Fraggle Friday: Episode 507–“Gone, But Not Forgotten”

This may well be the most discussed Fraggle Rock episode of them all.  I don’t think that I necessarily have anything new to add to the discussion.  But it’s October, and I always get to feeling morbid in October, and this episode suits my current mood, so I’m just going to go with it.

It’s interesting that, for all the Fraggles’ preoccupation with death, and notwithstanding the numerous close calls, this is the only episode that deals directly with it.

 

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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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Fraggle Friday: Episode 218: “The Day the Music Died”

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.

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Fraggle Friday: Wembley’s Way

Someone posted the following video in the Muppet Pundit comments.  Steve has yet to talk about it, so I don’t know all of the backstory, but it appears that Steve returned to his old high school in 1988 with some of his characters (Muppet and otherwise) in tow to participate in a concert of some sort.

Take it, Wembley:

I have another confession to make: in all my years of studying literature, I’ve found that, a lot of times, I don’t think that an author’s–or, in a broader sense, an artist’s–most celebrated or well-known work is necessarily their best.  I read The Red Badge of Courage in grad school and was underwhelmed by it; my favorite Stephen Crane work is called The Monster; you’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s utterly brilliant.  Similarly, I love Madeleine L’Engle, and I love A Wrinkle in Time, but it was a early novel of hers, and I think her later works show a growth and a maturity that is missing in Wrinkle, as wonderful as it is and as much as I have always loved it.

My point is that “My Way” is so famous and so popular, and arguably so overexposed, that I’ve never been that impressed with it.  In fact, I’m not sure if I ever really paid attention to the lyrics before.  But watching Wembley sing this little duet, the lyrics suddenly smacked me in the face, particularly the last verse:

For what is a man?  What has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels 
And not the words of one who kneels.”

Those lyrics might have been written for and about Steve; that’s exactly what he’s doing on his blog, and he’s taken–and continues to take–the blows for it.

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Fraggle Friday: “Feel So Bad”

I apologize in advance because there are no good copies of the song I want to talk about on YouTube; at least, not that I can find.  There are two versions that I can find, both recorded by someone pointing a camera a television set.

This one has better video, in that there are no reflections on the screen:

This one has better (or at least louder) audio:

This is not one of my favorite Fraggle Rock songs.  Generally speaking, I don’t really like songs that consist of one four-word phrase repeated over and over.  That’s no fun for me to listen to and/or sing along with.  It makes me wonder if Dennis Lee was on vacation that week or what.

So usually, whenever I watch the episode of Fraggle Rock from which this song comes (“Don’t Cry Over Spilt Milk“), I usually skip over this song and the reprise, which is basically the same thing but with the word “bad” changed to “glad”.

But last week I DID feel bad, so it felt appropriate to post a link to this song.  Before I did so, I actually watched the whole song for perhaps the first time ever, and I realized that this song is really a tour de force musical performance by Wembley.

Which, at the risk of pointing out the obvious, necessarily makes it a tour de force musical performance by Steve Whitmire.

It seems to me that if you only have four lyrics at your disposal, you’ve really got to punch up your vocal performance and make each repeated phrase different from the last one.  I imagine that you’d have to think about subtext and making each phrase slightly different.

The more I think about it, this may actually be one of the most challenging songs in the Fraggle Rock repertoire.  You get off easy when it comes to memorizing lyrics, but everything else would be a lot harder.

Steve’s commitment to the performance is wonderful.  Definitely worth a second look.  I “feel so glad” that I finally decided to pay attention. 😉

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.

Sympathy/Empathy for Matt

Every whisper
Of every waking hour I’m
Choosing my confessions
[…]
Like a hurt, lost, and blinded fool–
Oh no, I’ve said too much.”
–R.E.M “Losing My Religion”

I look at what I posted yesterday, and I cringe.  The jokes that I made were intended to be jabs at the absurd situation in which we find ourselves, but reading them today, they look like nothing so much as mean-spirited digs at Matt Vogel, which was not my intention at all.  Frankly, I’m ashamed of myself; I usually make a point of thinking about the words I use before I use them, specifically what effect they might have on the feelings of others.  Yesterday, I just went for the punchline.  I was angry and upset myself, but that’s no excuse.

