Two Muppets blog post images in a row. Coincidental I guess. In the news lately was the firing of Steve Whitmire as the voice (and puppeteer) of Kermit. I originally thought it was just a changing of the guard but apparently he was fired. Why at this late stage they felt they needed to fire him, I don’t know. One wonders if there’s more to this story than meets the eye. But the moral of the story is that when your job was to replace and imitate the original, you don’t get any respect, and you’re seen as an easily replaceable part.
Back in the day Henson used to sometimes appear on talk-shows solely as Kermit and sometimes side-by-side. Same with Frank Oz and Piggy or Cookie Monster. The two became intertwined in the hearts and minds of the world.
When both of them were replaced, it was done quietly. The powers that be did not want to upset the applecart by saying that someone else was stepping in to do a glorified impersonation. The same is true of whoever has or will continue to provide the voices of Looney Tunes rather than Mel Blanc.
While this makes some business sense it’s a thankless job for the actual performers and it ultimately is something we’re all aware of in the back of our minds. It’s also similar to the stand-ins that replace dead, retired, departed, or excommunicated musicians like The Who’s Keith Moon and John Entwistle, the Stones’ Bill Wyman, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters (back in the mid 80s), or Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward.
Whitmire HAS actually appeared as himself before, hand-in-puppet ala Henson, but not nearly as frequently as Henson. here he’s making an appearance at a nerd convention. Note how few hits this clip has. If it were a classic Henson appearance it would probably be hundreds of thousands. Nobody really cares about this guy despite the big responsibility he has (or had).
The only case I can think of with someone taking over a role who has a certain amount of respect would be Matt Lillard doing Shaggy from Scooby Doo, but he was already doing the live-action Scooby so it was an easy leap to take over for Casey Kasem. Someone like Whitmire, even if he does his own distinct characters, never really established himself as an institution.
The larger question is whether it is a good idea to keep animated or puppet characters going after the people who created them die. This is especially true when those people also were heavily responsible for writing the storyline/dialogue (or improvising) them. Could Whitmire’s firing represent some form of scapegoating for the mixed (at best) status of the Muppet franchise at Disney–in lieu of the failure of the revived TV show?
The fact is when I see classic Kermit I experience the spirit of Jim Henson. When I see nu-Kermit I see sort of a cover-band recreation. It’s close and yet it has that uncanny-valley effect where what sounds or feels odd becomes increasingly bothersome.
It’s just hard to maintain the same sense of fondness for these characters knowing they are being inhabited by stand-ins.
It’s even worse with Frank Oz’s stand-in because whoever that guy is–he does a far more faithful recreation than Whitmire. It’s so close that it feels almost like a betrayal of Frank Oz to get into it. Similar to recasting actors in younger form in JJ Trek (or soon, the Han Solo spinoff) it is jarring to see different actors sort of miming other actors. If they don’t match the originals, it’s annoying. But if it does, then it has that Invasion of the Bodysnatchers effect of attacking at the concept of every human being representing a special snowflake.
I think that’s the ultimate problem with trademarked IP in general. While the originals might have became popular on the backs of human input, after a while it starts to be handled as simply a commodity on a balance-sheet.
I explained a while back that true greatness is rare and fragile. Most entertainment is a fast-food commodity. I just pulled up this video on Youtube and once it got started it gave me that hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling. Things that are this special and powerful are very rare. You can’t force it just because the studio wants to churn stuff out like a sausage factory.