Sixty for 60: Live Appearances by Muppets

Welcome to the final regular installment of 60 for 60, a year-long celebration of the work of Steve Whitmire in anticipation of his 60th birthday next month. This month’s theme is live appearances by Muppet characters.

Kermit TED talk

“The trick to the show [Muppets 2015], if it works, is to make it feel for the first time that you’re seeing the Muppets in our world.” –Bill Prady, SDCC Panel 2015

Of the many strange and perplexing things that happened in conjunction with the Muppets’ 2015 series, one that I found to be among the strangest and most perplexing was this bizarre statement by Bill Prady, that it would be the first time that the Muppets were in our world. How are they not in our world? Not only have six of their eight movies been set in our world, but the Muppets make live appearances in our world all the time. And when they do, it results in some of the best and most entertaining material because they’re usually a little freer to do some ad libbing and to be themselves, insofar as the Muppets have selves, which is a deep philosophical dive that I don’t think I’m ready to take at the moment and would probably require a whole other entry even if I were.

Quick explanation before I get to the primary content: This post contains five examples of Steve’s work, but it has more than five videos because some of them pertain to the same event. If there were one unbroken video of each event, then I would use that, but there aren’t, so I’m forced to include more videos than there are events.

“I’ve Got My Mind Set on You” and “Bein’ Green” (MDA Telethon, 2001)

I don’t have a lot to say about this event that I haven’t already said, but I do have one lingering question: Kermit is sitting on the piano, so presumably what appears to be a musical instrument is actually just an empty frame with no strings and no capability to produce sound. And yet, during the first number (and maybe the second, though we don’t get to see) there’s a guy sitting at the piano who appears to be playing. Did they get him to just sit there and pretend to play the piano? And if so, where are the piano sounds coming from?

I’m so confused. I should probably stop thinking about it so hard and just chalk it up to Muppet magic.

“The Night Before Christmas” (The National Christmas Tree Lighting, 2011)

*sigh* I miss the Obamas.

This isn’t the first Muppet rendition of “The Night Before Christmas,” nor is it the most memorable. But I like how dramatic Steve/Kermit get while interpreting it. I also like that they got real kids on stage to listen to the story, although I think it’s kind of weird that they all have to wear matching outfits.

My favorite part of this appearance is when everyone (more or less) is on stage for a sing-along, and Kermit is sitting on Michelle Obama’s shoulder and Steve has no masking or anything to hide behind, so he just has to duck behind Carson Daly. And the really funny part is that there was a time, not so very long ago, that I probably wouldn’t have even noticed him back there.

Kermit and Tom Bergeron Promote “A Capitol Fourth” (Omaha’s KMTV 3 News Now, 2014)

Since I met Steve in the Omaha metro area almost exactly five years after this interview took place, it seems strangely portentous now. Apart from being excited about Kermit talking about the zoo, I also got really excited the first time I watched it when Tom Bergeron said that he’d like to see Kermit compete on Dancing with the Stars. “They should totally do that!” I said to myself at the time. Then I remembered that that wouldn’t work because Kermit is a puppet.

Of course, even Vogel!Kermit would be a better DWTS contestant than Sean Spicer.

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist. No more politics for the rest of this entry, I promise.)

“The Creative Act of Listening to a Talking Frog” (TEDxJackson, 2015)

I planned to include this appearance in this entry from the beginning because it is special to me, as I have already explained elsewhere. But it’s all the more fitting since I found out from Steve’s CF3 podcast interview that this is one of his favorite Kermit appearances as well.

“Jim Henson’s Musical World” (Carnegie Hall, April 12, 2012)

It was a return to Camelot on a spring day in 2012 in which Jim Henson’s core creations reunited for two performances to honor him once again. Watching these clips reminds me of Muppet Family Christmas, except even better in a way because they were recorded live. 

Apparently, the Fraggles did a longer set of five of their greatest songs. Unfortunately, the only clip I can find of them features only one of those songs and then the theme song AGAIN! If anyone can find a better Fraggle clip from either or both of these performances, please let me know. Thanks. 

Otherwise, I picked the videos from this that were the most visually appealing, i.e., the ones that showed the characters the most clearly and closely. However, I did include an extra video of the Sesame Street section that was from the first performance. Apparently it wasn’t originally planned for Elmo to provide the duckie squeaks, so Steve breaks character a little bit for laughing, and I love that. Apparently, the squeaking was then incorporated into the second performance. 

It’s really great that so many of the human cast members of Sesame Street were also able to participate. Interestingly enough, however, my eyes are drawn not so much to the Sesame Street residents that I know from my childhood but to Leela (played by Nitya Vidyasagar), who really commits to her performance. I was well into adulthood by the time Leela moved to Sesame Street, so I haven’t seen a lot of her, but I think she was a wonderful addition, and it was a real loss when she eventually departed. It sounds like she’s going to return for the 50th anniversary special, though, so that’s something.

It also appears that either the Sesame humans’ choreography was not very detailed or they didn’t have a lot of rehearsal beforehand because it seems a little rough. That just adds to the charm however. 

Was it really so obligatory that they sing the theme song to every series? Would people really have left the theater in disappointment, saying, “Gee, I was really looking forward to hearing all the theme songs yet again!”? I have a complicated relationship with theme music, y’all. I’ve been meaning to write an entry about it for a long time but haven’t gotten around to it yet. 

Nevertheless, it is both fitting and poignant that they sing “Together Again.” It’s also poignant in retrospect that Kermit turns to Fozzie at the end of “Movin’ Right Along” and says, “It brings back memories, doesn’t it?” Alas, now all of those memories are second-hand. (Obviously, Steve didn’t play Kermit in The Muppet Movie, but he was still involved in it, so has first-hand memories of it.)

I just found the video of “Rainbow Connection” a few days ago, and I almost didn’t include it because I’ve already included a bunch of videos in this entry and because the “Rainbow Connection” performance includes Miss Piggy, who’s problematic for me. However, I included it anyway, partially to thumb my nose at the contingent of the mainstream Muppet fandom that thinks it’s overused. But also because this is a beautiful rendition in which all the Sesame Street humans, special guests, etc. get to join in, particularly auteur Paul Williams. Furthermore, Steve gives a lovely performance as Kermit, doing some variations on the main melody that I’ve never heard before or since. There have been many renditions of “Rainbow Connection,” most of which I love, but this one is a top-five performance for me. 

It takes a lot of cooperation among the various companies that have taken possession of Jim Henson’s creations to put together a program like this. Will something similar ever happen again? Maybe. I’ll cross my fingers, but I won’t hold my breath. 

There will be one more 60 for 60 entry for Steve’s actual birthday on September 24th. It will be a look back  featuring “the best of the best,” along with my other thoughts and musings about the year that was and perhaps about the future. See you then!

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