Regardless of what I said in my annoyance and frustration, I do have sympathy for Matt.  I might even have empathy for him, but to explore that, I would have to break a good-faith agreement–or at least come close to breaking it–that I made eleven years ago, and I’m not prepared to do that.

There is one–and only one–sentence that Steve Whitmire has written on his blog with which I take issue.  And actually, it is not even a complete sentence:  “I am having trouble understanding his [Matt’s] support of the recast…”  To be clear, I am sure that Steve intended no disrespect, which is pretty clear from the context.  Nevertheless, I don’t think it is fair to say that Matt “supports” the recast.  Based on my own past experience, I think that it is one thing to go along and try make the best of a bad situation, and it’s quite another thing to “support” the bad situation.  One could consider it tacit approval to go along without resisting, and maybe it is, but I’m not qualified to throw stones at anyone in that regard.

But the important thing to remember is that this is not a matter of “Steve versus Matt,” or vice versa. The people who claim otherwise are trying to create a false dilemma, to distract from the real issue of Disney’s ambivalence toward the Muppets; to say nothing of Disney’s complete and utter disregard for the people who work for them, who are viewed as disposable, tradeable, negotiable commodities rather than human beings.

Let us not forget that Disney is the author of all our problems.  If they hadn’t decided to muck things up, we’d have Steve performing Kermit, Matt performing Jerry’s characters, everyone would be right where they belong, and all the Muppet fandom would be perfectly happy about it.  

Or, as Wembley Fraggle might put it, “Instead of recasting Kermit and making everyone unhappy, why not just let Steve perform?

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.

Fraggle Friday: Episode 406 “A Tune for Two”

It goes without saying that we’ve all witnessed some horrific events over the last week, and it’s hard to know how to address it.  I want to acknowledge it in a way that’s respectful and sensitive to the pain that people are feeling.

At the same time, I think it’s important that, in the words of Jon Stewart, we grieve but we don’t despair.  The moment that we give into despair, the moment that we start believing that nothing can change and what we do doesn’t matter, is the moment that our enemies win.  

And by “our enemies,” I mean those who foster divisions among us, those who embrace the darkness at the expense of the light, those who seek to build walls instead of bridges. They are easy to recognize, especially when they march through the streets wielding torches (tiki or otherwise), as well as when they get up and make speeches that give comfort to the violent agitators while blaming the victims.

So we need to fortify ourselves against the despair by affirming hope, and there’s a lot of hope to be found within Jim Henson’s body of work.  In fact, this is exactly the sort of situation that Fraggle Rock was created to address.  And when it comes to addressing the events in Virginia last week, one Fraggle Rock episode immediately came to mind: “A Tune for Two,” which deals with the issue of racism perhaps more directly than any other episode of Fraggle Rock.  Now, I could just  focus on the song “Children of Tomorrow,” which is the triumphant culmination of the episode and its message of unity, but I think that won’t mean as much unless we really delve down into the episode.  So that’s what I’d like to try to do now.

“A Tune for Two” is episode 406 of Fraggle Rock.  Of the main Fraggle characters, it features Wembley most prominently.  The episode was written by Laura Phillips, whose work on Fraggle Rock I consider to be a bit uneven, but she always gives good Wembley.  She really gets into the character and brings out all his subtle nuances, all his various lights and shades, and whenever she and Wembley come together, something magical happens.

Like all Fraggle Rock episodes, this one starts out in the workshop with Doc and Sprocket, and while we’re on the subject, this may be an opportune moment for me to point out something about Sprocket.  Sprocket was performed by Steve Whitmire, but I keep forgetting that, because Steve makes Sprocket seem so lifelike that I keep forgetting that he is not a real dog.  Jim Henson said in the documentary “Down at Fraggle Rock” that Steve’s performance as Sprocket was “very doglike, and also somehow more than human,”  and I humbly and wholeheartedly concur.

