Each week, ESPN’s Creative Content Unit (CCU) welcomes fans into Monday Night Football with imaginative opens. The CCU works with MNF sport leaders, Steve Ackels, Phil Dean and Jimmy Platt, who have trusted them with creative freedom to take some big swings.
Led by Vice President Craig Lazarus and Julie McGlone, senior coordinating producer, the CCU will continue to outdo themselves tonight as they have prepared a very special holiday presentation with another Disney partner: the Muppets.
“[The CCU] can make a big splash with the tease for a game, but we’re also capable of thinking so much larger,” McGlone explained.
For instance, senior associate producer Bryan Rourke came up with the idea to title some elements Muppet Night Football, and senior managing producer Aimee Stokes suggested the team ask for more on-air real estate to create two unique pieces before the game begins. From there, the project blossomed into a full holiday-themed takeover of the night where there will be elements from the Muppets several times throughout the game.
Starting at the top of the telecast (8 p.m. ET, ESPN), Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy will make their debut in the broadcast booth while Fozzie Bear reports from the field, Statler and Waldorf join from the stands, and Animal comes in with the drums. Then, right before kickoff, the Muppets will return for a Carol of the Bells music video.
“I think they’re the best in the business,” McGlone said of her team. “To bring the Muppets to life in a pandemic was a huge challenge.”
It all started in October when the CCU MNF creative team wanted to do something special for MNF’s holiday game and bring some joy and laughter to the viewers. With this in mind, McGlone went searching for Muppet clips on YouTube.
As soon as director/producer Rico Labbe watched this Muppets Christmas carol clip, he said, “This is it. This is what we want to do.”
Looking at the faces on the first Muppets/CCU Zoom call, everybody was smiling and laughing.I was like, ‘This is what we want for our viewers!’ We want the whole family to be enjoying it.
– Julie McGlone, ESPN senior coordinating producer, regarding brainstorming The Muppets’ appearance on MNF
The next step was to meet the Muppets.
“Looking at the faces on the first Muppets/CCU Zoom call, everybody was smiling and laughing,” McGlone recalled. “I was like, ‘This is what we want for our viewers!’ We want the whole family to be enjoying it.”
Soon after the initial meeting, manager Amanda Paschal and team planned a 2020-style production shoot.
Instead of traveling to a studio, everyone set up shop at home, including the Muppets, who have become adept at having the puppeteers record themselves on green screens in their homes with help from their families.
In the midst of the shoot day, McGlone’s children popped into the guest bedroom – her work-from-home station – to say hello to their mom after getting off the bus.
On that particular day, McGlone’s son, Tommy, was wearing a Dunder Mifflin T-shirt – referencing the classic “The Office” sitcom.
Statler saw him and asked playfully, “Who’s the little one? We didn’t order any paper!”
Miss Piggy drew McGlone’s daughter, Katie, into the conversation, too, calling her by name and asking if she was a football fan.
“The Muppet crew are the kindest people, and they are so genuine with those characters and with the way they produce content, being authentic to their brand and to their show,” McGlone observed. “The Muppets have been incredible, committed partners in production from concept through every final detail in post-production with editor Justin Belcher.”
Even before this process began, she noted the CCU has always been Muppet fans.
“Who’s not a fan of the Muppets?” McGlone said. “I think they transcend generations.”
Editor’s Note: This is the third consecutive year ESPN’s Creative Content Unit has developed a special holiday presentation for MNF. Previous opens featured Scrooge (2018) and an adaptation of the story ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (2019).