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May 10, 2023

Yardley native brings Dr. Teeth, the Swedish Chef and other Muppet characters to life

Puppeteer Bill Barretta co-created and stars in the new series 'The Muppets Mayhem,' streaming now on Disney+

TV Muppets
Muppets Mayhem  Disney+ Provided image/Disney/Mitch Haaseth

The Electric Mayhem rock out in the new Disney+ series 'The Muppets Mayhem.' Yardley native Bill Barretta plays Dr. Teeth, the frontman of the fictional band, pictured above at the keyboard.

As a longtime Muppet puppeteer, Bill Barretta is used to crouching out of the camera shot, pressed against a colleague's armpit as he manipulates the character perched atop his hand. 

But in the mid-1990s, he had to do something a little more strange – and way more uncomfortable – when he hid inside a two-seater stunt plane for the direct-to-video collection "Muppet Sing Alongs: Things That Fly."

"They put a camera on the wing shooting into the cockpit," he recalled over Zoom last week. "And so we don't see the pilot who's behind me. My character, it's this pig pilot and it (had) a song and I had to play the song and get the shots, get him performing the whole thing. Problem was that I was down below and there was a little air hole right next to me and I was getting nauseous. So I would have to stop and try to get air and then stop and start again.

"So it took a while," he laughed.

Barretta, who co-created and stars in the new Disney+'s series "The Muppets Mayhem," joined Jim Henson's beloved troupe of characters — including Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and Gonzo the Great — nearly three decades ago. He now voices and puppeteers several Muppets you might recognize. He's the Swedish Chef, the clumsy cook who speaks his own nonsensical language. He's also the piano-playing Rowlf the Dog and leering Pepe the King Prawn. And he's Dr. Teeth, the bearded and bespectacled frontman of the Electric Mayhem, the longtime Muppet band that takes center stage in the new show.

"The Muppets Mayhem," which began streaming Wednesday, follows Dr. Teeth and his bandmates Janice, Floyd Pepper, Lips, Zoot and Animal as they work on their first album. Styled partially as a mockumentary, the series features talking heads from real musicians like Lil Nas X and Tommy Lee gushing about the fake rockers.

It is the third live-action Muppet show in recent years, following the ABC sitcom "The Muppets" and Disney+ series "Muppets Now." Both shows were short-lived, but Barretta believes "The Muppets Mayhem" offers audiences something different.

"I wanted to make sure that we didn't approach it with a cynical sense of humor," he said. "Which I think we had some of in our last series, it was at times a bit cynical. Some great things came out of that show ... but this show is just more about the joy and the heart and the music and just trying to spread that. We have enough cynicism going on in our world."

It's also an opportunity for fans to get to know the band, whose members are side characters often seen as a groovy, psychedelic monolith.

"There hasn't been a lot done with the band," Barretta said. "They're usually a joke or a gag or a moment and there's a stereotype to who they are. ... They travel as a group, and so they're used as a group, right? This was an opportunity, I think, to go further with each character and say, well, let's start separating. How are they as individuals? Can they exist without each other?"

Barretta's history with the Muppets, and puppetry in general, runs deep. He first picked up a puppet when he was a still a kid growing up in Yardley, Bucks County, taking cues from his artsy older brother Gene, who is now a children's book illustrator.

"At the age of, I guess he was 14, he wrote to Jim Henson (asking) do you have instructions on how to make a Muppet?" Barretta recalled. "And Jim sent him back instructions on how to make a Muppet with this beautiful letter."

The pair followed the steps and made their own puppets, quickly booking their first gigs at a school for deaf and mute children, where the boys' aunt taught.

"(It) was an amazing thing because it all had to be music-related, because the children couldn't hear," he explained. "So we would put these huge speakers flat on the floor, and they could feel the vibrations of the music. All of our stuff was in time to music. You know, confetti exploding, things like that."

Barretta didn't perform with another puppet — officially licensed Muppet or handmade creation — for many years after that. But he made his way back after meeting Brian Henson, Jim's son, when the two worked together at Sesame Place, the theme park in Bucks County featuring Henson's "Sesame Street" characters. 

Barretta later landed a role in the Henson-developed TV show "Dinosaurs" before making small appearances in Muppet productions, including as the goat pirate Clueless Morgan in 1996's "Muppet Treasure Island." (He also puppeteered an alligator that got cut from the final print — and yes, he donned a wetsuit and dove underwater for it.)

Now, he plays many characters, like Dr. Teeth, that Henson used to handle before his 1990 death, bringing baggage and pressure that Barretta still feels today.

"I mean, it's really just a bad impersonation," he said. "Because you can't be those characters, you really can't. It's impossible. It just didn't come from my soul, right? So I'm just doing an impersonation that hopefully doesn't offend." 

Pointers from long-time cast members have helped him along the way. At the suggestion of Dave Goelz, the puppeteer of Gonzo and Zoot, he began gritting his teeth when playing Dr. Teeth, a tic that Goelz noticed Henson developed when performing. The Muppets' generally sunny dispositions also ease any stressors about living up to the legacy, Barretta said.

But whether he's playing a foundational Muppet or characters he developed himself, like Pepe and and Johnny Fiama, Barretta is just happy to be part of the iconic felt family.

"I get a kick out of just being me, in a way — a guy who's just can't believe he's actually not in a zoo and is allowed to walk around freely," he joked. "That's how I kind of feel, grateful to be a part of this group of Muppets."

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