Brian Henson: An Amateur Behavioral Analysis

“[Steve Whitmire]’s capable of very deep performances. The falling out between me and Steve is really about business ethics. Working with him on set was always good.”

Brian Henson, quoted in a retrospective on the Muppet Christmas Carol in The Big Issue

So … it recently came to my attention that, since completely trashing him to the Hollywood Reporter five years ago, Brian Henson has since said some things about Steve that could be interpreted as nice. Most of them aren’t as inherently contradictory as the quote above and seem to be pure, unmixed compliments. 

I found out about this because a reader used them as examples to support the case that I was being too harsh towards Brian. At my request, the reader was kind enough to provide some links to videos of Brian making these compliments, and I am very grateful.

I didn’t expect the clips to change my opinion of Brian, and they haven’t. Without an apology for the things he said in 2017, anything complimentary that Brian has to say about Steve now only shows him to be inconsistent and untrustworthy. And as the above quote shows, he doesn’t seem to have any regrets about trashing Steve back then, or scruples about taking digs at him now. 

The reason that I was so excited to see these clips is because it gives me an opportunity to make an attempt at reading Brian’s body language. Approximately six months ago, I started becoming interested in body language and behavioral analysis from watching the Behavioral Arts channel on YouTube.

Despite the clickbait-y titles that he uses on his videos, Spidey makes a point of emphasizing in all of them that body language analysis is an inexact science, that certain behaviors can mean different things in different contexts, and that body language is open to interpretation. 

I echo Spidey’s caveats and add one of my own: I do NOT claim to be an expert in body language analysis after watching these videos for six months. Spidey had to study this for decades to get to be an expert; I still have a LOT to learn. I reiterate: I do not claim ANY expertise in behavioral analysis. If an actual body language expert wants to come tell me that I am way off base, reading things into Brian’s behavior that aren’t actually there, I will defer to their expertise (after I verify their credentials, of course). 

Nevertheless, even to a relative neophyte at behavioral analysis, Brian’s body language when he talks about Steve suggests some VERY interesting things. 

I have here three video clips of Brian: one from 2018, one from 2020, and one from 2022. As you watch them, pay particular attention to Brian’s face as he mentions Steve’s name; something about his expression changes every time. 

Before I give you the actual links, I want to point something out: In each case, I’m linking closely to the relevant part of the video, but I’m also making a point of giving a little bit of context at the beginning. An important part of behavioral analysis is establishing a baseline of behavior for the individual because it’s the deviations from baseline that are significant. 

Okay, here goes: 

2022 D23 Expo — Muppet Christmas Carol Panel:

 

2018 — Evolution of Puppetry: 

 

2020 George Lucas Talk Show — Muppets Tonight Watch-Along: 

Did you see it? If not, try watching them again. I’ll give you a hint: Look particularly at his eyes. 

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Old Disappointment

Recently, I received a comment on one of my blog posts saying that I had been “harsh” toward Brian Henson. This surprised me for several reasons: (1) The blog post in question didn’t even mention Brian Henson; someone else brought him up in the comments, and I responded. (2) I know the things in my head that I’ve wanted to say about Brian but have held back; compared to those things, the criticisms I have made have been pretty tame.

I asked the commenter why they felt that I had been harsh, and when they explained, I felt the point was valid. I think it is fair to say that my criticisms of Brian have been a bit more pointed than the ones I’ve made of Lisa and Cheryl. This is partially because of Brian’s position of authority within the company and partially because his actions in regard to the Schism are in direct opposition to statements he made in the past regarding forgiveness and his father’s legacy.

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Why I’m Afraid To Watch the New Fraggle Rock

I know, of course, that now that “Fraggle Rock”: Back to the Rock is available, I shouldn’t talk about it without watching it first. But I’m afraid.

I’m afraid that talking about it without having watched it will be hypocritical, and that talking about something about which I do not have firsthand knowledge will make me look stupid. But if I try to watch it, I’m afraid I won’t be able to be objective because almost everything that I’ve found out about it makes me so angry.

I make it a point not to review things that I haven’t seen. So what follows is not a review. I am not making value judgments about what other people do or do not enjoy, nor am I making recommendations about what other people should or should not watch. What follows is merely a subjective account of the feelings I have from the above trailer, reviews, etc. To reiterate, I am NOT saying that other people should not watch the series or judging people who choose to do so. I’m just trying to explain why I feel that I CAN’T watch it.

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Muppets Now and Earth to Ned

Assuming that nothing has changed since I cancelled my subscription last month, there are two Henson-related series original to Disney+ currently streaming. Muppets Now was originally meant to be a series of shorts but was instead expanded into a series of full-length episodes for some inexplicable reason. Earth to Ned is a Creature Shop production made in association with the Walt Disney Company. Each sounded at least vaguely interesting to begin with. Having seen them both, the former is worse than I expected, and the latter is far better.

