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MUPPETS COMING BACK NEXT YEAR

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It's time to play the music! It's time to light the lights! It's time to get things started on "The Muppet Show" tonight!

And, two decades later, it's time to get things started on "The New Muppet Show," which will be coming home - sort of - to ABC sometime during the upcoming television season."As many of you know, the pilot for the show aired on ABC. It was in 1975. And they passed," said Brian Henson, the son of the original Muppet-master, Jim Henson, and the president and CEO of Jim Henson Productions.

ABC was not alone, however.

"Yeah, everybody passed on `The Muppet Show,' though. Everybody passed," Henson said. "There were two pilots produced. And one of them was produced for ABC. But all the networks, at the time, passed on it."

"The Muppet Show" (1976-81) ended up being produced in London for ITV, then shipped back to America for broadcast in syndication. And, despite the fact that the American broadcast networks didn't see much future in it, the show became an international success.

It's that success that Henson and the rest of the team will be trying to re-create when "The New Muppet Show" premieres sometime in early 1996. There will be definite similarities between the two shows. While the original involved the Muppets putting on a live show in a theater every week, the sequel will put them behind the scenes at a television station, KMUP.

"It's similar to `The Muppet Show' in that it is the Muppets as performers and entertainers and their lives both in front of and behind the camera, as opposed to on the stage," Henson said.

The show will be full of sketches, musical numbers and comedy. And at the center of chaos will be that ol' reliable Kermit the Frog, still proving that it isn't easy being green.

Although the man who brought Kermit to life, Jim Henson, has passed on, the character has remained alive.

"Steve Whitmire has taken over the performing of Kermit, and he does a brilliant job," Henson said. "He knew my father all those years and worked side-by-side with him. He did a very good job."

But whether other characters created by the elder Henson will return has yet to be determined. And Muppet fans can't necessarily count on seeing all of their old favorites - or, at least, don't count on seeing them with great frequency.

The show will get a new band - Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem are a little too "psychedelic" for the new show - but the band's popular drummer character, Animal, will "be there in some way or another."

Original Muppeteer Frank Oz, who has gone on to a career as a movie director, will be around from time to time. As will the characters he created - characters that include Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear.

"He'll be in and out," Henson said of Oz. "Those characters will continue, but they won't be anchor characters on the show. . . . They'll definitely be there, but also in a lot of ways, it will be difficult to have them running the show."

But when Miss Piggy is there, things will be pretty much the same between the self-proclaimed diva and the object of her affections, Kermit.

"She looks great. Not a day older," Henson said. "In terms of her relationship with Kermit - Kermit has a very professional relationship with Piggy, and Piggy doesn't have a very professional relationship with Kermit. And that's sort of the way they've always been."

Actually, just exactly what characters will take center stage on "The New Muppet Show" will sort of evolve.

"When the first `Muppet Show' was created, Miss Piggy, for instance, walked into the show as one of seven or eight pigs. . . . And somebody threw a wig on one of them, and then she got more and more popular. That's really the same sort of dynamic that we would like to have with the new show."

Henson and his team just wrapped up production on the theatrical movie "Muppet Treasure Island," and they're just beginning to work on creating new characters for the upcoming TV show.

"Some of the sketch pieces will generate characters that are so popular that they'll become main-running characters," he said.

One thing hasn't changed about the Muppets - they're still entertainment designed for both kids and their parents.

"We, as a company, have always tried to communicate a positive influence, and more than anything, a great optimism about life in general," Henson said. "And particularly the classic Muppets have always been about a celebration of life."