Salient Themes: Duality

Mercury revolves around our mutual parent sun in such a way that one face is always turned toward the sun and is brilliantly lit and burningly hot; and the other side is always turned toward the cold dark of interstellar space.  But Mercury oscillates slightly on its axis, and thereby sunside and nightside are integrated by a temperate zone which knows both heat and cold, light and dark. So the two disparate sides of Mercury are not separated by a chasm; the temperate zone mediates […]  thereby making wholeness instead of brokenness.”
                  –Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season

I see this as a theme in a lot of Jim Henson’s work; the disparate halves of light and dark, warm and cold, inward vision and outward vision.  And while I don’t claim to know what he thought and felt about things–while I always have to be very careful not to assume that I know–the fact that the theme showed up as often as it did in his work implies that he thought a lot about it, and perhaps he struggled to find that temperate zone between dayside and nightside.

This duality is present all through Jim’s work with the Muppets.  It can reach the greatest possible heights of silliness, with explosions, boomerang fish, and characters eating each other, but it can also plumb the greatest depths of poignant emotion.

On Fraggle Rock, Jim played two different characters: Cantus and Convincing John–or, as I call them, the sage and the showman.  I think that each represented a different facet of his personality.

(As an aside, I’m always amused by the fact that Convincing John’s baloobius, i.e. the tuft of fur at the end of his tail, doesn’t match the color of the hair on his head.  The implication being that he dyes his hair.  I think that’s hilarious.)

When you watch Jim Henson in interviews–particularly when he doesn’t have a puppet in his hands–he always seems very gentle and soft-spoken and often somewhat ill at ease, with a simultaneously endearing and infuriating habit of putting his hands up by his mouth, often muffling his words somewhat.  In interviews, I find Jim to be very much the sage; for example, here’s an interview in which he makes some very farsighted predictions about the future of television technology.  This interview is also interesting because you can see the difference between the way that Jim casually chats and laughs a bit with the people in the room before the interview starts, and after it ends, with his more calm and serious demeanor during the interview itself.

But he could also be a showman.  There was a pitch reel–which, unfortunately, I can no longer find–for an early iteration of The Jim Henson Hour wherein Jim himself gets up and gives a pitch for this kooky TV show he wants to make, with a rotating schedule of content.  From what I remember of it, he seemed much more comfortable in front of the camera (perhaps because he was working from a script and not answering questions extemporaneously); he assumed something of the energy, the gestures, and the vocal tone of the carnival barker, and his hands never went anywhere near his mouth.  It’s a completely different attitude from that which he has in interviews.  So, which is the “real” Jim Henson–the showman or the sage?

Well, that’s the thing–they’re both real.  Or, in a sense, neither is real because a human being is more than the sum of his multiple facets.

There are other examples of this duality in Jim Henson’s work–Bert and Ernie come to mind–but perhaps the most dramatic example is the Skeksis and the Mystics (or urRu) in The Dark Crystal.

(WARNING: Thirty-five-year-old spoilers ahead.)

The first time I ever saw The Dark Crystal was fairly recently, within the last five years or so.  I was completely blown away by it.  At first the story seems like a rather familiar story of good versus evil.  We have our protagonist Jen who–like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter–is a lonely young orphan, fostered by the gentle urRu after his parents were killed, with a special destiny to go on a quest and defeat evil by finding a MacGuffin, in this case the crystal shard with which he is to heal the eponymous Dark Crystal, by which the Skeksis will apparently be vanquished.

Ah, but then Jim Henson throws us a curveball: it turns out that the Skeksis and the urRu are actually the same creatures, unnaturally split apart when the Crystal was broken, and when Jen heals the Crystal at the time of the Great Conjunction of the three suns, he sets off a chain reaction that reintegrates the two divided halves–Skeksis and urRu–back into their singular selves; the glorious UrSkeks.

This is not a straightforward story about good and evil after all.  The Skeksis and the urRu need each other.  One cannot live without the other.  Without the Skeksis, the urRu lack agency.  Without the urRu, the Skeksis lack moral fiber.  It’s not that the Skeksis are evil and the urRu are good.  The real evil is the division between them.  

