The Garth Brooks episode of Muppets Tonight

I was thinking about this recently because Garth Brooks came to Sioux Falls last month and gave nine concerts over the course of two weekends.  I didn’t get to go, but it was impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of it all.

I only got to watch the first season of Muppets Tonight, before it skipped over to a cable channel, but of that first season, the Garth Brooks episode is the most memorable for me for several reasons; some lighthearted and some more serious.

This isn’t the entire episode, but it’s the section most relevant to what I’m going to discuss:

At the time that this episode aired, I was 15 years old and was involved in a production of Fiddler on the Roof at our high school.  (Not on stage; I played second clarinet in the pit band.  At first, I was bummed about not being cast in the play, as I had auditioned, but apparently the band director had asked for me specifically for the pit band, so that made it a little better.)  Anyway, for that reason I was really tickled watching this episode when Garth Brooks started singing “If I Were a Rich Man,” although I was disappointed that he didn’t do the Tevye dance.

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Looking at what I don’t see

“With a war of words in the press with the Hensons, Disney executives will never be held accountable for mediocre creative directions that lay at their feet, or for the way I have been treated.  After literally refuting every one of Brian’s allegations on paper throughout the night, I cannot bring myself to send it to the media out of respect for Jim. No matter how carefully I frame it, because I know so much about them, it feels like a counterattack that might do real personal damage. […] I will continue to speak about the issues surrounding my dismissal by Disney, but I cannot in good conscience speak against my mentor’s children. It flies in the face of a great man’s philosophy of watching out for each other and loving and forgiving everybody.”
                     –Steve Whitmire “The Last Few Days, Part 1,” July 22, 2017

Rarely have I seen a better practical, real-life example of someone “turning the other cheek” (cf. Matthew 5:38-39)  than this example of Steve refusing to fight back against the unwarranted personal attacks leveled against him by the Henson children.  It tells me everything I need to know about who Steve is as a person and completely validates the faith and trust that I have invested in him.

And yet, while I understand and agree with Steve’s personal decision not to retaliate against the Hensons, I nevertheless feel that the Hensons should be held accountable for their words and actions.  As responsible adults, we all understand (or, at least, we should understand) that actions have consequences, and one cannot reasonably expect to be held to a different standard due to the high regard in which people hold one’s late father.  In fact, it is precisely because of the high regard in which we hold Jim Henson that his children ought to be held to account, because their actions are reflecting badly on him, and he’s no longer able to defend himself or assert his own point of view.

I agree with Steve that it is inappropriate for him to criticize the Hensons, for the reasons that he stated, but I don’t think it necessarily follows that the Hensons should not be criticized at all.  If I criticize the Hensons, it is unlikely to turn into a war of words, as I doubt that they would consider refuting me to be worth their time.  I have already provided well-reasoned, well-researched criticism of Disney and will continue to do so; therefore, I do not anticipate that anything that I have to say about the Hensons will distract from the Disney critique but rather show it in sharper relief.  Moreover, since I do not know the Hensons personally, I doubt very seriously that my criticism of them would have the potential to do “real personal damage.”

Which is not to say that anything and everything about the Hensons is fair game.  I have always been mindful of the inexpressible pain that they must have felt, and presumably still feel, about the loss of their father, and I will always try to be sensitive of that, as I always have.   And yet, I look to the example of Jon Stewart who, when he was hosting The Daily Show, had a talent for knowing what was foul and what was fair, for calling people on their hypocrisy without hitting below the belt.  And if Jon Stewart were still hosting The Daily Show, I would like to think (though, of course, I have no way of knowing) that he would have devoted some time–not a lot of time, mind you, maybe just five minutes of the show on July 17th or July 18th–to go over to camera 3 and say, “Seriously, what the hell, Hensons?”

