‘Fraggle Rock’ EP John Tartaglia on Bringing the Fraggles Back and Filming in Quarantine

     May 26, 2020

The beloved stars of the classic ‘80s TV series Fraggle Rock – Gobo, Red, Boober, Mokey Wembley and Uncle Traveling Matt – are back together for mini-episodes that are available to stream at Apple TV+. Following COVID-19 “Safer at Home” guidelines and doing their own social distancing from different caves, the Fraggles show that you can still be connected through friendship and have fun together, through music and interactions with silly creatures (aka humans), all with the help of Doozertubes created by the tech savvy Doozers.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, executive producer John Tartaglia, who also voices and brings Gobo to life, talked about how this new project came about, what makes the Fraggles so special, shooting on an iPhone 11, how he originally came to voice Gobo, incorporating the famous guest stars, making sure the Doozers were represented, even though they don’t appear on these episodes, and his hope that they’ll continue to get to do new Fraggle projects.

fraggle-rock-rock-on-poster-01Collider: I have to admit that I’m a huge Fraggle Rock fan. I just absolutely adore the show and the characters.

JOHN TARTAGLIA: Oh, I love that! I feel the same way. I’m excited to get to work on it, too.

How did the idea for this come about? How did Fraggle Rock end up coming back for some new adventures?

TARTAGLIA: We’d been looking for ways to get the Fraggles back out. Like you, I am such a huge Fraggle fan. I’ve always been one of the people at the company that was like, “Please, let’s do Fraggle Rock!” It’s always just been about finding the right thing, at the right time. The way this happened was that we got the notice that the offices were gonna close down, and I’d had the Fraggle puppets stored in my office, from a previous something that we had worked on, and something inside of me was like, “These puppets should not be living in this office, for however many weeks we’re gonna be away. This is my childhood in a box. I can’t leave them, locked up in an office.” So, I called my co-executive producer Halle [Stanford] and was like, “Should I bring the Fraggles home, just in case?” And she was like, “Yes, bring them home.” So, I brought them home and they were sitting in my office, and lo and behold, not even a couple of weeks after that, Apple reached out and said, “We really think right now would be a great time to bring the Fraggles out from the cave and produce these short-form pieces.” The Fraggles’ whole message of interconnectedness, spending quality time with each other, appreciating each other and what everyone brings to the table, and how music is such a powerful uniter, all felt very much in tune with what we’re all discovering, being apart, but also still still trying to find ways to be connected. So, of course, when Apple called and was like, “Would you guys wanna do this?,” we were all like, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” So, it was really their idea to bring the characters back, and we were so happy to be asked.

I now have so many questions about what it was like to have the Fraggles hanging out at your house.

TARTAGLIA: It’s definitely seven year old Johnny’s dream come true, that’s for sure. I remember distinctly, being a kid and loving the show, and building my own Fraggle puppets and thinking, “Wow, if I had the real Fraggles, I’d put on my own puppet shows.” There is something really hilarious about how, 30-something years later, they are literally in my apartment and I’m getting to make television with them. It’s very bizarre . . . Puppets are so different from animation, or from any other kind of medium, because they are real, in the sense that they physically exist in our world. They just need a person to bring them to life. There’s a magic to that. I always say that I think puppetry is the last real magic that we allow ourselves to buy into. It’s indescribable, but it’s true. When Karen [Press] puts Red on and starts talking to somebody, you’re completely transported to your childhood and that’s your friend, you just haven’t seen your friend in a long time. It’s amazing, the power that puppets have.

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Image via Apple TV+

Was it hard to only be able to do little mini-episodes with the Fraggles?

TARTAGLIA: Yes! What’s so great is having Dave Goelz, the original Boober and Traveling Matt, and Karen Prell, the original Red. They’ve been such leaders of the joy of making these shorts. For them, especially, it’s a chance to play with old friends again. The joy of these has been getting together on Zoom and FaceTime, and things like that, and talking through the scripts and rehearsing lines. The hard part is not being together to play. We get the most joy, being physically together as puppeteers. We’re such a collaborative group of people and it’s a collaborative art form. So, it’s one of those things where we would probably make 20 hours of shorts and 20 hours of Fraggle Rock content, in a row, if we could, because it’s such a joyful world. If you hear some of the original folks, who worked on the original series, talk about it, it’s oftentimes the one thing in their careers that they’re the most proud of. They feel like it’s the best example of what puppetry can do. So, I would do anything Fraggle Rock. I would do the Fraggle Rock 24-hour marathon, if someone asked me to.