This is an old idea–dating at least as far back as Plato–with far-reaching social, political, historical, etc. implications around the world–but it’s applicable to the situation  that we, as Muppet fans, are in now with regard to the Schism between Disney and Steve Whitmire.

It is not, as one faction might argue, that Kermit is good but Steve is evil.  Nor is it, as another faction might argue, that Steve is good but Disney is evil.  It is not that one faction of Muppet fans are good and any and all other factions are evil.  But in each case, whenever we stop cooperating and start competing, whenever we start believing that some people’s contributions are not necessary or not important, whenever we start thinking, “I am right; therefore, anyone who disagrees with me is automatically wrong”…those are the things that divide us, and it is the division itself that is inherently evil.  As Dumbledore says at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

So how do we bridge the chasm between sunside and nightside?  How do we find the temperate zone that moderates the two?  How do we move from brokenness to wholeness without subordinating one side or the other?

The reason I started this blog is because I think it is imperative to keep the conversation going in a civilized way; to firmly but gently probe and palpate the bruises, the open wounds, and the recently formed scar tissue–not with the object of causing more pain but with the goal of diagnosing and treating the wounds that this Schism has caused.  

At the same time, I think it is equally imperative to respect and validate opinions with which we disagree.  All too often–not only as Muppet fans, but as human beings–we fall into the trap of thinking, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”  We assume that the dissenter must necessarily be wrong.  We equate “having a different opinion” with “having a bias.”  We regard anyone who disagrees with us as an evil enemy.  I’m as guilty of that as anyone, by the way.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way.  It is possible to see things from another point of view without losing your own, and it is possible to recognize a valid viewpoint while still disagreeing with it.  The more we are able to have a respectful dialogue, and try to see things from another point of view, the closer we can move toward a consensus.  

If there’s one thing that I have in common with Jim Henson, it’s that I’m averse to conflict of any kind.  And speaking strictly for myself, the reason why I’m conflict-averse is that I’m terrified of losing my temper.  I’ve always seen myself as something akin to Jekyll and Hyde, or the Incredible Hulk; when I get angry, it’s as though I turn into a completely different person, and I’m terrified of what I might say and whom I might hurt while in that angered state.  And I do work on trying to integrate the light and dark sides, and to channel whatever anger I feel constructively–to turn a negative into a positive–but it’s a constant struggle.

That’s why I prefer to write a blog, so I have the chance to rethink and revise my words before they are published, and also, so that I don’t come across as spamming other blogs and forums through lengthy, in-depth analysis.  

It doesn’t come easily or naturally to me to jump into the fray and take the risk of being provoked into that angry state that I so fear, but if it helps to get–or to keep–the dialogue going, it’s well worth the risk.

Fraggle Friday: “A Friend is a Friend”

This is from episode 304, The Grapes of Generosity:

I assume that most people reading this know what’s going on in this episode, but just in case there are some other latecomers to the Fraggle party, I’ll give a brief synopsis:  Gobo discovers the magical Grapes of Generosity, which are so delicious that he refuses to share them with his friends.  As karmic retribution for his selfishness, Gobo becomes weightless as a result–because apparently Fraggle karma doesn’t follow any discernible logic.

The puppetry in this is quite impressive.  If I get the chance, I’d like to ask Steve Whitmire how it was all done.  I recognize a few effects, ChromaKey being the most obvious, and at one point it looks like they’re using a “throwable” Gobo, and towards the end, it sort of looks like Jerry was on a different, higher level from where Steve was on the floor.  So I can kind of piece it together from what I can see, but it’s always interesting to get the real behind-the-scenes story.

This song is an example of what I was talking about earlier in the week, about the otherwise indecisive Wembley always sticking up for his friends.  It’s interesting that when Wembley stops to think about what is the right thing to do, he gets bogged down by indecision, but when he reacts instinctively in defense of a friend, his instincts are always spot-on.  

I envy him that.  I have to put a little more thought into things.

For example, I have a personal policy of not feeding internet trolls.  It’s tempting to fight back, and I’ve been known to succumb to the temptation, but since they feed off of attention, to fight back against them is only to make them stronger and hand them weapons.  The only way to win is not to play.

