15 July 2011

'Rules get a bad rap, but the rules are what define the Muppets'

I am, as far too many friends of mine are painfully aware, a huge fan of the Muppets. I've blogged about them here a couple of times, whether listing and linking to some of their finest ever sketches, or else linking to a screenshot of Cyndi  Crawford dressed as a Frogeteer and singing alongside a Muppet shamelessly based on that old fraud L. Ron Hubbard.

There's a fascinating article by Elizabeth Stephens over at The Awl, entitled 'Weekend at Kermie's: The Muppets' Strange Life After Death'. I don't by any means agree with everything she says but she certainly raises some good points, starting from her springboard that is the new Muppets film, which she certainly admits is an exciting prospect. To be fair, how could it be otherwise, combining as it does the Muppets, Jason Segel, and the ever-watchable Amy Adams?

Stephens thinks the film, no matter how good it is, has some massive hurdles to overcome, not the least of which is that the Muppets aren't who they once were, or, at any rate, they don't sound or move like they once did. I started to wonder this recently, when someone queried my Kermit the Frog impression and seriously tried to argue that Kermit sounds more like Bert than Ernie
'No, he doesn't,' I insisted. 'Kermit and Ernie were both voiced by the same person, both by Jim Henson; Bert was voiced by Frank Oz, he of Miss Piggy and Yoda fame. Kermit basically is Jim Henson's voice; Ernie is Jim just making his voice sound rounder.'
The problem, of course, is that I was almost as wrong as I was right. Jim Henson, to our enduring loss, died twenty-one years ago. He didn't voice Kermit in Muppet Christmas Carol, or Muppet Treasure Island, or Muppets from Space, and if Kermit ever appeared in Muppets Tonight -- I can't remember -- Jim didn't voice him there either. Steve Whitmire, who's also the voice of Ernie nowadays, did duty back then, so I suspect my friend heard my Henson-esque take on Kermit and felt it just didn't rhyme with Whitmire's Kermit, which he surely knows better.Stephens' feeling is that it's just not the same:
'From 1955 to 1990, Kermit the Frog was voiced and performed by Jim Henson. After that, Steve Whitmire, known for his smart-mouthed Rizzo the Rat, took over. Whitmire’s Kermit sounded a lot like Henson's, but his voice was a little thinner, and his singing more rhythmic and less melodic.
Let me preface my next statement by saying that I know it will seem ridiculous to the casual reader, inflammatory to a good many fans, and downright specious to the expert of rhetoric, but for me watching Steve Whitmire’s Kermit is akin to watching someone imitate a mythic and longed-for mother—my mother—wearing a my-mother costume in a my-mother dance routine. This person’s heart is in the right place, which only makes it worse. “You should be happy,” the person pleads with me, “Look, Biddy! Your mother is not gone! She is still here.” Now, no one would ever do that. No one in her right mind would think it would work. A child knows his mother’s voice like he knows whether it's water or air he's breathing. One chokes you and one gives you life. Strangely, I feel the same about Kermit. Whitmire is an amazing performer—especially as the lovable dog Sprocket on “Fraggle Rock”—but, when he's on screen as Kermit, I can feel my body reject it on a cellular level.'
Crazy? Maybe, but she has a point. Indeed, she has a lot of points, and most of them are good. Her overall thesis, though, is one I'm not sure of. She's basically saying that the Muppets were the work above all of one man, that they were of their time, and that they should be allowed die rather than becoming an anonymous product, like any other Disney property.

Well, maybe. If that were happening -- and there's an element of it -- I'd agree. Certainly I felt watching Muppets Tonight that while it was often very funny, it lacked the poignancy -- the heart, even -- of The Muppet Show. Rizzo the Rat, Seymour and Pepe, Johnny Fiama, all those guys -- they're funny, but they're not flawed. Henson once described his job as being akin to Kermit's, saying 'Kermit finds himself trying to hold together all these crazy people, and there’s something not unlike what I do.' That was really at the heart of the old show -- that Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo and others were all, basically, frail and damaged individuals, desperate for people to care about them. The show was hilarious, but somewhere in that levity was a sense of tragedy too, a sense that there are cracks in all of us.

Still, it was in the post-Henson era that I rediscovered my love for the show, and did so through a post-Henson show. I was babysitting my nephews once upon a time, and agreed to watch with them their video of Muppet Fairy Tales. Made in 1994, four years after Jim Henson's death, the Muppets' take on 'The Elves and the Shoemaker' is priceless. Kermit plays the shoemaker, with Robin as his grandson, and the elves all look and sound like Elvis, and make them loads of blue suede shoes; at the end, the shoemaker and his grandson provide them with new clothes, like in the story, save these clothes are white satin jumpsuits, and the lads don their new clobber and head off the Vegas. That was clever enough to intrigue me, but what really stuck in my head, and which I'll often quote to an admixture of horror and delight, was Miss Piggy's stunning performance as the clever pig with the house of bricks in 'The Three Little Pigs.' Watch it. Seriously.

And Muppet Christmas Carol is very very good, and Muppets from Space seemed to be exactly what the old show and films were about. It may have been a bit of a false dawn, but I think it showed that all wasn't lost.

And then, of course, there was that whole business with Sesame Street's Big Bird sitting side by side with television's most attractive woman on The West Wing.

Quite possibly the greatest moment in the history of television.

That was in 2004. There's life in the old frog yet. Roll on November. Like Jason Segel, I can't wait.

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