Brian Henson: Earth To Ned - SciFiNow

Brian Henson: Earth To Ned

Exclusive: Brian Henson talks Earth to Ned and the difficulties of creating an improv-heavy alien talk show…

Earth To Ned

Having debuted on Disney+ in late 2020, late night alien talk show Earth To Ned has quickly become a much-needed hit of positivity amid an already rough and testing 2021. Produced by Henson Company chairman and puppet-pro Brian Henson (pictured above), this colourful and unpredictable series introduces us to Ned (Paul Rugg) – a big, blue and bright-eyed extraterrestrial who’s assignment to take over Earth is quickly ditched in favor of hosting his own star-studded talk show.

Joined by his lieutenant-turned costar Cornerlius (Michael Oosterom) and the ship’s sharp-tongued on-board computer Beti (Colleen Smith), Ned beams up a host of celebrity guests like Billy Dee Williams, Kristen Schaal and even BB-8 to learn all he can about his new favourite topic: us.

Thank you for Earth To Ned – it’s been a refreshing ray of sunshine amid a particularly dark period.

Thank you for recognising that – that’s really what we were trying to do. We wanted to show that with a late night talk show – albeit one with aliens – you don’t have to be cynical and sarcastic and the conversation doesn’t have to be way too cool for school.

It’s always been The Henson Company’s ethos to do things that haven’t been done before. There’s nothing else quite like Earth To Ned, where did you look for inspiration?

What got me really excited was doing the show Creature Shop Challenge on the SciFi Channel. It was a competition elimination series that we did with creature builder-creators and in every episode they had to build creatures and then do a scene on film with the creatures at the end. It just re-invigorated my excitement for these very complex, animatronic characters and how, if you do it really carefully, they can be some of the most soulful, fun and interesting puppetry you can do.

Creature Shop Challenge re-invigorated Brian Henson’s excitement for complex, animatronic characters…

The show walks the tightrope of kid/adult humour really well. How difficult was it to crack the right tone?

The whole idea was to develop a host that thinks everything about people is so fantastic – even everything we think is wrong about us, he thinks is fantastic and is just super positive. I was impressed that Disney said we could do this and still have adult appeal and be an adult show. Kids love it and it’s safe for kids – but the tone and the conversations we have are all very adult and fun.

We were able to engage with adults and families without having to go to that darker, sarcastic, cynical place that often these shows do go to. We really set ourselves apart at a time where the world has become so polarised and everybody’s just waiting for a bad guy and looking to blame everybody else for all the problems in the world. Instead, what we wanted to create was something that was more about pulling people back together, enjoying each other’s weirdness and not blaming them for their problems.

What was your process for finalising Ned’s look and personality?

We largely started with: what’s the coolest animatronic character we’ve ever made and would like to use? I settled on Pilot from Farscape. He’s only ever shown from the waist up and he can’t move, and as soon as you allow for those limitations – that he’s a huge character and you’re never going to try and have it walk or move around – then you can build such a cool character that can be super engaging and very expressive.

Coming off that, I started with this concept where these aliens just love all aspects of television and then it progressed to they love all aspects of humanity and they get it wrong. The comedy is that Ned is completely ignorant. He gets everything wrong and that’s what fuels the comedy and why it can be adult in tone because he gets everything wrong in a funny way but ultimately he loves everything about us.

Ned was inspired by Pilot in Farscape

Was it always the idea that Ned and Cornelious would interact with live guests?

It progressed from a show where they were reviewing their favourite aspects of television – and then came this idea that they could beam in guests and interview them, and I thought that would be fun. The idea that guests aren’t expecting to arrive and then suddenly, they’re there. It’s fun that you can beam in guests from wherever they were and they can play along with that.

Then it’s fun to throw Cornelius out into the world in every episode where you know it’s going to be a fun situation for him to drop into. We thought it would be a format that would be a lot of fun with a small group of characters. It’s Ned, Cornelius and Betty and we just concentrated on the three of them and then brought guests in. It just delighted me.

How long did it take to find the right performers for Ned and Cornelius?

Well, that was obviously going to be the most difficult part because talk show hosts for late night talk shows have a whole track that gets them there. They’re often stand-up comedians or actors and really earn their spot in that seat. We knew that developing a new talk show from scratch was a very tall order creatively, so it was a very exhaustive audition process – but in a small field.

I have 30 to 50 high quality, talented puppeteers that I can go to and we did months of auditioning and whittled down the group to around five Corneliuses and five Neds and then tried every cross combination and kept auditioning because we knew they were going to be improvising. It was going to be substantially off-script so the characters were really going to have to come from them. That combination of Michael (Cornelious) and Paul (Ned) just rang really nicely.

It took a while to find the perfect performer to play Ned…

How did the characters develop when puppeteers Paul Rugg and Michael Oostrom took over Ned and Cornelius?

Michael traditionally takes a dominant, controlling approach to his characters so it was really fun taking Michael and pushing him into that subservient role because it wasn’t where he’s used to being. Then Paul being this wild, out of control egomaniac who just wants to be the centre of attention and a celebrity – it just worked really well. They both brought more to the character than we had developed.

We knew Ned came from a military background and militant culture. He’s a several-generation military commander and has had to live a role that was always set out for him. We knew that he was supposed to be initiating an invasion of Earth and rather than doing that he falls in love with humanity through television and it changes him utterly. The introduction to emotions, art, comedy and all the things we thematically make our episodes around – it all just delighted him and changed him so now the last thing he wants to be is a military Commander.

Meanwhile, Cornelius was always happy to be a military lieutenant. That was what he set out to be and he’s uncomfortable with this new role – but he’s starting to fall in love with humanity as well. Paul really brought the slightly darker side of Ned that’s always putting Cornelius down [laughs] because it pushes buttons on Michael in a really nice way so Michael can instinctively counterpunch with Paul. It’s one of those where you try to develop a comedy duo and you just hope for the best and it really came out well.

You have some great guests in the show – from Gillian Jacobs and Kevin Smith, to Alyson Hannigan and Eli Roth. Was it tricky finding guests that were game for improvising with Ned and Cornelius?

I like to think that every time we do anything there’s something about what we’re promising that I have no idea whether is actually possible [laughs]. The thing on this one was: can you take a puppet that requires six people to perform it and have it improvise sharply and quickly? We’ve always established that you can get up to two or three puppeteers on a character and they can all think like one person but six is a very tall order – so I didn’t even know if it was going to work.

The guests we booked for these first 20 episodes, I’d say 80% of them had to commit before they knew Ned or Cornelius because that’s just the way bookings work. A lot of people we approached were like, ‘once you’ve made the show and can show us, come back to us’ because it was too high risk. What we did get was a lot of people who were actually really game for trying something very weird, new and different and they all really had a ball doing it.

Boy, we got some great guests. Ben Schwartz does this ridiculous and wonderful thing for the Nineties episode and Oliver Hudson was so game. We literally said, ‘is there something you’d like to talk about or something you don’t like to talk about?’ He said ‘I’m uncomfortable when people just want to talk about my famous parents and famous sibling.’ We said ‘do you mind if that’s all we talked about and how uncomfortable you are talking about them?’ He said: ‘Okay – I’ll go with that. Let’s try it!’ It was great.

Earth To Ned is available now on Disney+