But then, what to do when a friend is being harassed by a troll?  I observed just such a situation earlier this week, and it posed a bit of a dilemma.  On the one hand, I had just got done talking about Wembley not standing by when someone is being bullied, and I felt it was incumbent upon me to follow Wembley’s example.  On the other hand, feeding the troll could make things worse for everybody.  Ultimately, I decided to ignore the troll completely but address a comment to my friend with words of support and encouragement.

As another example, what do you do when someone you care about has been accused of something awful?  

There was a time in my life when I suspected one of my dearest friends of untoward behavior based on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.  This is the first time I’ve ever been able to talk about it outside of a confessional.  I can’t even go into detail about what happened; it’s just too embarrassing.  

(Also, it requires too much exposition to be worth my time or yours.)

Suffice it to say, I was relieved when my friend turned out to be innocent, but I was wracked with guilt for having assumed the worst of him, especially for what turned out to be really no good reason at all.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to ask him about what happened instead of flying off the handle making baseless accusations, and I think I was successful in not letting on what I had been thinking about him–and, as far as I know, he still doesn’t know.

Nevertheless, I felt burdened by the knowledge that I had committed an act of betrayal against someone that I loved, even if it was only in the secret recesses of my innermost heart.  I had no one to blame but my own foolishness and credulity; it was entirely my own fault.  I never want to feel that way again.  So I decided that, from that moment on, I would rather give someone that I care about the benefit of the doubt and risk being proven wrong than to automatically assume the worst.  

Therefore, if somebody accuses someone whom I respect and admire of “unacceptable business conduct” or “brinksmanship,” etc., the burden of proof is on the accuser(s).  If they want to convince me, they’d better be able (and willing) to produce some incontrovertible evidence.  

I’ll check with Sam the Eagle but, as far as I know, in this country we’re all still innocent until proven guilty.

The False Dilemma Between Steve and Matt

“‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ creeps in this petty pace from day to day.
I trust you’ll understand the reference to another Scottish tragedy
Without my having to name the play.

They think me Macbeth; ambition is my folly.
I’m a polymath, a pain in the ass–a massive pain.”
                        –Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda, lyricist)

It may seem like a bit of a strain to apply Hamilton lyrics to the Schism, but I use this particular passage to illustrate the unfortunate attitude of some in the Muppet community who have been unfairly characterizing Matt Vogel as some sort of undertalented, opportunistic usurper of the throne.  I condemn this attitude out of hand; not only is it cruel and unfair to Matt, but it makes no sense: Matt has no more control over who does or doesn’t get hired than Steve does.  

(Now that I think about it, you know what else doesn’t make any sense?  My equating Matt with Alexander Hamilton.  Steve is clearly Hamilton in this whole scenario.  There’s not a comfortable analogue to Matt at all–at least, not as far as I can see.  But I digress.)

Conversely, in other factions of the Muppet fan community, support for Steve Whitmire is sometimes being interpreted as disrespect toward Matt Vogel, and if one expresses the desire for Steve to go on performing Kermit, it is sometimes interpreted as a vote of no-confidence in Matt.  

Let me state unequivocably that, as far as I am concerned, nothing could be further from the truth.  I have complete confidence in Matt’s abilities and, more importantly, in his good intentions.  In fact, I’ve felt a little sorry for him as all this has played out; Disney has put him in a terribly awkward position.

Though Matt has a fairly significant footprint on social media, he has not commented publicly upon the Schism one way or another–at least, not that I am aware of.  Whether he has remained silent voluntarily or Disney has imposed a gag order on him, I don’t know.  If it is his own choice to remain silent, I completely respect that.  However, I don’t think he’ll be able to avoid it forever.  Eventually, Kermit is going to have to start doing interviews again and, given journalists’ penchant for asking Muppets uncomfortable questions, sooner or later someone is going to ask Vogel!Kermit about Steve.  What is he supposed to say?  

Even looking at this from an executive’s point of view and considering it strictly as a personnel decision, by every objective measure, Steve is simply more qualified for the job of performing Kermit–not for performing in general, you understand, but specifically for performing Kermitthan Matt is.  That is not to say that Matt is unqualified by any means; on the contrary, it is more to say that Matt’s time and talents would be better served elsewhere, like performing Jerry Nelson’s characters–in accordance with Jerry’s own wishes.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s think like an executive and take a look at the job description:  Kermit is supposed to be able to talk about working with Jim Henson. Kermit is expected to be able to reminisce about working on The Muppet Show.  On both counts–and through no fault of his own–Matt lacks the experience that Steve has in these areas.

