Well, folks … here we go again.
I don’t think Disney purposely timed its promotion of the new streaming Muppet series on Disney+ to coincide with the anniversary of the kerfuffle over the Schism three years ago. Nevertheless, a lot of casual fans are somehow still confused over the recast, and so the story is getting rehashed again in the press, sometimes fairly accurately and other times considerably less so.
Sadly but predictably, fans in the Disney and/or Henson camps are going out of their way to keep promulgating the dubious talking points about Steve being demanding and hard to work with, blah blah blah. My preference would be to address them all individually, but I have neither the time nor the emotional stamina for that.
In the interest of expediency, I have chosen instead to address the most well-worn and/or least accurate criticisms all at once in this convenient frequently-asked-questions format, despite the fact that people usually phrase them not as questions but as sweeping pronouncements.
- Mary, is your hatred and mistrust of Disney entirely because of what happened to Steve?
First of all, “hatred” is a strong word that I’m not entirely sure applies. But when it comes to my mistrust of Disney, the answer is no; that goes back a couple of decades by now. Specifically, I first started to become aware of Disney’s corruption, duplicity, and general shadiness when I was in high school, which was more than 20 years ago. The company’s treatment of Steve was just the last straw that let me know I could never invest my trust in it again.
2. Why are you so cynical when it comes to Disney? Didn’t Jim Henson teach us to assume the best in people?
He did, but I would argue that, first of all, a corporation is not a person and is therefore not entitled to the same consideration that I would afford to a human being, and second, Disney has shown itself to be untrustworthy on numerous occasions. “Fool me once,” etc.
By the way, I notice that the people who call me cynical and tell me that I should assume the best of Disney tend to be the same people who cynically assume the worst of Steve. I’m not quite sure how that makes any sense. In fact, I’m fairly certain that it doesn’t make any sense at all.
3. Wasn’t Jim trying to sell his company to Disney when he died? Didn’t he want his characters to be with Disney?
Yes, but he also wanted his puppeteers to be treated with respect, as detailed in Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones. Furthermore, if Jim had had access to the information that we have now, in books such as The Keys to the Kingdom by Kim Masters, DisneyWar by James B. Stewart, and Work in Progress by Michael Eisner and Tony Schwartz (both of whom are the ones you’re thinking of), as well as countless newspaper and magazine articles published since his death, he might have been inclined to rethink his decision. Of course, because he died long before most of that information came to light, there’s no way of knowing for sure.
4. Is it possible that Disney is in the right and Steve is in the wrong?
Is it possible? Sure, it’s POSSIBLE. Anything’s POSSIBLE. But based on the available information, it doesn’t seem very likely. Disney’s treatment of Steve follows a recognizable pattern of behavior when it comes to how the company tends to deal with people who have an inconvenient amount of integrity:
- Conceal its unethical behavior
- Attempt to buy off the people with scruples
- If that doesn’t work, discredit them
The company did the exact same thing to Robin Williams, to Roy E. Disney, and to Profile in Courage Andrea Van de Kamp, a former member of Disney’s board of directors whose story I haven’t had time to tell yet, but the tragic tale of Michael Eisner’s shameful treatment of her is detailed in James B. Stewart’s book DisneyWar. This is not an exhaustive list.
5. Before we get any farther into the controversial stuff, what exactly do you mean when you talk about the “mainstream Muppet fandom”?
I’m talking about the online Muppet influencers, the ones whose blogs rank highest in search results, the ones the casual fans tend to turn to first for information, and the ones who don’t make an attempt at objectivity (so it doesn’t include Muppet Wiki, although it may include some of its individual contributors). When I say “mainstream Muppet fandom” I have two or three sites specifically in mind, but I don’t like to name them if I can help it because that doesn’t seem fair or decent.
I’m NOT referring to Muppet History, which is administered by someone whom I consider a friend and who has maintained a sensible viewpoint on the subject all along.
