I came to the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue to do interviews with the folks behind the new IFC block of programming on Friday nights, which includes Hopeless Pictures, a cartoon created by Bob Balaban and starring Michael McKean, and a resurrected Greg the Bunny.
When I came to the hotel I saw Dan Epstein, who writes for Suicide Girls and UGO, hanging around outside with some guys. "So we’re here to interview puppets," I said. We had been told that the interview we would be conducting today would actually be with Greg the Bunny.
"That’s him," Dan said, gesturing to one of the guys hanging out. It was Dan Milano, the creator of and hand up the ass of Greg the Bunny, having a cigarette. He looked like he could have easily rolled with the CHUD crew, down to the Star Wars production art t-shirt he wore.
It turns out that we didn’t interview the puppets – except when we did. Milano would wear the puppets and occasionally just shift into their voices – I have tried to represent this with different colored text. What was weird, though, is how not weird it was. Milano seems at home with the pupets on his hand, and when he’s just being Dan he’s full of enthusiasm and excitement.
The new Greg the Bunny is all about film parodies. Greg and Warren the Ape need money after the Fox show got canned, so they do film parodies for IFC. It’s weird, and the episode that I saw – which parodied The Godfather- was really on the nose and detailed. The new show starts this Friday at 10, with "Bunnie Hall," a parody of Annie Hall.
As Dan unpacked his puppets from a big Tupperware case, the questions began.
Q: Is there more than one puppet?
Milano: Currently, no. This is THE Greg the Bunny. The only Greg the Bunny and the only Warren the Ape we have right now. There are others from throughout the years, from the public access show and the original IFC show. So I guess actually my answer is a lie. But I mean for the show itself we have no backups.
“I don’t really like to meet my doppelgangers, because it really freaks me out as you can imagine. Especially the Fox one. That one has really creepy glass eyes. Like a china doll. I could never date a china doll. It’s not a racial thing. It’s just that they are so cold and creepy.”
Q: After Fox cancelled the show originally did you have hope that it could survive?
Milano: Fox was really generous in creating a situation where we got to keep the characters we owned. Spencer Chinoy and I own the characters of Greg the Bunny, Warren the Ape and Count Blah. With our co-creator Sean Baker, who did the original show, we knew we could take them and do other stuff.
There was such a critical response and we knew we had stuff we wanted to do. It was just a matter of whether or not people would want to see it or air it. But whenever we get together we play with these things and videotape it. We were confident we could get it going, and as soon as we mentioned it to IFC they wanted to do it.
Q: Whose idea was it to do this version, with the film parodies as opposed to a straight ahead storyline?
Milano: It was actually IFC’s best attempt at packaging us for their block. We had done this thing for them before in 1999 and so they thought it was the best way to fit the whole tone of the network and reflect the movies they’re showing. We discussed the possibility with them of moving on and doing more of a behind the scenes type stuff about these puppets and their lives in the world. This stuff is a lot of fun and yet at the same time most people prefer The Muppet Show to Muppet Treasure Island. It’s great to have the characters be themselves as opposed to always playing characters.
But in these parodies, even if we’re doing a parody of Easy Rider, we don’t change the characters so that they suddenly become Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. It’s just Greg and Warren in the same situations. So they relate to each other as they normally would but in the unique context of whatever movie we’re parodying.
Q: How easy are these parodies for you to do? I don’t want to cast stones here, but judging by that Star Wars shirt you’re wearing, you’re a nerd.
Milano: Cast away! I prefer slobbering geek. We love the films. We’re all NYU film grads – not that that matters; we’re all fanatical without having to go to school for it. Sean Baker especially is a student of Italian horror and the films coming out of Korea right now and Cassavetes – so he draws on all that. Spencer Chinoy comes from design and comics and all these weird irreverent things. And I’m just a total fanboy, I love old John Landis films and Star Wars and all that great stuff. And we’re all 80s TV babies, so there’s lots of that in the show.
Q: When you decided to do the public access show and grabbed some puppets, did you know how to work a puppet at all?
Milano: I did. The strange thing is that I was so obsessed with the Muppets as a child – as was every puppeteer that I know – that I used to take a Kermit the Frog puppet that my parents bought me and I would walk around my parent’s dinner parties holding the thing and have it talk to people. If I was talking to you, for example, Kermit would be sort of looking around and doing his own thing, independent of me. I used to sit in front of the mirror and have puppets on my hands and feet and put on The Muppet Movie soundtrack and have them all sing. That’s how I trained myself. I was never professionally trained, it was just something I loved to do, and by college had put aside. It was totally embarrassing and I decided I wanted to make movies with people in them.
But people are hard to rely on, especially in college, so guess what – we started pulling the puppets out! My friends would make films and be like, ‘Oh Dan does puppets so let’s throw some puppets in the mix.’ When we did our public access show, none of us wanted to appear on camera – that was really the big thing. Somebody had to host the show and we didn’t want to put our faces up there, so we decided to grab one of the puppets. That’s how Greg was created.
Q: You’ve worked with trained puppeteers on the Fox show. Have they given you any advice?