Anyway, Doc’s houseplant “Lucinda”, a spathiphyllum, is wilting, and he declares that “the way to give a plant the will to live is to talk to it.”  Personally, I would have tried watering it first, but to each his own.  Doc’s attempt to revive his plant by talking to it will absorb most of the rest of his portion of the episode.

Meanwhile, down in Fraggle Rock, Wembley is beside himself with excitement about the Duet-a-thon, an event that we’ve never heard about until now but is apparently Wembley’s favorite Fraggle event.  Following some obligatory exposition from Red and Mokey, Wembley goes bouncing off to his room to ask Gobo what they’re going to sing.

Gobo, meanwhile, is working on writing a new song, which I always think is kind of funny that Fraggles can just make up songs as they go along, but then when they sit down to try to write a song, they have trouble.  In this case, Gobo is trying to think of a word that rhymes with “treacherous.”  Here is where it makes a difference if you’re like me and you’ve only gotten to see Fraggle Rock as an adult: the first, and perhaps only, word that comes to my mind when trying to think of a word that rhymes with “treacherous” is “lecherous.”  Of course, if you were a kid watching, you would never think of such a thing.  It doesn’t make sense in a Fraggle context either, and indeed, Wembley instead suggests the nonsense word “bletcherous,” but this is one instance wherein watching Fraggle Rock as an adult kind of ruins the joke for me.

Anyway, just at this moment Traveling Matt arrives from Outer Space, saying that he has returned for the Duet-a-thon and that singing a duet with his nephew Gobo will make him the proudest Fraggle in the Rock.

Obviously this puts both Gobo and Wembley in an awkward position.  And, in all honesty, I have to admit that if I were in Wembley’s position, I probably would have just stood there quietly to watch what Gobo would do, hoping all the while that he would end up picking me.  But not Wembley; he insists that Gobo sing with Uncle Matt:

GOBO: Hey Wembley, you don’t think I’d let you down, do you?
WEMBLEY: I think if you don’t sing with your uncle Matt, it will break his heart; that’s what I think.  Now, get in there and start rehearsing!
GOBO:  Yeah, but–
WEMBLEY: March!

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is Wembley Fraggle, a character whose primary trait is supposed to be indecision, but in reality, his primary character traits are empathy and selflessness.  His goodness makes me feel ashamed of myself.

Wembley’s self-sacrifice necessarily comes at a personal cost.  Holding back tears, Wembley goes off by himself and meets Cotterpin Doozer, apparently for the first time.  It’s funny to me how four of the Fraggle Five become friends with Cotterpin, but only ever one at a time.  But no matter.  Wembley gives a brief explanation of why he is so upset, and Cotterpin tells him that he shouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

Encouraged, Wembley bounces away again and runs into Boober.  He asks Boober to sing with him in the Duet-a-thon but Boober, being Boober, refuses and says that he hates the Duet-a-thon.  At that moment, Tosh shows up with a special song that she wrote especially for Boober: “The Sun Set in the Sky Like a Rhubarb in a Pie.”  Enticed by the prospect of…pie, perhaps, Boober agrees to sing in the Duet-a-thon with Tosh.  Wembley doesn’t take this well; his angry face is absolutely priceless.

Alone and depressed once again, Wembley sings “Duet for One,” which is truly one of my favorite Fraggle songs of all time.  “Children of Tomorrow” gets most of the attention in this episode, and deservedly so, but this one…I don’t know, maybe it just resonates with me because when we had to pair off in school, I always seemed to be the odd one out.

Anyway, Cotterpin finds Wembley in tears yet again, and even though she doesn’t quite understand what the Duet-a-thon is at first, she comforts him.  And when she finds out it’s a singing contest to find out who can sing the best duet, she offers to sing with him.  They have a hard time coming up with a song at first because Wembley can only think of songs about “Fraggle stuff” and she can only think of songs about Doozer stuff.  Wembley acknowledges the difficulty but suggests that they write a song about “friendship stuff.”

