Snippets

It’s been a week since I found and posted any long-form video of Steve’s convention appearances, but rest assured that I am still looking and will update as I find them.

In the meantime, I’ve found some short videos that don’t seem to merit blog entries all their own, but make for a good post in combination. First is a minute-long snippet within a slightly longer video that loyal reader and commenter Andrew K alerted me to about the Steel City convention in…Pittsburgh, I’m assuming(?) in which Steve gives a puppetry lesson to a little boy who reminds me a LOT of my nephew. To be clear: the little boy in the clip is NOT my nephew but kind of looks like him. Anyway, I’ve cued up the video so that when you click on it below, you should go right to the good stuff.

Also, I think it’s kind of weird that, as Steve enters to audience applause, the moderator says, “Come on, guys! You can do better than that!” They’re already giving him a standing ovation; what do you want them to do, levitate? It wouldn’t bother me except that the guy almost sounds angry about it; I seem to be getting flashbacks to gym class from it.

Second, I have no idea what “Surge of Power” is or why it needs celebrity endorsements, but here’s Steve giving them a shout-out at the Great Philadelphia Comic Con back in April. Yay!

“From There to Here”

Even though I’ve been actively searching for more video of Steve’s convention appearances, I didn’t expect to find anything out of Gen Con so soon, since it just ended yesterday. And yet, even though I wasn’t looking for it specifically, I found one this morning. It’s not a Q&A this time, but it’s Steve giving an hour-long chat and telling awesome stories:

 

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Breadcrumbs

I’ve been keeping an eye out for more videos of Steve Whitmire convention appearances for two weeks now. I haven’t found any more complete panels yet, but I did find this compilation in which a little girl dressed like Harley Quinn (I think?) interviews a lot of people at the Florida Supercon, including Steve and the Spinneys.

It’s about a 23-minute video, out of which there are maybe five minutes total (probably less) in which she talks to Muppet performers. Unfortunately, these instances are spaced out throughout the entire video. If you’re like me and you don’t want to sit through the other interviews, I’ve provided timestamps and links below to the portions of the video that we’re most interested in: 

8:20
8:45 (Caroll and Deb Spinney)
9:08
17:17  (The question is, “What’s a lesson you learned later in life that you wish you would have known sooner?”)
19:56

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Short but Sweet: Steve Whitmire Q&A From Fanboy Expo in Knoxville, TN

A few weeks ago I got a Google alert on a brief interview that Steve Whitmire gave to a local news station in Knoxville, TN regarding the Fanboy Expo that was going on there. I hoped that would not be all that we heard out of Knoxville and happily, it is not. 

This morning, YouTube helpfully and accurately suggested that I might like this 25-minute Q&A that Steve gave at the Fanboy Expo. This panel was recorded and posted by Joseph Scarbrough, a name I recognize from the Muppet Pundit forum, even though I don’t think I ever interacted with him there, but a big “thank you” to him on the off-chance that he’s reading this.

This panel is a little different than some of the other panels we’ve seen. It’s shorter by approximately 20 minutes, and instead of the moderator sitting up front with Steve and asking him questions that we’ve already heard a gazillion times, he stood in the audience and helped with their questions. The whole thing pretty much consists of audience questions, so in that sense, it’s a true Q&A

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Google Alert: “Live” Steve Whitmire panel at Florida Supercon

This alert was sent two hours ago and I’m just seeing it now, so I don’t know how “live” it is, but it’s a video of Steve doing a panel discussion in Florida, and I’m watching it now. Check it out:

Oh, I didn’t know it was going to embed itself.  Cool!

It’s good that Steve has something to keep busy with while the O2 show’s been going on the in UK. I imagine that still has to sting at least a little.

Oh, I just realized that this is from several days ago, so it’s not live as in “happening this very minute,” but it was recorded live, and now it’s available for us to watch, so yay!

Another Panel Discussion with Steve Whitmire? Must Be My Birthday!

It’s not my birthday today, but it was my birthday when Steve was in Ontario for the Niagara Falls Comic Con, so this video of a (the?) panel discussion he did there feels like a belated birthday present.

