Erik Forrest Jackson on the 'absurdist' fun of putting the Muppets in classic fairy tales
The Muppets aren’t just starring in A Star Is Born trailer remakes this fall. In the latest installment of Erik Forrest Jackson’s Muppets Meets the Classics book series, Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm, all your felt favorites get expertly cast in some time-honored folk stories: Miss Piggy plays an evil queen, Janice stars as Rapunzel, and Kermit takes on — who else? — the frog prince.
Following up on his Phantom of the Opera-themed Muppet book, Jackson melds the beloved characters with Brothers Grimm stories ranging from the iconic to the obscure, and each tale is accompanied by an illustration from Owen Richardson, who also provided artwork for the Percy Jackson series.
It wasn’t always easy work. “You should see my spreadsheet! I got real mathematical and dipped into Excel,” the author tells EW of matching Muppet to fairy tale. “The casting process for both of the books took a sizable chunk of time. There’s a lot of factors you have to take into account.”
EW spoke with Jackson — author, playwright, longtime Muppets fan, and EW alum — about his casting secrets and more ahead of the book’s Oct. 9 release. Read on for more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What inspired you to pair the Muppets with Brothers Grimm fairy tales?
ERIK FORREST JACKSON: This really harkens back to the original Muppet Show roots. This show itself was really inspired by vaudeville, with a series of blackout sketches and songs and comedy skits, and it just struck me that Grimm fairy tales, since we’re trading on a handful of stories that a lot of people know, and also some that are fairly obscure, would lend themselves well to overlaying that vaudevillian absurdist format.
How did you decide which Muppets characters would play which fairy-tale characters?
You should see my spreadsheet! I got real mathematical and dipped into Excel. The casting process for both of the books took a sizable chunk of time. There’s a lot of factors you have to take into account. Some Muppets don’t really have a voice, they have a visual, but when you remove the visual you’re not left with much. So I had to balance those Muppets that have strong voices with those that could be more just punctuation or color and detail within the stories. And of course, every story can’t be Kermit and Miss Piggy. So it was a lot about divvying up the roles so that everybody got equal share. Of course, Miss Piggy had to get a lot or I would never hear the end of it from her. I felt like a casting agent, and I just kind of had to audition them all in my mind and make sure that the balance and the proportion was correct.
Did you read Brothers Grimm fairy tales growing up?
I was a major Grimms fan from an early, early age. My mother and father did not believe in sheltering their kids and let us go to all sorts of very dark places, and I’m so glad for it. The darker tales really appealed to me. And that was a question I had going in: Just how dark can I take the Muppets? But I learned in the first book, in Phantom of the Opera, when the Muppets team was okay with me killing off Beaker — spoiler alert, the chandelier from The Phantom of the Opera falls on Beaker and knocks him out and kills him. When I realized they were okay with that, I realized I could take the Muppets to some dark places in the Grimms’ fairy tales as well. So we’ve really embraced that, but in a lighthearted spirit. The Muppets are all about absurdity. Jim Henson’s whole idea was, “If in doubt about how to end a sketch, just blow everybody up or have a monster eat someone.” So it’s kind of in the DNA, that kind of dark comic nihilism.
Fairy tales often have a moral or lesson for the reader; did you learn any lessons from the Muppets?
One of my favorite Muppets and comedy icons is Fozzie [Bear], which might sound counterintuitive because he’s a terrible comic. But I love his perseverance in the face of all obstacles. Everyone tells him over and over again, “Quit, you’re terrible.” And he just has this undying desire to entertain that keeps him going. So for better or for worse, I think that there’s a little bit of Fozzie in me. And I love writing for him in that respect as well, because it’s kind of a beautiful childlike, naive quality that I find very touching.
Are there any other Muppet moments you had in mind when writing the book?
I rewatched all of the movies and really dug into the Muppets canon, which is pretty deep. The Muppets fan base is really passionate. I was really scared that they were not going to accept this project, because it’s word-based, it’s not visual-based, even though there are beautiful illustrations before each of the chapters. So it was really gratifying for me when the Muppet community rallied around the books and supported them. I was quaking in my boots up until Comic-Con, when I did a signing last year. I met some of the Muppet influencers, let’s call them, and they were great, and I was just so relieved to be welcomed into the club.