Reflexive Jim Henson

Today, of course, is not only Steve Whitmire’s birthday, it is also Jim Henson’s birthday. 

I was thinking about what I wanted to do to mark the occasion of what is apparently known on Twitter as “#JimHensonDay,” and I wasn’t sure what I could say that I haven’t already said. 

Then I started to think about all the ways that Jim Henson and his characters have burrowed their way deep into my subconscious, to the point where certain words or phrases will always evoke knee-jerk Muppet references from me.

It’s a topic that I’ve mentioned occasionally but never explored at length, so it seems as good a way as any to celebrate #JimHensonDay. 

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Sixty for 60: Culmination

60 for 60 collage

(Please enjoy this photo collage. I worked on it for the better part of an hour before trying to upload it, but my initial attempt was unsuccessful because the file size was too big. Apologies to those whose photos I’ve co-opted.)

Happy 60th birthday, Steve Whitmire! And welcome, everyone, to the final installment of 60 for 60. Every month for a year I’ve been celebrating Steve and this milestone by posting five examples of his work per month (mostly in the form of videos, but not exclusively) and making commentary about it. At this point, I’d like to take a look back of the year and choose the best from each month for a “Best of the Best” feature.

(As always, “best” in this case is subjective.)

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What To Do With Your Surplus Cookie Monster Budget

I imagine that you heard about the crowdfunding campaign a couple months ago for life-size Cookie Monster replicas: 

Theoretically, I would love a life-size Cookie Monster replica in my home. Of course I would: I’m human, I have a pulse, and I love Muppets. Nevertheless, the campaign made me very uncomfortable right from the start for a number of reasons: 

  1. I resented the implication that all Muppet fans have an extra $300 lying around to spend on a glorified plush toy when I am still struggling to pay the bills on a month-to-month basis. 
  2. I don’t understand the point of crowdfunding for a multibillion-dollar corporation like Hasbro. Seems to me that they’re trying to take advantage of a current fad for the purposes of manipulating potential customers. They kept saying things like, “We can’t manufacture these things without your help!” That is nonsense; Hasbro is a conglomerate that buys up other companies like Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, and Kenner. It brings in more than $5 billion in revenue. If they really wanted to manufacture life-sized Cookie Monster replicas, they could do so. They just didn’t want to until they were sure that people would buy them. 
  3. Eventually, I did the math and figured out that, in attempting to convince at least 3,000 people to contribute approximately $300, their funding goal was nearly $900,000. 

Almost a million dollars for a glorified plush toy that most people would probably have fun posing for about five minutes, then place in a corner to collect dust. And yes, Sesame Workshop would see a portion of that (I was unable to determine a specific percentage despite my research efforts), but wouldn’t it be so much better for Sesame Workshop to receive the full $900,000 in direct donations?

At a time when refugee children are dying in what are essentially concentration camps on American soil, when hurricanes are battering our coastlines and tornadoes are ripping through our communities (MY community in particular), when ICE raids are tearing families apart, spending $300 on a plush toy, even one as awesome as a life-sized Cookie Monster, not only seems frivolous, it seems downright irresponsible. 

For better or worse, however, the campaign failed to receive the necessary number of backers, which is sad in that it means that Sesame Workshop won’t get its cut.

Presumably, however, it also means that everyone who pledged now has an extra $300 burning a hole in their pockets. May I suggest some worthy causes to which you can now put that money and do some good in the world?

There are many more worthy causes out there, and I’m sure they would be happy to receive your donation of $300, or more (or less, if needs be), regardless of whether or not you pledged to the Hasbro campaign. 

And I’m sure the Monster himself would agree, that’s something to give up Cookie for

Sixty for 60: Live Appearances by Muppets

Welcome to the final regular installment of 60 for 60, a year-long celebration of the work of Steve Whitmire in anticipation of his 60th birthday next month. This month’s theme is live appearances by Muppet characters.

Kermit TED talk

“The trick to the show [Muppets 2015], if it works, is to make it feel for the first time that you’re seeing the Muppets in our world.” –Bill Prady, SDCC Panel 2015

Of the many strange and perplexing things that happened in conjunction with the Muppets’ 2015 series, one that I found to be among the strangest and most perplexing was this bizarre statement by Bill Prady, that it would be the first time that the Muppets were in our world. How are they not in our world? Not only have six of their eight movies been set in our world, but the Muppets make live appearances in our world all the time. And when they do, it results in some of the best and most entertaining material because they’re usually a little freer to do some ad libbing and to be themselves, insofar as the Muppets have selves, which is a deep philosophical dive that I don’t think I’m ready to take at the moment and would probably require a whole other entry even if I were.

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Michigan Publication Interviews Steve, Fixates on Voices

This last weekend Steve was at Michigan Comic Con in Detroit, where he was gracious enough to give an interview for a publication based there, taking great care to emphasize the puppetry aspect of his work and that he’s not a voice person. 

So of course, the entire written interview is all about voices, with the puppetry mentioned only as an afterthought. 

Therefore, I recommend the accompanying YouTube video of the interview over the written version. Even though it looks like it’s been edited down somewhat, at least Steve gets to express himself in his own words: 

This video is actually really exciting, though, because Steve explains a bit more about his live-stream concept with Weldon. This is information that Steve actually told me when I met him in Omaha, but I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to talk about it, so I erred on the side of caution in not mentioning it. But now he’s expressed it publicly, so I guess it’s okay for me to talk about it. 