Matt’s a qualified puppeteer.  No one is disputing that.  If it was a matter of necessity, I think he would be an excellent candidate to perform Kermit.  But there’s the rub; it wasn’t necessary.  Even if you take Disney’s vague rationale at face value, even if you genuinely believe that they were justified in dismissing Steve, the irrefutable fact is that they had a choice in the matter.  For better or worse, they made their choice, and now they’re going to have to deal with the consequences, as all responsible adults must.

But I do feel sorry for Matt.  I see him as a victim in all this too.  As terrible as Steve’s situation is, at least he’s free now to speak his mind.  On the other hand, Matt has been thrust into a situation over which he has no control and put on the frontlines in the charge to recreate the Muppets in Disney’s image.  And I imagine that the circumstances of Steve’s dismissal must be hanging over Matt like the sword of Damocles: do a good job–play it the company way–or we’ll serve you the way we served Steve.

I support Steve and I will keep fighting for him, no matter what.  I support Matt equally.  If he does his best performing Kermit–and I have no doubt that he will–I will be grateful to him, just as I have been grateful to Steve for all these years.

Substitute teacher day

As I said yesterday, there are things going on in my life right now to which I need to attend, so I don’t necessarily have time to write long, thought-out posts at the moment, as much as I would like to.  So today, it’s sort of like when you’re in school and your regular teacher is gone and, to fill the time, you get to watch a movie.  

But don’t worry, I’m leaving you in the capable hands of Jim Henson, Frank Oz, and Michael Frith.  If only all substitute teachers were this cool.

(No offense to any real-life substitute teachers out there.  You have a thankless job, and I commend you.)

What follows is an interview that dates from either 1989 or early 1990, in the days of the original Disney deal, that was given for the benefit of the design team at Disney to teach them how to render the Muppets in other media.  They focus on some of the major Muppets, one by one, and talk about each one’s characterization and background.

I hope you find it as fascinating as I do:

Some points of particular interest:

20:29–Frank Oz discussing the issue of “switching” performers and says that it is not done in the Muppets, that the same performer always performs the same character, affirming what Steve Whitmire said on his blog early on about the Muppets not being interchangeable.

24:30–Frank asks Jim about Rowlf’s piano playing–does someone provide both hands when Rowlf plays piano?  Jim says that Steve provides both hands “when we really want to get accurate” and calls Steve “a great piano player.”  I thought this was especially nice since Steve has said elsewhere that providing Rowlf’s piano-playing hands has been some of his favorite work with the Muppets.

The Violence Committed Against Kermit the Frog


“I don’t think you’re a bad man, Doc.  But I think if you look in your heart, you’ll find you really want to let me and my friends go, to follow our dream.  But if that’s not the kind of man you are, and what I’m saying doesn’t make any sense to you, well then…go ahead and kill me.”–Kermit the Frog, The Muppet Movie (1979)

There was a documentary on Jim Henson that was made in 1999, and in the middle of writing my previous post, I suddenly remembered that I had a segment of it tucked away in a playlist on YouTube wherein Steve talks a little about what happened when he first took up the mantle of performing Kermit.  So I looked it up just now because I thought it might be helpful to me.  And because I hadn’t seen it in several years, I kept watching it after the bit with Steve was over, and heard Frank Oz say that Steve “had to get in the soul of Jim to be Kermit.”

At that moment, I had an epiphany.  All this time, I’ve been angry and sad and upset about how Disney has been treating Steve.  Suddenly, the true horror of this situation finally hit me; it’s not just that Disney has mistreated Steve, it’s that they’ve mistreated Kermit.

The puppeteer is the soul of the character; I knew that before, but I hadn’t fully realized all the implications of it.  You can’t just take away someone’s soul.  You can’t fire someone’s soul; you can’t replace someone’s soul; you can’t audition for a new soul.  What Disney has done to Kermit–to Kermit–is an act of violation, comparable to the Dementor’s Kiss; or, to use an example from within the Jim Henson universe, analogous with the splitting of the urSkeks in The Dark Crystal.  

