“Which one of you is the real Kermit?”

Answer:  Neither of them.  It’s a trick question.

So…this last Monday that just happened, there was a Pentatonix Christmas special on TV, and the report was that Kermit was going to make an appearance.  I debated with myself about whether or not to watch it, and ultimately I compromised with myself that I would watch it, but only with the sound down and the captions on.  And I hoped that Kermit would appear early on, because watching a musical program with the sound down didn’t really appeal to me.

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Manufactured Malfeasance

Let me set the stage:

Apparently, Eric Trump tweeted that it is inappropriate for ABC News White House Correspondent (and my fellow South Dakotan) Jonathan Karl to criticize Donald Trump’s use of the name “Pocahontas” as a derogatory term because ABC’s parent company, Disney, once made a movie about the historical Pocahontas.

Sonny-boy, leave the Disney-bashing to the experts:

“The [ABC] news division as a whole was reliably profitable [in the ’90s when Disney bought the ABC network].  But it [the news division] often balked at the idea of promoting other Disney ventures, persisted in making unflattering references to Disney (an investigative piece on sweatshops that mentioned Disney products especially infuriated Eisner), and, in general, was sanctimonious, in Eisner’s view.  Its ability to appeal directly to the public by invoking its mission of public service journalism–a higher, nobler purpose than making money–also meant that it was difficult, if not impossible, for Eisner to control the New York-based news division from Burbank.” (James B. Stewart, DisneyWar, page 410)

After acquiring the ABC network in the mid 1990s, Michael Eisner and Bob Iger tried to make a deal with David Letterman to bring his late-night talk show to ABC, planning to give him the timeslot otherwise occupied by Ted Koppel and Nightline.  When that deal fell through, “Iger [negotiated] a more radical approach to the news division: spinning it off into a new company that would merge ABC news with CNN […] ridding Eisner of an increasingly unwanted stepchild from the ABC acquisition.” (page 412)

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Fraggle Friday: Episode 102–“Wembley and the Gorgs”

“The Gorgs might be the bullies at school, but they might also be a mean boss, or an abusive boyfriend, or the Taliban. It’s a good thing we have Fraggle Rock, to help us figure it out. For all we know, there might be Gorgs everywhere.”
 –Danny Horn, “My Week with Fraggle Rock, Part 2: Big Shots,” ToughPigs.com, November 4, 2004.

I’ve wanted to write about this episode of Fraggle Rock for four years now, long before I had a Muppet blog, and long before the Schism.  I hope I can do it justice.

Let’s start things off with a song.  Take it, Wembley:

This song plays a relatively minor role in the episode, but I wanted to highlight it because it is one of my very favorite Wembley songs.  Steve’s voice here is like a soft, cozy blanket–warm and fuzzy and friendly.  Which, come to think about it, is a good description of Wembley’s character in a nutshell.

Now, instead of looking at the episode chronologically, let’s jump around and look at it thematically.  To that end, let’s get started at the end of this episode, in which Wembley makes a very profound statement: “I guess some slavery feels like freedom.”

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“The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson”

On November 21, 1990–twenty-seven years ago today,  and six months after Jim Henson’s death–the tribute special “The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson” aired on CBS.  It was Steve Whitmire’s first performance as Kermit the Frog.  He had had less than six months to prepare.

Here is the finale.  Kermit enters at 04:27:

Puppetry-wise, Steve was spot-on from the very beginning, giving Kermit these beautiful, subtle facial expressions.  You can feel Kermit’s emotions as you watch; the sorrow and pride, the quiet joy and gratitude.

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“We will march against the mighty; we will march against the strong”

“Why are you wasting your time with those puppets?” asked Rudy Pugliese, one of Jim Henson’s college professors.

I sometimes hear a similar question in my head: “Our democracy is imperiled, our Constitution is in crisis; why are you wasting your time worrying about the integrity of a bunch of puppets?”

To which the short answer is, in the words of Cantus, “No time is wasted time.”

Yes, the Muppets are puppets; that is undeniable, and it would be pointless and silly of me to argue otherwise.  But they are so much more than that.  They are symbols; they are fuzzy mirrors in which we see our own flaws and foibles reflected; they are useful rhetorical tools with which one can make subtle arguments against injustice and demagoguery in a nonthreatening way.  In the words of Steve Whitmire, “These characters stand for all of us, and we’re worth defending.” (my emphasis)

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“Steve Whitmire Saturday” (The Muppet Mindset: September 5, 2009)

In 2009, Disney briefly replaced Steve Whitmire as Kermit for a few appearances, most notably on America’s Got Talent. I was curious about what the mainstream Muppet fansites thought about that at the time, so I went digging through the archives and found this gem by Muppet Mindset founder Ryan Dosier about why Steve should not be replaced:

Steve Whitmire is Kermit the Frog, and Muppet fans should fight for whatever they must to keep it that way.”

Oh, what a difference eight years makes!

But Ryan got it exactly right in 2009, and good on him for it. I don’t know if he still stands by what he said back then.  Nevertheless, everything that he said back then is as relevant and true now as it was when he originally wrote it eight years ago. 

(Except the part about Steve being “scraggly-haired” in the ’70s; the available evidence suggests that he was, in fact, meticulously coiffed according to the style of the times.)

Also of interest is that our old frenemesis “Anonymous” makes an appearance in the comments section, up to his old tricks (although back then they might have been new tricks) of trashing Steve relentlessly, without regard for either facts or feelings. How far back in time does this ridiculous grudge go anyway? Dude, get a life!

