Just in case anybody else needed the reminder. 🙂
(Well, so much for the peaceful, quiet relaxation.)
First it was a migraine, then it was personal/professional issues…maybe there are forces out there that don’t want me to say what I was originally going to say about the Fraggle Rock episode “Manny’s Land of Carpets.” Or maybe last week, or even yesterday, just wasn’t the acceptable time for me to be able to do it full justice. In any case, I think I’m ready now, and I feel compelled to revisit my original ideas about this episode:
GOBO: Why does the Wish-Granting Creature promise so many things in so many different voices? Something’s wrong here! […] I wish I knew which voice to believe.
GOBO: All of a sudden, I know which voice to listen to!
We live in a schizophrenic society. There are more voices now than ever before, all saying different things and all with different–and often sinister, or at least selfish–motivations. We live in a world in which foreign agitators promulgate fake news stories across social media platforms to influence our elections. We–well, I and at least some of you–live in a country in which those in authority try to undermine the credibility of those journalists who are actively TRYING to be truthful–or, at least, accurate–by disingenuously calling them “fake news.”
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’ve had a rotten week and I could do with some peaceful, quiet relaxation:
When I heard that Disney’s rationale for dismissing Steve Whitmire from the Muppet Studios was “unacceptable business conduct,” I laughed–loudly and derisively, without mirth.
Paging Mr. Kettle: Phone call from the Walt Disney Company regarding your color!
Disney’s shady business dealings are the stuff of legend. They could fill several books–and have. What follows is not intended to be a comprehensive account of Disney’s propensity for screwing people over. We’ve got a loooong journey ahead of us; this is just the first step.
This is an example of what I was talking about yesterday; it seems to me that it takes way too long for Bert to figure out that Ernie is going to take a bath.
Today, while doing research online, I found a quiz that was put together a week ago by Slate Magazine asking the reader to identify (by voice) the puppeteer performing Kermit in various audio clips.
Sarcastically, I thought, “Oh, that’s nice. Turn Steve’s professional tragedy into a party game.”
But I took the quiz anyway, hoping to prove the point that, as wonderful as Matt is, he doesn’t sound anywhere near as much like Jim as some people would like to believe he does.
“Christine Nelson [daughter of Muppet performer Jerry Nelson] would die of complications from cystic fibrosis at age twenty-two. Jim attended the service, his presence quietly reassuring Nelson–but Jim’s actions always spoke louder than any words. Several years earlier, when Henson Associates’ insurance provider had notified Jim that it would no longer be paying all of Christine’s medical expenses, Jim had insisted that Henson Associates change insurance companies to ensure her costs would continue to be fully covered. Nelson had gone to Jim’s office and tearfully thanked him in person, nearly choking on emotion. ‘Jerry,’ said Jim, smiling, ‘that’s what insurance companies are for.'”
–Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson: The Biography, pages 322-323
Happy birthday to Steve Whitmire and Jim Henson! Steve, this year you get top billing; I don’t think Jim would mind. 🙂
I’m sure there are probably other examples of Jim and Steve singing together in harmony, but I can’t think of any of the top of my head, and it doesn’t matter because this one is probably the best anyway.
This is a song from Kermit…and FOR Kermit:
What follows is an open letter to Steve Whitmire:
Although I am a child of the ’80s, Fraggle Rock was, regrettably, not a significant part of my childhood. I saw bits and pieces of it back in the day, but I never got to watch the series in its entirety until 2013–although I’ve been trying to make up for lost time ever since. In a way, though, I think I’m kind of lucky because I think that maybe I get more out of watching Fraggle Rock as an adult, bringing my education and life experience to it, than I would have as a kid–a relatively blank slate.
Be that as it may, I identify strongly with Mokey. Her abstract, fanciful, introspective approach to life, and her idealistic worldview, remind me a lot of myself. In particular, however, I relate to Mokey in this episode of Fraggle Rock, in which she attempts to discern her vocation. I’ve been trying to discern mine for 37 years, and I still haven’t quite figured it out.
CANTUS: Listening is the first step and the last step.
MOKEY: Ohhh…then I’m on the LAST step!
