Before you begin reading, I should warn you: This is an extensive, detailed, impressionistic, lengthy, and potentially incoherent account of my trip to Omaha Comic Con to meet Steve Whitmire. I’m writing it in such great detail not because I think it will be interesting to you (although I hope it will be!) but mostly to fix my own memories of it as firmly in my mind as possible.
If you want the tl;dr version, the entire experience can basically be summed up in five emojis:
I knew that meeting Steve at OCon was going to be an emotional experience. I anticipated that, as a result, I was going to have difficulty controlling my tears, that all the feels were going to turn my brain into guacamole, and that I was going to have a hard time talking to him as a result.
I tried to prepare myself beforehand to counteract these effects. I made notes about what I wanted to say, and I tried to imagine what would happen when I met him. When it happened for real, I was successful in the former regard (controlling my tears) but had less success in the latter (communicating articulately). All things considered, I think I did pretty well, because there was NO WAY I could ever have predicted or prepared for what actually happened.
With a three-hour drive ahead of me, I arose early to get ready, which wasn’t hard because the excitement made it difficult to sleep anyway. I put on a green t-shirt and my styrofoam Kermit eyes from Halloween two years ago. I knew it was going to be a hot day (UNDERSTATEMENT!), so I decided against the felt collar. It was less a cosplay and more of an homage.
The wristband that was my ticket into the convention was emblazoned with the word “SUNDAY” three times. It reminded me of those monster truck show announcers. As I put it around my wrist, I felt a bit like Charlie Bucket getting to visit Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, and started singing this song to myself:
At the risk of getting ahead of myself, little did I know how fitting the following lyrics would become by the end of the day:
“I never had a chance to shine,
Never a happy song to sing.
But suddenly half the world is mine.
What an amazing thing!”
It had been 15 years since I had last been to Omaha, and I was worried because the last time I was there to meet friends at the zoo, I got rather badly lost. I did get lost again this time, both upon my arrival and departure, but not too badly. It helped that the convention was actually not in Omaha proper but in nearby Council Bluffs, Iowa. Most of the trip was a straight shot south down Interstate 29.
The convention was set to open at 9:00 a.m. By my clock, it was 9:04 when I arrived. However, it appeared that the doors weren’t open yet, as there was a long line of people waiting to get in. Fortunately, the doors opened shortly thereafter, and the line moved fairly quickly, which is impressive as all the bags and props had to be checked.
I had a little bit of trouble at the bag check. I somehow couldn’t open my bag wide enough for the lady to see in. She was very polite and professional, however, but the whole thing was slightly more trouble than it was worth. My advice to other comic con neophytes: Don’t carry a bag at all if you don’t have to, and don’t put anything in it that you don’t absolutely need.
I got to the arena floor and headed straight back to Steve’s table, but he wasn’t there yet. So I looked around at the various vendors’ booths for a while, which was kind of awkward. They were, of course, trying to sell their wares, while I was saving my money for an autograph from Steve (which, as it turns out, was completely unnecessary). While the vendors were pleasant and friendly, they were slightly more aggressive than I was comfortable with.
I should point out that, though I was a prolific poster back in the Muppet Pundit days, that was two years ago, and I wasn’t sure if Steve remembered me. I had mentioned to him on Instagram that I was planning to attend OCon, and he then reached out to me via private messaging expressing a wish to talk to me while I was there. So I knew that he was familiar with my online persona, at least, and that he expected to see me.
As I walked around, I kept an eye on Steve’s booth. My intention was to march right over the second he arrived. But when I saw him actually sitting there, I was suddenly overcome with a wave of emotion and needed a moment to collect myself. Eventually, I got myself approximately back together and went over. He was talking to two guys; I found out later that they were interviewing him for a podcast. There were arrows taped on the ground to indicate the direction that the line was supposed to move. The lesson I learned from watching Sesame Street over 30 years ago to always follow the arrows is deeply ingrained into my brain, so even though there wasn’t really a line yet, I stood in the entry way and waited my turn.
Steve noticed me standing there, so the podcast guys paused their recording so that I could talk to him. He didn’t know who I was at first, which didn’t surprise or offend me, because there’s no good reason why he would (more on that in a minute). However, he greeted me with a warm smile and said he liked my Kermit eyes.
When I told him who I was, he said, “Oh, you ARE!?!” as he got up to give me a hug. “I didn’t recognize you from your picture!”
“Of course you didn’t,” I wanted to say. “That picture is 10 years old, was taken in profile, and I’ve put on at least 100 pounds since then.” However, with my brain being guacamole, I just said it was an old picture.
Then he told the podcast guys about my blog and said that he thought they should talk to me. Apparently, when they realized that I had some sort of standing with Steve, they had turned their recordings back on (audio only, thank goodness). He also said, (not entirely seriously, I believe) that I should be moderating the Q&A later that day in lieu of the convention-appointed moderator. I don’t know if I would be very good at that, but at least I could have come up with some original questions.
Anyway, they continued their interview with Steve for the podcast, and I stood there listening and trying not to laugh, which was difficult, because Steve’s answers were very funny. When they finished their recording, probably about 15 minutes later, they turned to talk to me. Steve had talked up my Muppet/Henson interest and knowledge (possibly exaggerating a little bit). All of a sudden, I was a Big Name Fan. It was surreal for being completely unexpected.
