Welcome to Kermit the Week! Celebrating Kermit the Frog’s 60th birthday with a week’s worth of articles celebrating the life and career of the world’s most famous frog!
Kermit the Frog doesn’t look 60. His appearance has changed a little bit over the years, sure, but he looks remarkably the same as he has for the past decade or two or five. And yet, the Kermit of today is a different guy than the Kermit of yesterday, or the day before. Over the years, the answer to the question “Who is Kermit the Frog?” has changed and evolved. New aspects of him have developed, and older traits have dropped away like a tadpole’s tail. Here are some numbers and words about it:
Before he was a frog, before he was much of anything, Kermit, like most of the earliest Muppets on Sam and Friends, started as a cast member whose identity could change depending on what kind of bit or song Jim Henson wanted him to be in. If he was lip-syncing to a Stan Freberg record, he might be a choir director or a frustrated country singer. If was doing an Esskay Meats sponsor spot with Harry the Hipster, he’d be a jazz guy. This carried over as the Muppets started getting gigs on variety shows, as seen by the fact that many of his early major television performances found him wearing a wig and pearls. This blank-slate quality also meant that Kermit could be used equally effectively as a straight man or a comedy guy, which would remain pretty consistent throughout his career.
By the time of Hey, Cinderella, Jim Henson had decided he liked Kermit and wanted to keep using him in Muppet productions (also important: he had decided Kermit was a frog). Kermit developed his own personality, and it could be a pretty snarky one. In Cinderella, he’s a friend to the couple at the center of the story, but he has an attitude, and you get the impression he’d just as soon stay in his pond alone than help them get together. In The Frog Prince, he helps Sir Robin the Brave break the witch’s spell, but he tells Robin bluntly that he can’t understand why anyone would rather be a human than a frog.
Just a few years into his career, he’s already making the “sheesh” face all the time, and even the tone of his voice is different — he sounds less like Jim’s normal voice than he would later, speaking instead with a detached drawl. This the Kermit who said “What the hell was that about?” in the Muppet Show pitch tape. This is the Kermit who appeared on The Tonight Show and told Johnny Carson he was bitter about his lack of screen time in Sex & Violence and didn’t like the rock music of the Electric Mayhem. It’s even evident in his early Sesame Street appearances… and yet, it’s on that show that we start to see the promise of the frazzled straight man Kermit, and the song that would permanently redirect his character. (Hint: Not “I Love My Elbows.”)
“Bein’ Green” changed things. It made Kermit sympathetic, a simple guy (albeit with flippers) just trying to find his place in the world. Then, at the dawn of The Muppet Show, he was given the job of host and showrunner, and the responsibilities that came with that made him the closest thing the show had to a protagonist. He settled nicely into the role of Leader of the Muppets as he became an international superstar. And he was certainly more compelling than Nigel, especially as the creative team discovered how hilarious it was to have Kermit totally freak out.
Okay, so Kermit is the main character of the Muppets. When they decided to make a Muppet movie, it was no surprise that it was his story. In The Muppet Movie, Kermit gets his other trademark song, “The Rainbow Connection,” which takes his sympathizability (not a word!) even further — not only does it make you love him more than ever, it makes you realize he’s a lover and a dreamer like you.
The script of The Muppet Movie goes out of its way to emphasize that Kermit’s journey to Hollywood is not just about being rich and famous. In addition to singing and dancing, he really wants to make millions of people happy. This is the point where Kermit becomes the fuzzy, green, banjo-playing, bike-riding, pig-loving, audience-entertaining idol of millions.
In the decades since the end of The Muppet Show, Kermit took his place among the most beloved characters of all time, and the lover/dreamer aspect became amplified. This is the fellow who writes books found in the self-help section, and delivers commencement speeches. He’s everyone’s best friend, and he’s always quick to talk about the importance of following your dreams and crap like that. This element of Kermit’s personality was already in place when Steve Whitmire took over, but it’s only become more prominent since then. This was especially true when years went by with few major Muppet productions that gave him the opportunity to cut up and be silly. Fortunately, Steve knows how to be funny when he’s in (or under, or behind) a talk show chair.
The side effect of Kermit becoming such a sensitive soul is that we’ve seen him get sad a lot. The plot of It’s a Very Merry Berry Larry Muppet Christmas Movie hinged on him getting sad. He gets sad when he thinks the other Muppets have forgotten about him in Muppets Most Wanted. And he spends more of The Muppets feeling sorry for himself than he does singing, dancing, and making people happy combined. It’s great that Kermit is such a rich, deep character, but I hope in the future we continue to see more of the determined, upbeat frog who directed the gulag talent show and worked to stop Constantine in Most Wanted. In fact, here’s my challenge to the writers of the potential new Muppet TV series, who are certainly not reading this: Try to go as long as possible without an episode where Kermit’s story is primarily about him feeling miserable.
And those are the Kermits we’ve known! Of course, there has been overlap between them. When he’s written well, he’s still laugh-out-loud funny while simultaneously and at the same time being heroic and sympathetic. I’d love to see a little bit more of the sarcastic Kermit creep into his modern-day appearances. I’d really love to see more of the Kermit who loses his cool sometimes. But most of all, I’d just love to see more Kermit.
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by Ryan Roe – ToughPigs.com