Sesame Saturday: Ernie prepares for a possible flood

The weatherman on the radio predicts a chance of rain.  Ernie starts by grabbing an umbrella to take to the library, but then gets carried away:

This is a somewhat unusual sketch in that usually the camera stays static during Bert and Ernie sketches, but in this one it pans along with Ernie.

The thing that makes this sketch for me is the sound of Ernie’s galoshes.  Whether that was foley work or Jim Henson just literally put on a pair of galoshes, I don’t know, but the sound is hilarious.

There was once a young man of my acquaintance who went through a growth spurt and all his pant legs (trouser legs, if you prefer) were suddenly three inches too short.  His classmates made fun of him and asked him if he was expecting a flood.  He told me about it and I said, “Just say, ‘Yes, and when the flood comes, I will be ready and you will not, and I will laugh in your homely faces!  HA, ha ha ha!'”  He thought that was funny but, as it happens, schoolyard taunts go in and out of fashion like most things, and he never got to use it.  So I’m using it here instead, because I thought it was a pretty good comeback, if I do say so myself.

This is all in good fun, but I see that they are having literal flooding in Oklahoma right now, and that’s no laughing matter.  Stay safe, everyone.  My thoughts and prayers are with you.

 

Thank You and Welcome

Before I forget, I want to be sure and say “thank you” to Jarrod Fairclough for featuring my article “30 Years Late to the Fraggle Party” on The Muppet Mindset.  I’ve been a fan of the Mindset for some time and even contributed some articles in the past.  Thank you for your support, Jarrod; I’m grateful for the opportunity to reach out to more Muppet fans!

To those of you who may have surfed over from the Mindset, welcome!  Consider yourself at home.  Let me show you around a little and point out some features of interest:

For an introduction to this site and an in-depth explanation of what I hope to accomplish, click here.

For more detailed, and somewhat random, biographical information about me, click here.

For my policy on comments, either scroll down to the widget at the bottom of the page, or click here.

To watch Bert and Ernie make comments as they watch an aquarium filled with goldfish that go “mulm-mulm-mulm,” click here.

 

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.

Salient Themes: Jim Henson versus bullies

“Dear Mr. Dionne: 
              What the fuck are you talking about?
                                                       Yours truly,
                                                       Jim Henson”
–Response to the 1960s equivalent of an Internet troll (quoted in Jim Henson: The Biography)

Well, last night I received my first insulting comment on this blog–and, to be honest, I was a little disappointed; it was a pretty pathetic effort.  In the ’60s, when trolls actually had to put pen to paper and make an effort to insult someone, people like Jim Henson got classy insults referencing ancient Roman emperors.  Now that people’s attention spans are limited to 140 characters, all the creativity has gone out of gratuitous insults.  Sad! 

However, in a way I’m glad it happened, because now this seems like an opportune moment to examine how Jim Henson related to bullies, both in his life and in his work.  

Jim was famously averse to conflict.  In Jim Henson: The Biography, Brian Jay Jones tells a story about how Jim would create an excuse to fly to London rather than get involved in a dispute within his legal department in New York.  From that anecdote, I think a person could get the impression that Jim was prone to be passive in his dealings with others.  But I think that impression would be false, or at least incomplete.  

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that–interestingly enough–Jim was similar to Wembley Fraggle in his approach to interpersonal conflict.  On Fraggle Rock, when there’s a disagreement or dispute among his friends, Wembley becomes paralyzed with indecision, not wanting to upset or disappoint any of his friends by choosing one side over the other.  On the other hand, deep down inside, Wembley has the ability to stand up for himself–and it comes out when the situation is truly dire, as it did in the matter of the mean genie.  Moreover, Wembley will never stand silently by while someone else is being bullied.  Whether it’s the miniscule Cotterpin Doozer, the gigantic Junior Gorg,* or anyone in between, if Wembley sees somebody being victimized, he will immediately rush to his/her defense.  It’s interesting to examine a previously unconsidered link between Jim Henson and Wembley because Steve Whitmire–Wembley himself–recently told a story on his blog about how Jim once stood up to some Disney lawyers on his (Steve’s) behalf.

