Yesterday I posted an edited version of an essay I wrote in 2012 about what Jim Henson means to me. It was interesting, and a little poignant, to revisit a piece of writing like that, five years after the fact. I revised it before publishing it again: some things were no longer relevant, some of the points seemed extraneous, and some of the writing seemed inelegant.
But I cut out the part about the immediate aftermath of Jim Henson’s death, when Kermit’s–and all the Muppets’–fate hung in the balance, and how it all turned out all right because Steve Whitmire was there to step up and perform Kermit. While I wanted to keep that praise of Steve in there, ultimately I left the whole paragraph out because, in the aftermath of the Schism, it was just too painful to revisit. It was still a raw wound.
Or so I decided last night. I woke up at 5:00 this morning with the sudden realization that one of my stated purposes in starting this blog was to show my support for Steve, but by cutting out that paragraph wherein I praised him, I wasn’t doing a very good job of it. If Disney were paying attention, they could probably twist that so that it would cast a doubtful light on my sincerity.
Sometimes, in order to diagnose and treat an injury, you have to poke at the tender spots. In order to show my support for Steve, I need to be willing to examine those raw emotions. So here goes.
Here’s the paragraph in question from my original essay, unedited. This is exactly what I wrote in 2012:
“At the time, I wasn’t sure which was the worst-case scenario: a world without Kermit, or a Kermit who wasn’t “really” Kermit. I remember that, more than anything, two questions dominated my thoughts as I tried to comprehend this tragedy: would someone else take over performing Kermit? And if so, would it be the same Kermit I knew and loved? I sometimes wish that there was a way that I could go back in time and reassure my nearly-ten-year-old self that the answer to both questions was “yes,” thanks to the superlative Steve Whitmire, for whom I have nothing but the utmost respect.”
“Superlative” is the highest compliment that I can give. The word “superlative” can be used not only be used to modify nouns, it also modifies other adjectives, denoting “the highest degree of comparison.” When I say that someone or something is “superlative,” it means that I’ve weighed many other adjectives and found them all insufficient to express my enthusiasm or highest regard.
I’ve always had the utmost respect for Steve Whitmire. Even when things were a little rough with him performing Kermit at the beginning, I appreciated that he was doing his best to keep Kermit alive. Later on, I found out from interviews how difficult it was for him to take up the responsibility and what it took for him to get to that point, and it increased my appreciation and gratitude exponentially.
At the time that Jim Henson died, when I was somewhere between the ages of nine and ten, I was preoccupied with figuring out what was “real,” and I had very rigid views about what was “real” and what was not when it came to books and movies and stuff. Take, for example, The Little Mermaid: prior to the animated movie, I was familiar with the original story by Hans Christian Andersen. And I hated it because it was so sad. The animated version provided the happy ending that I so desired. So, which was the “real” version? Was the original story “real” because it came first, or was the animated movie “real” because it had a more satisfying ending? I spent a lot of time contemplating questions like that. It seemed vitally important to me to firmly establish which version was “real” and which was not.
(Ironically enough, now that I’m an adult, Hans Christian Andersen’s original version of The Little Mermaid has a lot more resonance for me. But that’s a whole other story.)
Eventually, of course, I grew up; I matured, I went to college, I started studying literature, and I developed a much more fluid notion of what was “real,” and I began to be able to accept the notion that multiple versions of a given thing could be “real.” As another example, take Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The first version of A Christmas Carol that I ever saw was–I’m sorry to have to say–the Disney version, entitled “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.” For better or worse, it informed my concept of what A Christmas Carol was supposed to be. While it’s reasonably faithful to the original story, it doesn’t lift the original text straight out of the story. It takes a much lighter approach than most versions, and there are elements of parody and humor. When I was older and saw other, different productions of the same story, I was shocked and disturbed by how dark and scary and humorless they were.
When The Muppet Christmas Carol came out, I expected it–alas–to be closer to “Mickey’s Christmas Carol” in tone. Actually, what I was really expecting was the “Monsterpiece Theater” version of A Christmas Carol, heavy on parody and silliness. But while it did have a somewhat lighter touch than some versions, ultimately Muppet Christmas Carol is more or less a straight adaptation of the original story. This is not a criticism, I hasten to add; merely an observation. It’s not that I don’t like Muppet Christmas Carol or think that it is bad; it’s just to say that it is different from what I expected.
But my point is that, unavoidably, I’ve seen so many versions of A Christmas Carol that I gave up trying to decide which is the “real” version. I can appreciate now that, so long as the story is recognizable, and the characters are consistent, there can be multiple “real” versions, and I can appreciate each of them for the good that they have to offer.
But I’m realizing more and more–not only in regard to the Muppets, but any time you’re trying to tell a story–that consistency of character is key. An audience will forgive a lot of faults if the characters are acting in a way that is believable and consistent, but if not, it doesn’t matter if all the other story elements are in place and firing on all cylinders; if the characters aren’t consistent, the audience generally isn’t going to buy it. That’s why the “Han shot first” issue is so hotly debated in the Star Wars fandom. That’s the moment that tells us who Han Solo is: that he’s pragmatic, morally ambiguous, and not afraid to use violent means in the cause of self-preservation. And yes, he grows beyond that over the course of the series, but that’s the foundation on which he is built. Take away the foundation, and the whole structure collapes.
My point is that, when Steve took over from Jim, Kermit wasn’t immediately polished and perfect, but he was still real. He was still consistent with what we knew him to be, so we were able to forgive a lot and be patient and trust that Kermit was going to come back into his own and continue to grow and evolve and build up from the foundation that was laid by Jim.
Kermit himself actually addressed the issue very beautifully in an interview in 2011. When asked how he “gauged success,” Kermit answered, “I just try to be myself and stay myself and […] grow and evolve with the times, but stay based on who I am […] Not change, just grow.”
(I invite you to watch the whole interview, below. It is both candid and charming; a beautiful example of what I said elsewhere about Jim Henson giving the whole world license to make believe through his creations.)