Brian Henson on Earth to Ned, The Jim Henson Company's New Late Night-Alien-Puppet-Talk Show for Disney+

Filmmaker, puppeteer, and trailblazing entertainment executive Jim Henson was born 84 years ago today, and while he passed away far too young, the company he founded -- now run by his family -- is not only still around, but still creating cool and boundary-pushing new content. The latest, Earth to Ned, is a latenight-style talk show featuring a huge walkaround puppet as the lead character. In the series, Ned is an invader from space who becomes obsessed with pop culture, and so decides that instead of destroying the planet, he will start his own talk show, beaming celebrities onto the bridge to do interviews and sketches with him.

The character of Ned is one that has been around, in some form, for a while, according to Brian Henson, the chairman of the Jim Henson Company and a producer on the series. The basic design came out of Jim Henson's Creature Shop Challenge, which ran for eight episodes in 2014.

Brian Henson joined recently to talk about the series, the first season of which dropped on Disney+ earlier this month.

You've said in promotional interviews that a big part of the joke is that Ned is a terrible interviewer who doesn't know anything about the people he's talking to. Did his being an alien make that an easier thing to write?

The concept is what allows the interviewer to be ignorant. Because they're aliens, it allows you to do a host on a talk show that, yes, if it's a person, you can't easily do. It's such an out-there choice to say he's hosting a show but he's super ignorant. It's hard to justify. Whereas it was really easy with Ned. He loves human beings; he loves everything about them. He loves television; he loves and is enthusiastic about people, but he really is ignorant. And because he very much is narcissistic and self-centered, he is ultimately doing a show so that he'll become a celebrity. So he often doesn't know anything about the people he's interviewing.

The idea was, and Dan Silver at Disney+, he really wanted the audience to very quickly know where they are. He wanted it to look and feel like a late night talk show, so that you knew, it's a late night talk show, it's not like a daytime talk show or anything else; it specifically has the format of a late night talk show. But once we said yes, we'll do that, it was basically following the rules of 2 guests and a field piece has to happen in every episode, then he allowed every other decision to be as out there as I wanted, which is terrific. I think another, less-daring outlet, would have said Ned should be behind a desk that looks like David Letterman, and Cornelius should have a bend behind him. And luckily, he allowed all of that to be the world building that we love doing. That spaceship is as authentic a science-fiction spaceship as we've ever made. I love that set. The idea that we were able to just be really out there with Ned, Cornelius, and the ship, and then just plop down next to them a cheap couch -- a very human couch -- and that's where they beam their guests in, it kind of all worked really well but it was very important to Dan, and I think it was very smart in retrospect, that we don't break format too much.

His father is, essentially, his commanding officer and Ned is...well...not doing his job. Is that going to be an arc, or is it more just background noise?

I think it's pretty ongoing. I think Ned is very much a product of his dysfunctional relationship with his father, and it's fun to continuously mine that. I think we will keep playing that if we get a second season.

The premise for this series is unique, but there are things that feel tangentially close. Did you look back at stuff like Galaxy Quest or Invader Zim to make sure you weren't retreading old ground?

I almost never [look at other people's stuff]. I think if you're really trying to make original choices, then you won't end up with a show that's too similar to something else. It would be like, how do we have so many accidental similarities? I didn't -- I can't speak for everybody else. Everybody else might have been making sure we were staying away from choices that other shows have made, but I guess I didn't so much.

How much worldbuilding is there that didn't make it to the page, versus what is explicit onscreen?

I will say all of the world building that we did was all purely to inform the character of Ned; every bit of it. We knew that it all needed to support this character. This host and his personality wasn't delightful to the audience, there would be no reason to watch the next episode. So really all of the backstory choice, everything, was about further supporting Ned's character. Having him be a military commander when he clearly should never have been a military commander meant it informed his character. He basically lived in a closet. He was like a closeted entertainer for his whole life until he got to Earth and he said, to hell with this, I'm coming out of the closet and I'm going to try and be a celebrity. All the choices -- he's a military commander, he's got a dysfunctional relationship with his dad and therefore he's a bit narcissistic, therefore he's come out -- he's delighted, he's excited about everything. All the choices, the backstory, was to further support his character.

