As you may have heard, Jason Segel is bringing back the Muppets. Yes, just like his character in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Segel has long been obsessed with Jim Henson’s furry creations, and he’s pretty much made it his life’s main goal to bring them back to cultural relevance. (They were kind of a big deal in the 70s and 80s, you may recall.)
But the road to bringing them to the big screen now has been a tumultuous one, to say the least, and writer Elizabeth Stevens — who appears to be nothing less than a Muppets obsessive — chronicled the Hollywood wreckage that’s taken place in the years following Henson’s death in 1990 in about 8 million words for The Awl, and it’s nothing short of fascinating. Here are some of my favorite excerpts.
On the voice of Kermit the Frog…
From 1955 to 1990, Kermit the Frog was voiced and performed by Jim Henson. After that, Steve Whitmire, known for his smart-mouthed Rizzo the Rat, took over. Whitmire’s Kermit sounded a lot like Henson’s, but his voice was a little thinner, and his singing more rhythmic and less melodic.
Let me preface my next statement by saying that I know it will seem ridiculous to the casual reader, inflammatory to a good many fans, and downright specious to the expert of rhetoric, but for me watching Steve Whitmire’s Kermit is akin to watching someone imitate a mythic and longed-for mother—my mother—wearing a my-mother costume in a my-mother dance routine. This person’s heart is in the right place, which only makes it worse. “You should be happy,” the person pleads with me, “Look, Biddy! Your mother is not gone! She is still here.” Now, no one would ever do that. No one in her right mind would think it would work. A child knows his mother’s voice like he knows whether it’s water or air he’s breathing. One chokes you and one gives you life. Strangely, I feel the same about Kermit. Whitmire is an amazing performer—especially as the lovable dog Sprocket on “Fraggle Rock”—but, when he’s on screen as Kermit, I can feel my body reject it on a cellular level.
In the 2000s, the Muppets turned up a lot on TV; they do game shows, reality, infotainment, late night, usually promoting a DVD release or movie with a few gags. In 2007, Kermit showed up on “America’s Got Talent,” sharing a cheesy duet of James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend” with a contestant. What was strange about this cameo (besides that it wasn’t at all funny) is that Disney didn’t use Whitmire for it. The frog was puppeteered by another guy than the < i=”"> other guy. Kermit had been Weekend-at-Bernie-ed. And as I watched, I wondered, on behalf of all Muppet fans, how did we get here?
On how the Muppets came to be a Disney property…
At the end of his life, Jim Henson was in talks with Disney to sell the Muppets. As the talks progressed, the two entities made a TV special together called The Muppets at Walt Disney World. This hour-long romp gives us a sense of what the merger might have been; in it, the gang sneak into Disney World and turn everything on its head. Gonzo and Camilla pretty much do it in a laundry room on top of the theme-park employees’ uniforms. Charles Grodin, playing a security guard, tells Rizzo that rodents aren’t allowed in the park. In his New York nasal, Rizzo shoots back, “Oh yeah, does your boss Mickey know that?” Fozzie works the enchanted kingdom into his act: “How soon can you get film developed around here, he says, and I say to him, some day your prints will come. Get it? Prints? Film?” In another scene Animal chases a shrieking Snow White down Main Street USA. Who but the Muppets could get away with calling Mickey a rodent? Who else could turn Prince Charming into a corny joke?
Kermit’s weirdos (as they often called themselves) wreak havoc across the Disney universe, which was, around that time, a rather staid, stodgy simulacrum of fun. The contrast between the two styles is striking from the first frame. In the opening, Michael Eisner makes a CEO’s attempt at palling around with Fozzie and his mother Mrs. Bear that shades from wooden to weirdly ominous. “They’re here!” he says, sounding more like he’s introducing Freddy or Jason than a crew of puppets.
Watching the special, it’s easy to see how the Muppets could have brought much-needed personality to the Disney franchise if only Disney had valued the artistic process that created the multimillion-dollar product. But sadly, this isn’t what happened. After a brief sale of the Muppets to a German company in the early 2000s and a buy-back, the Henson heirs finally completed what Jim Henson began, and in 2004 they sold the Muppets to Disney. Now Kermit does “America’s Got Talent,” and his act is staid, stodgy and disappointingly safe.
On how the Muppets rode bikes in The Great Muppet Caper…
To this day, no one (outside of the movie’s own crew) knows how the Muppets rode bicycles in The Great Muppet Caper, the classic Henson movie from 1981. In that scene, Kermit stands up on one frog-leg on the seat of his bicycle to impress Miss Piggy, and then the whole gang joins them on their bikes, doing circles and figure eights, singing “Couldn’t We Ride?” It’s a wonderful piece of filmmaking, and still a complete delight to watch because the effect relied on the ingenuity and bravado of the puppeteers and crew, not CGI wizardry. Contrast the joy and ebullience of this scene to the elegant chiaroscuro slickness of the post-Henson Muppet Christmas Carol in which we see old fogies Statler and Waldorf, as the Marley brothers, floating in mid air. No viewer is impressed; no one really thinks about it at all. And that’s because when a then 29-year-old Brian Henson directed that film, he threw the rules out the window. Statler and Waldorf “float” because Goelz and Nelson, the men working the old guys, were standing behind them during filming and then were removed in post production. It’s an elegant fix—a cutting of the Gordian knot—but it is a complete break with an aesthetic 35 years in the making.
Rules get a bad rap, but the rules are what define the Muppets. The rules were the reason for so many scenes where you don’t see legs or feet. Kermit’s tap-dancing (seen only from the waist up) is funny because of the rules. Kermit, so proud of his footwork, almost makes us forget that he doesn’t actually have feet to work. It was the rules that gave us those wonderful conclusion scenes—everyone, all the Muppets you can imagine, together in one room, singing the same song, in rows, arranged so that everyone’s faces can be seen. As viewers, we know on some fundamental level that what we are seeing is not CGI, but a room full of exhausted, exhilarated professionals with their arms stuck inside of puppets. Jim Henson’s direction acknowledged the limitations of space, time and gravity. If a Muppet’s feet were visible, those feet belonged to a marionette. If a Muppet flies, it is because an unseen hand has flung him across a room. Which isn’t to say that Henson didn’t use television tricks—he did—but he always did so to push the art, not to cut costs. When he used the then-cutting-edge green screen in Labyrinth, his performers used the new medium to invent quixotic new ways for the Fire Creatures to dance. You could say that, in a way, the strings were always a part of the act.
After reading this I dug up the bike scene Stevens referred to. It’s quite amazing, and I suddenly have a newly found appreciation for it…
Now go read the whole article. It’s long as hell, but so very entertaining. Deinitely worth your time.
And just for the hell of it, here are the Muppets doing a hilarious cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Just because.