In spite of his aversion to conflict, Jim was also known for his determination.  He was capable of standing up for himself if he felt he was being mistreated.  The early days of the original Disney deal were something of a love fest, but eventually the honeymoon period was over, and Jim found himself “in combat with [Disney’s] business affairs people,” as he put it.  Frustrated, Jim wrote the following in a letter to Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg:

“The tone of the negotiations does not seem to me to be the way two parties should be relating to each other if they intend to go into a long term relationship. […] The kind of deal I like is one in which both parties try to arrive at a fair settlement and everyone walks away satisfied.  […]  My impression is that Disney is standing firm on all issues, assuming that my company is committed to this deal and thus we will eventually cave in.  This is not a wise assumption.”–(quoted in Jim Henson: The Biography, my emphasis)

Oooooooh.  Here’s a guy who’s willing to go toe-to-toe with two of the most powerful and influential men in show business.  Cross Jim Henson at your own peril.

Another way that Jim dealt with bullies was through his work.  His sketches, especially those variety-show staples that predate The Muppet Show, often featured a situation in which one character would throw its weight around by harassing another–usually smaller–character.  Like in the story of David and Goliath, however, the bullying character usually–if not always–gets its comeuppance from the smaller character.  Here are some examples:

Early sketches:
Jim used this theme in a couple of sketches that he performed in Hamburg, Germany at the US Department of Agriculture’s US Food Fair in 1961.  One was a sketch about an army drill team being put through their paces by a nasty drill sergeant barking out unintelligible orders; at the end, the drill team turns around and blows the sergeant away.  In another sketch, a group of characters–denoted only by the puppeteers’ gloved hands–listens calmly to some soothing (read: “boring”) elevator music.  Another character comes along and spices things up with some band music.  The other characters attack the dissenter, beat up on him (her? it?), and destroy his radio equipment…however, things don’t end well for them.  Neither of these sketches have any dialogue, which is lucky, because the following footage has no audio:


(The drill team footage starts at 00:59; the other sketch starts at 02:39.)

Java:
In “Java,” a creature that appears to be a living dryer hose does a dance number, while a smaller creature wants to join in, sort of like a younger sibling tagging alongside an older sibling, like I did when I was a little kid.  Unfortunately, the larger creature is less tolerant than my older siblings were of me…to its detriment:

Hugga Wugga:

“Do not take my sunshine away!”  The way that little creature phrases it, it almost sounds like a threat–or at least a warning.

Beautiful Day:


“You are so awful that it is truly beautiful.  You’ve probably worked all your life to be perfectly awful–year after year–to be just as bad as possible, and now all of your toil and self-sacrifice has paid off! […] In fact, you are the perfect example of beautiful awfulness!”  Generally speaking, my policy is not to feed internet trolls, but sometimes I’m tempted to try this on some of the trolls plaguing Steve Whitmire’s blog.

The Muppet Movie:
But perhaps the most triumphant example of standing up to bullies in all of Jim Henson’s work is the climactic “showdown” scene of The Muppet Movie.  Threatened with a sadistic choice by Doc Hopper–either sell his soul to a small corporation or be gunned down where he stands–Kermit appeals to Hopper’s humanity and sense of decency:

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.  But Hopper gets what’s coming to him anyway in what–to me–is the greatest and most Muppet-y moment of all time:


Not even the lousy video quality and strange, floating window-blind reflection can ruin this moment!

So…to all those who want to come onto my own blog to try to tear me down, this is your last warning:  You cannot hurt me.  There is nothing you can say to me that I haven’t heard before.  

In the past, I have endured verbal abuse that would make the Access Hollywood bus tape sound like a scene from Downton Abbey.  You think you can hurt my feelings by calling me a “moron”?  Please.  My classmates came up with more creative insults than that in the fourth grade.  

I’m a grown woman, and I’ve put up with more than my fair share of bullying nonsense in my life.  I’m not going to put up with yours.  I’m not going to indulge your pettiness and cruelty.  I’m not going to give you a platform from which you can attempt to build yourself up by tearing others down.  

You have no power over me.

 

_____________________________
*Yes, I’m aware that, in the episode I referenced, Junior Gorg had temporarily been rendered Fraggle-sized, but the point I am trying to make is that Wembley will stick up for a victim of bullying regardless of the victim’s size, color, species, etc.