6. What about all the stuff I’ve read saying that Steve was an @$$hole?
A lot of the press that came out at that time (and more recently) was transparently trying to work an angle and not even making an attempt at objectivity. And you also have to consider how many of the media outlets who reported on it may have had ties to Disney. It would have been in their interest to try to make Disney look good at Steve’s expense.
7. Did Steve perform Kermit as a “bitter, angry, depressed victim”?
Sometimes he did, when the script called for it, like in It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and the 2011 movie The Muppets. However, there are also plenty of times when Steve performed Kermit as cheerful and upbeat. Moreover, Kermit could also get pretty depressed, angry, etc. when Jim was playing him, specifically in The Muppets Take Manhattan and Hey, Cinderella!
8. Did Steve really reject understudies for the Muppets?
I’m not privy to any specific discussions that he may have had about it, but he definitely opposed, and continues to oppose, understudies for Muppet performers and multi-casting as a general principle. So did Jim Henson and Frank Oz, by the way. “One Muppet, One Voice” had been the guiding principle of the Muppets for well over 50 years. Brian Henson knows it, Lisa Henson knows it, Brian Jay Jones knows it, and anyone who is any sort of Muppet fan knows it too, regardless of what they say about it now.
9. Why don’t you give any credence to the claims of Brian Henson?
You know, I have a great deal of respect for Brian’s work, including Muppet Treasure Island, Muppet Christmas Carol, Dinosaurs, and yes, even Happytime Murders. If my assessment is accurate, his personality and temperament are very different from his father’s (which is not inherently a bad thing), and I appreciate that it must be very hard for him trying to keep the company going and carry on his dad’s work while constantly being compared to him, usually unfavorably.
With all that said, Disney has far too much leverage over him to lend credence to the notion that his expressed views just happen to align with Disney’s. In the first place, he has a Disney-copyrighted character atop his headquarters, and Disney is infamously reluctant to let other entities use its copyrighted characters as mascots. Second, and more significantly, JHC has a new series announced for Disney+ and set for release on September 4th. I don’t know exactly when that deal went down, but I do know that Disney+ was in the works in summer 2017, around the same time that the news about the Schism went public.
I recently ran across footage of Brian Henson at a singular event called MuppetFest in 2001 in which he invites the “original” Muppet Show performers, including Steve, onstage, praising them and then inviting them to talk about their experiences working with Jim. My question to everyone continuing to advance the tired, “Hensons said that Steve was a jerk, so it must be true,” line of reasoning is this: Was Brian lying back then, or is he lying now? I’m usually able to take a more nuanced view of issues, but in this case, I don’t see that there are any alternatives.
Granted, this is all circumstantial evidence. I cannot prove that Disney coerced the Hensons’ cooperation in the smear campaign, nor can I prove that they all conspired to attempt to assassinate Steve’s character. But I also cannot completely dismiss the mounting evidence that strongly suggests that Disney did have a hand in the Hensons’ decision to suddenly and simultaneously repudiate him.
10. But wasn’t that statue you mentioned actually put up in the year 2000, four years before the Disney sale?
I don’t have any information as to when the statue was actually put up, but I know that JHC bought the Charlie Chaplin Studios in 1999, so that would fit. It’s immaterial, though; Disney wouldn’t let a little thing like a grandfather clause stop it from taking whatever action it deemed necessary to protect its copyrights. It would act with impunity, secure in the knowledge that the law is on its side because Disney helped WRITE the law. Therefore, all that signifies is that use of the statue was part of the negotiation for the sale of the Muppets back in 2004.
11. What did Frank Oz say about the situation between Disney and Steve?
Here’s an exact quote:
With Stevie it’s so sad, because the situation with Stevie was a pure business situation, as I understand it. I’d worked with Stevie since he was 18 years old, and on the floor he’s terrific. We had a lot of fun. So when he’s actually on the floor — I think it was something outside that. And it’s very sad.
I get the feeling that Frank was trying not to comment directly on a situation about which he does not have firsthand knowledge. It was a very mature and responsible decision, and I totally respect it. Interestingly enough, however, I’ve seen that same quote used both by people who support Steve and by those who seek to condemn him.