Meanwhile, Gobo, Red, and Mokey are trying to figure out a way to include Wembley in the Duet-a-thon.  Gobo starts out by asking Uncle Matt to drop out so that he, Gobo, can sing with Wembley per the original plan, but of course, Uncle Matt misunderstands and decides to sing with Wembley instead of Gobo.  Then we have some funny Abbott-and-Costello-style antics wherein the Fraggles keep switching partners trying to resolve the problem.  The effort everyone goes to is nice, but they expend a lot of effort trying to fix a problem that no longer exists, and if they would just talk to Wembley, they would know that.

Unfortunately, Wembley is about to have an even bigger problem.

Gillis Fraggle is registering Fraggle pairs for the Duet-a-thon.  Now, I have to take a moment and mention how much I love this character.  He is performed by Richard Hunt, who used exactly the same voice for Gillis Fraggle that he did for my beloved Don Music on Sesame Street.  I’d like to think that Gillis Fraggle is really just Don Music in Fraggle form (minus the headbanging).

Unfortunately, Gillis Fraggle is not so awesome this time around.  He initially laughs  when Wembley says that he wants to sing with Cotterpin, and then he says that Cotterpin can’t participate because the Duet-a-thon is a “fine old Fraggle tradition.”

Wembley’s response is lovely: “If this contest is a ‘fine old Fraggle tradition,’ then I don’t know if I want to be a Fraggle anymore!”  And he storms off.  Gillis Fraggle isn’t impressed, but I think it’s one of the greatest Wembley moments ever on the show.

Unfortunately, Cotterpin doesn’t get to see Wembley’s noble freak-out on her behalf.  She’s too busy excitedly discussing the Duet-a-thon with other Doozers, who try to convince her, as bluntly as possible, that Wembley is going to let her down:

DOOZER #1:  My mom and dad told me you can never trust a Fraggle.
DOOZER #2:  They’re just too silly to depend on.
DOOZER #1:  My mom and dad told me Fraggles lie all the time.
DOOZER #2:  And they forget everything they say right after they say it.
DOOZER #1:  My mom and dad said all Fraggles hate Doozers.
DOOZER #2:  And they don’t care about what we feel at all…

The Doozers’ description of Fraggles sounds more like Donald Trump than any Fraggle I’ve ever seen.  But I guess that the point; the Doozers regard Fraggles as outrageous caricatures rather than seeing them as they really are.

Of course, Fraggles don’t always present themselves in the best light, either.  Just at this moment Wembley rushes up and says, “Cotterpin…you can’t be in the Duet-a-thon,” thus seeming to confirm the worst suspicions of Cotterpin’s Doozer colleagues.

Dear little Wembley, why on earth would you start off like that?  Why didn’t you start off with the line about how you don’t know if you want to be a Fraggle anymore?  Cotterpin would understand that; she’s been there herself.

But then Wembley redeems himself, at least as far as I’m concerned:  “All I know is you’ve got just as much right to sing in the Duet-a-thon as anybody else!  And I’m going to go back and tell the other Fraggles that a Duet-a-thon without you in it isn’t worth having.”  But poor Cotterpin, nursing a raw wound and poisoned by her Doozer friends, doesn’t believe him…at least not yet.

And now we come to the last scene before the finale.  I’m mostly just going to quote from it because it’s so good on its own:

WEMBLEY:  The Duet-a-thon is supposed to be fun, but I don’t see how it can be if it means leaving someone out!
GILLIS:  But we’re not talking about “someone,” you foolish fellow!  We’re talking about a Doozer.
WEMBLEY:  Well, SO WHAT?!?

“So what?!?” indeed!  This is so ironic for us in the audience because we’ve already seen the Gorgs make similar assumptions about Fraggles, that they’re little more than garden pests without the dignity of names.  The Fraggles aren’t much better when it comes to the Doozers.

GILLIS: The Duet-a-thon is just for Fraggles!  That’s the way it’s always been!
WEMBLEY:  Well, I’ve got news for you: just because something’s “always been” doesn’t make it right! […] And if my friend Cotterpin can’t be in the Duet-a-thon, I don’t want to have anything to do with it!

At this point, Gobo speaks up:

GOBO:  I agree with Wembley!  If Cotterpin Doozer can’t sing in the Duet-a-thon, I won’t either!