When viewed in that light, how could anyone greet the recasting news with indifference or  unconcern, with cautious optimism–or even, as some are doing, with enthusiastic anticipation?  How could anyone be resigned to this unspeakable act of violence against our beloved frog?  Steve has gotten a lot of flak for speaking out about it on his blog.  I’ve felt that that was unfair all along, but having had this epiphany, I don’t see how any reasonable person could expect him to stay silent; how can anyone who claims to love the Muppets stand silently by and watch as our lifelong friend, Kermit the Frog, is being eviscerated?

Of course, Disney owns the rights to the characters, so they are at liberty to cast whomever they want in whatever role.  And I imagine that their rationale was that, since Muppet characters have been recast before, it wouldn’t make much difference.  There’s no denying that characters have been successfully recast before; it is inevitable in a “franchise” (how I hate that word!) that’s over 60 years old, and if the characters are to survive in perpetuity, all of them will eventually have to be recast.  

Nevertheless, there’s a difference: in the past, the recasts happened in an organic way.  It happened out of necessity, and the main performers were allowed to have a say in who would be their replacement.  

This is completely different.  It’s arbitrary, cynical, and self-serving.  But most of all, it’s unnecessarily cruel.

 

Change versus growth; or being “real”

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.)

The Impossible Dream

Frog Quixote

Welcome to my quixotic Muppet blog!  Why don’t I get things started by answering some questions that you, the reader, may or may not be wondering:

Who am I?
My name is Mary Arlene, sometimes spelled Arline–it’s a long story (see below).  For more information about me, please click here.

What is my quest?
Okay, at this point I’m not sure if that’s a serious question or if you–hypothetical reader–are just quoting Monty Python at me.  But it doesn’t matter, because my answer is the same either way.

My quest–specifically as a Muppet blogger, but also generally as a human being–can best be expressed by the lyrics to the song “The Impossible Dream” from the musical Man of La Mancha.  I’d like to pull out a few lines that I find particularly pertinent to what I’m trying to accomplish here:

To dream the impossible dream / to fight the unbeatable foe / to bear with unbearable sorrow … to right the unrightable wrong … to fight for the right without question or pause / to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause.”

Why a Muppet blog?
I used to write about Muppets a lot on my other blog.  Eventually, one of my friends–perhaps growing tired of my preoccupation–suggested that I start a dedicated Muppet blog.  It sounded like a fun idea.  Because of my background, I believed then–as I believe now–that I have a unique fan perspective on the Muppets that would provide an interesting counterpoint to the other Muppet fan sites that are out there. (See also “Why do I call myself a ‘Muppet Heretic'” below.)  But what with one thing and another, I never got around to it.

However, with recent schism (hereafter to be known as “the Schism”) between the Disney-owned Muppet Studios and longtime puppeteer Steve Whitmire, and the subsequent smear campaign waged in the press against Steve Whitmire, I felt the need to do my part to show my support for Steve and try to counteract all the negativity being directed toward him, both in the press and among the fan community.  

Why do I call myself a “Muppet Heretic”?
Partly because it fits in with my Don Quixote/Man of La Mancha theme, but it’s an idea that dates all the way back to when I first considered starting a Muppet blog in 2013.

To truly understand  why I call myself a “Muppet Heretic,” you have to understand something about my background.

I was born in 1980, at the peak of Muppet mania.  I’ve been a Muppet fan all my life, but during my formative years, I had limited access to them.  When The Muppet Movie was released in theaters, I was not yet born.  When The Muppet Show was wrapping up, I was still an infant.  And although I was just the right age for Fraggle Rock when it premiered in 1983, my family could not afford cable, so as a kid, I knew the Fraggle characters mostly from the Weekly Reader series of picture books to which we somehow obtained a subscription–which I enjoyed very much but, to paraphrase Billy Joel, you can’t get the sound from a story in a picture book, aimed at your average kid.  My first exposure to the Muppets was from Sesame Street, because it was available for free over the air; therefore, it was Sesame Street that really shaped my concept of what the Muppets were.

My secondary exposure to the Muppets was from the movies, but they weren’t readily available to me at first, either.  We did go see The Muppets Take Manhattan in the theater when I was four years old, but in retrospect, I think I was too young for it.  I got bored halfway through and turned around in my seat to watch the light from the projector–which is just as well, because if I had been paying attention when Kermit gets hit by a car, I don’t think I would have ever recovered.  Eventually, I had access to the Muppet movies through home video, but I think it was 1986 before we could afford to buy a VCR.  (And the first video we ever rented was Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird.)