So that’s what I’m trying to do now.  More than that, however, I’m just trying to work through the negative feelings of hurt and betrayal that I myself feel over the Hensons’ words and actions.  These negative feelings are burdensome to me, a stumbling block that I will have to get over if I have any hope of being able to move past these issues towards the forgiveness which Jim Henson himself advocated. 

If Steve is reading this, I hope that he will understand my rationale for doing what he has nobly refused to do and forgive me if I am out of line in doing so.

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“I don’t want to forget”

“Five minutes into the [Hollywood Bowl] show, and I forgot that he had a new performer – Kermit was just Kermit.”
            –Joe Hennes, “REPORT: The Muppets Take the Bowl,” ToughPigs.com, September 12, 2017

I’m genuinely happy for Joe that he enjoyed the show, and the same goes for anyone who attended and enjoyed it.

But this is exactly why I don’t want to watch clips from the Hollywood Bowl show; not because I think it won’t be good, but because I’m afraid it will be good.

The last two months have been terrible in so many ways, and yet they’ve brought to my life a sense of purpose that I haven’t felt in a long time.

I don’t want that to go away.  I don’t want to forget.

 

 

 

One of these things is not like the others…

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.  

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“…the lovers, the dreamers, and me.”

What follows is a clip from a 2014 benefit screening of Muppets Most Wanted at the White House for military families.  Kermit speaks eloquently to the children of military personnel about the challenges they face:

You know, I’ve watched a lot of interviews with Kermit, and Steve as well, and one question that comes up a lot is who are their favorite celebrities that they’ve met and worked with.  And, speaking strictly for myself, any or all of the Obamas would be near the top of the list.  But I imagine that getting to do things to help kids–like this, or like the Labor Day telethon, or Make-A-Wish visits–would be the most rewarding part of being a Muppet performer.  I imagine that that stuff would stick with you longer than the bits with the celebrities, although those bits would be fun too.

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“To do the right deed for the wrong reason”

“The last temptation is the greatest treason: 
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
–T.S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral

I have a confession to make: Kermit the Frog is more “real” to me than any of the other Muppets.  I remember when Jim Henson died, my first thought was not “What’s going to happen to the Muppets?” or “What’s going to happen with Sesame Street?” but “What’s going to happen to Kermit?”

So when news of the Schism broke, I was less concerned about Steve’s other characters than I was about Kermit.  But as I processed the news, I started worrying about Beaker.

Since Beaker doesn’t really talk, I feared that Disney would feel that it didn’t matter who performed him.  In fact, the opposite is true: a character who doesn’t talk needs a skilled, consistent performer who knows how to convey an idea nonverbally.

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The Henry Doorly Zoo, and related matters

Three years ago, the Muppets were featured on “A Capitol Fourth,” the yearly Independence Day special that airs every July 4th on PBS.  In order to promote the special, Kermit the Frog and host Tom Bergeron did a series of satellite interviews with local TV new programs.  One of these was an affliate in Omaha, Nebraska, which is about 175 miles, or a 2-3/4 hour drive, south of where I live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota:

In the interview, Kermit mentioned the zoo in Omaha, and I freaked out: “OHMYGOSH!  Kermit the Frog just mentioned the name of a place that is relatively close to where I live, and that I’ve actually visited!!!”  

These are the scraps that you have to console yourself with when you’re a Muppet fan who lives in South Dakota.  Although, there may be an obscure Muppet connection for those of us to live in Sioux Falls: Raven Industries is based here in town; their main thing is the manufacture of balloons and inflatables, including some of the big balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and that sort of thing.  I’m not able to verify it now, but I think I remember hearing once that Raven Industries had made the Kermit the Frog balloon that appeared in the parade from 2002-2012.  I haven’t been able to confirm it yet, but it’s certainly possible.

Anyway, getting back to Omaha: what really impressed me is not only that Kermit mentioned the Omaha zoo, but he actually called it by its proper name: the Henry Doorly Zoo.  I think that was the first time I’d ever heard someone not associated with the zoo call it by its real name; most people just call it “the Omaha zoo,” as I have done all throughout this post.