And what with Gobo being the designated voice of reason for all of Fraggledom, all the other spectating Fraggles start up a chant of “WE WON’T SING!  WE WON’T SING!”

By this point, Cotterpin has arrived on her little scooter thingie and has heard every word.  Meanwhile, Gillis is distraught by the turn of events:

GILLIS:  But that leaves no one to sing in the Duet-a-Thon!  We’ll have to call the whole thing off!
WEMBLEY:  Listen, I’ve got a better idea.  Instead of cancelling the Duet-a-thon and making everyone unhappy, why not just let Cotterpin sing?”
(beat)
GILLIS:  Why, that’s the most brilliant idea I’ve ever heard!

At this point, I’d like to point out, in case there was any doubt in anybody’s mind, that Fraggles are much nicer than humans.  Not once do any of the other Fraggles accuse Wembley of having ulterior motives, of championing Cotterpin’s cause just because he wants someone to sing with in the Duet-a-thon…make of that what you will.

Cotterpin and Wembley reconcile, and they enter the Duet-a-thon together; Wembley wearing a visor like Cotterpin’s, and Cotterpin wearing a tiny banana-tree shirt like Wembley’s.  And so they sing, with Wembley taking the gorgeous harmony line:

And everyone in Fraggle Rock joins in, including Junior Gorg and Sprocket, whose singing revives Lucinda the houseplant.  “There’s something magical about music,” Doc observes.

I had always thought the world was full of mystery.
I had seen so many faces that were strange;
And it sometimes seemed that each one was my enemy,
And I said our fighting ways would never change.

But I learned to meet my brother and my enemy,
And I learned that we are none of us alone.
For I found a friend who’s different, and he cares for me,
And I know a place we share can be our home.

As I was transcribing these lyrics for “Children of Tomorrow,” it suddenly hit me.  WE ARE, in fact, the children of tomorrow.  I, as a child of the ’80s, and any of you reading this who are my contemporaries or younger…we’re the ones the lyrics are referring to; we’re the ones the song was written for.

It’s a little bit humbling.  It’s a little bit frightening.  It’s a lot to live up to.

And as much as I want to use my own words to answer the charge, I find that my own words just somehow do not seem adequate.  So once again, I stand on the shoulders of geniuses and pull a paraphrase from J.K. Rowling:  Our enemies’ gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great.  We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust.

Or, as the Fraggles–and all the denizens of Fraggle Rock–say, “Help us to live here with our other, our brother; one in heart, one in hope, one in pain.”

Fraggle Friday: “A Friend is a Friend”

This is from episode 304, The Grapes of Generosity:

I assume that most people reading this know what’s going on in this episode, but just in case there are some other latecomers to the Fraggle party, I’ll give a brief synopsis:  Gobo discovers the magical Grapes of Generosity, which are so delicious that he refuses to share them with his friends.  As karmic retribution for his selfishness, Gobo becomes weightless as a result–because apparently Fraggle karma doesn’t follow any discernible logic.

The puppetry in this is quite impressive.  If I get the chance, I’d like to ask Steve Whitmire how it was all done.  I recognize a few effects, ChromaKey being the most obvious, and at one point it looks like they’re using a “throwable” Gobo, and towards the end, it sort of looks like Jerry was on a different, higher level from where Steve was on the floor.  So I can kind of piece it together from what I can see, but it’s always interesting to get the real behind-the-scenes story.

This song is an example of what I was talking about earlier in the week, about the otherwise indecisive Wembley always sticking up for his friends.  It’s interesting that when Wembley stops to think about what is the right thing to do, he gets bogged down by indecision, but when he reacts instinctively in defense of a friend, his instincts are always spot-on.  

I envy him that.  I have to put a little more thought into things.

For example, I have a personal policy of not feeding internet trolls.  It’s tempting to fight back, and I’ve been known to succumb to the temptation, but since they feed off of attention, to fight back against them is only to make them stronger and hand them weapons.  The only way to win is not to play.