12. If Steve isn’t difficult or demanding, why didn’t Frank include him in Muppet Guys Talking?
Well, according to Frank, he invited Steve to participate in MGT, but Steve wasn’t able to because of a scheduling conflict:
Frank was also quick to affirm how much he enjoys Steve as a person and a performer:
13. Is it significant that Sesame Workshop stopped working with Steve in 2014, before Disney and JHC decided to cut ties?
Maybe, but there’s no real evidence to suggest Sesame Workshop’s actions had anything to do with Disney/JHC’s purported “issues” with Steve. According to Steve himself, Workshop representatives told him that it was a financial decision. Sesame Workshop has wisely kept out of the Schism the whole time, saying nothing to either confirm or deny that, but it is an established fact that it was experiencing money troubles at the time, so that fits with Steve’s story.
For my part, I have no reason to disbelieve Steve’s account, and I trust that the Sesame Workshop representatives told Steve the truth when they said it was an economic issue. If they had lied to him, that would mean that the Workshop has no integrity, and everything we’ve learned from it over the last 50 years has been a lie and a fraud.
14. Did Steve make “outrageous demands” for money and/or perks?
I wasn’t present for any of those negotiations, so I can’t say for certain. But I doubt it. It doesn’t seem consistent with his character at all. When I met him, he seemed much more interested in just talking to people than amassing revenue from autographs. While other people might describe him as “performer of Kermit the Frog” or (more inaccurately), “Kermit’s voice actor,” Steve himself is more likely to describe himself as “a guy who worked for the Muppets,” which could refer to any number of people. If he was interested in status, I imagine that he’d probably make more of a point of distinguishing himself as Kermit’s performer.
As a general rule, people tend to talk about the things that are important to them. While the skilled con artist can carefully choose words that he or she knows will resonate with the audience without really believing in them, it is difficult to keep up the facade at all times. One sound bite isn’t enough to figure out what someone values on the basis of his or her word choice; you have to really listen carefully and observe recurring patterns. Steve almost never talks about money or materialism or status, and when he does, it is with an air of disinterest. He talks a lot about integrity, however, something that moguls like Donald Trump and Michael Eisner, for example, rarely ever do.
If you look at the official statements that came out during that time (not the ones that came shortly thereafter from “unnamed sources close to the situation”), you may notice that neither Disney nor the Hensons really contradicted any of Steve’s claims. They just put a negative spin on them. That suggests that the real “outrageous demands” may have involved advocating for the Muppet characters to have consistency and the performers to have authority over them, a position that has also been advanced by the mainstream Muppet fandom, Frank Oz, and the other performers, including Matt Vogel (skip ahead to about 24 minutes into the conversation). If that is “unacceptable business conduct,” then Jim Henson is surely guilty of it as well because he did the exact same thing during the original Disney deal, and even the representatives of what was then the Children’s Television Workshop complained that Jim was “killing [them] with demands” when he was negotiating the use of the Muppets on Sesame Street.
15. How come none of Steve’s former co-workers seem to want to remain friendly with him anymore?
Okay, first of all, what do you mean by “none of his former co-workers”? There are plenty of his former co-workers who remain friendly with him, or at least continue to say nice things about him, including Mike Quinn (repeatedly and forcefully), Noel MacNeal, Kirk Thatcher, Bill Barretta and his brother Gene, as well as Jim Lewis, who is a producer/writer on Steve’s live-stream show Cave-In. Caroll Spinney remained a faithful friend to Steve up until the end of his life, and as far as I know, Deb Spinney is still friendly with him.
Perusal of Steve’s Instagram account shows that there are lots of his former co-workers who follow, like, and/or comment on his posts: Emilio Delgado (Luis from Sesame Street), Julianne Buescher, and some names that may not be readily recognizable, like Greg Jarnigan, Guy Gilchrist, Bruce Lanoil, and Gabriel Velez (who, by the way, was at that understudy audition or whatever it was in 2006). Hell, Steve even maintains friendly relations with some Disney people (performers, not execs), most notably Bret Iwan, the frickin’ voice of Mickey Mouse.
