Hey, you know those guys from TV and movies, the Muppets? Sure you do — there’s Kermit the Frog, and the bear who tells jokes, and Miss Piggy, and the crazy guy who plays the drums. Yeah, they’re really funny. Well, those guys are owned by the Walt Disney Company, and in recent months Disney revealed a major secret about them: The Muppets are puppets and are performed by a team of talented human puppeteers. Can you believe it?!
I’m being a wiseguy, of course, but this really is a big development for the way Disney presents the characters to the public. For years now, we’ve been lamenting the lack of recognition given to the artists who strain their muscles, contort their bodies, and expertly wiggle dolls to make the Muppet magic happen, as almost none of Disney’s official promotional materials ever acknowledged the performers. Even when they released (or allowed the press to release) “behind the scenes” photos with visible camera equipment and such, the puppeteers tended to be cut out. Like this:
Sesame Workshop has given the performers the spotlight in a number of Comic Con panels and appearances at similar events over the years. The Jim Henson Company prominently featured the whole gang in the fantastic special features on the Fraggle Rock DVDs some years back. But Disney seemed very hesitant to show us the men and women below the frame. Some fans said it was part of the company’s general “Don’t Spoil the Magic” policy, but if you ask me, they were severely underestimating the magic’s expiration date. If anything, seeing the artistry and effort required just makes the fans appreciate the final product even more.
Occasionally I’ve seen an innocent casual fan ask, “Didn’t Jim Henson like to maintain the illusion that the Muppets were alive and not puppets?” And sure, he wanted to make them seem like living personalities who could do anything people can do in their movies and TV shows. But he never hesitated to let the audience in on the existence of the performers. In the Jim Henson Hour episode “Secrets of the Muppets,” he has the camera pull back to reveal all the major puppeteers on the show. Jim (or Kermit, technically) introduces them all by name, noting that they are one of the most important “secrets” to making the Muppets work.
That’s not the only example. When the Muppets took over an entire episode of The Dick Cavett Show in 1971, a bunch of the guys talked to Cavett with puppets on their hands or in their laps, and Caroll Spinney even spent a segment with Big Bird’s legs on. And Jim Henson himself made countless appearances on talk shows sitting in the guest chair with Kermit (or Rowlf or Dr. Teeth) on, arm rods in full view.
Of course, Jim Henson was The Muppet Guy, and none of the other puppeteers have ever been as recognizable to the general public as he was and continues to be. (Frank Oz is the only one who even comes close.) So I understand why Jimmy Kimmel isn’t rushing to book Dave Goelz or Eric Jacobson as his lead guest, even though it’s fascinating to watch them work.
It should be noted that Disney never forbade the performers from talking about their work, or hiding their identities. Websites like this one right here have always been able to get in-depth interviews, and I’m grateful for that. But still, when The Muppets and Muppets Most Wanted Blu-rays included making-of featurettes with character interviews but no sign of the performers, it was pretty disheartening.
But all that seems to be changing now, much to our delight and Kermit-like arm-flailing. Last month at San Diego Comic Con, Steve Whitmire, Dave Goelz, Eric Jacobson, and Bill Barretta all appeared onstage, with their puppets, for a panel to promote The Muppets, and then they even signed Muppet autographs for a few lucky fans. Then at Disney’s D23 Expo, they did another panel, this time with Matt Vogel thrown in for good measure. And the crowd went nuts for it. There may be a few people out there who look at these images and complain that it’s ruining their childhood or whatever, but I’m confident that the smart, savvy fans who are likely to watch the new show love hearing the insight of the folks who make it happen.
The Muppet performers have so many stories, and so much insight about their characters and their craft and the productions they’ve worked on. I truly believe that for the average viewer, seeing the performers enhances the experience rather than detracting from it. People love finding out how Rowlf’s hands work, and that the same guy who plays Kermit plays Rizzo, and that Miss Piggy is played by a dude. It’s all so damn fascinating. And now the audience has been given the chance to be fascinated.
So I want to say two things to the Disney people: First, thank you! We love the Muppet performers, and we love hearing them talk about Muppets, and we love that other people love hearing them talk about Muppets. And second, please keep it up! Maybe consider letting Steve sit in that chair with Kermit the next time the frog is booked on The Tonight Show? And assuming The Muppets series ends up on DVD (which I suppose we can’t always assume in today’s digital world), maybe think about letting the performers do commentaries? We definitely want to hear Eric’s detailed insights about Piggy’s intense makeout scene with Topher Grace.
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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com