I asked Steve Whitmire, in a comment on his blog, if he had ever actually been to the zoo in Omaha.  He didn’t respond at the time, so I still don’t know, but I am not without hope that he will be able to address it someday.  

But anyway, the other reason that I wanted to post this interview is because it’s really a beautiful example of the lovely, fluid, dynamic facial expressions that Steve gives Kermit when he performs him.  It really makes Kermit alive and vibrant.

We don’t have footage of five consecutive minutes of Matt Vogel performing simula-Kerm yet, (at least, not through official channels) so I’m not yet able to make a fair comparison, but thus far simula-Kerm’s face seems very static.

I’m also a big fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and there’s a phrase related to that show that keeps running around in my head.  When Bill Corbett took over performing Crow T. Robot from Trace Beaulieu at the beginning of Season 8, he had not done a lot of puppeteering before, and he apologized for the resulting mediocre performance by telling people, “Crow has had a stroke.”  

And I’ll just say that, if I didn’t know what was going on with the Muppets and Disney and Steve and the whole thing, if I looked at those videos with Matt performing Kermit without knowing what was going on, I would have said, “What’s the matter with Kermit?  It looks like he’s had a stroke.”

 

I wonder…

I wonder what would have happened if no one had asked Disney about Steve Whitmire’s status with the Muppets.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not making a value judgment either way.  But I just wonder what would be different now.  Would Steve have started his blog?  Would the Vogel!Kermit (henceforward to be known as “simula-Kerm”) video have dropped in July without fanfare?

That’s one thing that’s been gnawing at me all these almost two months, and nobody else seems to think that it is as significant as I do: when the news first broke back in July, Disney promised a “Muppet Thought of the Week” video with Matt Vogel as Kermit the following week.  The fact that they claimed to have it cued up and ready to go, and yet didn’t make an announcement regarding the recast until specifically asked about it, implies to me that they intended to just release the simula-Kerm video on the world without comment, to try to sneak it past us and hope that we wouldn’t notice.

It’s frankly insulting.  We’re Muppet fans, dammit!  We notice tiny details; what makes you think we aren’t going to notice a seismic shift in the Muppet universe?  We get pissed off when Fozzie wears the wrong color tie; what makes you think we’re going to let the end of the Second Muppet Era pass by without comment?  What have we been doing for the past 27 years but analyzing Kermit’s voice?  Of COURSE we were going to notice!  We were always going to notice!

Then the whole thing became a bit like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  Steve took a Harry Potter-like stand by starting his blog to tell the world the truth of what had gone on at Disney.  In response, Disney took a…well, to be fair, a relatively mild Dolores Umbridge-like stance and started trying to discredit Steve in the press.  And a sizable chunk of the Muppet fandom started taking an Dumbledore-specific-to-OotP-like stance and started ignoring Steve just when Steve needed them the most.  This was a rare miscalculation on Dumbledore’s part, but at least he had good intentions behind it.  Perhaps the fans that have turned away from Steve have good intentions as well; history will be the judge.  But I digress.

Amidst the fallout from all that, the simula-Kerm video drop was delayed by over a month.

This, I think, was a diabolically clever move by Disney.  It gave people the opportunity to get used to the idea of Matt performing Kermit, to convince themselves that even a simulacrum of Kermit is better than no Kermit at all.  (On which issue, by the way, I am still undecided.)

If, on the other hand, Disney had released its simula-Kerm video in July with no fanfare, the way it seems to have wanted to in the first place, not only would there have been confusion and uproar, but it would have demonstrated dramatically how little respect Disney has for us Muppet fans: the insult of thinking they could recast Kermit without our noticing or caring, added to the injury of ripping away the soul of our beloved froggy friend.

Then again, maybe it would all have come to the same pass anyway.  Forced to do damage control, maybe Disney would have still released their same statement about Steve’s “unacceptable business conduct” and the Hensons’ support of their decision, and maybe the Hensons would have chimed right in on cue with the Steve-bashing, and maybe that same contingent of Muppet fans would have been convinced that they are right.