Does shooting this on an iPhone create any specific challenges?

TARTAGLIA: That’s interesting. I feel like what it does is that it allows the puppets to look so beautiful. The Fraggles in 4K are like, “Oh, wow!” I think the only challenge is from a performance space because we’re so used to using large television monitors and having the lighting and sound done for us. There are specialists, in the studio who handle that. So, we’ve had to become our own crew and our own everything, and that’s been interesting. When you’re a puppeteer, growing up, you learn to do everything on your own. Puppeteers, oftentimes, make their own puppet stage, write their own scripts, and do their own sound and lighting. It’s a self-taught art form. But then, when you work on television and film, and especially for the Jim Henson Company, who does the best puppetry in the world, you’re working with the best of the best. For this, we’ve had to go back to that old school of hooking up your lights, grabbing your sofa cushion as something to sit down on, and prop things up with the nightstand. You figure out how to do it. I loved shooting on the iPhone, only because I feel like we’re all taking selfies and we’re all making Instagram stories, so that part didn’t feel as bizarre as putting on the production in your house does.

Were you the one that originally chose what Fraggle you’d be voicing, or did the Fraggle choose you? How did you end up with Gobo?

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Image via Apple TV+

TARTAGLIA: I’ve never thought of it as the Fraggle chose me, but I actually love that. Fraggle Rock is the reason that I became a puppeteer. When I was seven years old, I saw Fraggle Rock, for the first time, and the first character that I remember physically seeing on the screen was Gobo. Growing up a Fraggle Rock and puppet fan, Jerry Nelson, who was the original performer of Gobo, was always a hero to me. I’m a singer, too, and he was such a great singer. I always wanted to emulate the way that he would sing things. I loved the quality of his voice, and I loved his characters and humor. And then, I got to work with Jerry on Sesame Street, for a few years, and he was Gobo. He was our leader. He was the cool one im the corner that you wanted to tell stories. He just was that guy. He played guitar like Gobo played the guitar. I was lucky that I got to know Jerry a little bit. And then, he passed away, unfortunately, and for the 30th anniversary of Fraggle Rock, which was quite awhile ago now, they wanted to do some promotional work and they knew that they wanted Gobo, so I got asked to audition. I’ve had to audition for so many different things in my life, for Broadway and otherwise, and it never gets easy, but I never thought that I would be as nervous as I was, auditioning for Gobo, because it meant so much to me and it felt so full circle in my life. I still don’t really believe that I do Gobo. I have the puppet on my hand sometimes and I’m like, “This is everything you wanted at seven years old, and it’s happened. What is happening? You’re playing the character you saw first on the screen. And Jerry is your hero.” Without being too cliche, I feel very honored to carry the character on because Gobo really was the essence of Jerry Nelson, which also makes it hard to do because you’re imitating not just a voice, but an entire personality and persona that was within that character. It’s an honor. I definitely feel a great responsibility to try to bring out as much of Gobo as I can.

What’s it like to also add the famous guest stars, and have Common, Jason Mraz and Alanis Morissette singing with the Fraggles?

TARTAGLIA: It was a really big guessing game for us, with how it would go, because on the original series, there were never any celebrity guest stars. Obviously, on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, that’s always been done, but with Fraggle Rock, that never happened. So, we were like, “How is this gonna work?” What’s so great is that there’s such a respect, internally, in the world of Fraggle Rock and in the Jim Henson Company, for the canon of it, with the fact that the Fraggles call humans silly creatures, and that humans don’t really know that Fraggles exist. It’s not like The Muppets, where you see Kermit hanging out on a sofa with somebody. So, we had to work out how to justify it. The part that I was so happy about was how naturally it worked out. I’m the biggest fan of Common. I think he’s the coolest. He’s an incredible actor and performer, and he came in and was like, “What do you guys want? I love the Fraggles. I love the Fraggles so much.” He was tweeting about it and talking about it on his Instagram Live, and telling all of his friends that it was the best thing, ever. It’s been that way with everybody. With Alanis Morissette, Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Mraz, Tiffany Haddish and everyone has been the biggest Fraggle fan, and they’re so happy. When Karen put on Red Fraggle and started talking to Tiffany Haddish, I watched Tiffany Haddish lose her mind and put her hair in Red Fraggle pigtails, so that she looked like Red. I’ve never seen anything like it before. There’s such a love because you really do believe in these characters and you believe that they’re real, maybe because they were in such a secretive world. The Fraggles lived in their own world, and it felt like such a cool place to go and visit, and now they’re finally getting a chance to communicate with humans. It’s definitely something that I’ve never seen before. But the Fraggle love is real, is what I would say.

