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.
Matt Vogel’s “Below the Frame” Podcast
Today, October 6th, is Matt Vogel’s 50th birthday. I want to wish him good health and happiness, and I want to let all of you know that I’ve been listening to his new “Below the Frame” podcast, and I enjoy it very much.
New episodes drop every Wednesday and feature usually one but sometimes two people from the Muppet/Henson universe. The conversation delves really deep not only into the interviewees’ Muppet/Henson work but their background and life in general. Then there are also puppetry tips and little short tidbits and an ongoing tribute to Jerry Nelson.
I haven’t listened to all the episodes yet, but I have enjoyed all the ones that I’ve listened to so far. If I had to pick favorites, I would name the one with Cave-In’s own Jim Lewis and the one with Bill Barretta, who says some very nice things about Steve.
Maybe it’s because he’s talking to his friends, but Matt has a very engaging interview style that makes me wonder what other career avenues he might have explored if he hadn’t been such a gosh-darn good puppeteer. There are a lot of Muppet and/or puppet-related podcasts out there, but this is one that I can recommend unreservedly. I sincerely hope you will check it out if you haven’t already.
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.
My purpose in posting this is to wish my youngest nephew a happy birthday. He’s a leapling, so today he turns 12 on what is technically only his third birthday.
Nice of the Muppets to make a birthday video for him, even if they didn’t realize that’s what they were doing.
Sesame Street Memories
Today is the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street! HBO, where it airs primarily now (and has for several years), put together a video in which an interviewer asks the Sesame Street Muppets about their favorite memories. It’s quite cute and clever:
Couple of things I noticed about it:
- Elmo does not appear in this video at all. And granted, I’m a grumpy Gen X-er who doesn’t have much use for Elmo in the first place, but I find that I didn’t miss him in the slightest or even notice his absence at first.
- There are only three characters in this video still performed by their original puppeteers: Abby, Rudy, and Rosita. That’s just an observation, not a value judgment of any kind.
- Whatever my mixed feelings may be about Peter Linz playing Ernie, I have to say that whoever’s writing Bert and Ernie’s banter nowadays is spot-on. Absolutely brilliant and perfect.
- High definition hasn’t done Big Bird any favors in one important respect. The monofilament that connects his arms used to be all but invisible, but now it’s plain as day. It’s a shame, because it makes Big Bird seem slightly less magical as a result.
- However, I love that they revisited the idea of Big Bird being an artist.
- At first it seemed too easy to have Abby’s favorite Sesame Street memory be the day she moved there, but the payoff was worth it.
- Oscar’s interactions with Slimey have always been one of my favorite things about Sesame Street.
- I don’t watch Sesame Street regularly, so I haven’t seen much with Rudy, but from what I have seen of him, I like him very much.
- I love that some of the Muppets are wearing microphones during their interviews. That’s one of my favorite Muppet gags ever.
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.
Muppet Heresy: The Many Facets of Kermit
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.
Side Effects May Include…
So Kermit has been working the talk show circuit promoting his bizarre, random part in the upcoming Wizard of Oz pantomime in Los Angeles happening this month. (Which, by the way, does sound like a lot of fun. I would go see it if I had any way of getting to Los Angeles). One stop he made was on the Late Late Show with James Corden, which I didn’t watch because I don’t stay up that late late anymore:
I liked the whole “Man or Muppet” bit, I very much enjoyed Matt’s money note, and I’m just thankful Kermit’s little microphone didn’t smack anybody in the eye (as far as we know) when it went flying at the end.
I could do more in-depth analysis about it, but honestly, at this point I’m basically just saying…it is what it is. I can accept this iteration as Kermit, but he’s not “my” Kermit. I can enjoy what he’s doing, but I can’t emotionally invest in him.
And that could very well change. I have keep reminding myself that it took me six years to fully embrace Steve’s Kermit, and Matt has only been doing it for just over a year.
