I’m just going to come right out and say it.
While I’d like to try to keep this as unbiased as humanly possible, my take on this topic is heavily influenced by the two people I’ve been obsessively been studying since 2012: Jim Henson and Steve Whitmire.
Why? Because one point of view is heavily influenced by the other to the point where it is both consistent and makes a whole lot of sense….At least to me. You might disagree, which is perfectly fine, I suppose.
It’s not my place to dictate what the best options for the Muppets are, but considering the string of articles I’ve left in my wake since July, you really shouldn’t be surprised that this topic was the next on my agenda. I’m going to try to run through a few key points of discussion throughout the forums and comment sections I’ve been visiting.
TV appearances, convention panels, music festivals, movies, TV shows…I’ve already covered this in a previous post called, ‘The Muppets: So…What’s Next?’
No point in repeating myself when most of it is still relevant.
There’s not a lot of study I have to do to conclude that The Muppets are in desperate need of a permanent, well-educated team of writers who are willing to work with the Muppet Performers every step of the way. Jerry Juhl truly was a Muppet treasure, knowing how to incorporate what the performers had developed within the characters with his own additions while still being relevant to the story being scripted. New Muppet writers came and went, but it was ultimately up to Jerry to keep the characters at their very best.
He is very much missed.
There are a few great mainstays these days, like Jim Lewis who has been in and around Muppet projects for quite a long time, and Kirk Thatcher who can add several writing credits to his name along with his Muppet directing gigs, but there will be a need to bring in fresh blood in the future. What I’d like to see with future writers is some sort of orientation where they are educated in Muppet knowledge beyond what they understand as fans of the franchise. The Muppets Studio may already have such a thing going on, but if that’s the case, it’s not as effective as it needs to be.
By all means, new writers should be encouraged to bring something fresh and new, but only within reason. The writers brought in for The Muppets 2015 gave a fair effort to introduce sides of the characters we had never seen before, but more often than not, they missed the mark. It feels like they were playing to the idea of ‘Muppets with adult problems’ more than they were ‘Muppets with mature mindsets’. Trust me, they are not one and the same thing!
An example provided infamously by Steve Whitmire was Episode 14, ‘Little Green Lie’ in which Kermit deliberately lies to Robin about the split with Miss Piggy in order to spare his feelings. As ecstatic as I was to see Robin again, the episode itself seemed out-of-touch to me as well. It’s not that Kermit hasn’t told ‘little green lies’ before to save his skin, or avoid general catastrophe, but here the situation just seemed wrong. Kermit has always done his best to teach his nephew how to grow to be just as a decent of a frog he himself is. If anything, it would have made more sense for Piggy to rope Kermit into it, not the other way around.
We can have the Jason Segels of the world stride on in and create something awesome with the characters, but by installing a permanent group of well-informed, co-operative scribes, Muppet productions would not only remain consistent in quality, but also ensure that the characters can remain true to themselves from project-to-project without fear of an occasional blunder.
And ah….just putting it out there, Disney…I’m right here if you ever need fresh blood! (Please?)
A Toy Box of Full of Puppets: One Muppet, One Puppeteer?
This is easily the most discussed and most controversial of all the topics floating around the fandom. Here is also where I am most influenced by Jim Henson and Steve Whitmire in turn. I personally stand by the notion that it is the responsibility of a Muppet Performer to embody the characters they created or were assigned to until they either willingly retire or pass away.
Notice my emphasis on ‘willingly’. This is important and I will be bringing it back up shortly.
But first, let’s take a look at this all-important quote from Jim Henson: The Biography, Chapter 15: So Much On A Handshake, in reference to the original Disney deal.
“Performers were crucial: he [Jim] didn’t want Disney treating puppeteers, or their puppets, interchangeably…..Jim wanted a guarantee his performers would be taken care of-and perhaps more important, that their craft be respected.
Without them, Disney was simply getting a toy box full of puppets. “
I cannot emphasise just how crucial that last line is! To Disney’s credit, after finally purchasing the Muppets in 2004, they seemed willing to listen to what the Muppet Performers had to say, but only after damning incidents like the one Steve mentions on Muppet Pundit in his post titled “Understudies”.
“Back in 2004 when Disney bought the characters, within moments of first meeting the key executive of what was then called “The Muppets Holding Company”, he enthusiastically announced his intention to have six to twelve puppeteers perform each character so that they could be all over the world at the same time…
I…WE were stunned. Characters with all the history and depth of each of the Muppets would be reduced to a list of traits that a dozen different puppeteers would be trained to execute, like little Muppet clones who never step out of line and never grow.”
Crikey, am I glad this never came to fruition! Not long after Steve’s post was published, I came across several comments which suggested that having multiple Kermits or Piggys or Gonzos would not only be a great employment opportunity for many struggling puppeteers, but would benefit the Muppets in the long run due to increased exposure around the world.
A great opportunity for puppeteers? Yes, definitely. But beneficial to the Muppets in the long run?
If you were to have multiples of each character, you wouldn’t be getting more Muppets, you would be receiving marginally less. It’s like Steve keeps saying, the more you copy a VHS tape, the worse in quality it gets.
Or, if you want to think of it another way, it’s like having a photo-copier with a full cartridge of ink. The more something is copied, eventually the ink will start to run out and what you end up with is several faded copies of the original document.
Luckily for us all, The Muppets Studio wound up respecting the Muppet Performer’s wishes and have allowed the characters to continue to grow organically under their care. It’s crucial that this continues in due course. The Muppets’ personalities and memories depend on this practice in order to keep up the all-important consistency. Only time will tell if this practice will be allowed to continue on indefinitely without the influence of its most vocal supporter.
Speaking of whom, I would be remiss to not quickly (yet again) touch upon the events of last October. Remember that emphasis of ‘willingly’ in regards to retirement from the Muppets? Well, that was certainly not an option given to Steve Whitmire, ‘unacceptable business conduct’ or not. Based on Muppet tradition, Steve had every reason to believe that his tenure with the franchise would last until he was good and ready to find his successor. Even if he wanted to keep going til he was on his deathbed, I’m pretty sure Steve would have still at least given some kind of indication to whom he thought would proceed with Kermit and Co the most comfortably.
But alas, here we are. Disney’s not going to budge on their decision and all we can do from here is keep a close eye on future proceedings to make ensure the characters we love don’t stray too far from Jim Henson’s vision. At the end of the day, that is what is best for the Muppets: everyone remaining vigilant and cautious while maintaining tradition and keeping things fresh at the same time. Our mutual support of the Muppets, no matter what capacity we’re in, is what is going to carry them and all of us forward.
But hey, that’s my take on it. What do you think? Let me know your thoughts and feelings in the comment section below!