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Sesame Saturday: A Panel Discussion With Sesame Street’s Gordon and Alan

Yesterday I mentioned the existence of full panels from last year’s OCon on YouTube, but what I failed to mention was that one of them featured Sesame Street actors Roscoe Orman (aka Gordon) and Alan Muraoka. I thought about it today and realized that might be of interest, so here it is:

Also, it appears from this that OCon just doesn’t provide microphones for audience questions at all, which seems to be very unusual. Nevertheless, given how hard it is to hear the audience questions on the video, it makes me very glad that I have notes of Steve’s Q&A, although it remains to be seen how helpful they will be. 

Sixty for 60: Interviews

Welcome back to 60 for 60, a year-long celebration of the work of Steve Whitmire in anticipation of his 60th birthday in a couple months. The theme for this month is interviews of Steve (not his characters), and it is unique in that not all five examples are available in video form. As a matter of fact, most of them are not.

Steve_Dave_stage

(Technically not a picture of an interview, but one I happen to like.)

I planned out the themes for each installment of 60 for 60 ten months ago. At that time, of course, I had no idea that I would actually have met Steve by this time. A lot has changed since I planned out this project, and the plan for this month has changed more than any other in the interim as I re-evaluate interviews that I was going to use and new interviews emerge. But what hasn’t changed is my wish to celebrate Steve himself rather than just his characters, although they’re important too.

I’m not a Muppet performer, and I’m not really a puppeteer despite a brief amateur stint. So I can’t say that I really know what it’s like, but I imagine that it must be an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, the anonymity that it affords you could be very valuable, but on the other hand, I can imagine that it would sometimes get frustrating to be part of something that is so popular and well known but only rarely get credit or recognition for it.

This month is all about that recognition.

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Meeting Steve Whitmire, Part 3: Basking in Reflected Glory

Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

I took notes at the Q&A so I could talk about it in detail regardless of whether or not any video of it shows up online. I intend to do that in a separate post, but here I’d like to give just a brief overview and mention the parts that are relevant to the rest of my story.

Before I talk about Steve’s Q&A, I need to back up a bit to talk about one of his visitors from the morning. I mentioned her briefly in one of my other posts. She was the lady who was part of her church’s puppet troupe, and she brought along a Whatnot for him to sign (one of those ones that Disney marketed and sold for a while). She was accompanied by two teenage kids, but of the three of them it was pretty clear that she was the one most excited to meet Steve (not that the teenagers were entirely disinterested). Her Whatnot was one that they allowed new puppeteers in their group to practice on and learn with, so Steve not only signed it across the back of its head, he also wrote a short message of encouragement.

The autographed Whatnot was one of several puppets present at the Q&A. Scrubby was there with Ethan, and the lady and the baby were there with their Wembley, and there was also a guy there with a Kermit. I’m not sure if it was a fan-made Kermit or a toy that he’d bought, but they appear briefly in the following video alongside Steve (and Mitzi):

Also, it wasn’t a puppet per se, but there was someone there with a very detailed plush toy of Rizzo. I meant to ask the guy where he acquired such a thing, but then I didn’t get around to it.

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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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Interview with Steve Whitmire Ahead of Omaha Comic Con

Steve is appearing at OCon this weekend and gave an interview to the Omaha World-Herald. 

The interviewer makes Steve’s Muppet departure sound more volitional than it actually was, but he gets brownie points for not referring to Steve as a “voice actor.” 

There’s also an interesting sidebar about the 20 “most powerful puppet characters in the world.” It’s kind of funny that the author makes a point of mentioning that Socrates contemplated the question in ancient Greece, but the puppet characters included all seem to be American in origin and date back only as far as the 20th century. 

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Sixty for 60: Ernie

Welcome back to 60 for 60, a celebration of the work of Steve Whitmire in anticipation of his 60th birthday coming up later this year. This month is a celebration of Steve’s work as the irrepressible Ernie.

Just as Ernie and Bert are undervalued as one of the great comedy teams of all time, I feel that Steve Whitmire’s work as Ernie is tragically under-appreciated, especially by Muppet fans of a certain age. Whether playing alongside Frank Oz or Eric Jacobson, he’s done some stellar work in skits, songs, and bits that stack up against any of the great Bert and Ernie sketches of the pre-1990 Sesame Street era.

This was the hardest 60 for 60 entry that I’ve put together since I talked about Wembley last November. I could easily devote at least three months of this project to Steve’s work as Ernie. I would run out of months of the year before I ran out of material.

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Back to Louisville: Another Steve Whitmire Comic-Con Panel

Approximately two months ago (wow, really?), I posted an interview that Steve gave at the Supercon in Louisville around the end of November, I believe. This week (well, technically last week) I received notification of video of a panel discussion from the same event. 

Couple of noteworthy things about it: 

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Muppet Heresy: The Many Facets of Kermit

cropped-fq-site-icon

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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“Actual Footage”

Sometimes I see photos that people have posted on Twitter, and they’ll remind me of a Muppet song, so I make a joke about it. It’s happened three times now, which I think qualifies as a running gag, so I’d like to share my immense cleverness with you nice folks over here:

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