On November 21, 1990–twenty-seven years ago today, and six months after Jim Henson’s death–the tribute special “The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson” aired on CBS. It was Steve Whitmire’s first performance as Kermit the Frog. He had had less than six months to prepare.
Here is the finale. Kermit enters at 04:27:
Puppetry-wise, Steve was spot-on from the very beginning, giving Kermit these beautiful, subtle facial expressions. You can feel Kermit’s emotions as you watch; the sorrow and pride, the quiet joy and gratitude.
But there is still the matter of the voice.
I was all ready to start apologizing for Kermit’s voice, saying that it makes sense that he would be a little hoarse because he’d probably have been crying in his grief over Jim’s death, and therefore it would be understandable, even from a Watsonian point of view, that he would sound a little different.
But then I discovered something shocking.
Shortly after the Vogel!Kermit video dropped back at the end of August, (seven weeks after Disney had told us to expect it; make of that what you will), the Muppet Wiki made a Facebook post, the subtext of which was “Tut-tut…come on, you guys! Steve’s Kermit performance wasn’t perfect at first either!” which, to me, is completely beside the point. But by way of illustration, they posted a video that included two different versions of Steve’s first Kermit performance: one with the audio as originally recorded, and one with the audio altered so as to deepen Steve’s Kermit voice in the hopes of making him sound more like Jim. The altered audio is what ultimately made it into the broadcast version of the special.
Here is that video, with the altered audio first; the unaltered audio begins at 45 seconds in:
In my opinion, the original, unaltered audio sounds much better and more Kermit-y than the altered audio. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it sounds even better–or, if not better, at least more consistent–than Steve’s Kermit voice in Muppet Christmas Carol, (which, incidentally, was my first exposure to Steve’s Kermit voice because we didn’t get CBS at our house when I was a kid).
Now, granted, I’m saying that from the perspective of 27 years after the fact, when my ears and brain have had almost three decades to become attuned to Steve’s Kermit voice. Nevertheless, the fact remains that people’s reactions to Kermit’s first post-Jim appearance were based on audio that had been, for lack of a better phrase, tampered with. It’s interesting to speculate how the reactions would have been different back then if they had been based on a pure, unaltered version presented without executive interference.
It’s interesting to think how things would be different now if the executives had just trusted Steve, both in 1990 and in 2016.