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Fraggle’s Original Sin

“I had a professor one time […] and he said, ‘You know, Fred, there’s one thing that evil cannot stand, and that is forgiveness.'” 
                   —Fred Rogers (my emphasis)

Dear John Tartaglia,

I first want to congratulate you on the recent Fraggle Rock short-form series that you and your colleagues created in response to the pandemic. Fraggle Rock is exactly the right content for this peculiar moment in history, and I appreciate you bringing it back into the public consciousness. Because re-imaginings of existing properties tend toward self-parody, I initially had some misgivings about it, but the new Fraggle content mostly seems organic and consistent with what came before.

Nevertheless, there is one aspect of the whole endeavor that rings false for me. I have heard you invoke the Trash Heap from the last episode of Fraggle Rock when she tells the Fraggles, “You cannot leave the magic.” Even if that is true, it appears that someone can be barred from the magic pre-emptively. I refer, of course, to Steve Whitmire.

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Hindsight

I’m always impressed and a little embarrassed when I find that someone has been able to express a point in less than 10 minutes that I have spent literally hundreds of hours and thousands of words trying to explicate. Such was the case when I found this incredibly succinct, accurate, and fair-minded assessment of the Schism on YouTube a couple weeks ago (Warning: It contains NSFW language):

Apart from a few minor quibbles, I agree with everything said in this video, which does a really good job of calling out the responsible parties without being unfair to the puppeteers. But there’s one point that I really want to emphasize:

“We’ve now seen what’s come to pass. We’ve now got hindsight on this matter. Kermit the Frog no longer sounds consistent. He no longer really sounds like Kermit the Frog.”

Admittedly, not everyone agrees with this opinion. But it seems to me that most everyone who thinks Matt’s Kermit voice sounds like Kermit are people who accepted the recast with little question. The casual fans don’t seem to be buying it, which strongly suggests it is yet another example of belief affecting perception. In other words, people who believe that the recast was justified and/or who need it to be okay, are more likely to hear Kermit when Matt speaks, whereas casual fans with no preconceived notions think he sounds off. With that said, if there are casual fans who didn’t already know about the recast and don’t notice it, they are unlikely to comment on it, which means there’s no way of ensuring an accurate data pool.

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FAQ About the Disney/Whitmire Schism

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.

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An Improbable 30 Years

I don’t particularly know why the anniversaries that end in 0 and 5 take on extra significance. I know that I like them because I’m bad at math and they make calculations a little easier for me. But Jim Henson’s death coincided with a moment when I was starting to make the gradual transition from childhood to adulthood, and this anniversary comes at a moment that I’m about to enter a new decade and a new phase in my adult life, so that gives it personal significance for me.

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Mark Hamill Reveals Skeksis Scientist Voice

Well, I decided to follow Mark Hamill on Twitter just in time to hear his version of the Skeksis Scientist’s voice as he plugs the Dark Crystal panel at San Diego Comic Con.

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Meeting Steve Whitmire, Part 2: “Nice” Is Not the Word I’m Looking For

This is Part 2 of a series of at least three. Click here for Part 1.

Steve’s booth was next to Gigi Edgley’s, who was also making an appearance at OCon. I had seen that that was the plan and wondered if that was going to be awkward, given her close association with Brian Henson. But I didn’t want to ask Steve if it was awkward, because I thought that that somehow might make it more awkward. However, Steve brought up the subject of her appearance, asking me if I was familiar with her work. I told him that I’d never seen Farscape but that I had watched Creature Shop Challenge. He said that he hadn’t met her before this convention and wasn’t familiar with her work, but that he’d gotten acquainted with her over the course of the convention.

Clearly there’s no bad blood there.

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Meeting Steve Whitmire, Part 1: An Old Friend I’ve Just Met

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.

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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.

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Torchbearers Redux

I have some more thoughts that I edited out of my post from yesterday on the grounds that it was still supposed to be a post for Matt’s birthday, and I felt some of what I wanted to say wasn’t necessarily very sensitive. Maybe it would have been okay, but I wanted to err on the side of caution.

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Muppet Heresy: In Defense of Muppets’ Wizard of Oz

 

A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that Kermit the Frog will be performing the title role in a live stage production of The Wizard of Oz which, as I’m sure we can all agree, seems really weird and random. Why that production? Why that role? Why just Kermit and not the whole Muppet troupe? It sounds to me like somebody in a decision-making role with the Muppets has a friend who called in a favor. But I digress.

Predictably, some of the reactions to the news involved some variation on the extremely witty comment, “I hope this production is better than Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, because that really sucked!”

I’ve never understood the hatred that people level against Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. Admittedly, it’s not the best thing that the Muppets have ever done, but it’s not the worst thing either, and there’s a lot of fun to be had with it, especially if–like me–you’re primarily familiar with the story from the original novel rather than the 1939 film adaptation.

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