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Steve Whitmire visits Fanboy Expo

via wbir.com | Puppeteer Steve Whitmire visits Fanboy Expo

Steve gave an interview to a local news team in Knoxville, Tennessee while he’s there for the convention. It’s a nice little interview; the hosts are very gracious, and Steve seems relaxed and happy. One of the interviewers refers to Steve “voicing” characters but later asks about the specific challenges in puppetry, so I’ll forgive it. The other interviewer asks Steve about his future plans, and he says he’s working on “a few projects” in Atlanta but doesn’t get any more specific than that.

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Steve at Great Philadelphia Comic Con

If you’ve been missing Steve as much as I have lately, have I got a treat for you!  Reader Andrew K alerted me to the existence of this three-part interview that Steve did a few days ago at the Great Philadelphia Comic Con.  Approximately 45 minutes of pure gold; a really pleasant, informative conversation that didn’t get into the controversial Schism stuff at all (not that I would have minded, but I know some people are tired of it).

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Sesame Saturday: More Olympic Shenanigans

Cookie Monster and Elmo are back again, talking (and singing!) with more Olympic athletes.

First, they ask several athletes to explain their sports (Elmo asks skier Lindsey Vonn what sport she “plays,” which is kind of awkward, but she copes with it beautifully):

Then they get the athletes to join them in a sing-a-long of the “Olympic song.”  I wasn’t sure what that meant at first; for some reason I was thinking of the Olympic Anthem, but once they started singing, it all became clear:

Man, I wish I could sing the “Olympic song” with some Muppets.  I would not only sing it, I would conduct it, because I figured out how to do that a long time ago, when I was young and precocious.

(It’s not that hard; if you know anything about music conducting at all, you can probably figure it out.)

Sesame Sunday: Muppets talk to Olympic athletes

Okay, so a couple things you need to know about me:  I am not an athlete at all; generally speaking, I am severely disinterested in sports…except as it relates to the Olympics.

And of the Olympic sports, my favorite is figure skating.  I am a complete figure skating nerd.

So I’m completely geeking out about this adorable video in which some of my favorite skaters (and some I’m not familiar with) teach Elmo and Cookie Monster vocabulary words from the world of skating:

My first instinct when they asked, “Do you know what a Salchow is?” was to say yes, because I know that it’s a figure skating jump, but I couldn’t have explained it in any more detail than that.

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What Would Walt Disney Do?

(or “WWWDD?”)

I think I was about seven years old when I learned that “Walt Disney” was the name of an actual person.  Prior to that point, I assumed that it was just a meaningless, made up brandname, like “Kodak.”  I bring that up because it seems to me that a lot of people, even–and perhaps especially–those who work for the company itself, sometimes forget that there was a real person behind the name, a man behind the mouse.

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“Unacceptable Business Conduct”

When I heard that Disney’s rationale for dismissing Steve Whitmire from the Muppet Studios was “unacceptable business conduct,” I laughed–loudly and derisively, without mirth.

Paging Mr. Kettle: Phone call from the Walt Disney Company regarding your color!

Disney’s shady business dealings are the stuff of legend.  They could fill several books–and have.  What follows is not intended to be a comprehensive account of Disney’s propensity for screwing people over.  We’ve got a loooong journey ahead of us; this is just the first step.

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The Henry Doorly Zoo, and related matters

Three years ago, the Muppets were featured on “A Capitol Fourth,” the yearly Independence Day special that airs every July 4th on PBS.  In order to promote the special, Kermit the Frog and host Tom Bergeron did a series of satellite interviews with local TV new programs.  One of these was an affliate in Omaha, Nebraska, which is about 175 miles, or a 2-3/4 hour drive, south of where I live in Sioux Falls, South Dakota:

In the interview, Kermit mentioned the zoo in Omaha, and I freaked out: “OHMYGOSH!  Kermit the Frog just mentioned the name of a place that is relatively close to where I live, and that I’ve actually visited!!!”  

These are the scraps that you have to console yourself with when you’re a Muppet fan who lives in South Dakota.  Although, there may be an obscure Muppet connection for those of us to live in Sioux Falls: Raven Industries is based here in town; their main thing is the manufacture of balloons and inflatables, including some of the big balloons for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and that sort of thing.  I’m not able to verify it now, but I think I remember hearing once that Raven Industries had made the Kermit the Frog balloon that appeared in the parade from 2002-2012.  I haven’t been able to confirm it yet, but it’s certainly possible.