So my experience with the Muppets was different from that of the typical Muppet fan my age.  For example, I knew all the words to “The Rainbow Connection” before I even knew that there WAS a Muppet Movie, because my older siblings knew it and used to sing it to me all the time, long before I ever got a chance to see the film.  As another example, I was 33 years old before I ever got to see Fraggle Rock in its entirety, although I had seen one episode at a friend’s house when I was six or seven.

While I’ve been a Muppet fan all my life, I only became involved in the online Muppet fan community around 2011 or so.  And on becoming involved, I came to the uncomfortable realization that my Muppet fan opinions seem to be out of step with the mainstream Muppet fandom.  For example, I think Sesame Street is funnier than The Muppet Show.  I like Muppet Treasure Island more than I like The Muppet Christmas Carol (which is not to say that I think Treasure Island is better, per se; just that I find it more enjoyable).  I like Muppets from Space more than I like The Muppets Take Manhattan (which has as much to do with the happy memories I have of watching Muppets from Space with friends in college than anything having to do with the movie itself).  I like The Dark Crystal more than Labyrinth.  I don’t have a single problem with A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie that I don’t also have with the original, non-Muppet It’s a Wonderful Life.  And I tend to be less critical and more forgiving of post-Jim Henson Muppet projects than ones in which Jim was actually involved.

These are relatively minor Muppet heresies.  I committed to a more major one in the summer of 2017.  For 27 years prior to that, I believed–as most people probably did, and do–that Jim Henson’s children were the best qualified to represent his posthumous wishes.  I no longer believe that.

I first began to have doubts when the Muppets were sold to Disney in 2004.  This seemed like a terrible idea to me, but on the other hand, I know that Jim was in the process of selling his company to Disney when he died, so I was willing to give the Henson children the benefit of the doubt that they honestly believed they were going along with what Jim would have wanted.

But the final straw came in July 2017 when the Henson children sided with Disney and against Steve Whitmire in the Schism.  Whether this was a coordinated effort between Disney and the Hensons, or Disney was just exploiting the Hensons for its own gain, I don’t know–but it certainly had the effect desired by Disney of discrediting Steve.  After a bit of soul-searching, wherein I tried to look at the matter from every angle and think about not just what was said but how it was said, I lost all faith in the Hensons’ good intentions.

What can you expect to find on this blog?
My primary purpose in this blog is to provide analysis and commentary on Muppet and Henson-related projects, both past and present.  I have some ideas for regular article series that I would like to feature.  For example, in 2013 I had a project on my other blog that I called “Year of Bert & Ernie,” wherein I posted a Bert & Ernie sketch every weekday.  Since that time, the official Sesame Street website has been overhauled and most of my links are now dead, and I’d like to rebuild that archive if at all possible.  I’d like to implement “Fraggle Fridays” wherein I give my impressions on Fraggle Rock from the perspective of someone who only got to see it as an adult.  I’d like to analyze salient themes within Jim Henson’s body of work, and I’d like to explore my Muppet heresies in more detail.

My secondary purpose in this blog is to analyze the Schism objectively, to explore my feelings about it subjectively, to expand upon ideas that were too long and detailed to express as comments in Steve’s blog, to hold Disney and the Hensons accountable for their words and actions, and–as noted above–to show my unequivocal support for Steve Whitmire and do my small part to try to counteract all the negativity against him.

What can you NOT expect to see on this blog?

