Interview A new series from Disney+ has landed
The latest original TV series from Disney+, Earth to Ned, is great fun for all the family to enjoy. By Esther McCarthy
He's the cheeky alien talk-show host who's leaving celebrity guests beamed in from planet Earth in stitches.
Now, the puppeteers behind new Disney+ series Earth to Ned have told of their thrill at following in the footsteps of mischievous classics like The Muppets.
Ned beams in guests to his distant planet, and along with his sidekicks Cornelius and BETI, interviews them for his chat show. The series is produced by the iconic Jim Henson Company, whose previous smashes include The Muppets and Fraggle Rock.
"We shot on the Henson lot, which is also the Charlie Chaplin lot, so every morning when you get there, and every night when you walk out, there's a giant Kermit dressed like The Tramp," says BETI puppeteer Colleen Smith.
"You never forget where you are and those legacies. You just really want to do it proud because, you know, there's a lot of very vocal fans, a lot of opinions, and you don't want to let them down, because you know how invested they are."
Stars like RuPaul, Rachel Bilson and Bindi Irwin are among the guests who joined the show's first series and were bemused to be interviewed by Ned, a seven-foot alien so big and elaborate that it took six puppeteers to operate him, says Paul Rugg, Ned's main player.
"Brian Henson (son of Jim) said: 'By the way this is the most technologically advanced puppet we've ever given anyone. Don't blow it! I was like, oh my gosh.
"I operated the mouth from a position so I've got a glove. Next to me, Allan Trautman, one of the world's best puppeteers, is doing the eyes. We've got Mick [Ignis] inside doing the body. We have Donna Kimball doing the front hands. Two more behind.
"When we first tried this, I was like: 'This will never work. This is impossible.' We rehearsed for a month just to get it right. One day, I'll be doggone if it didn't look like one character and I can't tell you how that happened. It was just amazing.
"In my time working at the Henson Creature Shop, I got to work with a lot of people who knew Jim. The greatest compliment is when we were working on this project, one of those people who had been around since almost the beginning, would say: 'Jim would have loved this.'"
Because Ned knows little to nothing about planet Earth, he can ask the cheekiest of questions in an interview, which is largely improvised.
"Ned is pleasant, but he's not the sharpest tack on the board, so it took the sting out of most of his questions. But if it was me asking someone, I'd be smacked in the face," laughs Paul.
"Ned will ask anything, and Cornelius will always either be embarrassed by the question or inform Ned that that wasn't an appropriate question. And BETI had no bones about just chiming in the middle, going: 'This is really stupid.' It was great to be able to be free enough to ask anything."
The show has been a hit for Disney, getting positive reviews and being favourably compared to vintage Jim Henson. For the puppeteers, there was the added fun of having banter with some of their favourite stars.
"Personally, being a Star Wars fanatic since childhood when Billy Dee Williams was on the show, I just about lost my mind," says Michael Oosterom, who plays Cornelius. "Reggie Watts was just so joyful and wonderful, and I was genuinely just gobsmacked by just watching him do his thing too.
"We were being trained by people with experience in late-night talk shows, but none of us have ever hosted before. We had a lot of jibberish silliness, which I think relaxed all of us - the three of us and our guests. I think our improv skills helped us get our heads around how to just relax and have a good time. I'm really pleased with how much of that silliness actually did end up in the show."
The fact the guests didn't know what they were going to be asked gave the show an extra edge, according to Paul.
"It was whatever happened, happened. I had a great time just riffing with people, because people get so tickled when they're talking to a puppet. You know, there are a lot of times we'd start with one of our guests and we would just have to wait for them to get the giggles out before we can put on the camera."⬤ Earth to Ned is now on Disney+