Earth to Ned, premiering this week on Disney+, is one of the most incredible and unexpected delights on the streaming platform, a dazzling mixture of technology and talent. In it, Ned (voiced and partially performed by Paul Rugg) is a towering space alien sent to Earth to destroy life but instead falls in love with the planet’s pop culture and decides instead of conquering, he’ll host a talk show instead. You’ve truly never seen anything like Ned, who took several performers to operate and was brought to life by the geniuses at Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. Only they could pull off something that is so technologically impressive that is also a fully believable character that warmly interacts with guests and his fellow creatures. It’s borderline miraculous.
We were lucky enough to get to chat with Brian Henson, whose Henson Company brought Earth to Ned to life and who has (obviously) been around these creatures his whole life. (Even he is amazed by Ned!) Henson spoke to us about where the idea for the show came from, how the character was brought to life and when he knew that Earth to Ned was working (spoiler alert: Kevin Smith was a big help!) Also, Henson discusses plans for season 2 and potential additional episodes of season 1.
Where did this ideal come from?
BRIAN HENSON: Because it seems so weird? Well to start with, I guess the original original idea was that Cornelius and Ned were from outer space, and they were monitoring Earth television and social media, and then did their own TV show reviewing Earth TV and social media. That was the original kernel of an idea.
Then it did become a talk show, and it was going to be like all science fiction.
And then when Dan Silver, at Disney+, when we were meeting with him, that’s when it became, let’s really do a late-night talk show format. And what was wonderful is that he allowed us to still do a full world creation. Because I think a less courageous broadcaster or buyer would have, you know, made it look just like a late-night talk show but with aliens. And I really wanted to be able to really create the most wonderful ship. I think that that set is my favorite set ever. And so we really did aliens in a very alien environment and then plopped an Ikea couch in the middle of the set.
Then what really started to excite us was the idea, and right from the very beginning, this was true, that Ned loves humanity. Ned loves people. He loves everything about them. He loves the weird things, the absurd things, the things that they do that doesn’t make any sense. He just loves all of that. And that was something that I just felt like the world kind of needs right now, something that’s not trying to be too cool for school. It’s not trying to be sarcastic or cynical ever. The point of view of Ned really is, I love all things people. And I just want to know more and more and more. So that was when it really became the idea that then became Earth to Ned.
Then we kept riffing on it and the idea that he’s come to Earth to blow up Earth, and that he’s a military commander, but he’s fallen in love with people to such a degree that it’s almost like he’s kind of coming out. He doesn’t want to be military. That was always the wrong place for him. Now, a talk show host, and talking with human beings, that’s what he was always meant to be. And he is celebrating that and loving it.
He really is.
HENSON: I was hoping that there would be predictable weirdness to the interviews, because you have an alien who thinks he understands everything about people, but he’s got it all wrong. He’s only got what he thinks he’s figured out from television and social media. So he’s actually completely ignorant. And I thought that that would make for really good interviews. Because there’s rarely a show where the interviewer doesn’t know anything about his guests. But with Ned, he pretty much always doesn’t know hardly anything about them.
Can you talk about the actual creation of Ned, because he seems like a pretty next-level character?
HENSON: Well first of all, I wanted to do all animatronic. We didn’t know, even up until right before shooting, how Disney+ was going to air the show. You know, whether we would try to deliver very quickly so that the interviews could be more topical. But before we started shooting, they did say to us, “No, no, no, we’re going to translate it into a million languages. And we’re going to premiere it around the world at the same time. And so none of the interviews should be topical.” But that was the idea – that there wouldn’t be any visual effects involved because I knew I needed a finished product as we were shooting, because I didn’t know how quick we’d need them. So there’s that.
Then the history, I loved the character Pilot that I made for Farscape. And he was not a comedic character, but he was a very large animatronic with four arms and he was growing out of the ship. And I wanted to use that approach with Ned, but obviously with it being a comedic character. And I knew that once the head gets bigger and all like that, you can be much more expressive. It’s a really cool way to do an animatronic character. You have to justify that they’re never going to get up and move. So it’s sort of the same idea as with Pilot, Ned never gets up from that desk. It’s as if he’s growing out of the ship.
And I just wanted to do a character like that again. And Pilot was sort of an upgrade on the concept of Richfield from Dinosaurs, when we made Dinosaurs. And so that’s sort of the tracking to how to make Ned and how to approach him.
But with Pilot, Pilot is a very precisely performed animatronic character. And I knew that with Ned, he was going to have to improvise all the time. It’s basically most often improvisation. And that’s exactly the opposite. So there’s six performers working Ned. And they’re improvising as a team of six, which is extraordinarily difficult for the performers. The first couple of weeks, it really was hard. And we were like, oh boy this is a toughie. And then once they started really jelling, I think they had the most fun that they ever had. The idea of an animatronic character of that complexity who’s improvising all day long on set, every day, that is definitely a first. And really, trying to see if we could crack that was something that I was really excited about. Because once a character can improvise, and improvises well, then it has much more credibility. It seems so much more alive. You believe the character is living and is a fully rounded personality. And when you’re completely set bound, you almost never can get half that level of authenticity.
Did you know that this was working when you saw the reactions to some of the guests? Because I’ve never seen a talk show where the guests seem so sad to leave at the end of the interview.
HENSON: Well, actually with our very first interview, Kevin Smith. What he did for my crew and my performers was just extraordinary. Because he came in and just went, “This is the most amazing thing I have ever seen, I just wanted you all to know.” I think literally as he was walking in, he was like, “This is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” And then when he saw how Ned works, and he said, “This is more than the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.” And he just kept saying it and saying it. Every time we’d cut he say, “Guys, this is a hit.” It couldn’t have been nicer. And it wasn’t by design. And I had no idea that he was going to be that enthusiastic, but it was just terrific. He was our first interview and boy did he lift all of us. And we thought, wow that was a fantastic response.
Have you thought about Season 2 of Earth to Ned, and where this can go?
HENSON: Yes, but it can go a lot of ways.
It can. It can.
HENSON: It can. We won’t destroy Earth. I doubt. I don’t think we’ll destroy Earth. That part I’m not worried about. Yes. I would say that we have it somewhat figured out. But part of the fun of this show is leaving a lot of the options open for where it can go. So I don’t… And I think that even with Farscape, which we did 92 hours, and that was proper space opera, we kind of knew where we were going, but not really. So there was a lot of space for creative wiggle room. I’m not going to tell you where we’re going to go with it, but I couldn’t be happier with where we are right now. And actually there’s 10 episodes coming out this week, but we did shoot more than that.
HENSON: So, there is more to come, even of what we’ve made.
Earth to Ned premieres on Disney+ this Friday.