CANTUS: YOU…haven’t even begun.
MOKEY: Well, I’m already there! I mean…what about the ping?
CANTUS: The ping is the start, but then comes the beginning.
–“Mokey and the Minstrels” Fraggle Rock, (Jocelyn Stevenson, screenwriter)
It’s been almost two months since I started this blog, and while I’ve created quite a bit of content that I can be proud of, in a way I still feel like I haven’t even really begun.
Someone posted the following video in the Muppet Pundit comments. Steve has yet to talk about it, so I don’t know all of the backstory, but it appears that Steve returned to his old high school in 1988 with some of his characters (Muppet and otherwise) in tow to participate in a concert of some sort.
Take it, Wembley:
I have another confession to make: in all my years of studying literature, I’ve found that, a lot of times, I don’t think that an author’s–or, in a broader sense, an artist’s–most celebrated or well-known work is necessarily their best. I read The Red Badge of Courage in grad school and was underwhelmed by it; my favorite Stephen Crane work is called The Monster; you’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s utterly brilliant. Similarly, I love Madeleine L’Engle, and I love A Wrinkle in Time, but it was a early novel of hers, and I think her later works show a growth and a maturity that is missing in Wrinkle, as wonderful as it is and as much as I have always loved it.
My point is that “My Way” is so famous and so popular, and arguably so overexposed, that I’ve never been that impressed with it. In fact, I’m not sure if I ever really paid attention to the lyrics before. But watching Wembley sing this little duet, the lyrics suddenly smacked me in the face, particularly the last verse:
“For what is a man? What has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels.”
Those lyrics might have been written for and about Steve; that’s exactly what he’s doing on his blog, and he’s taken–and continues to take–the blows for it.
And now for something completely different.
Today I was in the early stages of thinking about a new “Salient Themes” post which, if it makes it to the publication stage, will involve Herry Monster, that gruff but lovable stalwart of ’80s Sesame Street.
That reminded me that I recently read that Funko had released a Herry Monster toy (it happened almost six months ago, but I only read it recently). Which is very cool even though, like most Funko Pop figures, it has black, soulless eyes that look ready to swallow you whole. But still, Herry needs more merchandising love, so let’s take what we can get.
I sneaked a quick peek at the responses on the forum, and they were talking about Herry’s pink-striped pants and whether we actually ever got to see them on the show itself. And that reminded me: not only does Herry not wear pants on the show (as far as I know), but sometimes Herry doesn’t even have legs.
Look at this sketch in which Herry is sitting and talking with Edith Ann (Lily Tomlin) in her gigantic chair:
You could assume that he is kneeling on the chair, with his legs tucked under him (that’s probably how I interpreted it when I was a kid), but in that case, wouldn’t he have …I don’t know…knees?
In this one, Herry plays a butterfly in the school pageant about the lepidopteran life-cycle, and at the end he is hoisted into the air on a fly system, and it is readily apparent that he does not have any legs:
Didn’t they know ahead of time that Herry was going to be flying? Why didn’t anyone think to build him any legs? This is what happens when you let someone other than Prairie Dawn run the school pageant.
So I started getting quasi-philosophical about all this, and I thought, “Well, Sesame has always been good about including people/characters with disabilities; maybe from that we’re just supposed to assume that Herry just doesn’t have any legs, and they never bring it up because it’s not a big deal.”
But then I remembered the Monsterpiece Theatre sketch “Chariots of Fur,” in which Herry and Grover run down the beach together to awesomely inspirational music. Running typically requires legs, and in this instance Herry does have them, and we get several close-ups of them:
So has Herry been to a prosthetist since the butterfly pageant? Or maybe Herry doesn’t have legs, but the character he’s playing in “Chariots of Fur” does have legs, and Herry is just that good an actor!
I just blew your minds, didn’t I? 😉
“I am the culmination of one man’s dream. This is not ego or vanity, but when Doctor Soong created me, he added to the substance of the universe. If, by your experiments, I am destroyed, something unique – something wonderful – will be lost. I cannot permit that. I must protect his dream.“
–Lt. Commander Data, “The Measure of a Man,” Star Trek: The Next Generation (Melinda Snodgrass, screenwriter)
Star Trek: The Next Generation is my favorite Star Trek series, and “The Measure of a Man” is my favorite TNG episode.
