Stop the music and shut off the lights. As the vast majority of Muppet fans and pop culture lovers have heard by now, we have lost Kermit the Frog (or at least, the puppeteer who brought life to him for the past several decades). But, have we also lost something more?
Only a couple of weeks ago, longtime Kermit puppeteer and voice actor Steve Whitmire announced via a blog post that last October, Disney’s Muppets Studio told him they were firing him. The news seemed abrupt, considering the fact that Whitmire had worked with the Muppets since 1978 and portrayed Kermit for a staggering 27 years, following the death of Muppets creator and former Kermit performer Jim Henson. Whitmire claimed that he had spent the past nine months attempting to resolve the problems cited by the executives he spoke with, but ultimately they refused to budge and were moving forward with his termination.
He stated that Disney executives had taken issue with his decision to send story and character notes to producers on ABC’s 2015 television series The Muppets in order to ensure that the characters he had worked with for 38 years were being properly represented. The executives also denounced his refusal to appear as Kermit in a short video in 2014 due to a contract that the Screen Actors Guild advised him not to sign.
In a broader sense, Whitmire has asserted that he was fired because he displayed too much devotion to the Muppets and was open about respectfully expressing his concerns over the ways in which Disney was choosing to portray the characters. This view of the situation has understandably left many Muppet and Disney fans disheartened. But Disney representatives, along with Jim Henson’s family members, who are still heavily involved with the Muppet characters, recently painted a very different picture.
They claimed that though they were sad to let him go, Whitmire’s arrogant and self-serving actions had long caused headaches for the Muppets creative team, as well as his fellow performers. Disney argued that their decision rested on their commitment to preserve the integrity of the Kermit character, whom Jim Henson’s daughter Cheryl argued had become more cynical and less kindhearted since Whitmire had taken the role.
Jim’s son Brian stated that Whitmire had made absurd demands with the knowledge that he would be difficult to replace, and his daughter Lisa, the president of the Jim Henson Company, detailed Whitmire’s failure to appear in smaller Muppets projects, his refusal to allow an understudy to train with him for such performances, and his tendency to avoid performing alongside younger, less experienced puppeteers.
Whitmire then fired back, arguing that the Henson family’s criticisms stem from their belief that the Muppets are merely roles that can be filled by any talented performer, rather than Jim Henson’s original vision of the Muppets as individual extensions of singular puppeteers. He added that Disney executives share this view of the characters.
Though it’s difficult to know exactly which of these conflicting statements are true, Whitmire’s argument is one that can’t be ignored. With his firing, the question as to whether Disney is straying too far from Henson’s original Muppets vision looms large. Is the company losing the spirit that Henson imbued in the beloved franchise and sacrificing what makes the Muppets the Muppets, or are they simply approaching the longevity of the characters in a more practical manner? And for that matter, with the characters’ recent decline in popularity, is there really any such longevity to hope for? In order to fully understand this, one has to explore the intricacies of working as a Muppet performer – raising the curtain, so to speak, on the Muppet empire.
Dating back to the earliest days of Jim Henson’s The Muppet Show, Muppeteering (as he called it) requires, above all other qualities, patience. The performers have to spend a great deal of time adjusting to the unique challenges associated with puppeteering on camera. Picture using one hand to work the mouth of a puppet while the other hand controls one or both of the characters’ arms. You also have to raise the puppet high enough above your head so that it appears onscreen while your head remains out of frame, but not so high that your arm becomes visible, extending out of the character’s rear end.
Now think about doing all of this while keeping your eyes on fixed monitors that display a live feed from the camera. This allows you to see your own performance exactly as the audience will eventually see it, enabling you to adjust your actions as needed in real time. If this doesn’t sound hard enough, imagine doing it all while delivering memorized lines into a microphone headset in your character’s trademark voice and synchronizing the movements of the puppet’s mouth with your speech. Such is the life of a Muppeteer.
As you can imagine, it takes a lot of practice for even a talented puppeteer to get to the point where they can perform in this manner for the duration of a film or television shoot. Most Henson puppeteers started out as background characters on Sesame Street or The Muppet Show before graduating on to larger roles. But what is particularly notable is the commitment that these performers made to their chosen characters. Early on, essentially all of the major Muppet characters were performed by the puppeteers who created them.