I don’t fault the guys at ToughPigs or The Muppet Mindset for investigating and publishing their findings; if anything, I wish they had been willing to do more investigating, to use the unique resources available to them to uncover the truth of the matter. In any case, what had seemed initially to have been an embarrassing inconvenience for Disney actually ended up playing right into their hands.  Disney, with its Machiavellian efficiency, managed to turn a disadvantage into an advantage.

On the other hand, it also led to Steve starting his Muppet Pundit blog, which has become a joy and a blessing in my life, so I’m grateful for that.  Nothing is so evil that good cannot come out of it, one way or another.

 

Labor Day

Well, it’s Labor Day, the traditional time of the annual MDA Telethon.  Videos have surfaced lately in memory of the recently deceased Jerry Lewis (R.I.P).  Among them is my new favorite rendition of “Bein’ Green” (with all due respect to Ray Charles, this one actually features Kermit).  It’s from the 2001 telethon.

I also love the bit at the end where Wayne Brady fanboys over Kermit saying his name.
I KNOW, RIGHT?!?

Getting slightly off-topic, I had the opportunity to fangirl over Wayne Brady once.  Back in the late ’90s or early ’00s, Wayne Brady actually came to my hometown–my podunky hometown in South Dakota–to do a show.  It was a show that had been booked quite a few years in advance–before he became famous doing “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?”–but he still honored his previous engagement, which I thought was really classy of him.  So my younger brother and I scored tickets and went to see the show, and it was just fabulous.  It was an evening of “Whose Line” style improv, and he made a point at the beginning of saying that he wanted to keep things family-friendly because there were kids in the audience.  Then, in the very first game, he asked for suggestions of genres of movies and some wiseacre yelled out “Porno!” And Wayne shamed him by finding a little girl in the audience, sitting in an aisle seat, and saying, “Hello, little girl.  How are you? [then, to the wiseacre] Do you feel proud of yourself, sir, yelling out ‘porno’ when there are little kids in the audience?”  There were no more inappropriate suggestions after that.

After the show, my brother and I saw some friends who were also in the audience, and somebody got the idea that we should slip out in the hallway where Wayne Brady would be exiting the building.  So we did.  I thought it was not the best idea, but I gave in to peer pressure.  And Wayne did come down that hallway on his way out, and it looked as though he was kind of bewildered to see a bunch of awkwardly beaming white people standing expectantly in the hallway, but he just said something like, “Have a good night, folks,” as he walked by.

Anyway, my point is that seeing Kermit and Wayne Brady interact with each other makes me double-fangirl.

Getting back to the telethon, there was another number from the same year; Kermit singing “I Got My Mind Set On You” with the Snowths.  This is appropriate, because my mind is set on Kermit pretty much all the time, especially now:

Okay, so it’s not a perfect vocal performance.  But that’s what I like about it.  Sometimes true art is in the imperfections.  The imperfections can reveal the craftsmanship that goes into it.

For example, if you have a piece of furniture that was made by a machine, it will be perfect and look exactly like every other piece of furniture that was made by the same machine.  Compare that to a similar piece of furniture that was made by hand, and you see the irregularities and inconsistencies that reveal the human touch.  Machine-made furniture is serviceable and affordable; hand-made furniture is a work of art.

Much of the time, Muppet music is recorded by the Muppet performers beforehand, and the Muppets lip-sync during the performance itself.  I understand why that is often necessary, especially in situations where they are doing multiple takes.  But I love it when the Muppets sing live, because that seems so much more authentic, and it’s the little mistakes or ad-libs that reveal that it’s being done live, that reveals the craftsmanship that’s going into it.

The Measure of a Muppet

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!)

Performer as “parent”; character as “child”–an extended metaphor

“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.

