If there’s one thing that Muppet fans agree on, it’s that there are variations to Kermit’s behavior/personality. Many see the differences as a negative and attribute them to the change(s) in performer. Both Steve Whitmire and the writers are frequent targets of this criticism, with fans on forums claiming that the writers and Steve alike have been too “precious” about Kermit, resulting in Kermit’s having become too soft, too bland, or too nice. I understand what they mean, and I understand that “precious” is meant to be a pejorative in this case, but personally, I think that being “too precious” with Kermit and the other Muppets is vastly preferable than treating them like old socks that can be tossed around willy-nilly, as Disney is doing now.*
However, I get the impression (and this is pure conjecture on my part) that Steve had been hearing criticisms in this vein for years and years. No more than one day before Cheryl Henson infamously weaponized the criticisms against him in a Facebook post (which, in her defense, was apparently intended to be private), he made the following statement in a blog entry: “[T]here is actually no such thing as Jim’s Kermit and Steve’s Kermit – There is only Kermit.”
In my opinion, the whole issue is a lot more complex than anyone, perhaps even Steve, is willing and/or able to fully acknowledge.
While I agree that there are variations to Kermit’s personality and behavior, I think the differences are far more complex than most fans realize, and that chalking the variations up to different performers is a gross oversimplification. My theory is that, just as we human beings tend to behave differently among friends than we do around parents, children, employers, teachers, students, co-workers, authority figures, etc., so does Kermit the Frog behave slightly differently in different rhetorical contexts, all of which behaviors unify into a cohesive whole that is more than the sum of its parts.
I’m not including Vogel!Kermit in my current analysis, and it’s nothing against Matt; it’s just that (a) I don’t think he’s spent enough time with the character yet to have discernible patterns of behavior, and (b) I don’t feel that I’ve watched enough Vogel!Kermit content to make a fair assessment.
When I analyze Kermit’s behavior in certain rhetorical settings, I notice six clear and consistent patterns of behavior:
- Sesame Street Kermit: Mostly mild-mannered and nurturing.
- Muppet Show Kermit: Frustrated, frazzled, and frequently kind of a jerk
- Kermit from the Muppet Movies: Alternates between visionary and melancholy, sometimes within a single scene
- Interview/Live Appearance Kermit: Quick-witted and clever; sometimes flirts with the line, but never crosses it
- “Hey Cinderella!” Kermit: A bitter, angry, depressed victim
- Muppets 2015 Kermit: Scheming and manipulative; volunteers information about his sex life that nobody asked for or ever wanted to know
Notice that these are general tendencies and not hard-and-fast rules. Kermit does occasionally get frustrated and angry on Sesame Street, though I feel confident in saying that it’s never without justification. Similarly, I’ve seen at least one interview that Kermit gave (from The Tonight Show in the early ’70s, I believe, though I can no longer find it on YouTube) in which Kermit was downright grumpy and ill-tempered throughout the entire thing.
Furthermore, it probably goes without saying that a couple of these examples pertain to specific productions and therefore only apply to one performer. Obviously, Jim Henson didn’t work on Muppets 2015 (more’s the pity), and Steve was still a kid just getting into puppetry when “Hey, Cinderella!” aired and didn’t start performing Kermit until well after The Muppet Show was over.
Nevertheless, both Jim and Steve have performed Kermit on Sesame Street, in movies, and for live appearances and interviews, and the above patterns more or less hold true regardless of who’s performing the character.
I’ve curated some clips to try to illustrate my point. As you watch them, I’d just ask that you think less about comparing Jim and Steve and more about how Kermit behaves differently in each rhetorical context.
Before I get inundated with comments pointing out all the times that Kermit got angry on Sesame Street, let me acknowledge that I already know that Kermit got angry sometimes on Sesame Street. My point is that it seems to have generally taken a lot more to provoke him on Sesame Street than on The Muppet Show. In the second clip, it took the destruction of his home to get a reaction out of him, and it’s hard to imagine MuppetShow!Kermit acting so calm if someone hijacked his demonstration to draw a pointless glob of squiggles.
Kermit’s moods in the Muppet movies, especially the ones in which he plays himself, tend to fall along a spectrum between melancholy and visionary. Sometimes he can go from one to the other within a matter of minutes.
The same pattern holds true for Muppets Take Manhattan, although in this case there’s a franticness to Kermit’s visionary side, a desperation born of despair.
(Also, has Cheryl Henson ever seen Muppets Take Manhattan? Kermit is depressed, angry, and victimized through almost the whole thing, arguably with some bitterness mixed in there as well.)
I couldn’t find an unbroken clip from “The Muppets” on YouTube to demonstrate my point, but it doesn’t take much to get from “Pictures in My Head” to “We drive.”
This is probably too narrow a sample from which to draw a definitive conclusion, but for all that people accuse Steve of being “too precious” with Kermit, when comparing these two interviews, Steve seems to have been a little more willing to push the envelope with Kermit than Jim was, while avoiding crossing the line into tastelessness.
As for the other issue, I agree with Steve that Kermit’s character is consistent (or had been, until the Schism) and that there’s no real distinction between “Jim’s Kermit” and “Steve’s Kermit.” At the same time, however, I think it’s fair to say that Steve’s approach to the character was different than Jim’s.
I’m paraphrasing somewhat, but Steve has often mentioned the weight of responsibility he felt taking on characters originated by someone else, like Kermit and Beaker, and about both the importance and the difficulty of keeping the character consistent with what the original performer created. By contrast, he’s mentioned that it’s freeing to be able to perform his own characters; more than once, he’s referred to it as a “release.”
Needless to say, Kermit was Jim’s original creation, and Jim mentioned at least once feeling less inhibited when performing with Kermit, able to say things that he wouldn’t be able to express otherwise. Of course, I have no way of knowing what was in either Jim’s or Steve’s minds as each performed Kermit, but I imagine that Steve had some extra concerns that probably never even occurred to Jim.
I’m sort of reading between the lines here, but my impression is that one of Steve’s concerns was trying not to reflect badly on Jim while performing Kermit. With Steve as a performer, Kermit was just as capable of getting frustrated, angry, and frazzled as when Jim was the performer, as well as melancholy, depressed, and yes, maybe even bitter, but I’m also of the opinion that Steve was more inclined to default to positive emotions with Kermit than Jim may have been.
If that’s the case, then I say it’s all to the good. My first exposure to Kermit was on Sesame Street, and Sesame Street is what formed my opinion of who and what Kermit is. On Sesame Street, Kermit tends to be much more positive, kind, and nurturing, and that’s the way I prefer to see him and to think of him.
*In fairness, Sesame Workshop has also done a bit of this, although with more justification as they were running out of money at the time.