If you’re not familiar, here is a very good 10-minute synopsis of the episode that hits all the important points:
The episode is so resonant and so relevant and so applicable to so many real-life issues as we continue to have debates about human rights with regard to torture, immigration, racism, GLBT issues, etc.
I don’t want to diminish in any way its applicability to the biggest and most fundamental issues that we face as a society, but I realized yesterday, as I was pulling the quotation for that other post, that it can be applied as an analogy to the Schism as well.
In this analogy, Kermit is Data–unable to assert his own rights and being treated like a commodity rather than an entity. Captain Picard comes to Data’s defense just as Steve comes to Kermit’s defense, so Steve is Captain Picard. There is also a case to be made that Steve is analogous to Data since Steve is “on trial,” after a fashion, in the court of public opinion, but since Kermit is a puppet who relies on a puppeteer for his life, that still kind of works.
In the episode, the villain is Commander Maddox, who wants to put Data through a dangerous and unnecessary diagnostic procedure to achieve his own ends–which, to be fair, are somewhat noble: advancing knowledge in the field of cybernetics. In the Schism, the villain is Disney, which views Kermit as a commodity and will get rid of anyone who attempts to get in the way of their profit margin. Therefore, Disney is the analogue to Commander Maddox, although Commander Maddox is arguably more noble when all is said and done.
The Henson children (collectively) are Admiral Nakamura, in that Admiral Nakamura supports Maddox just as the Hensons went along with Disney in its smear campaign against Steve. Admiral Nakamura’s involvement in this episode is minor, appearing only in the first 15 minutes or so, and the Hensons should have limited their involvement in the Schism as well. If I were to compare the Hensons to someone not appearing in this episode, I would compare them to Norah Satie, whom we meet two seasons later in “The Drumhead.”
Ultimately, it is Guinan (played by Whoopi Goldberg) who gives Captain Picard the inspiration he needs to see the big picture, to make the most compelling argument possible and win the case. We’re getting into a whole weird metaphysical area here, but I would say that Jim Henson is Guinan in this analogy.
Perhaps most interestingly, I would argue that Matt Vogel is Commander Riker in this scenario, forced to prosecute the case against his friend Data due to a lack of legal staff at the starbase. At first he refuses outright:
LOUVOIS: And the unenviable task of prosecuting this case would fall on you, Commander, as the next most senior officer of the defendant’s ship.“
RIKER: “I can’t! I…I won’t! Data’s my comrade. We have served together. I not only respect him, I consider him my friend!“
But when Louvois tells him that she will rule summarily against Data if Riker does not prosecute the case, Riker reluctantly agrees, and does his duty with regard to presenting the most damaging case against Data that he can possibly come up with, even though we, in the audience, can see that it is tearing him up inside.
And what of Louvois, the Starfleet JAG officer tasked with trying the case? I would say that the Muppet fans (collectively) are Louvois. I don’t know, though. Louvois eventually comes around, but it remains to be seen whether the fans will.
But what is perhaps the most interesting of all to me: Look back up at that quote with which I opened this post. Sub in the words “Jim Henson” for “Dr. Soong,” and it sounds like something that Kermit and Steve would say together, seamlessly blending into one another. It’s not something that Kermit would say, or something that Steve would say; but it’s something that they would both say together, as one, with no division between them, so that you can’t tell where Kermit ends and Steve begins, or vice versa.
(Incidentally, I bet Andy Serkis gets called a “voice actor” a lot too. Sad!)
“How many of you are parents? If you are, then in all likelihood, you view your children as your most important ‘creations’, your ultimate concern, your life’s work. It doesn’t matter how old they get, or if they are adopted, you’re still going to do all that you can to protect them forever, to give them a safe place to grow and be themselves. That’s how I view the Muppets.”
