Recommended reading for any Muppets fans out there: over at The Awl, author Elizabeth Stevens has written a lengthy examination of their uneven and unsatisfying life after the death of Muppets mastermind Jim Henson. Stevens argues that Henson should never have been replaced as the performer of Kermit the Frog; instead Kermit should have died or retired or been otherwise removed as leader of the group. She adds that slotting unqualified puppeteers into the role has diluted the Muppets’ magic.
It’s a complicated piece that you can’t really summarize with a single pull-quote. But that’s never stopped me before; here’s a single pull-quote about what happened when Steve Whitmire replaced Henson as Kermit:
“Instead of an organic personnel shift, Whitmire became Kermit, which wasn’t only a disservice to that character, but also a real disservice to Whitmire. There was no place for him to take the role. If he strays too far from Henson, embodying Kermit with the parts of his personality that weren’t in Henson, nostalgic fans will be disappointed. He can only attempt the same impression over and over. It’s not the kind of art Henson produced. It’s very un-Muppet. What it is, though, is very, very Disney–not in the original spirit of Walt, but in the style of a corporation that runs on licensing. This is “art” defined as mass duplication, not wonderment. It is the art of selling Tigger toys to millions of people all over the country who have houses filled with Tigger toys.”
Stevens, who is clearly a very knowledgable expert on the subject of all things Muppetish, makes an interesting argument. The Henson family sold the Disney company the rights to the Muppet characters, but according to Stevens, those Muppets were a lot more than the sum of their fuzzy hand puppets and ping pong eyeballs. These characters were strange alchemical creations, the unique combination of puppet and performer. Elmo existed before Kevin Clash, but it was Clash’s uniquely innocent take on the character that made him “Elmo,” the undisputed titan of children’s television. Replicating the Muppets’ cutesy exteriors without also recapturing their tart personalities misses the point entirely. It’s a fair, if a tad idealistic, position. It’s also kind of cruel when you think about it: she’s basically arguing for a Muppet death penalty! Won’t some please think of the children?
I also agree with Stevens’ tangential but accurate assessment of the way that analog effects, like the Muppets riding bicycles in “The Great Muppet Caper,” are far more powerful than digital ones, like the ghostly Statler and Waldorf in “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” Though I was a devotee of the “Muppet Babies” cartoon show as a kid, Muppets as anything other than puppets sort of misses the point. Back at South by Southwest, I got to interview Elmo and witness Clash’s work in action. It was an awe-inspiring sight. All the fancy computer graphics in the world can’t match the magic of watching one of these inanimate creatures spring to life. Even though there’s an adult man’s arm sticking out of his butt, you very quickly convince yourself that Elmo is real and that he is sitting next to you and he’s totally making fun of how you’re conducting the interview (Look, not all of us have our adorable good looks to fall back on Elmo!). Heaven help us if they throw all of that away and turn the Muppets into full-time cartoon characters.
Here’s the one part where Stevens loses me. Again, it’s about Kermit who, let’s not forget, she’s basically given a death sentence:
“There have been some moments of genuine art in the last twenty-one years. In ‘Muppets From Space,’ Bobo Bear’s interplay with Jeffery Tambor contains echoes of Ernie-and-Bert banter. Gonzo has never wavered in his dedication to… Gonzoness. But these days Kermit offers out-of-character wisecracks like, ‘Get down with your bad selves.’ This isn’t Kermit’s humor. Kermit was a square, but he was never one-note dorky, a depository for one-liners and pop-culture satire. That line could have been plucked from Steve Urkel, from ‘ALF,’ from any sitcom from ’78 on. That’s what’s disappointing. A character without specificity is not one.”
First off, why you gotta cheapshot my man ALF like that? Not cool.
My real problem, though, is when Stevens — or anyone — assumes the fanboy position of “That character would never act like that and I know better.” How do you know? Saying “this isn’t Kermit’s humor” is a bit like saying these aren’t Spider-Man’s webshooters. This is not the argument of the critic; it’s the argument of the fan.
If, as Stevens claims, she really wants the Muppets to grow and experiment like they did back in the good old days, she should also be open to the idea of the characters doing things that are “out of character.” If any deviation from the norm is deemed not in keeping with the character’s spirit, the Muppets are doomed to remain exactly the sort of nostalgia tribute act she claims they’ve been forced to be for the last twenty years.
Stevens says she has hope for Jason Segel‘s upcoming relaunch of the Muppet big-screen franchise. I do too. But Kermit will be there. And if he makes cheesy jokes, they’re not out of character; they’re in character for a new Kermit.