Henson instructed his puppeteers to spend roughly a year developing each new character and finding its voice, mannerisms and personality before ever actually performing the character in a public appearance. He felt that each puppeteer should know their character better than anyone else, and thus be able to freely and authentically ad-lib and improvise as the character, allowing for the sort of hilariously genuine interactions that elevated the Muppets from colored pieces of moving felt to memorable and endearing individuals. Henson even brought his fellow Muppeteers into the writers’ room on The Muppet Show, inviting them to contribute dialogue and storylines that would match their respective characters.
Through this unique creative process, Jim Henson encouraged his cast of performers to make their characters extensions of their own personalities, to the point that in some cases it became difficult to distinguish the Muppeteer from the Muppet. Henson, as the ringleader of the whole cast and the gentle yet often frantic creative head of the group, made Kermit the Muppets’ sweetly sincere but frequently exasperated leader. Dave Goelz, as a shy newcomer to the world of show business with a zany side, became endearingly sad stuntman wannabe Gonzo.
This bond between character and puppeteer went deeper than many realize. As The Muppet Show came to a close and the era of Muppet feature films began, Henson and friends began appearing more often on late-night talk shows to promote their movies. Watch any interview with Henson during this time period and you’re likely to see Kermit answering most of the questions. Henson would nearly always bring the green puppet along with him and communicate through the frog’s mouth more often than his own. The way in which he was able to slip effortlessly from Jim Henson into Kermit during interviews led even seasoned late-night hosts like Johnny Carson to address the frog rather than the man.
This fascinating phenomenon continued on long past Henson’s death, and even after Disney purchased The Muppets Studio, they kept on all of the original performers who had been playing the same characters for decades, including Steve Whitmire. While promoting the 2015 TV series, Disney actually had the performers attend a panel at San Diego’s Comic-Con International with their puppets on hand, just as Jim had done. But by continuing to promote the connection between these puppeteers and their characters, Disney has in a way painted itself into a corner. Replacing any of the performers in this setup has become a major affair.
Sure, Muppeteers have been replaced before. Steve Whitmire taking over for Jim Henson is one example, and when Frank Oz, who performed Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear, retired from the Muppets in 2000, Eric Jacobson took over his characters as well. But in these instances, both Henson and Oz only left their roles once they became physically incapable of performing. Similarly, Whitmire and Jacobson were expected, until recently, to carry on in their present roles until they chose to retire or became physically unable to perform.
Disney has now set an unfortunate precedent with Whitmire’s firing, showing that they are not afraid to kick out a veteran Muppeteer when they deem him or her to be too creatively controlling. Whitmire may very well have been as hard to get along with as Disney says, and if so, their decision to let him go is completely understandable. Fortunately, they had the sense to replace him with Matt Vogel, a seasoned Muppeteer who has worked on several recent Muppet projects.
But Whitmire’s firing may also make the other Muppet performers hesitant to offer much creative input regarding their characters for fear of rubbing Disney the wrong way and similarly losing their jobs. Sadly, Disney may actually be squashing the sort of puppeteer-led innovation and creativity that Jim Henson viewed as vital to the longevity of the franchise. As a positive, this might offer a new generation of writers the chance to contribute to the Muppets, but it also puts the characters in danger of losing the unique individuality that has made them so successful for the past half-century.
Another factor worth considering, however, is that the success of the Muppets has been steadily waning over the past several years. Disney’s 2011 film The Muppets was positively received, but its 2014 follow-up Muppets Most Wanted did not fare nearly as well. More recently, the 2015 TV series was cancelled after only one season due to poor ratings. The fact is that most kids today just don’t know the Muppets, and Disney can’t depend solely upon an older generation of Muppet fans to financially sustain the franchise. Disney seems to be keeping the Muppets around more for the sake of nostalgia than with hopes of significant financial success, yet the fact that they have replaced Whitmire with Vogel indicates they may have some sort of significant Muppets projects in the works.
Only time will tell how our beloved felt creatures fare, but in the meantime Muppet fans will have to hope that Disney continues to accept at least some input from the lovers and dreamers behind the characters we have come to know so well. Kermit wouldn’t want it any other way.