–Steve Whitmire, “Acceptance, Fear & Hope” (August 1, 2017)
Even for those of us who aren’t parents, this lovely analogy from Steve offers us a lot of insight as to why he feels the way he does, why he’s made the choices that he has, and why he refuses to stop fighting. Therefore, I think that it is worthwhile to dig into it a little, to try to unpack it and see what new understanding we can uncover.
Potentially the most damning allegation against Steve in this whole smear campaign is the claim that he “blackballed” puppeteers that auditioned with Disney when Disney wanted to cast multiple performers for singular Muppet characters. Steve has addressed the issue on his blog and made it clear that, while he has been outspoken about character integrity and was one of the loudest critics of the “multicasting” initiative, he never had any authority when it comes to Disney’s hiring decisions…which makes sense, when you think about it, because if he did have that kind of power and authority, wouldn’t he have been able to, I don’t know…un-fire himself?
Nevertheless, it’s an idea that has gained some traction, and the people who want to discredit Steve just love to paint a lurid picture of Big Mean Stevie, throwing his weight around and acting too big for his britches, callously crushing the hopes of the innocent little puppeteers who dared to dream of working with the Muppets. It’s an idea that’s so insidious, it has even planted some seeds of doubt in the minds of some of Steve’s staunchest supporters.
To be perfectly clear: I do NOT give any credence to these allegations of Steve blackballing fellow puppeteers. But even if some inconvertible evidence were to come to light proving that he did so, I can see how he would feel justified in doing so. When viewed through the prism of this parent/child metaphor, the alleged behavior that has been characterized as “blackballing” theoretically seems like a reasonable and responsible reaction.
Consider this scenario: let’s say that you are married with one or more children (if–like me–you are not, then just pretend). And let us further assume that your in-laws are the interfering type, and so they get it into their heads to hire a babysitter for your kids–without your knowledge or consent. So all of a sudden the doorbell rings and there’s the babysitter that your in-laws hired standing on the doorstep saying, “Hi, I’m here to take care of your kids!” Would you welcome this babysitter into your home? Would you entrust him or her with the care of your children?
Of course you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t leave your children in the care of a total stranger. Instead, you would ask the prospective babysitter to leave. And it wouldn’t be a reflection on the babysitter herself (or himself); for all you know, the babysitter could be qualified and competent. But you wouldn’t know, because you wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to vet the babysitter yourself. To entrust the care of your children, in your home, to an untested stranger would be irresponsible parenting, if not outright negligence.
And if you are a nice person (and I assume that you probably are) you might well feel sorry for the babysitter, who was led to believe that he/she had a job lined up, only to have it fall through at the last minute, by no fault of his/her own, because someone who was not the parent of the child(ren) overstepped their boundaries.* Still, in that case it would be the in-laws who misled the babysitter, made the babysitter promises that they couldn’t keep. You couldn’t take the responsibility for their inappropriate actions. And you certainly couldn’t potentially endanger the well-being of your children, and the sanctity of your home, just to spare the babysitter’s feelings.
Just to be perfectly clear, in the preceding analogy, Steve is the parent, the Muppets are the children, Disney/Muppets Studio are the meddling grandparents, and the aspiring puppeteers are the prospective babysitter. The aspiring puppeteers may have felt ill-treated, and it is appropriate to feel sorry for them, but let us just keep in mind that it was Disney that falsely raised their expectations and made them promises that it couldn’t–or, at least, didn’t–keep.
At this point, I’d just like to restate Steve’s thesis statement, putting it into my own words as I understand it: Steve sees his responsibility to the Muppets as being comparable to that of a parent to his children, and even if some of his “children”–for example, Kermit and Beaker–are “adopted,” that doesn’t lessen his love and concern for them, and it certainly doesn’t lessen the responsibility that he feels toward them.
If that’s the case, then when Steve got the call from Disney last October saying that his puppeteering services would no longer be required, I imagine that it must have felt similar to being a parent and having Social Services just show up at your door one day–with no advance notice or warning, mind you–and announce that they had arrived to take your kids away.**
Imagine that you were a parent in that scenario. Would you just give up? Let it go? Move on with your life? Of course you wouldn’t! You would speak up. You would fight back against the injustice of it. You would do everything you could think of to get your kids back, no matter what the cost. Even if it were hopeless, you would have to explore every legal avenue and try everything that you possibly could…because you would know that if you didn’t, you would never be able to look yourself in the mirror again, and you would spend the rest of your life wondering if there was more that you could have done. Most of all, you would do it because you would know that your children would be counting on you to do the best that you could for their sake.
