Just in case anybody else needed the reminder. 🙂
For years and years, whenever anyone ever mentioned the words “Puerto Rico” in my presence, my automatic response has been to sing the opening line of the song “America” from West Side Story. There’s no reason for it; it’s just a silly, meaningless habit that I picked up somewhere along the way. But in the current context of the devastation caused by the recent hurricane, that particular response doesn’t seem so silly but rather callous and cruel, which is why I didn’t quote the line here.
So I said to myself, “Man, I really need a new song to associate with Puerto Rico.”
Fortunately, Elmo and Rosita sang a song with the brilliant and Muppety Lin-Manuel Miranda, which was posted yesterday to Elmo’s Twitter feed.
(By the way, why does Elmo need a Twitter feed? I mean, I understand it from a Doylist point of view, but from a Watsonian point of view it makes no sense whatsoever, because Elmo can’t even read. )
Sorry, I got distracted there for a second. Anyway, the gifted and beautiful Lin-Manuel Miranda also wrote and produced another song for Puerto Rico called “Almost Like Praying.” It is available on all digital media platforms, and all the proceeds go to hurricane relief.
On Amazon, it costs less than a buck and a half, so it’s one small way that we can all help out our fellow Americans and fellow human beings who have experienced horror and degradation the likes of which most of us cannot even begin to imagine.
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:
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.
Well, the best-laid plans of Fraggles and frogs often go awry, I suppose. I had a whole Fraggle Friday feature all planned out…and then I developed a migraine, with its attendant photosensitivity, which means I can’t turn on a light to see my notes, at least not without feeling as though a Doozer with an ice auger is standing on my head trying to bore its way into my skull.
So instead, let’s focus on the night when the lights went out in Fraggle Rock: episode 218, “The Day the Music Died,” aka The One With the Ditzies.
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.
This is a song from Kermit…and FOR Kermit:
Not counting Kermit, who appeared on Sesame Street but wasn’t created specifically for it, Ernie is probably my favorite Sesame Street character of all time, although it is hard for me to choose between him and Bert (they’re always at their best when they’re together). If you were to ask former classmates of mine whether I was more like Ernie or Bert in school, most of them would probably say Bert. But in my own mind, I always identified with Ernie. Certainly, Ernie is everything that I would like to be: clever, funny, easygoing, with an infectious laugh and a perpetual smile on his face.
And yet, I said before that, of all of the Muppet (and non-Muppet) characters that Jim Henson created, Kermit the Frog is the most “real” to me. So when Sesame Workshop recast Ernie in 2014, my reaction was one of mild annoyance rather than panic.
It was the episode in which Bert learns to ride his bike without training wheels (clip). At first, I was happy to see a street story featuring Bert and Ernie because that hadn’t happened since who knows when. Then Ernie opened his mouth to speak and I said to myself, “Is Ernie going through puberty? Because his voice seems to have changed.”
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.
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 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.
“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.
I’m not really a big fan of Elmo, but I am a big fan of monarch butterflies. They’ve always been my favorites.
After I bought my house two years ago, I decided to plant milkweed in order to lure monarchs to my backyard. Ironically, the milkweed that has done best in my yard is the milkweed that I didn’t actually plant myself. Nevertheless, it WORKED! I’ve had monarchs in my yard from time to time all summer long, and some of them even laid eggs on my milkweed! 🙂
This afternoon I went to a monarch tagging event at Good Earth State Park. It was very educational but sort of a disappointment on the tagging front; they only had four butterflies to release, so the people who got to tag them were chosen by lottery. Still, we all got to go outside and watch as they were released into the wild, which was an inspirational experience.
I also got a close look at a lot of little monarch chrysalides (that’s the correct plural of “chrysalis”). They were exquisite. It’s hard to believe that they are alive; they look like little jade baubles that were inlaid with gold by a master jeweler. So often when you see a photograph of a monarch chrysalis, the picture is taken on high zoom, so you don’t get a sense of how tiny they really are. Absolutely fascinating.
I didn’t take a long walk in the park today, but I saw a lot of other animals nevertheless: woodpeckers, goldfinches, hummingbirds (!!!), and some other birds that I couldn’t identify at the bird feeders, as well as a thirteen-striped ground squirrel (not at the bird feeders; on the ground, where it belonged).
I’m so lucky to live in South Dakota. It is a natural wonderland.
First, Bert and Ernie play a rhyming game:
This is probably a stupid question, but instead of Bert telling Ernie that he doesn’t want to play, why doesn’t he just stop talking?
For the longest time, I used to confuse the preceding clip with the following clip, in which Bert and Ernie play an “echo game” with the drums. I was confused when I watched the rhyming game sketch as an adult and found no mention of “A Tale of Two Breakfasts”:
I’ve said before that Bert and Ernie remind me of myself and my older sister when we were young, but this is a sketch that I specifically remember re-creating with her when I was a kid. She thought it was really funny. She’s also a percussionist, so maybe it resonated with her in that respect.
Fast forward 15-20 years, and Ernie plays a game which involves both rhyming and the drums, as well as alliteration.
You know, I just have to say, one thing I really admire about Steve Whitmire is his perfect Ernie laugh. I’ve been working on my Ernie laugh for about 35 years, and I still haven’t gotten it right.
The Count hires Ernie to answer his phone. It’s not as easy as it seems.
For nearly the past seven years, I worked as a medical transcriptionist for a local orthopedics clinic. Then, unfortunately, that particular job ceased to exist. (And then it sort of came back, and then it went away again. It’s a long story.)
Then I got a new job with a nationwide transcription company. Suddenly I’m processing reports in from all over the country, in all different specialties. It’s a bit like having spent seven years wading in a kiddie pool, and then suddenly being thrown into the deep end. It’s exciting, it’s frightening, it’s challenging, it’s frustrating, it’s exhilarating, and it’s bewildering, all at the same time.
It can be a bit like trying to answer the Count’s phone. But whatever else it may be, it is certainly not boring.