Obviously you've had new Dark Crystal content and a new Fraggle Rock is on the way. Is it an easier sell to make a sequel, or do you find something like Earth to Ned easier because you aren't fighting audience expectations?

I don't know that there's a good answer for that. Generally people will say that selling something original is much harder than a remake or a sequel, because the buyer can't figure out what it is that you're trying to sell; they can't imagine it. I guess that that's true, however, there's so many more places. I grew up in an industry where there were three networks, and then there was PBS who had no money, and eventually there was FOX and TBS, but to start with there was three places, and you could only make what you could convince one of those three places to allow you to make. If you couldn't, you couldn't make it. So although it's probably harder to sell a totally original concept, there's so many more places you can go that I actually think the balance leans in favor of, I find it easier to sell something totally original now than I used to.

The textures on the creatures are slick. If you didn't know, you might mistake this for a CG creation. How did you go about trying to make this look like nothing else on TV right now?

Honestly, initially, I knew we wanted to do something that had animatronic creatures. My co-producers Joe [Freed] and Allison [Berkley], we all did Creature Shop Challenge together. We got really excited about animatronics and this idea that 100% of the action has to be created in front of the camera and not later, in post-production. So then it was like, what is the show we're going to create that requires that? We thought a talk show kind of requires it.

We didn't know what airing pattern we were going to do. We were setting up so that if we had to, we could be shooting on Monday and airing on Friday. And if you have any CG that's happening, you can't do that. You can't shoot and air right away.

In the end, Disney wanted to have all of it done so they didn't need a fast delivery, but also by realizing 100% of it at the time that you're shooting, it gives an authenticity to the celebrities. They are allowed to 100% react to everything that they're seeing because they're really having the experience. That gives a lovely authenticity to the shows that you have not seen with shows where an animated character is interviewing people.

When you're cutting the show together, you know that what's actually happening, did happen, and that makes for a more authentic show, I think, and that's part of the further reason for fully realizing it.

Is there any kind of learning curve working with animatronics instead of traditional puppetry in an improv environment? It seems like not everything will have a one-button response.

In traditional puppetry, 90% of it is one person making all the decisions. With the Swedish Chef, my dad used to let Frank do the hands, and in that case, Frank would do whatever he wanted to do, but generally speaking there's one puppeteer who's doing all of the creation. So that is faster, and as soon as you start adding puppeteers and complexities like motors and computers and complicated performances like we're using, it makes it harder.

But once they fully gel, it's also different in a lovely way. Ned is more believably alive, even though he's still not entirely believably alive. With our company we're always asking our audience to take a step to suspend their disbelief. We don't try for such a seamless result that you think it's real, that you sort of accept it. In fact, when we present our stuff, we're asking our audience to take that step, suspend that disbelief, then enjoy the ride. When the audience has to take that step to suspend the disbelief, they're also a little more appreciative of the result.

Does that go for the set, as well?

Yes. It further helps that, so that it's all one step that the audience is taking. We're showing them a fully-realized spaceship, fully-realized creatures, and you're just accepting them to accept that this is real, but it's all supporting itself. Again, if we had done a David Letterman set and just put aliens in it, it could be funny, but it still is likely to suck a lot of authenticity out of your alien characters, whereas to have them in a science fiction set adds that authenticity.

How did you cast for the comedians who came on as guests?

I think mostly we were looking for people that we could tell would be game for a very different experience. Courageous performers that we knew wouldn't be all worried about "how did I look? What did my makeup look like? Don't ask personal questions; I don't want to be humiliated." I knew that we needed people who would be very game for that, and confident enough to do that.

I couldn't be happier with the cast of guests that we did get. Honestly most of them had to say yes before they could see any video of Ned. You have to book them in advance and you can't take the risk of a million-dollar-a-week shoot where you don't have the guest.


If there's a second season, Ned won't be a fresh face anymore, so you'll lose some of that "whoa" moment. How do you keep that energy up?

I think you can start digging deeper and deeper into their personality. The more the audience knows your characters, the more you can start stretching your characters and the choices they make. What's delightful about people is that they make choices you don't expect. What's exciting about reality TV is that real people make decisions that you don't expect them to make, and that is interesting. That's engaging. So once the audience really knows these characters, then you can start stretching and making the characters make unexpected choices and putting themselves in unexpected dilemmas.