Furthermore, it is entirely possible that there are private communications between Steve and his former co-workers that we don’t know about because they do not concern us directly. It is the height of fallacious reasoning to assume that something isn’t happening at all just because it isn’t happening right in front of you.
16. Would Disney have been willing to go through the whole public relations nightmare of “Disney fires Kermit” without a reason?
Oh, I’m quite sure that Disney had “reasons” for doing what it did, but that doesn’t mean that they were GOOD reasons, i.e., reasons that a basically moral and ethical person would find acceptable.
Here’s the thing: people can ALWAYS find justification for the things they do, even if they cause harm to others. Corporations such as Monsanto and DuPont had reasons for covering up the fact that they were poisoning people for decades. J.K. Rowling has reasons (and not entirely unsympathetic ones) for saying monstrously inaccurate things about trans people, then continuously doubling down on the hurtful transphobic rhetoric. More generally, employers who discriminate in hiring and firing practices, who retaliate against employees for reporting wrongdoing or filing compensation claims, who steal from employees’ retirement funds, and so on…they all have reasons for doing what they do, and the reasons make sense to them. But that doesn’t make any of those actions right.
17. Can you at least understand the point of view of people who have assumed the worst of Steve?
To a certain extent, yes. I understand that some people are temperamentally predisposed to trust the word of those in authority, and I can see how those people could be convinced by the vague insinuations of Disney and the Hensons. I understand that a lot of those people had placed a great deal of faith and trust in Steve in the past, and now they feel betrayed. It is my opinion that their feelings of betrayal are justified but misplaced.
I’m also under the impression that a lot of these fans are young, perhaps only in their 20s. Given Bob Iger’s efforts to clean up Disney’s public image over the past 15 years, they may not be aware of the company’s long legacy of corruption. In other words, they may not know that there is good reason not to put their trust in Disney.
I also think that the Hensons’ involvement complicates matters, although some fans became disaffected prior to that point. I think that people are reluctant to challenge or question Jim’s own flesh and blood. I think it’s easier to believe that Steve is in the wrong, meaning that Jim may have made a bad hiring decision, than to believe his kids are in the wrong, suggesting that Jim may have been a bad father. I don’t think Jim was a bad father, but even children of good parents don’t always follow their examples.
18. Who are you to say what Jim Henson would or would not have said, thought, or done?
I am no such person, and I try desperately hard never to give the impression that I know any more about Jim Henson’s thoughts or beliefs than anyone else. The fact is that no one really knows what Jim Henson would have thought or done or said about the consequences of Disney’s management of the Muppets. Not me, not you, not the mainstream Muppet fandom, not Steve Whitmire, not Brian Jay Jones, not Frank Oz, and not Brian Henson and his sisters. The best that anyone can do is make an educated guess. For my part, I always try to make it abundantly clear that that’s what I am doing and to provide a rationale for my thinking to the extent possible.
19. Why do you keep insisting that anyone who says anything bad about Steve produce evidence?
Because that’s a fundamental rule of rhetoric and has been for many thousands of years: “He who asserts must prove.” In this world where people in power obfuscate the truth with meaningless Orwellian slogans like “fake news” and “alternative facts,” I believe it is important to hold everyone, particularly those in positions of authority or influence, accountable for the words that each says and writes, especially those words that have the potential to do harm to others.
20. Has Steve “continue[d] to plead his case to anyone that will listen”?
NO!! He’s hardly even mentioned it publicly since September 2017. He usually only talks about it when someone specifically asks, and when he does, it’s with an air of philosophical resignation. He is now occupied with new, independent projects, such as his livestream call-in show Cave-In With Weldon the I.T. Guy.
In other words, Steve seems to have moved on. Maybe some fans and people in the media should do the same.