  • You cannot expect to see interviews with Muppets/Muppet performers.  Given my unabashedly critical stance with regard to  both Disney and JHC, it is extremely unlikely that they will allow me to speak directly or indirectly with any of the Muppet characters or performers.  ToughPigs and The Muppet Mindset have some good interviews; if that’s what you’re looking for, I recommend you check those out.
  • You cannot contact Steve Whitmire or gain contact information for him from this blog.  I’m just a fan of Steve’s; I’m not affiliated with him, have never met him, and only know him through his blog and his work with the Muppets.  I don’t have his contact information, and I wouldn’t give it out even if I did.
  • You will not see undue criticism of, or personal attacks against, Matt Vogel and/or the other Muppet performers.  Matt Vogel is a talented puppeteer.  I have tremendous respect for him.  What’s happening now with the Muppet Studios is not his fault.  The same goes for the other Muppet performers.  They have enough to worry about without me, or anyone else, sitting on the sidelines telling them how to do their jobs.  I will treat them with nothing less than the respect they deserve, and I will hold all readers/commenters to the same standard.
  • Don’t expect to see spamming, flaming, trolling, or bullying of any kind.  Let me make one thing perfectly clear: Commenting on my blog, or anyone else’s, is a privilege–NOT a right.  If this privilege is abused on my blog, it will be suspended with or without advance notice and with or without explanation.  Respectful disagreement will be tolerated; rude, inappropriate, or hateful comments will not.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!!!

Is my name spelled “Arlene” or “Arline”?
At this point, either spelling is acceptable.

“Arlene” is actually my middle name; per my birth certificate, it is spelled A-R-L-E-N-E.  I was named for my grandmother, whose middle name was “Arline”–pronounced the same, but spelled differently.  My parents changed the spelling of my name to give me my own sense of identity.

When I started getting serious about blogging about ten years ago, I wanted a screen name that sounded professional and felt like it belonged to me.  I hit upon the idea of using my middle name as though it were my last name.  In honor of my grandmother, I decided to use her spelling of “Arline.”

When Steve Whitmire started his blog, and I started commenting on it, I decided to go back to spelling my name “Arlene” for the purpose.  After all the joy he’s given me over the years as a Muppet performer, I wanted to make a gift of my true name to him.  Unfortunately, I didn’t take into consideration that I would also be making a gift of my true name to everyone else who reads it.  Oops.

When I decided to start this blog, I decided–in the interest of consistency with my comments on Steve’s blog–to tie my true name to it instead of using my grandmother’s spelling, as I have done elsewhere on the Web.  Alas, when I was choosing a user name, I found that “maryarlene” was already taken, so I was forced to use “maryarline”.  *sigh*

Why a Muppet blog NOW?
With all the terrible things going on in the world, am I really worried about the integrity of a bunch of puppets?

Frankly, yes.  Let me explain:

In the first place,  I think what’s happening in the Muppet world right now is a sort of microcosm of what’s happening in the nation and the world at large.  I think the same forces that led to Steve Whitmire’s dismissal from the Muppets–corporate greed, lack of accountability, and victim-blaming propaganda–are the same forces have caused a lot of the problems going on in the larger world at the moment.

In the second place, what happens to the Muppets matters…because the Muppets are a force for good in the world, and I’m sure we can all agree the world needs all the forces for good that it can get.  Jim Henson once identified one of his business objectives as “work for [the] common good of all mankind.”  Even Fraggle Rock, that cute little TV show for kids, that delightfully silly, lighthearted, whimsical, colorful, musical romp, was created for the express purpose of bringing about world peace.  Jim Henson never did anything without a larger and more meaningful purpose behind it, and that purpose is still meaningful today–arguably more so than ever.

In the third place, none of us can vanquish all the evils in this world singlehandedly; if we try, we just tire ourselves out.  We each have to pick our battles.  We each need to go where we can do the most good.  We each need to invest our talents where they will be the most useful and produce the best return.

In Steve Whitmire, I see a good man who has been the victim of a grave injustice.  While he should be praised and honored for taking a principled stance and speaking out against a corrupt corporation, he has instead been bullied, harassed, and unjustly persecuted.  When I look at the Muppet community as a whole, I see an alarming number of his so-called “fans” turning against him while people who really ought to know better turn a blind eye and a deaf ear.  

I can’t cure all the ills of this world singlehandedly, but I can make my stand alongside someone whom I respect and admire, and raise my voice in the cause of justice and integrity.  And by standing up for justice and integrity in this one specific circumstance, I will help to advance the cause of justice and integrity globally.*

And if all that fails, at least I can share some fun Muppet videos, and we can all have a good laugh.

*(This is a reference to a book called The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle, who also wrote A Wrinkle in Time.  She has a whole theory about how we can combat evil and accomplish good in the world by working on small, local, specific problems rather than large global issues.  I will elaborate on this later.