Milano: I learned a great deal about how other puppeteers can complement a performance. For example, Warren the Ape is a relatively simple hand puppet and yet he’s got these arm rods – and I realize this is visual, sorry tape recorder! [He puts on Warren the Ape]
“I can do a little gesturing with the hands.” I can have him do some stuff, but if I have Mike doing the hands I can worry about the head and body and I can do my performance and have him do whatever enters his mind… “Especially if I have props, like if I’m smoking a cigarette or something like that.” I do what I do and Mike does what he does and it looks like one sentient being. “Which I believe that I am.”
That was an important thing, just finding that two people can be one performance. They do that all the time, like for instance when you see Fozzie Bear that’s someone doing the hands and someone else doing the head. Or sometimes a puppeteer will do one hand and someone else will do the other.
I also learned about using equipment like video monitors that are specially designed for puppeteers. There’s a device called an Ozaround, named after Frank Oz. It’s basically a chair on a skateboard, so that you can lay back comfortably, put your puppet up and use your heels to walk yourself along so that’s how a puppet can walk down a hallway.
I learned a lot of technical stuff. We were just saying how what’s really great – something I wasn’t formally trained in but I like to think that I do and what other puppeteers do when their characters really live is that it’s less about what you say and more about the body language. If a puppet has a silent reaction to something – if it just drops its jaw or backs up a little bit. Fozzie Bear used to take off his hat and hold it in his hands – that vulnerability – as opposed to him saying, ‘Oh I’m so upset.’ Subtle little things, a twitch of the nose [Warren twitches his nose] or that he clears his throat [Warren clears his throat], you get a range of emotions out of just these little movements.
There’s also the Oh Crap Neck. “So if something shocks me, like if any of you screwed my ex, which I am sure most of you have – all of you! – and I were to find out about it, I might say like-“ [his hat rises and his eyes bug out] “YOU BASTARDS!”
So there’s this technical bit that really helps out. It’s nothing more than strings and wires. I learned a lot from the builders.
Q: Where did Greg’s personality come from? Did you base him on someone you know?
Milano: Originally Greg the Bunny was sort of based on the Saul Rosenberg character the Jerky Boys used to do, because he was a lot meeker sounding back then and more nervous. And certainly Woody Allen, Albert Brooks, Garry Shandling – just the neurotic, very human kinds of characters. And then what we think the Velveteen Rabbit would be like. That’s really what he’s based on.
Warren’s basically Orson Welles.
Q: What’s Seth Green’s involvement in the new show?
Milano: Jimmy is not back on the show. Because we treat the characters as real and have acknowledged that the Fox show was cancelled, Seth is now playing Seth Green, who did a show with Greg and Warren. He played Jimmy Bender and now is just a friend or more likely the person they keep conniving into a relationship, but he’s really kind of done with them. So in our half hour special he played himself and Greg was bugging him, looking for money and stuff. In the new show, Seth comes on to play himself in our AutoFocus parody, where Greg has been seduced into the world of video porn. He’s like showing his tapes to Seth who is really disgusted and telling Greg to give it up.
Q: Is Eugene Levy going to be in it?
Milano: Not yet, but just because of scheduling. Everyone from the Fox show stays in touch. We had Sarah Silverman and Bob Gunton in our half hour special, and we’re going to have Sarah and Eugene return as soon as we can get them.
Q: AutoFocus seems like something you couldn’t do on the Fox show. No one who watches that network would get it.
Milano: Yeah, I think the parodies are good for people who are more savvy to what we’re parodying. Hopefully if you haven’t seen the film you just think the puppets are in the most ridiculous circumstances. An episode about Greg becomes obsessed with video porn and developing this addiction is funny, even if you don’t know where it comes from. Same with Easy Rider – even if you don’t know what they’re doing, they’re on bikes and they’re out getting beat up by rednecks. It’s just funny. But we think it’s a friendlier audience at IFC. Certainly we have more creative freedom and there’s no standards and practices and IFC is more open to strange things.
Q: Any plans for a Greg movie?
Milano: I would love to do that. I would love to do a mockumentary about their story, about puppets in this world. It would be like Private Parts meets The Muppet Movie. It would be the true life story, based on real events, of Greg and Warren and their rise and fall.
Q: What kind of influence did Meet the Feebles have on Greg the Bunny?
Milano: I hadn’t seen it when we started and then it sort of became a validation. I saw it and I loved it and I thought it was so crazy, and I was like wow, we’re not the first to do this. We found out there was such a huge cult audience for that and we were so happy. And obviously we were huge Peter Jackson fans. Even before Lord of the Rings we just loved him, loved Heavenly Creatures and Dead Alive and everything. I wouldn’t say it was an influence but it was a validation that gave us more fuel for the fire.
Q: Greg the Bunny is one of those shows that didn’t succeed on TV but got a DVD anyway and did well. Are there plans already for the new Greg to come out on DVD?
Milano: We have a lot of old material, and we’re creating new stuff from the IFC show. We’re talking to them about getting a DVD out in the fall. They have a deal with Netflix, so Netflix may be involved with that. We, through gregthebunny.com and ifctv.com, will also show some of our lost footage and the public access show and all that. Some of it will be proprietary on the site and some of it will get out there, I just can’t wait for fans to get their hands on it. I’d be happy for bootlegs to spring up, frankly. Seth Green and I were at a convention and we were like signing bootlegs. The guy was like, “Oh shit!” and we were like, “No man, it’s cool!”