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Image via Apple TV+

I have always been a Red Fraggle girl. When you first watched Fraggle Rock, were you always drawn to the same Fraggle, or did you feel drawn to more than one Fraggle?

TARTAGLIA: As a kid, I loved Red because I loved how she would jump in the pool and splash, and I always wanted to imitate that. And I loved Gobo because of his singing and his exploring. I wanted to be an explorer, in that way, as a kid. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I’m a combo of Wembley, who can never make up his mind, and Boober, Red, Mokey and Gobo. I feel like I’m all of them. That’s what’s so brilliant, they’re all facets of the human personality. Mokey is the poetic side, and Red is the leap before you look side. But I would say that it was probably always a draw between Red and Gobo. Those were the two that I was really into. I probably wanted to be more like Red, but I probably was a little more Gobo. Boober is funny right now because the greatest job he has in life is laundry, and that’s something that we’re all either doing so much of right now, or we’re all learning to appreciate it. I used to hate doing laundry, and now there’s something so incredibly calming and peaceful about it. I don’t know why. We were joking about how Boober’s weird love, that we all made fun of before, now we’re like, “Actually, he had a point. Laundry is great.”

Was it important to also make sure, that even if we don’t see the Doozers, they were represented, in some way?

TARTAGLIA: That’s a good question. Yeah. One of the first things that we talked about was, knowing that we wanted to have the Fraggles socially distanced, and they’re doing it in their own way because we don’t reference anything that they’re dealing with, was to figure out how to justify it. In Fraggle Rock, they’re always together, so we had to figure out how they were gonna to talk to each other because they don’t have technology like we do. So, the idea came up of creating these Doozertubes, which made sense because the Doozers are inventors and they’re incredibly savvy. If you had to find someone who understood tech in Fraggle Rock, it would be the Doozers. So, from that, it felt like, if we were gonna give them credit for making those, should at least reference them and keep them in the canon. We’ve tried to sprinkle in little things, like there’s a reference to the Gorgs, even though we don’t see the Gorgs, at all. For the Fraggles, that’s their everyday. That’s their vernacular, so it felt important to include that. And then, I also was a huge Doozer nerd, as a kid. I’d take my Legos and my play sets, and try to make Doozer constructions with them, and I would take my remote control cars and put a little Doozer figure in them and drive them around, like it was the Doozer on their tracks. I’ve always loved the Doozers., so I wanted to sneak a Doozer reference in there.

There’s been talk of doing a feature film of Fraggle Rock for a number of years now, and it’s gotten close, but still hasn’t gone into production. Why do you think it seems to be such a difficult project to get going, as a movie?

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Image via HBO

TARTAGLIA: I wish I knew. To be totally honest with you, that’s so above my pay grade. I know we want it and we’re excited for anything future Fraggle Rock. This property has such a love behind it, in a way that I feel like other things don’t, meaning that the fans are so respectful of the canon and the original team that worked on the show, and everyone at the Jim Henson Company is so respectful of the quality and the integrity of the characters that I feel like it’s about making sure everything’s happening when it should, and the way that it should. That actually goes back to Jim Henson. He was really adamant about toys and otherwise, that they would be beneficial, and making sure that the characters were well represented in them, and that they weren’t just something cheap, or that didn’t represent the brand and characters well. It’s one of the things that I appreciate about working for the company, honestly, and I’m not just saying that as a company line. There’s such a respect for character integrity and brand integrity, and putting the best possible thing out there. So, I wish that I legitimately knew all of the reasons why. I’m sure that there are people who do. But I think it’s probably just about it being at the right time. Who knows? Obviously, there’s proof now that people want the Fraggles, so I think anything is possible now, which is exciting for me . . . Because of the way that we all communicate, with the internet and YouTube, there’s so much more awareness now for the show, than there was, even ten years ago. And I will say that the movie is still in development. We knew that people were gonna be excited to have the Fraggles back, but I couldn’t have predicted the amazing reaction that these shorts have gotten. People are just so hyped up about it.

Fraggle Rock: Rock On! is available to stream at Apple TV+.

Television