The podcast guys asked me some questions, like if I’d ever been on a podcast. (Answer: no). They gave me their card and asked me to reach out if I had an interest in contributing to a future episode talking about Labyrinth and Muppet material, which I may do. Their podcast is called Cult Films, Fans & Finds, or CF3, and regardless of whether or not I choose to participate in a podcast, I will be keeping an eye out for their interview with Steve and will post it when it becomes available.
The CF3 guys left the table, and Steve resumed our conversation by asking, “How are you?” I told him exactly. I said I was mostly good, but that I was beside myself at the prospect of meeting him, and I showed him how my hand was shaking with excitement and nerves.
He asked me how far I had to drive to get there. When I told him, he said a three-hour drive wasn’t so bad, and I agreed with him.
I don’t remember everything that was said or the exact flow of the conversation. There were a couple of things–just a couple–that he asked me not to talk about here. I kind of joked that I should be writing down what NOT to say, and now I wish I had because I don’t remember exactly, although I have a pretty good idea.
Before this conversation, I had no idea whether Steve still reads my blog. Unless he were to comment on it directly, I would have no way of knowing. But apparently he does, and he said so many complimentary things about my writing style and my critiques and my insight and even my blog layout (which I’ve considered tweaking in the past, but now I never will). I really meant to turn it around and tell him how much I enjoy HIS writing, on his blog (when he still wrote it) and occasionally on Instagram, and encourage him to do more of it, but I was so overwhelmed that the best I could do was blush and stammer my inadequate thanks.
He talked a little bit about his blog, Muppet Pundit, how he kept up with it for a while but realized it was time to close that chapter in his life and move on. He did talk about plans for a new website and said it will incorporate the blog aspect of it in addition to other, unspecified things. I assume that means there will be the ability to comment, but I didn’t specifically verify that with him. He didn’t give a specific timeline on that, though, and that may be more than I am supposed to say.
I did learn a little more about his new character Weldon, more than I am at liberty to talk about. The current concept (which Steve talked about in that interview with the Omaha World-Herald, so I guess it’s okay for me to mention) is to do a live-streaming show in which Weldon interacts with viewers, which kind of sounds like a 21st-century update to what he did on his first show before joining the Muppets. He said that he initially wanted Weldon to do live shows from comic cons, but that that posed logistical difficulties. He described Weldon as a troll who lives in a cave and spends his time hacking other people’s websites and drinking energy drinks. He did affirm, however, a commitment to keeping Weldon family-friendly, although at one point he thought about taking a more anything-goes approach. Given the negative response to Happytime Murders, along with certain attitudes still present in the mainstream Muppet fandom, I think Steve’s decision is a good one.
At some point during this conversation, I noticed that the ribbon tying my Kermit eyes to my head had come undone. I had anticipated this eventuality and had secured them with bobby pins. However, I remarked that I would probably have to remove them altogether. “That’s all right,” Steve said. “They were there for the important part.” My response was something to this effect:
Steve asked me about my blog, and whether I’m affiliated with any of the other Muppet fan sites. I said no; apart from occasionally posting on forums, I don’t have any association with any of the other sites and mostly just do my own thing. I said that being solely responsible for the content on my blog has advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, since writing is also my day job, I don’t have time to post as much or as often as I would like. But on the other hand, I have total creative freedom and control over what gets posted.
He said that was sort of similar to how he felt about his new project(s), that not being with the Muppets afforded him more time to do what he wanted to do and have more control over the process. I also said that a blog representing my own unique viewpoint on the Muppets and Jim Henson’s universe was something that I had wanted to do for years, but unfortunately, it took the untoward circumstance of his unwarranted dismissal to spur me into action. And he pointed out that he wouldn’t be able to appear at comic cons if not for that, and so we agreed that while the Schism had some good aftereffects, it was still bad. He didn’t use the word “Schism,” though.
(Note to new readers: “Schism” is the word I use to describe Disney’s decision to cut ties with Steve, as well as the subsequent controversy and backlash. It’s convenient shorthand for me.)
That led Steve to do some venting about Disney and that whole situation, and I commiserated with him. But when I say “venting,” I don’t mean to imply that he was particularly angry or bitter about it. It may be fair to say that he came across as just slightly defensive, almost as though he was trying to justify himself to me (which was completely unnecessary). My impression, which could be entirely wrong, was that it is still a source of pain for Steve, even if he is in the process of healing from it. But I can’t really talk about it in detail, partly because I think that was one of the things that Steve asked me not to discuss, but also because I’m less interested in that sort of stuff at the moment than I am in talking about the good times and looking forward to the future, and because I’m less interested in it, I don’t remember it as well.
It was at about this point that other people started showing up to the booth seeking autographs, pictures, etc. Steve basically told me that I was welcome to hang out there as long as I wanted to. I had looked at the schedule of events earlier and identified some things that I might be interested in doing as long as I was there. However, I made that list on the assumption that I would only be able to talk to Steve for about 5-10 minutes. I went there specifically to see him, and there was nothing there that was more interesting to me than that. So I stayed.
I see now that this is going to be too lengthy for one post, so I’m splitting it up into parts. Watch this space for Part 2 in the near future.