I’m just grateful that they didn’t sing “Rainbow Connection.” Kermit did sing “Rainbow Connection” on The Talk with his panto co-star Marissa Jaret Winokur. There was no warning, so I didn’t have time to prepare mentally, but I curbed my kneejerk reaction to leap from the couch and turn off the TV, so that’s something, I guess. And it was fine. It was a perfectly lovely performance, and it brought back fond memories of seeing Winokur perform in Hairspray when I was in college. So I’m pretty okay with the whole situation. It’s not bad, it’s not good…but it is what it is.
But now to the real reason I wanted to bring up this appearance on the Late Late Show. I wanted to make a comment about one of the interview segments, and it actually has nothing to do with Kermit at all. It has to do with the closed captions:
At the beginning of this segment Minka Kelly (whoever she is) is talking about her background working as a scrub nurse. Turn on the closed captioning during that part; it’s hilarious. “Craniotomy” becomes “crane yot me” and “hysterectomy” becomes (and this is epic) “‘histoires d’hiver’ recht me,” or…removal of French winter stories, I guess? It reminds me of the time I spent editing speech recognition documents as a medical transcriptionist.
And now you all know what that’s like. You’re welcome. 😉
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.
Sesame Saturday: The Torchbearers
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there was a little boy born in Georgia on Jim Henson’s birthday in 1959, who loved Muppets so much that he was nicknamed “Kermit” in high school.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that there was another little boy born in Kansas on this date in 1970 with a last name that means “bird” in German, who received prophetic Sesame Street toys as Christmas gifts.
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the great and good Caroll Spinney took each of them under his figurative wing and served as a mentor to them both.
Matt Vogel and Steve Whitmire were each born to be torchbearers, to keep the flame alive and to light the way for others.
I debated with myself about the appropriateness of talking about Steve on Matt’s birthday, but “Journey to Ernie,” the most prominent example of Matt playing Big Bird that I know of, also prominently features Steve, and that didn’t feel like a coincidence either, so I decided I had to honor it.
These “Journey to Ernie” segments, which teach the very important skill of deductive reasoning, are fairly clever and utterly delightful due to the talents of Matt, Steve, Joey Mazzarino and David Rudman as the Two-Headed Monster, unidentified voice actors and animators, and whoever was on right-handed Duckie duty.
Luceat lux vestra
Matt Vogel: Gnarly to the Max
Happy birthday to Matt Vogel! Yes, I know that his birthday is actually tomorrow. Today I want to celebrate him and some of his Muppet troupe characters, and tomorrow I want to say something in regard to his work on Sesame Street.
When people talk about Matt Vogel, they usually talk about all the characters that were originated by other people that he has nobly endeavored to keep alive. That’s all well and good, but today I’d prefer to concentrate primarily on his original characters (with one exception, but I’ll explain when I get to it).
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.
I do not now, nor will I ever, understand this way of relating to one another. That being said, I love Matt for his self-deprecation.
(Not that I didn’t love him before, but I love him even more now.)
“Don’t You Know I’m Just Human?”
If you recall, I had mixed feelings about the possibility of entering this contest, but then it was revealed that the winner gets to pick the songs. That, the possibility of meeting Matt, and the fact that the money goes to support a good cause rather than lining Disney execs’ pockets made the prospect irresistible to me.
Walter and Robin
Based on his appearances in the “Muppet Thought of the Week” videos on YouTube, Walter has now become one of the funniest Muppets. Does that qualify as irony?
Prior to last summer, Walter was sometimes paired with Robin the Frog (as performed by Matt Vogel) in “Thoughts of the Week” and other short videos, a pairing that works pretty well, given that they’re both characters who are supposed to be a little younger. Check ’em out:
However, since Matt started performing Kermit, performing Robin as well would have been difficult, particularly during those live shows that everyone seemed to enjoy so much. Peter Linz now describes himself (on his Twitter profile and elsewhere) as the performer for Robin, so I guess that recast is now official.