While I ended my last post on an almost reverently expectant note, I’ll admit to harboring a certain amount of dread that The Muppets will turn out to be unfulfilling or, worse, offensive in some way to its heritage. No matter how satisfying it may be on the whole it can’t help but lack an essential ingredient.
Of course, I’m speaking about Jim Henson — who invented the Muppets, performed Kermit the Frog among many others (Rowlf the Dog, as much his alter ego as the little green dude, included), and guided a sublimely creative, colorful enterprise for decades.
My generation endured a harsh one-two punch when Henson died in May 1990 and Theodor Geisel, alias Dr. Seuss, passed away in September of the following year. Geisel had already given us a lifetime of work, at least; Henson was gone too young, at age 53, never mind that what he did leave behind is a diverse, delightful legacy of the sort that transcends any earthly measurement. Like Walt Disney, George Lucas, and Jack Kirby, Henson was a genius whose contributions to popular culture transcend the media most associated with them. Although their primary impetus was entertainment — if not art — their innovations behind the scenes in the implementation and commerce of that entertainment are no less essential for being lesser known.
But I digress from the main point, which is that the vision and voice of Jim Henson were forever silenced over 20 years ago.
I vividly recall gathering in my dorm’s TV lounge at Oberlin in November 1990 to
watch a TV special called The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson. For all the vintage clips and celebrity testimonials, the most touching part of the hour was that Kermit remained unseen until the end, when he finally joined the group of assembled Muppets (from not just The Muppet Show and its later iterations, but Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock), poignantly mute... And then he piped up, voiced by Steve Whitmire, ruining the moment. Whitmire is a longtime Muppeteer who was asked to take over Kermit by the Henson family themselves, and nobody I know begrudges his selection for the difficult task as long as Kermit was indeed going to have a life after Jim Henson’s death. But it was a poor choice to begin his tenure with the very occasion that paid its respects to Jim most successfully through the judicious absence, then silence, of the man’s signature character.
Whether the characters performed by Henson should have continued beyond him is a matter of dispute tackled this past July with depth, insight, and conviction by Elizabeth Stevens in an article titled “Weekend at Kermie’s: The Muppets’ Strange Life after Death”. Among the aspects of the modern-day Muppets existence she explores is their sale to The Walt Disney Company, whose relationship with Henson properties over the years is, naturally, encapsulated in the Disney entry on the great Muppet Wiki. Stevens also makes observations about the length of US copyright protection familiar to me from discussions with both lawyer-folk and laypeople when it comes to the way some iconic works are treated by the corporations that own exclusive rights to exploit them.
The wiki’s entry for Steve Whitmire includes passages from a Muppet Central interview in which he discusses assuming the role of Kermit. At the wiki’s Jim Henson entry you’ll find plenty of staged and candid photos of Henson posing and performing with his creations; there’s also an entry on The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, no surprise to anyone who’s visited the wiki and been overcome by its detail.
Given the affection that writer/producer/star Jason Segel seems to hold for the Muppets, I don’t think it’s pure fantasy to hope that The Muppets will be the closest thing to an old-school Muppet movie that we’re likely to get in the wake of Henson’s passing. Segel and his Muppets co-writer, Nick Stoller, penned the screenplay to Forgetting Sarah Marshall, in which Segel’s character dreams of mounting an all-puppet rock opera about Dracula (for which Segel collaborated with The Jim Henson Company, although as with other new Henson puppets the results couldn’t legally be called Muppets thanks to Disney’s ownership of the trademark). Far more unrealistic is the expectation that Kermit would never have been revived after Henson’s death, even as it’s strange to think that Segel, 10 years younger than I, has mostly known new Jim Henson Company productions without Jim Henson at the helm — and that younger generations have only heard Jim voice Kermit, Rowlf, Ernie, Dr. Teeth, the Muppet Newsman, et al. in archival footage, repeats, and home video.
I’d like to think that Henson would actually be happy to see his literal and spiritual progeny movin’ right along.
Promotional still for The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson © 1990 Muppets Studio LLC.
Related: Muppet Monday (Oct. 3rd) • Dream a Little Dream of Meep;
or, The Subconscious and the Frog • Muppet Monday (Dec. 26th)