Severing the rainbow connection

Well…Disney finally released the Muppet Thought of the Week video with Vogel!Kermit.  You can watch it here:

Oops!  Sorry, wrong video!  This is the one:

But seriously, I think Matt is great…as Uncle Deadly.  His Kermit, though…sheesh.

Okay, that sounds harsh.  I’m sorry.  I usually don’t go for the joke at the potential expense of other people’s feelings like that.  I’m just feeling bitter and, well, it was right there.

But I certainly mean no disrespect toward Matt.  He’s not the one I have a problem with…

…(but part of me is hoping that he’s purposely trying to be terrible as Kermit so that Disney will bring Steve back.  I’m not proud of myself for hoping that, but there it is.)

I said at the beginning that if Disney insisted on this course of action and refused to be dissuaded, Matt was an excellent candidate to play Kermit because of his talent and his ethos.

But having actually heard Matt do it…I’m sure it’s NOT something that he’s doing on purpose, but Matt’s Kermit sounds too much like Constantine.

HOW CAN I TRUST A KERMIT THAT SOUNDS LIKE CONSTANTINE?!?!?!?!?  

If I may paraphrase my thesis statement from my review of the first episode of the muppets. (2015), this video made me want to cry…and NOT in a good way.

And I reiterate again, this is nothing against Matt.  But just as a Doozer can’t become a Fraggle, Matt cannot become Steve.  It’s not a bad thing, and it’s nobody’s fault.  It’s just the immutable laws of nature; they’re there for a reason.  And I have my doubts as to whether a Constantine can become a Kermit…but, in fairness, I suppose it is a little soon to judge.

I remember when Muppet Christmas Carol was about to come out back in 1992.  I was talking to my eldest brother about it, and he said that he couldn’t bear to watch it because, regardless of how close the voice was, he would just know that it wasn’t Jim Henson performing Kermit.  And I don’t think that that was supposed to be a slight against, or a criticism of, Steve in any way (I’m not entirely sure that my brother knew specifically that it would be Steve performing him–I certainly didn’t); I just think that the wound was still too fresh.  

At the time, I rather thought that my brother was cutting off his nose to spite his face in regards to the Muppets.  Just because Kermit was different doesn’t mean he would be bad, and my brother might have been missing out on something great.

But now…I kind of get where my brother was coming from.  I don’t know–I sincerely don’t know–if I’ll ever be able to bring myself to watch new Muppet stuff ever again.  And I reiterate, yet again, that it is nothing in the world against Matt; if it be so that he is not purposely trying to be bad, I am sure he will get better over time, just as Steve did.  But it’s something that he should never have been asked to do in the first place–certainly not under these circumstances.  

At the risk of sounding like Sarah in Labyrinth, it’s just not fair.  It’s not fair to Steve, to Matt, to Jim, to Kermit, the other Muppet performers, or to us fans.  The whole thing is just so contrived, so corporate…so artificial, so unnecessary…so WRONG!!!

I’m sick of trying to be diplomatic about this; this whole thing is WRONG!  It is WRONG to casually and cavalierly sever Kermit’s connection to Jim like this.  It is WRONG to rip Kermit’s soul away from him!

I’d like to believe that the ideal spirit of Kermit exists somewhere on the platonic plane, so that he will continue to live no matter who’s performing him…but I’m not sure I believe that anymore.  If this had been a necessary course of action, and if Steve had been allowed input into the decision, then maybe the spirit of Kermit could continue to flow on through Matt (or whomever Steve had chosen) and into the puppet.  But maybe the circumstances have to be exactly right; maybe it can’t happen when the decision is made arbitrarily under false pretenses.

I don’t know.  All I know is that today has been an awful day.  And I feel so bad.

Neither Constantine nor Matt Vogel can give me what I want: I want Steve back as Kermit.  Only Disney can give me what I want, but I don’t believe their promises are any more sincere than Constantine’s are.

The False Dilemma Between Steve and Matt

They think me Macbeth; ambition is my folly.
                        –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.