Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Froggy Went A-Discordin'...

"...because that's the way the boss would want it."

Steve Whitmire's debut as the voice and puppeteer behind Kermit the Frog was in an hour-long TV special, The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, which aired a few months after Jim Henson passed away and was obviously meant as a turning point to allow what had become a franchise to move forward, firstly by introducing a new Kermit. 27 years later, you could say that it has...and hasn't.

The story of how Whitmire became Kermit is, to me,  just as sketchy as the story of  how and why he was officially fired this past weekend by the Disney Company, which owns the Muppets. I always assumed that none of Henson's peers at the time - Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt (who was actually in ill health and passed away in 1992) - were keen on taking over as Kermit...and Steve Whitmire stepped forward. He always got the body language of the character right..but the voice and characterization veered more towards characters that Whitmire created and was adept at playing: Rizzo the Rat, Wembley Fraggle, Bean Bunny, Jake the polar bear. It certainly was necessary for him to reinvent Kermit a little to get a natural performance out of the puppet, so Kermit did become a slightly different character..maybe more neurotic, a little melancholy..kind of quiet...more of a milquetoast. I would say Jim was more adept at improv, which is why Kermit became a popular guest on TV talk, yeah, whenever you saw the Muppets appear on TV specials in the 1990s and 2000s, it was grounded in memories of the past. Whitmire's Kermit tended to out of things to say that sounded like things Kermit might say.

And that's why I enjoyed the early episodes of The Muppets - the season-long sitcom that experimented with bringing the Muppets up to 2015 with all the necessary subtlety of a sledgehammer. The early showrunners aimed high and got burned when the ratings were lackluster and parents complained, perhaps expecting primetime episodes of Sesame Street and getting something edgier. For a few months, it felt like the Muppets were back...and then it was over.

My favorite characters of Steve's were Bean Bunny and Sprocket, the dog from Fraggle Rock. Rizzo was often paired with Dave Goelz's Gonzo, and that pairing made for a fun double act that made up for the absence of the Kermit & Piggy, Kermit & Fozzie scenes in most of the Muppet productions that followed. In fact, there's a lot more of Gonzo and Rizzo in later Muppet productions from the 90s. They've tried to recreate those routines recently, now with Eric Jacobson as Fozzie and Piggy. Jacobson's Miss Piggy sounds like it needs more practice, but his Fozzie Bear is perfect.

Reading between the lines, I say this shake-up happened because the Muppets were underperforming in comparison to the other Disney acquisitions - Lucasfilm, ABC, Marvel, Pixar - and a scapegoat needed to made. 27 years later and now you agree with the people online who thought his frog wasn't on-point with Henson's? Was it because he was the seasoned veteran among a bunch of newcomers and that respect allowed you to turn a blind eye to make any aboutface change..?

I do remember it being particularly odd that Kermit was relegated to an occasional supporting role in "Muppets Tonight" and was replaced with a character named Clifford as the show's emcee. That was the 90's incarnation of "The Muppet Show". It didn't work because it featured mostly new Muppet characters that had no built-in fanbase. Where's the figurehead? Was that an early indicator of a lack of confidence in Steve's Kermit? I could be wrong..but the statements made by Henson family members over the last few days imply a sense of relief after a long slow burn; Whitmire had long fallen out of favor with them..and they were happy to support their corporate parent company with the decision.

I need to rewatch Muppet's Most Wanted. I can't remember if the doppelganger frog, Constantine, played by Matt Vogel, did an approximation of Kermit's voice in any scenes, or was just with the Boris Badenov, "Moos end square-rel"-talk thoughout. Ah, the irony. Vogel is the new Kermit after playing an imposter Kermit. And his debut is coming soon on social media.

Confidentiality...I believe a lot of Kermit's best moments weren't really on The Muppet Show, because he was usually playing the straight man to the zanier characters, but on Sesame Street where he really shined, dressing up like Inspector Clouseau and buying "Kermit the Froog" t-shirts and having odd chats with Grover, who would call him "Froggy-Baby". Those segments used to be rerun on Sesame Street constantly up until the 2000s, when the Disney acquisition put a stop to it, but I wouldn't mind seeing some of that Kermit return.

It's not that easy, being a corporate mascot...ask the mouse.

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