Anyway, getting back to Omaha: what really impressed me is not only that Kermit mentioned the Omaha zoo, but he actually called it by its proper name: the Henry Doorly Zoo.  I think that was the first time I’d ever heard someone not associated with the zoo call it by its real name; most people just call it “the Omaha zoo,” as I have done all throughout this post.

I asked Steve Whitmire, in a comment on his blog, if he had ever actually been to the zoo in Omaha.  He didn’t respond at the time, so I still don’t know, but I am not without hope that he will be able to address it someday.  

But anyway, the other reason that I wanted to post this interview is because it’s really a beautiful example of the lovely, fluid, dynamic facial expressions that Steve gives Kermit when he performs him.  It really makes Kermit alive and vibrant.

We don’t have footage of five consecutive minutes of Matt Vogel performing simula-Kerm yet, (at least, not through official channels) so I’m not yet able to make a fair comparison, but thus far simula-Kerm’s face seems very static.

I’m also a big fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, and there’s a phrase related to that show that keeps running around in my head.  When Bill Corbett took over performing Crow T. Robot from Trace Beaulieu at the beginning of Season 8, he had not done a lot of puppeteering before, and he apologized for the resulting mediocre performance by telling people, “Crow has had a stroke.”  

And I’ll just say that, if I didn’t know what was going on with the Muppets and Disney and Steve and the whole thing, if I looked at those videos with Matt performing Kermit without knowing what was going on, I would have said, “What’s the matter with Kermit?  It looks like he’s had a stroke.”

 

Salient Themes: Duality

Mercury revolves around our mutual parent sun in such a way that one face is always turned toward the sun and is brilliantly lit and burningly hot; and the other side is always turned toward the cold dark of interstellar space.  But Mercury oscillates slightly on its axis, and thereby sunside and nightside are integrated by a temperate zone which knows both heat and cold, light and dark. So the two disparate sides of Mercury are not separated by a chasm; the temperate zone mediates […]  thereby making wholeness instead of brokenness.”
                  –Madeleine L’Engle, The Irrational Season

I see this as a theme in a lot of Jim Henson’s work; the disparate halves of light and dark, warm and cold, inward vision and outward vision.  And while I don’t claim to know what he thought and felt about things–while I always have to be very careful not to assume that I know–the fact that the theme showed up as often as it did in his work implies that he thought a lot about it, and perhaps he struggled to find that temperate zone between dayside and nightside.

This duality is present all through Jim’s work with the Muppets.  It can reach the greatest possible heights of silliness, with explosions, boomerang fish, and characters eating each other, but it can also plumb the greatest depths of poignant emotion.

On Fraggle Rock, Jim played two different characters: Cantus and Convincing John–or, as I call them, the sage and the showman.  I think that each represented a different facet of his personality.

(As an aside, I’m always amused by the fact that Convincing John’s baloobius, i.e. the tuft of fur at the end of his tail, doesn’t match the color of the hair on his head.  The implication being that he dyes his hair.  I think that’s hilarious.)

When you watch Jim Henson in interviews–particularly when he doesn’t have a puppet in his hands–he always seems very gentle and soft-spoken and often somewhat ill at ease, with a simultaneously endearing and infuriating habit of putting his hands up by his mouth, often muffling his words somewhat.  In interviews, I find Jim to be very much the sage; for example, here’s an interview in which he makes some very farsighted predictions about the future of television technology.  This interview is also interesting because you can see the difference between the way that Jim casually chats and laughs a bit with the people in the room before the interview starts (and after it ends) with his more calm and serious demeanor during the interview itself.

But he could also be a showman.  There was a pitch reel–which, unfortunately, I can no longer find–for an early iteration of The Jim Henson Hour wherein Jim himself gets up and gives a pitch for this kooky TV show he wants to make, with a rotating schedule of content.  From what I remember of it, he seemed much more comfortable in front of the camera (perhaps because he was working from a script and not answering questions extemporaneously); he assumed something of the energy, the gestures, and the vocal tone of the carnival barker, and his hands never went anywhere near his mouth.  It’s a completely different attitude from that which he has in interviews.  So, which is the “real” Jim Henson–the showman or the sage?

