Muppet Heresy: The Many Facets of Kermit

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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.

Sesame Street:

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. 

Muppet Movies:

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.” 

Interviews/Live Appearances:

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. (To be fair, though, if Strombo had been as explicit in his questioning as Joan Rivers, Steve may have felt the need to dial it back as well.)

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.

Steve Kermit facepalm

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*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.

 

 

 

One thought on “Muppet Heresy: The Many Facets of Kermit

  1. Keeping it on ‘Heresy’ note, and speaking mainly of The Muppet Show (because that’s where the characters had most time to be themselves, IMHO) — here are some rather disputable thoughts of my own:

    That’s really quite interesting question — “what” is Kermit? Indeed, the rest of the core Muppet characters can be said to represent certain aspects of human psyche, specific traits which make them who they are, the facets of human soul: Fozzie the hapless comedian, braving his sense of insecurity daily, the grumpy hecklers from the Balcony, Ms Piggy determined to claw a place for herself under the sun, Rowlf the no-nonsense piano-playing philosopher, Sam the prim Eagle, Gonzo the artiste of the weird, corporate Bunsen and meepy Beaker, Rizzo the rat of the world, ever eagerly helpful Scooter, Swedish Chief of deadpan impro, uber hip Floyd, etc etc. It’s the personality interplay that makes their bits sparkle. In the words of Dave Goelz, “I try to look for personality flaw within yourself and then I find a way to amplify it and make it lovable.” Other Muppets, drawn in less detail, are characterized more by the role instead, such as the Newsman, Wayne and Wanda, Lew Zealand and Marvin Suggs, Pops, George and Hilda, and so on — these have less screen time and are usually used for job-related gags.

    So where does Kermit fit in this scheme of things? One of the oldest Muppets around, progressing from old coat thing to Kermit the Frog, the host of The Muppet Show — it seems hard to pinpoint a single trait that makes his character what it is, unless it is the desire to keep things in balance. Not exactly “proper” — that’s Sam’s prerogative — instead, Kermit always tries to keep the whirlwind of quirkiness around him balanced and fair. In TMS, at least in my opinion, Kermit provided a focal perception point for the viewers, a central staple of looking at things from ‘everyday’ person point of view. It seems easy, but it is actually tougher to get done than trait-based or role-based characters, as it gives him more freedom of expression. So, un/like Fozzie, Kermit can struggle with uncertainty at times — but he needs a valid reason to become unsure of himself. Un/like Crazy Harry, Kermit actually can be brought to the point of blowing things up — but he’ll need a convincing story of what would make a guy do that.

    Well, and that’s not just any guy, really. Jim. Kermit has a distinct personality, with things clearly in-character and out-of-character for him. It all came from Jim, it developed and evolved over the years to the point where we can say we know “who Kermit is” (though i must admit, the opinions on the web differ wildly).

    SO, Kermit is not restricted to a single line of behavior, but instead needs to have his reasons, and a recognizable complex personality showing through whatever he says and does. For scripted productions, the responsibility for that may lie more with the writers, but in impromptu appearances it’s all on the performer.

    That is why Kermit is so darn hard to replicate properly. Steve was completely right to play Kermit based on his experiences of, and with, Jim himself. Given all of the above, “Would Jim agree to this?” and “What would make Jim’s Kermit do that?” are totally valid and essential questions to ask. In a sense, Steve kept a part of Jim’s soul on his hand for all these 27 years.

    Walter kind of took that versatile ‘everyday guy’ niche in 2011, pushing Kermit into nostalgic celebrity role, and then things went completely haywire in the scripts for 2015 series. What would make the balancing, nurturing, fair Kermit of Jim Henson to become a 2015 kermit figure? Frank Oz said “They didn’t have a clue about who Kermit really is.” Well, maybe it was a conscious effort to dumb down the characters into more “modern” form so that they fit the standard dramedy types, and no longer require the brilliance of Jerry Juhl to write for? Anyway, Steve did the best that was possible under the circumstances by playing Kermit as he did — the calls for agile pig-chasing frog “with lots of backbone” from some fans really sound more like Jurassic Park than the Muppets. The idea of Kermit the Practical Joker does not quite appeal to me either.

    Is any of this true? Only Muppet performers can tell for sure. I guess I’m just trying to rationalize to myself the immense feeling of relief “somehow, Kermit is still alive” I was dizzy with after Muppet Christmas Carol, or why Matt’s Kermit appearances I’ve seen on youtube seem more like a rather generic talking frog telling tadpole jokes, so far.

    I’m still hoping the next Muppet productions would put things into right places, but i’m not exceedingly sure of it.

    Liked by 1 person

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