But then, what to do when a friend is being harassed by a troll?  I observed just such a situation earlier this week, and it posed a bit of a dilemma.  On the one hand, I had just got done talking about Wembley not standing by when someone is being bullied, and I felt it was incumbent upon me to follow Wembley’s example.  On the other hand, feeding the troll could make things worse for everybody.  Ultimately, I decided to ignore the troll completely but address a comment to my friend with words of support and encouragement.

As another example, what do you do when someone you care about has been accused of something awful?  

There was a time in my life when I suspected one of my dearest friends of untoward behavior based on the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.  This is the first time I’ve ever been able to talk about it outside of a confessional.  I can’t even go into detail about what happened; it’s just too embarrassing.  

(Also, it requires too much exposition to be worth my time or yours.)

Suffice it to say, I was relieved when my friend turned out to be innocent, but I was wracked with guilt for having assumed the worst of him, especially for what turned out to be really no good reason at all.

Fortunately, I had the good sense to ask him about what happened instead of flying off the handle making baseless accusations, and I think I was successful in not letting on what I had been thinking about him–and, as far as I know, he still doesn’t know.

Nevertheless, I felt burdened by the knowledge that I had committed an act of betrayal against someone that I loved, even if it was only in the secret recesses of my innermost heart.  I had no one to blame but my own foolishness and credulity; it was entirely my own fault.  I never want to feel that way again.  So I decided that, from that moment on, I would rather give someone that I care about the benefit of the doubt and risk being proven wrong than to automatically assume the worst.  

Therefore, if somebody accuses someone whom I respect and admire of “unacceptable business conduct” or “brinksmanship,” etc., the burden of proof is on the accuser(s).  If they want to convince me, they’d better be able (and willing) to produce some incontrovertible evidence.  

I’ll check with Sam the Eagle but, as far as I know, in this country we’re all still innocent until proven guilty.

Salient Themes: Jim Henson versus bullies

“Dear Mr. Dionne: 
              What the fuck are you talking about?
                                                       Yours truly,
                                                       Jim Henson”
–Response to the 1960s equivalent of an Internet troll (quoted in Jim Henson: The Biography)

Well, last night I received my first insulting comment on this blog–and, to be honest, I was a little disappointed; it was a pretty pathetic effort.  In the ’60s, when trolls actually had to put pen to paper and make an effort to insult someone, people like Jim Henson got classy insults referencing ancient Roman emperors.  Now that people’s attention spans are limited to 140 characters, all the creativity has gone out of gratuitous insults.  Sad! 

However, in a way I’m glad it happened, because now this seems like an opportune moment to examine how Jim Henson related to bullies, both in his life and in his work.  

Jim was famously averse to conflict.  In Jim Henson: The Biography, Brian Jay Jones tells a story about how Jim would create an excuse to fly to London rather than get involved in a dispute within his legal department in New York.  From that anecdote, I think a person could get the impression that Jim was prone to be passive in his dealings with others.  But I think that impression would be false, or at least incomplete.  

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that–interestingly enough–Jim was similar to Wembley Fraggle in his approach to interpersonal conflict.  On Fraggle Rock, when there’s a disagreement or dispute among his friends, Wembley becomes paralyzed with indecision, not wanting to upset or disappoint any of his friends by choosing one side over the other.  On the other hand, deep down inside, Wembley has the ability to stand up for himself–and it comes out when the situation is truly dire, as it did in the matter of the mean genie.  Moreover, Wembley will never stand silently by while someone else is being bullied.  Whether it’s the miniscule Cotterpin Doozer, the gigantic Junior Gorg,* or anyone in between, if Wembley sees somebody being victimized, he will immediately rush to his/her defense.  It’s interesting to examine a previously unconsidered link between Jim Henson and Wembley because Steve Whitmire–Wembley himself–recently told a story on his blog about how Jim once stood up to some Disney lawyers on his (Steve’s) behalf.