Sesame Saturday: Rebuilding my Bert and Ernie archive, one week at a time

Sesame Street is special to me.  Way back in the day, before the capability to call up virtually every Muppet performance ever done with the click of a mouse, Sesame Street was the most reliable–and sometimes only–source of Muppet content available to me.  Even after I learned to read and count, I continued watching it when I could–i.e., whenever I wasn’t in school–for several years.

In fact, there was a brief span of time when I had started school but my younger brother hadn’t yet–he is two and a half years younger than me–and he would watch Sesame Street while I was at school and then report to me what had happened when I got home. I don’t think I asked him to do that either; he just knew I would be interested.  I remember him singing me a song that Don Music had apparently sung that day, of which the title and only lyric seemed to be “You’ll be so flabbergasted!”  

(Since the advent of YouTube, I’ve been looking for that clip ever since, to no avail.  I don’t suppose anyone out there has access to it, do you?  If someone could get it to me, I’d be eternally grateful–just so I know that I didn’t dream it.)  Thank you to reader/commenter Mike, who was able to find the clip on YouTube and was gracious enough to share it.  Check it out below:

It’s always interesting to me to find out what other people’s favorite Muppet/Sesame Street characters are, and why.  I think it oftentimes reveals a lot about the person because we tend to project our own characteristics and traits onto the Muppets with which we identify.  For example, Street Gang author Michael Davis sees Grover as a middle child because Davis, himself, is a middle child and identified Grover’s…persistence as an expression of the middle child’s desperation for parental attention.  That raises the question of who/where Grover’s other siblings are, but it doesn’t really matter; Davis needs Grover to be a middle child, and so Grover is a middle child for him.  The Muppets are kind of like Batman in that respect; they can be whatever we need them to be.

As for me, my favorite Sesame Street characters are Bert and Ernie, because they remind me so much of myself and my older sister.  

For nine years, my sister was sort of in the catbird seat in our family; being the youngest child and the only girl, she had the privilege of having a bedroom all to herself, whereas the two boys had to share.  

Then I came along and ruined all that.

Not that she ever put it to me that way, but I think that may have been in her mind on occasion.   Now she was no longer the only girl and had to share her bedroom.  And even though she was (usually) accommodating and solicitous of me, I think she resented her loss of privacy–understandably so, I should say.  Not only that, but a couple years later when my younger brother was born, my sister became the middle child.  It was sort of a double-whammy.

Anyway, when I was five and my sister was fourteen, the dynamic between us could be very similar to the character dynamic between Bert and Ernie.  I never meant to be obnoxious, but I hero-worshipped my three older siblings so much that I wanted to spend all my time around them, doing what they did, which wasn’t always convenient for them.  To be fair, for the most part the three of them were very indulgent with me and didn’t mind me tagging along, but my sister’s patience with me would usually wear out right around bedtime.  Much like in Bert and Ernie sketches, I’d be all tucked into my bed, and some sort of profoundly philosophical, preschooler sort of thought would come into my head, and I’d want to talk to her about it, and–just like Bert–she would say, “Mary, go to sleeeeep!”

I’ve felt for years now that Bert and Ernie’s comedy stylings are underappreciated, so in 2013 I embarked on an endeavor to celebrate their comedic chops by posting at least one Bert and Ernie sketch in my old blog every weekday for one year.  I made a very conscientious decision to use clips from the official Sesame Street website or YouTube channel whenever possible, out of respect for their copyrights.  

Well, no good deed goes unpunished, as it turns out, because sometime in the intervening four years, the official website has been revamped and all of the links I made to their website are now dead.  So now I’m on a mission to find those clips on YouTube–whether they’re on the official Sesame Street channel or wherever they may be–and post them again.

In today’s selections, the comedy stems directly from the fact that Bert and Ernie are puppets:

ASIDE:  While on the Sesame Street YouTube channel, I took a look at the Season 47 sizzle reel.  About 30 seconds in, Grover appears to cause a snowstorm by means of a magical sneeze and says, “Snow in the fall?  How is this possible?”  It made me laugh out loud; clearly Grover has never been to South Dakota, where we routinely incorporate snow boots into our Halloween costumes.

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.