Moreover, if you didn’t try–if you didn’t make an effort–if you just passively accepted the decision, wouldn’t that only go to support the original argument that you were an unfit parent, because you apparently didn’t care enough to fight back?
Now, instead of imagining that you’re the parent, imagine instead that you are acquainted with a parent in this situation. And let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you believe the allegations to be true, that you believe that the parent is unfit. Would you say so to his face? Would you tell him to give it up, let it go, move on with his life, stop digging himself in deeper? Would you tell him that the kids are probably better off, and that he’s only hurting himself by prolonging the inevitable?
Assuming, as I have already done, that you are a nice person, I don’t think you would do any of those things. Even if you believed those things, it would be unnecessarily cruel to say them to his face.
Would you talk about the beleaguered parent behind his back? Would you post messages about him on a public Internet forum that, for all you know, he could very well be reading? Would it make a difference if you knew, or suspected, that he was reading it? That’s a trickier thing to answer; it’s a lot less cut-and-dried.
As Muppet fans, I think we should be discussing this issue. As I’ve said before, I started this blog in the interest of keeping the conversation going, to promote a dialogue in the interest of fostering understanding, rather than trying to sweep it under the rug. Because, as my beloved Phil Dunphy points out on Modern Family, in that scenario, eventually you end up with a lumpy rug.
(“It becomes a tripping hazard…”)
But at the same time, I think it is important to remember, first of all, that Steve is a part of our community; second–and most importantly–he is also a human being with feelings. As a rule, I would never say or write or post anything about Steve that I would be ashamed to say to his face. You never know what he might be reading, and when.
And by the way, that policy of not posting anything online that I wouldn’t say to Steve’s face goes for all the other players in this sad little drama as well. Disney presents itself to the public as a monolith, and so that is how I treat it, but I do try to be mindful of the Hensons as human beings and try to be sensitive about their feelings with regards to their father and the pain they must still feel over losing him. Nevertheless, I’m not going to afford them any special privileges on that account; I’m not going to hold back on calling them out on their hypocrisy in this matter just because they are Jim’s children. Some people may think that I’ve been overly harsh or critical in that regard, but I stand by every syllable that I’ve put out there in regard to the Hensons. They shouldn’t dish it out if they can’t take it.
If I regret anything that I’ve said about anyone in this scenario, it’s what I said about Matt Vogel after his Kermit video dropped. In this whole extended metaphor of parents/children, I view Matt’s role as that of a “foster parent,” taking care of Kermit for an undetermined period of time in the hopes that his “adoptive father” (Steve) will someday be allowed by “Social Services” (Disney) to take custody of Kermit and his other “children” (Beaker, Rizzo, etc.) once again.
Ideally, that’s the goal of the foster care system. In reality, of course, it rarely works out so neatly, and it seems unlikely to do so in this scenario either. Especially since Disney, the analogue to Social Services in this scenario, is more like Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford from Sweeney Todd than a modern-day social worker.
To those outside the Muppet fan community, and perhaps even to a few within it, it may seem overly precious or self-indulgent for a puppeteer to regard his characters as his “children.” But Steve’s not the only one who has said something to that effect. No less a personage than Mr. Caroll Spinney, performer of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, has said on more than one occasion that he regards Big Bird as his child.
The documentary about Mr. Spinney, I Am Big Bird, tells a story about when the Big Bird puppet was vandalized. The Sesame cast was on tour, they were rehearsing on a college campus and had the local ROTC contingent guard the unoccupied Big Bird puppet while they went out to lunch. Whether the ROTC students were temporarily possessed by some destructive demon or they were just horrible people at baseline, I don’t know, but apparently they thought it would be neat to have some of Big Bird’s feathers as souvenirs. And then, what might have seemed at first like a harmless prank escalated into something like a scene from Lord of the Flies. They plucked one side of Big Bird bare, they tried to remove one of his eyes and, when they couldn’t do that, they left it “broken and hanging off.” Then they apparently got bored of the brutality and left him lying on the ground.
