Art Of The Laugh

Director, Puppeteer Discusses Humor At Chautauqua Institution

Frank Oz, film director, puppeteer and actor, spoke to an audience at Chautauqua Institution in association with the week six title “What’s Funny?” Joined by CNN’s Stephen J. Morrison, the lecture focused on Oz’s craft and long career as a film director and puppeteer. P-J photos by Jordan W. Patterson

CHAUTAUQUA — Frank Oz doesn’t know what’s funny. And he’d like to keep it that way.

Instead, the film director, puppeteer and actor would rather go into situations not knowing, which he said allows him to discover.

On Tuesday, Oz served as a lecturer at Chautauqua Institution as part of its week six theme titled “What’s Funny?” The week is in partnership with the National Comedy Center.

Oz has created many of the “The Muppets Show” characters, voiced the Star Wars character Yoda and directed films such as “Little Shop of Horrors,” “What About Bob?” and “Death At A Funeral.”

Oz dispelled the idea to the audience gathered inside the Chautauqua Amphitheater that he would attempt to be funny, in a week focused on comedy — nor would he talk like or talk about the small, green, Jedi master known in pop culture as Yoda.

“I want to give you a fair warning,” Oz began. “I’m not going to talk about Yoda. I’m not going to do voices. And I am not going to attempt to be funny.”

The second section of the lecture was guided by CNN’s Stephen J. Morrison where the two discussed Oz’s career.

“First of all, I know nothing about comedy,” Oz said. “I’m serious. More specifically, I don’t want to know anything about comedy because if one knows one cannot discover.”

He explained how his ignorance of comedy has allowed him to explore humor through the films he’s directed and the characters he’s created.

He then joked that if anyone wanted to leave the lecture at that point, he would understand and no names would be taken. While claiming to not be funny, he often made jokes that generated laughs from the crowd.

“What I’m interested in is the approach to comedy — the process,” he said.

Early on in his career, Oz created the Muppet characters Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal and Sam Eagle. He also created and performed the “Sesame Street” characters Cookie Monster, Bert and Grover.

Growing up, playing with puppets helped him in life since he began the craft at a young age. But as he grew older, and now a renowned puppeteer, he admitted that he “never really loved puppeteering.”

The filmmaker explained that he no longer needed an aspect of his life that used to protect him.

But he was later offered a job by Jim Henson, a puppeteer and filmmaker, where he was able to express his skill of puppeteering. Eventually, Oz became the director of several comedic films that brought him to the stage Tuesday during a week tailored for comedy.

While claiming to not truly understand comedy, he read off a list of comedic performers who he has worked with that included more than 40 names of famous actors and comedians. On that list included the Smothers Brothers, the comedic duo who appeared at Chautauqua on Monday; Steve Martin, comedian and actor; Bill Murray, actor; Eddie Murphy, comedian and actor; and Danny Aykroyd, Saturday Night Live original cast member; among many others.

Referencing the Smothers Brothers, Oz said their talk the day before exemplified how serious they take comedy. On Monday, it was announced that the Smothers Brothers donated various artifacts from their catalog to the NCC. Oz also toured the comedy center, describing it as “one of the most amazing museums I have ever seen.”

Oz said the ability to take comedy serious was also an attribute of the others on his list.

“I do believe in the seriousness of the preparation for comedy,” Oz said. “It’s not that they weren’t having fun … but the underlying intent is always, always to get a laugh.”

While Oz approaches comedy not knowing, he said in order to remain successful he has to have an experienced “tool box” and “craft.” He believes those who know will remain safe and instead Oz encourages his actors to make fools of themselves.

“Your craft in that tool box is years of trying things and failing,” he said. “Trying and being embarrassed and being humiliated — trying, trying, trying. And the larger that toolbox is the more able you can stand on the cliff of the abyss and just trust that you don’t know and that’s where the good stuff comes from.”