In spite of his aversion to conflict, Jim was also known for his determination.  He was capable of standing up for himself if he felt he was being mistreated.  The early days of the original Disney deal were something of a love fest, but eventually the honeymoon period was over, and Jim found himself “in combat with [Disney’s] business affairs people,” as he put it.  Frustrated, Jim wrote the following in a letter to Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg:

“The tone of the negotiations does not seem to me to be the way two parties should be relating to each other if they intend to go into a long term relationship. […] The kind of deal I like is one in which both parties try to arrive at a fair settlement and everyone walks away satisfied.  […]  My impression is that Disney is standing firm on all issues, assuming that my company is committed to this deal and thus we will eventually cave in.  This is not a wise assumption.”–(quoted in Jim Henson: The Biography, my emphasis)

Oooooooh.  Here’s a guy who’s willing to go toe-to-toe with two of the most powerful and influential men in show business.  Cross Jim Henson at your own peril.

Another way that Jim dealt with bullies was through his work.  His sketches, especially those variety-show staples that predate The Muppet Show, often featured a situation in which one character would throw its weight around by harassing another–usually smaller–character.  Like in the story of David and Goliath, however, the bullying character usually–if not always–gets its comeuppance from the smaller character.  Here are some examples:

Early sketches:
Jim used this theme in a couple of sketches that he performed in Hamburg, Germany at the US Department of Agriculture’s US Food Fair in 1961.  One was a sketch about an army drill team being put through their paces by a nasty drill sergeant barking out unintelligible orders; at the end, the drill team turns around and blows the sergeant away.  In another sketch, a group of characters–denoted only by the puppeteers’ gloved hands–listens calmly to some soothing (read: “boring”) elevator music.  Another character comes along and spices things up with some band music.  The other characters attack the dissenter, beat up on him (her? it?), and destroy his radio equipment…however, things don’t end well for them.  Neither of these sketches have any dialogue, which is lucky, because the following footage has no audio:


(The drill team footage starts at 00:59; the other sketch starts at 02:39.)

Java:
In “Java,” a creature that appears to be a living dryer hose does a dance number, while a smaller creature wants to join in, sort of like a younger sibling tagging alongside an older sibling, like I did when I was a little kid.  Unfortunately, the larger creature is less tolerant than my older siblings were of me…to its detriment:

Hugga Wugga:

“Do not take my sunshine away!”  The way that little creature phrases it, it almost sounds like a threat–or at least a warning.

Beautiful Day:


“You are so awful that it is truly beautiful.  You’ve probably worked all your life to be perfectly awful–year after year–to be just as bad as possible, and now all of your toil and self-sacrifice has paid off! […] In fact, you are the perfect example of beautiful awfulness!”  Generally speaking, my policy is not to feed internet trolls, but sometimes I’m tempted to try this on some of the trolls plaguing Steve Whitmire’s blog.

The Muppet Movie:
But perhaps the most triumphant example of standing up to bullies in all of Jim Henson’s work is the climactic “showdown” scene of The Muppet Movie.  Threatened with a sadistic choice by Doc Hopper–either sell his soul to a small corporation or be gunned down where he stands–Kermit appeals to Hopper’s humanity and sense of decency:

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.  But Hopper gets what’s coming to him anyway in what–to me–is the greatest and most Muppet-y moment of all time:


Not even the lousy video quality and strange, floating window-blind reflection can ruin this moment!

So…to all those who want to come onto my own blog to try to tear me down, this is your last warning:  You cannot hurt me.  There is nothing you can say to me that I haven’t heard before.  

In the past, I have endured verbal abuse that would make the Access Hollywood bus tape sound like a scene from Downton Abbey.  You think you can hurt my feelings by calling me a “moron”?  Please.  My classmates came up with more creative insults than that in the fourth grade.  

I’m a grown woman, and I’ve put up with more than my fair share of bullying nonsense in my life.  I’m not going to put up with yours.  I’m not going to indulge your pettiness and cruelty.  I’m not going to give you a platform from which you can attempt to build yourself up by tearing others down.  

You have no power over me.

 

_____________________________
*Yes, I’m aware that, in the episode I referenced, Junior Gorg had temporarily been rendered Fraggle-sized, but the point I am trying to make is that Wembley will stick up for a victim of bullying regardless of the victim’s size, color, species, etc.