As a non-Muppet, but no less beloved, pair of amphibians once sang, Merry Almost Christmas! And welcome back to 60 for 60, my yearlong tribute to Steve Whitmire in anticipation of his 60th birthday next year. In keeping with the season, the theme for this month is Christmas productions.
In anticipation of Steve Whitmire’s 60th birthday next year, I’m celebrating his work and his characters one month at a time in this year-long series, 60 for 60. This month, the spotlight is on Steve’s first major Muppet character, Rizzo the Rat.
Who is Rizzo the Rat? According to TV Tropes, Rizzo is a Big Eater, a Lovable Coward, and a Jerk with a Heart of Gold, all of which seems accurate and consistent to me.
Personally, Rizzo strikes me as a savvy, street-wise opportunist with a talent for self-preservation. However, he has standards, and even though he was born in the sewers, there are depths to which he will not sink. For example, he’s not above taking advantage of his friends, but he’ll never sell them out completely, and he’ll always be there for them in the clinch.
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 know that today is also Jim Henson’s birthday, and I have something special and separate planned for him on Saturday.)
I am sure you are already aware that today, September 24th, 2018, is Steve Whitmire’s 59th birthday. It sort of sneaked up on me, and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do to commemorate the occasion. I thought of showcasing some of his best work as some of his most prominent characters via YouTube video, etc. Then I thought, “Next year is his 60th birthday; maybe something like that would be more appropriate for the milestone?”
Then I realized, with Steve having worked with the Muppets for nearly 40 years, there’s a wealth of stellar material to showcase. Rather than try to confine it all to one day, why not spread it out over the course of a full year?
Here’s my idea: from now until September 2019, I’ll showcase five examples (be they videos or whatever) of Steve’s best work on the 24th of each month. Each month will feature a specific character or unifying theme. Then the project will culminate next year on Steve’s 60th birthday with a compilation of 60 examples of his best work.
“This may be one of the most saccharine Henson specials ever. The bunnies are all extremely cutesy, the forest impossibly idyllic, and everything’s very happy, cheerful and colorful.“
–TV Tropes on The Tale of the Bunny Picnic
Granted, it’s not exactly Watership Down either, but when I watched it for the first time recently, I couldn’t even finish it in one sitting because I was so upset by it.
Sure, the bunnies are cute and the colors are bright and the music is peppy, but much like Fraggle Rock, there are some serious themes hidden underneath the candy-colored exterior. Our Hero, Bean Bunny, is constantly bullied by his big brother, Lugsy, and the dog is blatantly and brazenly abused by the farmer. Ladies and gentlemen, Jim Henson brings you the charming story of adorable animals being tormented and mistreated…enjoy!
But eventually I went back and finished it, because I knew the payoff had to be worth it…and it was.
DANNY HORN: Hey, did I ever tell you about my theory that Mew’s death is a metaphor for AIDS? It’s 1986, and gay men are dying all over the place. The creators are TV puppet people from New York and LA, so obviously a lot of their friends are dying. So in this special, you get Mew — the despised, unfairly judged cat-toy — dying suddenly. Rugby realizes how precious Mew is… but he figures it out too late. […] Then the fantasy is that the dead loved one can be resurrected and vindicated, just through the power of love and Christmas. You can see how this was an appealing fantasy for artsy people in 1986.
KYNAN BARKER: Did I ever tell you MY theory that sometimes a kids’ TV special is just a kids’ TV special?
–ToughPigs.com, “My Week with Another Christmas – Day Two: Doll Be Home for Christmas,” December 24, 2003.
Today is Epiphany, so I wanted to do not only a Christmas-themed article but one with some real substance to it, and this 14-year-old conversation about The Christmas Toy is a good jumping-off point for a discussion of allegory versus applicability.
An allegory is a detailed, in-depth metaphor that represents a situation or event in the real world. Authors who write allegory are usually not very subtle about the point they’re trying to get across. For example, I would consider A Christmas Carol to be an allegory: There’s not much to speculate about what the three spirits represent; it’s right there in their names.
On the other hand, a work has applicability if it can support multiple interpretations, regardless of what the author’s intention may have been. As J.R.R. Tolkien explained it, “I think that many confuse ‘applicability’ with ‘allegory’; but one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other resides in the purposed domination of the author.” Tolkien ran up against this attitude often when Lord of the Rings fans would ask him questions about the allegorical meaning of the novels, to which he would respond that there was none, but that it was applicable to many real-life situations or events.
Today I want to talk about It’s a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie, or “VMX” for short.
Now, VMX is not my favorite Muppet thing ever, not by a long shot. But I would forgive anybody just about anything for the sake of “Everyone Matters,” a beautiful song from the special:
I love this song, partially because it gives such good Sad-Gonzo. Sad-Gonzo is my favorite Gonzo. As far as I’m concerned, the worst thing that ever happened to Gonzo’s character is when his eyelids became mobile and he could change expressions.
It may not be readily apparent, but as this Christmas-to-Epiphany season wears on, I can sort of feel myself becoming snarkier and more sarcastic.
But if there were ever a sure-fire cure for feeling grumpy and cynical, it would be Robin the Frog singing “It’s in Every One of Us”:
I think this was the second time in my young life that I got to see Fraggles on TV, but the first time that I got to do repeat viewings of Fraggles on TV until I was able to purchase the DVD set as an adult.
Though my mind be filled with questions, in my heart I understand…
“Patience, my brothers
And patience, my sons.
In that sweet and final hour,
Truth and justice will be done.”
This is my 100th post on this blog, and I wanted it to be something special. So I want to go a little more in depth about my thoughts and feelings on “Muppet Family Christmas.”
Let me take you back to a time in December 1987, when I was a tender and callow seven-year-old. I had seen The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan, (and possibly The Great Muppet Caper, although I think that actually happened later) so I wasn’t unfamiliar with the Muppet Show troupe, but we didn’t own any of those movies on home video yet, so while this wasn’t my introduction to the Muppet Show gang, it was the means by which I got to know them. This was also one of the two times in my young life that I ever got to see the Fraggles on television, so that was really exciting for me.
Today is the 30th anniversary of the special “A Muppet Family Christmas.” I watched it originally when it aired in 1987. We taped it off the television (except that we apparently were not prepared to do so and missed the first 6 minutes or so–tragedy!), and I’ve treasured it ever since. I’ve watched it unabashedly at all times of the year, not only at Christmas. After Jim Henson died, it was one of the sources available for me to turn for comfort.
“Faust, a five-act grand opera, is by Charles Gounod with a French libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. It is loosely based on Faust, Part I, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe’s lesser-known follow-up, 2 Faust 2 Furious, focused on a man who made a deal with the diesel.”
–Erik Forrest Jackson, pushing all my geeky English-major buttons in an explanatory footnote of Muppets Meet the Classics: The Phantom of the Opera
When I opened the book and saw that the epigraph was a quote from a renowned French philosopher and a line from an old infomercial, I knew I was going to like this book.
When I started laughing hysterically at the table of contents, I knew I was going to love this book.
When I finished reading it, I wanted to go back and read the original novel again to compare the two; the mark of a good book is that it makes you want to read more.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! I know the holiday is not really a thing outside the U.S. and Canada (and in Canada it happened a month ago), but there’s never a bad time to be grateful for the good things in our lives, especially when the bad things threaten to overwhelm us.
Thank you especially to Steve Whitmire, for teaching us (back in 1987) that turkeys are selfish, ungrateful bastards and that we should eat them, because if we don’t, they will conspire to murder Big Bird. 😉