rest are here on display in her lush new dressing room and its branching halls, and there’s no shortage of them. Why would there be? She’s been doing this for almost 40 years.

But for all you think you know about Miss Piggy, get ready to see a new side to the tempestuous diva when the Muppets storm back to prime time this fall after two decades. And the entire gang is with her — Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, Animal, Janice, and at least 50 others — as they’re lifting the curtain on their personal lives in a mockumentary-style sitcom. (Think The Office, but with more googly eyes.) At the heart of the series is Piggy’s new Kimmel-esque twilight talker, Up Late with Miss Piggy, where many of the Muppets now work. (Gonzo and Rizzo are writers; Fozzie’s the warm-up guy; The Swedish Chef, unfortunately, is the caterer.) But the juiciest parts of their lives — from messy relationships to the perils of Tinder and tweeting — will be revealed when the gang hits Rowlf’s Tavern after work and gets a little, well, fuzzy on the Muppet sauce.

Messy relationships, the bawdy world of late-night, and an unflinching honesty about all of it: it’s new territory for the entertainment veterans — and for their creators. Throw in the troupe’s first-ever fully-connected, labyrinthine set (Piggy’s maze of portraiture is the least of its technical wonders) and a candid docu-style format meant to capture untidy private moments, and the Muppets are going where no Muppets have gone before: home. While the Muppets first hit their prime-time stride in the late ’70s, there’s been a renewed appetite for the puppets-who-act-like-humans as of late, especially after the critical and commercial success of 2011’s big-screen venture The Muppets and its 2014 follow-up Muppets Most Wanted, which together grossed just under a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide.

Executive producer Bill Prady (The Big Bang Theory), who wrote for the Muppets with creator Jim Henson 30 years ago, first pitched the idea of a mockumentary to Disney back in 2005, just a year after the company bought the rights, but perhaps it was fortuitous; Prady concedes that the digital landscape of 2015 is an even better time for the docu-style approach. As Prady explains, “There’s a hunger for real stories about these characters. There’s always been a perception that they live in the world with us. The characters have moved themselves into the modern world; all we’re doing is putting a camera on them. It’s no weirder to see Janice and Miss Piggy take a selfie than to see your coworkers do it.”

But there won’t just be jokes about Über drivers and selfie sticks. The humor is decidedly risqué, a throwback to when the Muppets first debuted and were basically fuzzy conduits for adult satire. (One of the two original pilots for The Muppet Show in 1974 was titled, literally, “Sex and Violence.’”) “We have the opportunity to explore these characters as individuals with their own emotional lives that are separate from each other and aren’t shadowed by each other’s presence, as I think they have been for the last 20 years,” points out exec producer Bob Kushell, a veteran of Suburgatory and 3rd Rock from the Sun. “It’s not just a behind-the-scenes look at a show, but it’s the relationship-driven, emotional stories that people go through in their personal lives. Everyone in this version of the Muppets wants to push them further in a way they’ve never been before.”

Some of the more grown up situations they’ll face? Fozzie Bear dealing with Muppet-wide criticism for embarking on an interspecies relationship with his new human girlfriend (Riki Lindhome); Rizzo and Pepe stepping in to help Gonzo as he suffers the insecurities of online dating; Piggy and Kermit dealing with the fall-out from their viral breakup, moving on to new relationships and struggling with relatable issues we’ve never seen them dive into before. “Piggy becomes romantically involved with a celebrity and Kermit feels it’s harmful to her, so where do you stand when you see your ex dating someone you think is bad for her?” poses Prady. “We start with a very real story, but then we execute that story with a pig and a frog.”

Though it sounds more Sex and the City than Sesame Street, parents are still encouraged to watch with their kids … but the little ones may not understand what Kermit means when he tells the camera that the band is “always happy — legally now.” On set, the longtime crew members and performers, many of whom can cite precise storylines from obscure TV specials at a moment’s recall, maintain that the late Jim Henson wouldn’t be horrified at seeing his characters play around with modern vices. “When you have people like [35-year Muppeteer veteran] Dave Goelz coming up to you and saying ‘Jim would have loved this,’ that, to me, is the greatest compliment,” notes Kushell.

Staying true to the Muppets of yore is always on the producers’ minds. “We’re very conscientious about their past, so any big moves are looked at with a very specific eye as to how much we’re going to uproot what we know of these characters,” explains Kushell.  (A “big move,” for instance, means reexamining how Kermit and Fozzie first met, which was established in 1979’s benchmark The Muppet Movie.)  But even skeptical diehards haven’t seen everything. Prady and Kushell are mixing and matching the characters to find pairings that haven’t received substantial attention in past endeavors — did you ever expect to see stern Sam the Eagle (who here serves as Up Late with Miss Piggy’s conservative head of network standards) developing weird feelings for free-spirited collagenous guitarist Janice?

Prady says that in his 30 years with the Muppets, their boundary has only ever been instinct. “There are just things that feel right for the Muppets and things that don’t,” says Prady. “When I worked with Jim, there were no hard and fast rules. There are rules for Fraggles just like there are rules for droids in Star Wars, because they’re imaginary species in an imaginary place, but there never were for the Muppets. It’s impossible to define.”

As with the original ‘70s variety show, celebrity cameos and musicals guests will still abound. (Already confirmed are Reese Witherspoon and Liam Hemsworth.) Also remaining the same: Piggy’s notorious tantrums, which now require a threat-level system in the office. During our day on set, for instance, she’s already exercised her wrath on Tom Bergeron.

Now she’s walking with Kermit across the Up Late stage, stopping to welcome Imagine Dragons to her show. “If you need anything, just ask,” she tells the band, adding, “Someone else, not me.” But she sputters abruptly, then asks for a retake. It’s not because she’s out of practice or racked with nerves about the world’s expectations for the Muppets’ big return to prime time. Instead, she faces a production problem that no celebrity diva would ever allow to go to tape: hair got caught in her snout.

The Muppets premieres Sept. 22 at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

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