Photo by Lawrence Lucier
Music, Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. This time, he calls out Disney for the firing of Steve Whitmire as Kermit the Frog.
It’s never been easy bein’ green. And it’s getting harder all the time.
Muppets fans received an unexpected bombshell earlier this week when outlets announced that veteran Muppeteer Steve Whitmire would no longer be performing the most beloved amphibian in showbiz history, Kermit the Frog. Initial reports gave no reason for his sudden departure, which raised questions about everything from Whitmire’s health to a possible new direction for The Muppets. It’s not entirely shocking to see a Muppets performer step down. Frank Oz (Fozzie, Miss Piggy) gradually phased himself out of performing after Jim Henson died in order to focus on directing movies, and veteran puppeteers like the late Jerry Nelson (Floyd, Robin) and Big Bird himself, Caroll Spinney, have mentored junior performers to carry on their iconic characters when the time came for them to hang up the felt. But aside from the allegations against Kevin Clash (known best for Elmo) that shook Sesame Street a few years ago, it’s almost unprecedented to see a senior Muppeteer depart or dropped – especially without apparent reason.
On Tuesday, Whitmire broke his silence and confirmed that Muppets owners Disney in fact fired him last October. The 57-year-old puppeteer – who began in 1978 on The Muppet Show alongside Jim Henson and created or inherited characters such as Rizzo the Rat, Beaker, Wembly Fraggle, and Sesame Street’s Ernie – had quietly hoped Muppets Studio executives would change their minds given time. “I feel that I am at the top of my game,” he blogged to fans, “and I want all of you who love The Muppets to know that I would never consider abandoning Kermit or any of the others.” Whitmire also indicated that two reasons were given for the decision to recast him as Kermit, neither of which he specified in his update and both of which he says he offered “remedies” for that fell on deaf executive ears.
So, here’s what we now know. Whitmire wanted to stay on as Kermit. Disney didn’t want him to. And it’s hardly a Muppet News Flash that this leaves a taste in one’s mouth worse than flies.
Adults my age hold a special place in our hearts for Whitmire. We were still quite young when Jim Henson died, and many of us remember the CBS Muppet Show-style tribute to him in late 1990. By program’s end, a frazzled Fozzie, Gonzo, and Robin finally stumble into a song, “Just One Person”, to celebrate their late creator. In one of the more poignant moments in Muppets history, Kermit walks through the side-stage entrance mid-song in his first appearance since Henson’s death. Not only did Kermit assure viewers that The Muppets would continue, but seeing and hearing him acted as a reminder that while goodbyes are inevitable, a person’s kindness, generosity, and silliness can be carried on through others. That’s why it was particularly difficult to read Whitmire’s message in which he apologized to fans and explained that he feels “devastated to have failed in my duty to my hero [Henson].” If ever someone didn’t owe an apology, it’s Whitmire. He’s one of the main reasons why entire new generations of children were able to lean on characters like Kermit and Ernie as friends and role models.
Unfortunately, a lot has changed since Kermit first emerged from the swamp in 1955 as a discarded coat with a pair of halved ping pong balls for eyes. And Whitmire’s firing feels symptomatic of a far more “corporate” – and far less “familial” – entertainment industry that has neither understanding nor true regard for the vision that Henson passed down through colleagues like his successor as Kermit.
Our great pop-culture icons have often been world builders. Lucas launched us off into a galaxy far, far away; Henson’s warm silliness stretched from Sesame Street down to Fraggle Rock; and, ironically, Disney built a magic kingdom on the slender shoulders of a mouse. All of these worlds have and continue to spark our imaginations, but there’s a fine and sacred line between wonder and plunder. It’s the line that reminds us that Tex Avery and Mel Blanc intended for Bugs Bunny to make us laugh, not just appear stamped like a logo on every item marketed towards children. It’s the line that demarcates respectfully bringing our favorite childhood superheroes to life on the silver screen and arbitrarily and shoddily ripping them from the comics to be fodder in an endless march of mind-numbing superhero tent poles. And it’s the line that reminds us that our favorite green “everyfrog” with pig problems may technically be owned by Disney, but he’ll never be a mere property.
None of this is to say that The Muppets haven’t been part of the same industry as everyone else. Henson himself had spent time negotiating with Disney over a possible merger of The Muppets prior to his death. However, the frog, pig, bear, and “whatever” always somehow seemed to exist outside of that cutthroat showbiz world, even as they zanily mocked it time and time again via their films and television programs. To create or inherit a Muppet character was once, as Whitmire phrases it, a “calling” and lifetime stewardship. As performers left, neared retirement, or passed on, the honor and craft of performing their characters was bequeathed to others, allowing both the character to live on and the new performer to imbue the character with pieces of his or her own personality. Matt Vogel, Whitmire’s replacement as Kermit, offers a perfect example, having been mentored by Whitmire, Nelson, and Spinney to assist with or eventually take on certain characters. And he’d likely be the first one to tell you that his Kermit will not be Whitmire’s just as Whitmire’s was not Henson’s.
All things must pass, and Whitmire would have one day passed the calling of performing Kermit to the younger Vogel or another Muppeteer. Kermit once joked that the first thing to go on a frog is his tongue and that it’s all downhill from there. But Whitmire had plenty of flies left to catch and pig karate chops to deflect. So, while those two reasons for his recasting may remain a mystery, we’re left to assume that the real reason Whitmire has been cast aside has little to do with frogs, pigs, or whoopee cushions. And it’s hard to imagine Jim Henson reading the news this week and not being appalled at the callous treatment of his friend and protégé.
Vogel will officially begin his tenure as Kermit with next week’s “Muppet Thought of the Week” online video. Muppets fans would be wise to remember that the spirit of Kermit the Frog and what he represents looms larger than any one performer, and Vogel will no doubt add a unique shade of green to the character. However, it’ll be a sad moment as well. The last time we saw a new Kermit, he helped us celebrate a remarkable imagination and move beyond our personal grief. Sadly, this new Kermit, for all his best intentions, will remind us that part of something good and innocent about The Muppets has been lost.
It takes us yet another hop away from a magical world where green was once the color of frogs and lily pads, not money.