The title of Frank Oz’s morning lecture — the second of Week Six’s “What’s Funny?” programming — is “I Don’t Know Anything About Comedy.”
“It’s true,” Oz said. “It’s absolutely true.”
It’s a dubious claim from the man whose expansive career includes puppeteering Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Grover and Cookie Monster; performing Jedi Master Yoda in four “Star Wars” films; and directing “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” “In & Out” and the 2007 “Death at a Funeral.” Armed with such a resume — he’s also won two George Foster Peabody awards, the American Comedy Awards’ Creative Achievement Award and the Art Directors Guild award — Oz still professes he isn’t the one to ask about comedy. But he does know what makes him laugh.
“Things that are honest (make me laugh),” he said. “It could be from a movie by Steve Martin or a puppy dog.”
In a brief break from current projects, Oz will appear in conversation with Stephen J. Morrison, Emmy-nominated executive producer and showrunner of the CNN documentary series “The History of Comedy,” at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday, July 30 in the Amphitheater. Morrison is also the executive producer of exhibit media for more than 50 interactive and personalized exhibits in the National Comedy Center, Chautauqua Institution’s partner for Week Six.
Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, said he was “struck” by a theory from a Smithsonian Magazine article by Patrick Sauer, in which Sauer posits that “more people on Earth have borne witness to Frank Oz’s characters, be it puppet or person, than any other artist in recorded human history.” After all, as Sauer points out, “Oz has had a part of three of the biggest entertainment juggernauts of the last-half century”: The Muppets, the “Star Wars” franchise and “Sesame Street.”
“Welcoming Frank Oz to Chautauqua’s Amphitheater provides the opportunity for us to hear from an artist whose work has touched the lives of millions, across generations, but just as importantly, to go well beyond the frequently asked questions and dig into the broader theme of the week,” Ewalt said. “His filmography as a director and writer is astonishing, cutting across genres of comedy, musicals and fantasy with such classics as ‘Little Shop of Horrors,’ ‘What About Bob?’ and ‘Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.’ ”
For Oz, the classic 1980 parody disaster film “Airplane” remains one of his gold standards in a contemporary industry that is tilting, on average, toward “manufactured comedy,” and away from honesty. This is in part, he said, because corporations own the studios, creating a culture obsessed with the bottom line and forcing directors to work faster, with less capital and more constraints.
“There’s less subtlety,” Oz said. “I’m a huge fan of ‘Airplane,’ which is not very subtle — it’s very broad — but it is honest.”
He remembers many characters of his own filmography fondly, including “Bowfinger” ’s oblivious but kind Jiff Ramsey, played by Eddie Murphy, and the wide-eyed American heiress, played by Glenne Headly, of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” And of course, there are the Muppets — Gonzo, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Beaker, Dr. Teeth — puppets who originated with another actor, but who still occupy a special place in Oz’s heart.
“They’re not mine, but I love them,” he said.
Although being a good father and “bringing moments to life on theater and screen,” are, according to Oz, the two most significant aspects of his legacy, he finds it difficult to specify exactly what inspires him.
“It’s unknowable,” he said. “If I knew what it was, I would latch onto it and create. Creativity in every sense is quicksilver. It’s hard to catch. I’d probably bottle it if I knew it. All these things come from a very flawed human place. It’s not something you can package.”