Sixty for 60: Beaker

Welcome back to 60 for 60, a yearlong celebration of Steve Whitmire and his work in anticipation of his 60th birthday later this year. This month we celebrate Steve’s work as Beaker, specifically in the viral videos that the Muppets made for YouTube.

“I get the impression that Beaker is a guy who goes home at night […] he’s a smart guy, he works in a lab, [yet] he probably doesn’t have much of a social life. He’s pretty introverted because he really can’t talk, so his only means of communication is the internet.” –Steve Whitmire

Despite the fact that Beaker is one of my favorite Muppets, I originally hadn’t included him in this project, for reasons that seemed to make sense at the time but that I can no longer remember. Then I watched the viral videos in which he features again and realized what a travesty it was to leave them out, because each of them is completely brilliant, and it’s some of the best and most Muppety content the Muppets have put out in the last 30 years. By all accounts, Steve had a lot of input into the creation of the viral videos, which means that he gets a lot of the credit for their quality and success.

It is important to note that Beaker was originally Richard Hunt’s character, and he deserves all the credit in the world for bringing Beaker to life. And yet, if my math is correct (which is by no means a given), Steve performed Beaker much longer than Richard did, albeit due to unavoidable and tragic circumstances. Which, at least in my own mind (and feel free to disagree with me) makes him as much Steve’s character as he is Richard’s.

If Kermit represents what I want to be, then Beaker is probably a lot closer to what I actually am. I’m an introvert, and I can be timid and awkward and inhibited, and although I don’t have a speech impediment, I’m much more skilled at expressing myself through writing than through the spoken word.

So even though I laugh at Beaker’s misfortune along with everybody else, at the same time I’m always in his corner, rooting for him to succeed.

“Stars and Stripes FOREVER!” (The Muppets’ YouTube Channel)

I can hardly take my eyes off Beaker as he rocks the piccolo solo in this number. He’s also not subject to any undue injury or suffering in this one, assuming that his head bandage is part of a costume and not something that came about in rehearsal or through his work in the lab.

“Habanera” (The Muppets’ YouTube Channel)

I love the homemade feel of this, as though they just put it together on the fly in the backstage of a studio somewhere. I also really love Beaker’s costume* and the ending, which is very old-school, both in terms of Muppet lore and special effects.

“Ode to Joy” (The Muppets’ YouTube Channel)

For so long, this was my favorite of the viral videos. I love the way it operates according to its own Muppet logic and defies explanation or analysis. The vocals and the instrumentation are also really good, so much so that the song works for me even without the visuals. (The humor needs visuals, obviously, but the music stands on its own.) This is probably the moment when Beaker really became one of my favorite Muppets.

“The Ballad of Beaker,” aka “Dust in the Wind” (The Muppets’ YouTube Channel)

This is a pretty accurate representation of what happens when you criticize Canadian figure skaters on Twitter, as I regrettably know from first-hand experience.**

“Flowers on the Wall” (The Muppets’ YouTube Channel)

For better or worse, this song is inextricably linked in my mind with the Schism because I didn’t see it until after the Schism took place, and also because the lyrics are so applicable to it. I find this video to be a really striking illustration of how much the quality of the Muppets’ online content has declined since Steve’s involuntary departure. This is really a detailed and multilayered piece of work, with the multiple locations and the Ratler Brothers singing in the foreground and the whole storyline. Within a year or two hereafter, the Muppets’ YouTube channel went from this level of quality to the Muppets standing in front of blank backgrounds, making mildly amusing (at best) observations, reading from books of quotes, and playing kazoos.

Is it fair to attribute the marked decline in the quality of the Muppets’ online content entirely to Steve’s involuntary departure? Probably not. I’m sure there were many different and interconnecting factors involved. Nevertheless, I suspect that his enforced absence is an unavoidably significant piece to the puzzle.

Can the Muppets continue to put out quality content without Steve? I suspect that, at the very least, it is still possible. After all, there are still a lot of very creatively talented people involved with them. However, the decline in quality of online content–which, if you think about it, continues the trend started in the 2015 series (or in the 2011 movie, depending on who you ask)–demonstrates that producing quality content doesn’t seem to be a very high priority for the powers that be who hold the pursestrings. Time will tell if these priorities change.

In any case, I’m sorry to end on such a sour note, but in a way I find it kind of appropriate for Beaker because he’s a character whom I’ve always found to have enormous pathos, with the paradoxical ability to make me feel like laughing and crying at the same time. 

Next month’s 60 for 60 entry will be a little different; instead of a character, it will be built around a specific theme. Come back on May 24th to find out more.




*Insofar as it is possible for a Muppet to be sexy, I think Beaker is kind of sexy in toreador pants. Don’t judge me.
**To be clear, I wasn’t criticizing ALL Canadian figure skaters, although one of the angry fans took it that way; just a particular ice dance team whose sportsmanship I’ve found to be disappointingly lacking in the past.

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