Mr. Spinney describes the aftermath thus: “[Big Bird] was lying in the dirt, and I saw it and I burst into tears. It was like seeing my child raped and thrown on the ground and destroyed.”
I think most feeling people, if they have any sort of connection to Sesame Street at all, would have been moved by the gruesomeness of this senseless brutality against Big Bird. But as I have argued elsewhere, Kermit the Frog has recently suffered an act of cruelty and violation at the hands of Disney that is just as senseless and just as brutal. However, since it involves injuries to the soul of the character instead of to the outward, physical manifestation of the character, I think it is harder for people to understand or to take as seriously as the concrete, observable reality of a vandalized puppet.
Let’s go back to our extended metaphor and carry it to the other logical extreme: Have any of you ever had an elderly loved one suffer from dementia? If you have, then you know how painful it is to watch as someone you love slowly loses himself (or herself) and everything that makes them who they are. You know how disturbing it is to look into their eyes and see a stranger looking back at you.
That’s sort of how I view Kermit now, as someone that I love suffering from sudden-onset dementia. Just like that, all of Kermit’s memories of the Muppet Show days, and especially his memories of working with Jim, are all second-hand. Not only that, but his memories of everything that happened before the Muppet Show are now third-hand.
And at the risk of sounding like a scratched CD or a poorly buffered audio file (which I imagine are the 21st-century equivalents of a “broken record”), this is not, in any way, a criticism of Matt. I’m sure Matt is well versed in Muppet lore at baseline and will do his due diligence to keep Kermit conversant in his own history. Nevertheless, I fear that now, as Data says in the very best episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, those memories will be “reduced to the mere facts of the events. The substance, the flavor of the moment, could be lost.”
The attitude that really infuriates me from other fans is the idea that Steve is somehow being selfish or self-serving by wanting to regain custody of his Muppet “children.” To go back to the metaphor, any parent would try to get their kids back if they were taken away…and granted, some of them might do so for selfish reasons, but the overwhelming majority would do so out of concern for their children and a wish to protect them.
Furthermore, if trying to exert authority as to how Kermit is handled by Disney makes one selfish, then Jim Henson–according to that logic–was the most selfish bastard ever to come down the pike. Because, in the days of the original Disney deal, Jim wanted Kermit to have a separate, privileged status from the other Muppet characters. As told by Brian Jay Jones in The Biography:
“While Jim was prepared to hand over all of the Muppets to Disney, he didn’t intend for Kermit to go with them unconditionally. He was too important. ‘Kermit should be treated in the negotiations as a separate issue,’ recommended a confidential Henson Associates memo. ‘Since Kermit the Frog is so closely associated with Jim Henson, Jim must have control over the use of Kermit.’ For Disney, however, getting the Muppets without the free use of Kermit was like getting the cast of Peanuts without Snoopy. For the moment, Kermit was in a kind of legal limbo as both sides tried to figure out, Solomon-like, how to split the million-dollar baby.” (page 446, emphasis in original)
No one would admit to it now, of course, because nobody wants to speak ill of the dead, but I’d be willing to bet that some of the people working on the Disney side of the deal thought that Jim was making “outrageous demands” and being “difficult to work with.”
It’s clear from Jane Henson’s words in 1990 that Jim intended Steve to be Kermit’s “guardian” in the event that something happened to him. And regardless of what Brian Henson thinks about it now, he’s the one who appointed Steve as Kermit’s guardian after Jim passed away. Based on what little evidence that Disney has offered as to Steve’s alleged “unfitness,” it looks to me that Steve was fired for doing exactly what Jim Henson intended and expected him to do: not only to keep Kermit alive, but to care for him and protect him, as any parent or guardian would.
*This actually happened to me once when I was about 12 or 13. It’s a long story, as so many of my stories seem to be.
**”Like in The Sims,” I was going to say, but even in the Sims games, they usually give you one warning before the social worker comes.