For generations of children, Muppet masters Jim Henson and Frank Oz were a comedy duo on the level of Abbott & Costello and Laurel & Hardy. Even after Henson's death in 1990, Oz continued to portray such beloved characters as Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Bert and Grover. Since the early 2000s, though, the puppeteer and filmmaker has been an infrequent presence in the extended Muppet-verse — a decision that Oz himself didn't make.
In a revealing new interview with The Guardian, Oz claims that he's essentially been forced into retirement by the current powers that be that control the Muppets and Sesame Street, respectively. (Disney acquired the rights to the Muppets in 2004; Sesame Street is controlled by Sesame Workshop, which has a streaming deal with WarnerMedia.)
"I’d love to do the Muppets again but Disney doesn’t want me, and Sesame Street hasn’t asked me for 10 years," Oz says. "They don’t want me because I won’t follow orders and I won’t do the kind of Muppets they believe in." Oz goes on to say that he deliberately avoids watching anything Muppet-related now. "The soul’s not there. The soul is what makes things grow and be funny. But I miss them and love them."
Oz continues to target Disney in the interview, suggesting that tension over the studio's earlier attempt to acquire the Muppets may have contributed to the illness that claimed Henson's life. "The Disney deal is probably what killed Jim. It made him sick," he says. "[Michael] Eisner [Disney's then-Chairman and CEO] was trying to get Sesame Street, too, which Jim wouldn't allow. But Jim was not a dealer, he was an artist, and it was destroying him, it really was."
"There’s an inability for corporate America to understand the value of something they bought," Oz continues. "They never understood, with us, it’s not just about the puppets, it’s about the performers who love each other and have worked together for many years.”
Oz hasn't been shy about expressing his disappointment about the current state of the Muppets before. In fact, he famously turned down the opportunity to reprise his characters in Disney's 2011 film, The Muppets, due to concerns about the screenplay by Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller. "I wasn't happy with the script," Oz told the U.K. newspaper Metro at the time. "I don't think they respected the characters." He later doubled down on those criticisms at a 2019 panel at the SXSW Film Festival, dismissing that latter-day Muppet movie as "smarmy."
Oz shared his concerns about Sesame Street in a 2017 interview with Yahoo Entertainment, accusing it of becoming "a little kids' show" that limited the evolution of the characters and the puppeteers playing them. "They’re in a difficult situation," Oz added. "They’re doing their very best, and they really are trying to be true to the characters. And they actually are. But because they’re not inside me, they don’t know the soul as much."
In the same interview, Oz shared his prescription for how Disney could cure what ails the Muppets. "I don’t think the answer is to do something new. I think the answer is to go back and be true to who they are," he remarked. "There’s nothing new to do except to dig deeper into their purity and innocence; that is what speaks to the audience."