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.

WWJHD?

“What would Jim Henson do?”

Before I embark on my Muppet blogging journey, I have to consider this question carefully, along with all that it implies.

I think the question itself is a good question to ask, not only for us Muppet fans but for everybody.  If more people would ask themselves that question, it would go a long way towards solving a lot of problems in the world.

But while I think asking the question is a useful exercise, I also think that we Muppet fans set ourselves up for disappointment when we convince ourselves that we know the answer.  And when we start informing others that we know what the answer is–what the answer must be–that’s when we start getting into real trouble.

We Muppet fans are clairvoyants–or, at least, we’d like to believe we are.  We’ve all made lofty claims about what Jim Henson would say or do in a particular situation.  We’ve all confidently expressed what Jim would think of one Muppet project or another.  And amazingly enough, “Jim Henson’s” opinion on the given topic always seems to align perfectly with our own opinion of it.  What an unbelievable coincidence!

Of course, what we assert so confidently as “Jim Henson’s” opinion doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Jim at all.  It’s often only a reflection of our own views that we ascribe to Jim Henson in order to validate our opinions to others–and perhaps to ourselves.  I’ll be the first to admit that I’m as guilty of this as anyone; however, while it may be misguidedly intended as a token of respect, ultimately it is unfair to Jim because he’s not around to defend himself or assert his own opinions anymore.

My point is that no human being can ever really know what’s in the heart and mind of another; the best that any of us can ever do is make an educated guess.  Granted, some people have more information with which to inform an opinion because they knew Jim personally, and their conclusions can be given more weight than those of the random Muppet fan.  Nevertheless, none of them are infallible–not the people who worked with Jim or even members of his own family.

So what am I driving at with all this?  If you and I, hypothetical reader, are going to journey together down this path of Muppet probosculation, I must lay a charge on myself and one on you.  I charge myself always to think twice whenever I’m tempted to make an assertion about what Jim Henson would say or think or do, to ask myself, “do I really believe that this is what Jim would think, or is this really just what I think?”  And if I ever do conjecture about what Jim would think or say or do, I charge myself to back it up with evidence (i.e., quotations, interviews, etc.) whenever possible, with the knowledge that even the evidence available to me may be incomplete or misleading.

As for you, hypothetical reader, I charge you to listen critically, read critically, and think critically about the things that people say about Jim Henson–regardless of who they are or how closely they may be related to Jim.  Whenever someone claims to know what Jim Henson would say or do or think–whether it’s a member of the Henson family, a former co-worker of Jim’s, a random fan, or even a Muppet blogger like me–I charge you not to take it blindly at face value.  First, consider the source; second, see how it fits with what we already know to be true about Jim.

 

JIM HENSON

Creator of the Muppets Jim Henson poses in his 69th Street office in New York City on Dec. 30, 1985. (AP Photo/Burnett)

 

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.