Well, that’s the thing–they’re both real.  Or, in a sense, neither is real because a human being is more than the sum of his multiple facets.

There are other examples of this duality in Jim Henson’s work–Bert and Ernie come to mind–but perhaps the most dramatic example is the Skeksis and the Mystics (or urRu) in The Dark Crystal.

(WARNING: Thirty-five-year-old spoilers ahead.)

The first time I ever saw The Dark Crystal was fairly recently, within the last five years or so.  I was completely blown away by it.  At first the story seems like a rather familiar story of good versus evil.  We have our protagonist Jen who–like Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter–is a lonely young orphan, fostered by the gentle urRu after his parents were killed, with a special destiny to go on a quest and defeat evil by finding a MacGuffin, in this case the crystal shard with which he is to heal the eponymous Dark Crystal, by which the Skeksis will apparently be vanquished.

Ah, but then Jim Henson throws us a curveball: it turns out that the Skeksis and the urRu are actually the same creatures, unnaturally split apart when the Crystal was broken, and when Jen heals the Crystal at the time of the Great Conjunction of the three suns, he sets off a chain reaction that reintegrates the two divided halves–Skeksis and urRu–back into their singular selves; the glorious UrSkeks.

This is not a straightforward story about good and evil after all.  The Skeksis and the urRu need each other.  One cannot live without the other.  Without the Skeksis, the urRu lack agency.  Without the urRu, the Skeksis lack moral fiber.  It’s not that the Skeksis are evil and the urRu are good.  The real evil is the division between them.  

This is an old idea–dating at least as far back as Plato–with far-reaching social, political, historical, etc. implications around the world–but it’s applicable to the situation  that we, as Muppet fans, are in now with regard to the Schism between Disney and Steve Whitmire.

It is not, as one faction might argue, that Kermit is good but Steve is evil.  Nor is it, as another faction might argue, that Steve is good but Disney is evil.  It is not that one faction of Muppet fans are good and any and all other factions are evil.  But in each case, whenever we stop cooperating and start competing, whenever we start believing that some people’s contributions are not necessary or not important, whenever we start thinking, “I am right; therefore, anyone who disagrees with me is automatically wrong”…those are the things that divide us, and it is the division itself that is inherently evil.  As Dumbledore says at the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: “We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”

So how do we bridge the chasm between sunside and nightside?  How do we find the temperate zone that moderates the two?  How do we move from brokenness to wholeness without subordinating one side or the other?

The reason I started this blog is because I think it is imperative to keep the conversation going in a civilized way; to firmly but gently probe and palpate the bruises, the open wounds, and the recently formed scar tissue–not with the object of causing more pain but with the goal of diagnosing and treating the wounds that this Schism has caused.  

At the same time, I think it is equally imperative to respect and validate opinions with which we disagree.  All too often–not only as Muppet fans, but as human beings–we fall into the trap of thinking, “if you’re not with us, you’re against us.”  We assume that the dissenter must necessarily be wrong.  We equate “having a different opinion” with “having a bias.”  We regard anyone who disagrees with us as an evil enemy.  I’m as guilty of that as anyone, by the way.

However, it doesn’t have to be that way.  It is possible to see things from another point of view without losing your own, and it is possible to recognize a valid viewpoint while still disagreeing with it.  The more we are able to have a respectful dialogue, and try to see things from another point of view, the closer we can move toward a consensus.  

If there’s one thing that I have in common with Jim Henson, it’s that I’m averse to conflict of any kind.  And speaking strictly for myself, the reason why I’m conflict-averse is that I’m terrified of losing my temper.  I’ve always seen myself as something akin to Jekyll and Hyde, or the Incredible Hulk; when I get angry, it’s as though I turn into a completely different person, and I’m terrified of what I might say and whom I might hurt while in that angered state.  And I do work on trying to integrate the light and dark sides, and to channel whatever anger I feel constructively–to turn a negative into a positive–but it’s a constant struggle.

That’s why I prefer to write a blog, so I have the chance to rethink and revise my words before they are published, and also, so that I don’t come across as spamming other blogs and forums through lengthy, in-depth analysis.  

It doesn’t come easily or naturally to me to jump into the fray and take the risk of being provoked into that angry state that I so fear, but if it helps to get–or to keep–the dialogue going, it’s well worth the risk.