My Perspective on the Aftermath of Jim Henson’s Death

I address myself to the Muppet fans who were either not born yet when Jim Henson died or are too young to remember it:

I’m very impressed with you and the depth of your passion and your dedication and your knowledge of Jim Henson and his work–which, for a variety of reasons, often outstrips my own.

I know that you love Jim Henson, just as we all do.  I know that you grieve for him, and I know that you mourn for the opportunity that you never had to have first-hand knowledge of the time that he spent among us here on Earth.

I was approximately 10 when Jim died, so I have some first-hand knowledge of both his life and his death.  Elsewhere, I’ve discussed his death subjectively; i.e., how I reacted to it and how it affected me, but now I’d like to take sort of a broader, more objective look at the effect that his death had on everybody.

I’ve seen people (to be fair, mostly malevolent trolls on Steve’s blog) assert that “critics” were angry about Steve taking on the role of Kermit in 1990, i.e., that people were hostile to the idea of Steve performing Kermit, believing him to be somehow undeserving.  I’m here to tell you that I don’t remember it that way at all.  First of all, we didn’t even know beforehand that it would be Steve performing Kermit.  And, according to what Jane Henson told TV Guide in 1990, that was entirely by design, probably to prevent the very backlash that both Steve and Matt have received since the news of the current recast was announced back in July. 

But I don’t remember anyone being angry about the 1990 recast per se.  If there was anger, it was about the circumstances necessitating the recast (i.e., Jim’s death) rather than about the recast itself.  To me, there’s a big difference between saying, “I wish Jim Henson was still alive so it wouldn’t be necessary to recast Kermit!” and saying, “Since Jim is no longer with us, I don’t think that anyone else should be performing Kermit at all!”  I remember a lot of people expressing the former sentiment; I don’t remember anyone at all expressing the latter.  The closest sentiment to the latter that I can recall came from my eldest brother, and even he just said that he couldn’t bear to watch Muppet Christmas Carol because it wouldn’t be the same without Jim, but at no point did he say or imply that he thought that other people shouldn’t watch it, or that the movie shouldn’t have been made or, more broadly, that he thought Kermit shouldn’t have been recast.

With regard to the current recast, I get the sense that, even though it hasn’t necessarily been stated outright, people believe that since Kermit was successfully recast once, he could be successfully recast again, regardless of the circumstances.  I know that not all Muppet fans subscribe to that theory or agree with the recast.  I know that there are fans spanning the age spectrum on both sides of the Schism. 

However, I suspect that it is nevertheless difficult for you–the Muppet fans under age 30 or so–to fully appreciate what it was like after Jim died, when the future of the Muppets hung in the balance.  To you, after all, it is history.  You know exactly how it all turned out.  For you, the continued existence of the Muppets in the aftermath of Jim’s death is a foregone conclusion.

It wasn’t a foregone conclusion for us at the time.  There was real uncertainty as to not only how but IF the Muppets would continue without Jim.  And even if the Muppets continued, we didn’t know if Kermit would come back.  And even if Kermit came back, we didn’t know if it would be the same Kermit that we knew and loved.  It actually caused me a lot of anxiety at the time, and I’m sorry to have to say that Muppet Christmas Carol did nothing to alleviate my anxiety. 

I should clarify, however, that it wasn’t Steve’s performance of Kermit that was causing my anxiety with regard to MCC.  With MCC being such a meticulously–some might say slavishly–faithful adaptation of the original story (which is not known for its laughs), my concern after watching it was that the Muppets would never be funny again. 

Granted, I heard the difference in Kermit’s voice, and admittedly it was a little distracting, but it wasn’t the foremost concern in my mind.  At that point, I didn’t know anything about Steve at all; I read the credits at the end of the movie to find out who was performing Kermit, and that was the first time that I even found out Steve’s name.  Nevertheless, I appreciated what he was doing because I understood that it couldn’t be easy for him. 

As it happens, it took six years, with the advent of Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets Tonight, before my faith in the Muppets was restored, when the Muppets started being funny again, and I stopped being distracted by the difference in Kermit’s voice.*

In July of this year, I relearned a lesson that I should have learned once and for all in 1990:  Never take the Muppets for granted.  And yet, for the last three years or so, having been busy with other life concerns, I became a bit complacent with regard to the Muppets.  It’s inexcusable in my case, however, because I’ve known for at least 20 years what Disney is–a company run by greedy pragmatists who seek out creative people, milk them for all they’re worth, and then put them out to pasture…if they’re lucky.   

Even knowing what Disney is, however, I nevertheless naively assumed that there were depths of unmitigated gall to which even Disney would not sink.  I never imagined, never thought to consider the possibility, that they would ever even think of dismissing Steve–or any of the Muppet performers, for that matter.  Even if they didn’t understand the physical-metaphysical matrix of the Muppets’ souls, I assumed that they could at least appreciate that it would be a move that could negatively impact their profits.

I can’t speak for all the Muppet fans over 30, and I don’t intend to try.  I know that there are Muppet fans my age or older, who remember Jim Henson’s death, who nevertheless side with Disney in the Schism.  I can only speak for myself, from my own first-hand experience. 

My memory of not only how devastating Jim Henson’s death was but how suspenseful and nerve-wracking the time after his death was, when we didn’t know whether or not the Muppets would be able to go on, is indelibly burned into my brain.  And as I remember the confusion and uncertainty of that time, and the anxiety that it caused me personally, I cannot understand–cannot begin to fathom–how anyone could be so callous as to create that kind of heartbreaking and nerve-wracking situation purposely, artificially, and–most of all–unnecessarily. 

I cannot imagine why anyone, especially those who remember the aftermath of Jim Henson’s death, wouldn’t have done everything in their power to prevent that kind of situation happening again at all costs.

(I know that there are others among you who remember Jim Henson’s death.  I invite you to share your stories in the comments.)

 

 

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*And I want to state unequivocally that it was because Steve’s Kermit voice had improved during that time that I stopped being distracted; as to that, there is no doubt in my mind.  I didn’t do multiple viewings of Muppet Christmas Carol, and I saw very little–if any–other new Muppet material during that timeframe from 1990-1996.  So it wasn’t that my ears were becoming more attuned to Steve; if anything, my ears were re-attuned to Jim because I had been watching The Muppet Movie over and over during that time.  Even now, comparing Steve’s Kermit voice between MCC and MTI, I detect a notable difference between the former and the latter–an evolution, if you will.

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