The Muppet Mindset

The year was 1978. A 19-year old, scraggly-haired, tall, lanky puppeteer approached a bin of puppets. These weren’t just any puppets, mind you, these were the Muppets. This young man had his wish granted by truly the greatest genie of all time, Jim Henson. A man who, to this young puppeteer, was on the same plane as John Lennon is to a musician, Albert Einstein is to a physicist, or Thomas Edison to light-bulb enthusiasts. This young man picked up a puppet, came up with  a voice, and was immediately a featured player on The Muppet Show. The most widely aired show ever.

This young puppeteer was named Steve Whitmire, and this is his Saturday.

STEVE WHITMIRE

Main Characters…

Kermit the Frog (1990-still)
Rizzo the Rat
Beaker (1991-still)
Statler (2002-still)
Ernie (1990-still)
Wembley Fraggle
Sprocket

Secondary Characters…
Foo Foo
Lips
Marlon Fraggle
Bean Bunny
Waldo C. Graphic
The Muppet Newsman…

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It’s Not Easy Being the Last Jedi

You don’t want to admit how possessive you’ve become [of Luke Skywalker]. There are times where you go, ‘Really? That’s what they think of Luke? I’m not only in disagreement‚ I’m insulted.’ But that’s the process and you thrash it all out.”
                            —Mark Hamill

Watch your back, Mark.  Star Wars is a Disney property now, and at Disney, nothing is sacred, everyone is expendable, and expressing opinions about a character you’ve played and/or been associated with for decades is considered “unacceptable business conduct.”  If Kermit the flippin’ Frog is fair game, so is Luke Skywalker.

(Also of interest is the original New York Times article in which the above quotation originally appeared.)

 

Sin of Omission


(Isn’t it miraculous how there seems to be a Fraggle Rock song that fits every occasion?)

Dear Steve, especially…but also friends, readers, “followers,” and people who surfed in here randomly looking for extended metaphors on child care or something…

(To that last group: thank you for stopping by, and I’m sorry that I didn’t have what you were looking for.)

I have a confession to make:

I went to a Halloween party on October 21st dressed “sort of approximately” like Kermit, with the intention of, to paraphrase what I said on October 19th, getting the word out, trying to evoke some “epiphanies” in the casual fans, perhaps spurring them to some kind of action, but at the very least, bringing them into the conversation.

And I failed.  

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Kermit’s Appearance on “Dancing with the Stars”

MY MOM:  You were in kind of high dudgeon [about Kermit’s recast] before.
ME:  Yeah, I still am.
           –Excerpt from phone conversation, October 29, 2017.

Well, it’s been two weeks, so I should really talk about this. 

It’s hard to find good clips of this on YouTube.  Here’s a short, official clip:

Here’s a bootleg clip, which is very tiny and has a flashy background that I think should come with an epilepsy warning:

Some general comments before I get to the Kermit-specific stuff:  Drew Scott’s Miss Piggy impression sounds more like Yoda, which (a) is hilarious, and (b) may have just become my new OTP (Yoda and Kermit, that is).  

During the actual performance, I didn’t like the style of the vocalist that they had singing “Rainbow Connection”–and also she got the words wrong, which really rubs me the wrong way (as my mom could tell you, I’m sorry to say). 

Nevertheless, I’m glad they didn’t have Kermit sing it; it’s still too soon.  Not “Rainbow Connection.”  Not now.  Not yet.  

Also, the fact that they had Kermit judge the dance but that his score didn’t count is strangely ironic and sadly fitting.

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My Perspective on the Aftermath of Jim Henson’s Death

I address myself to the Muppet fans who were either not born yet when Jim Henson died or are too young to remember it:

I’m very impressed with you and the depth of your passion and your dedication and your knowledge of Jim Henson and his work–which, for a variety of reasons, often outstrips my own.

I know that you love Jim Henson, just as we all do.  I know that you grieve for him, and I know that you mourn for the opportunity that you never had to have first-hand knowledge of the time that he spent among us here on Earth.

I was approximately 10 when Jim died, so I have some first-hand knowledge of both his life and his death.  Elsewhere, I’ve discussed his death subjectively; i.e., how I reacted to it and how it affected me, but now I’d like to take sort of a broader, more objective look at the effect that his death had on everybody.

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What Would Walt Disney Do?

(or “WWWDD?”)

I think I was about seven years old when I learned that “Walt Disney” was the name of an actual person.  Prior to that point, I assumed that it was just a meaningless, made up brandname, like “Kodak.”  I bring that up because it seems to me that a lot of people, even–and perhaps especially–those who work for the company itself, sometimes forget that there was a real person behind the name, a man behind the mouse.

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Quiz: Who Said It–Jim Henson, Frank Oz, or Steve Whitmire?

In the renewed interest of reaching out to fans, both casual and mainstream, about my concerns about Disney, the Muppets, and Steve, I created a quiz to see if Muppet fans could correctly identify quotes by Jim, Frank, and Steve.  Please feel free to share it through social media, if you are so inclined:

Who Said It:  Jim Henson, Frank Oz, or Steve Whitmire?

(Please take the quiz before reading any further.  Thank you.)

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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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Manny’s Land of Carpets–Redux

(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.
ECHO: Believe!…believe!…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.”

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“Unacceptable Business Conduct”

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.

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