I truly think Disney is the correct home for The Muppets, but I’d be lying if I said they haven’t done some genuinely bizarre things with them over the years. Making Disney Junior inserts with kids just a few months before the much more adult-oriented ABC series didn’t make a lot of sense. Putting Kermit in a full pantomime show was an odd decision, but fair enough. There was one thing they did though in their earliest days of owning the franchise, which even 16 years later is baffling. And that’s Muppets TV.
My guess is that about half of you know about this already, but I’m sure there’s some of you who have no idea what I’m on about. Allow me to explain this very real Muppet television series that actually existed in real life for real.
Kermit hosts a show, where his friends perform various sketches and songs and interact with guest stars.
I KNOW! How insane is that? But it gets weirder.
The show was made in France. In French. With none of the usual Muppet performers.
In 2005 French comedian Sébastien Cauet and French television network TF1 made a deal with The Walt Disney Company which would allow Cauet to write and produce his own version of The Muppet Show, as well as supply the voice of Kermit the Frog for the series. Rather than send the puppeteers to France, the puppets themselves were instead packed up and shipped off, and a team of French puppeteers would perform them instead, later being dubbed by voice actors.
Yeah. They made that. And not just a one episode thing, this abomination lasted TEN EPISODES! That’s way more than the three that Little Muppet Monsters got on the air!
Thanks to YouTube, we have a few clips of Muppets TV available, which I’ll admit I oddly enjoyed, even though I don’t speak the language (besides saying Bonjour and singing the theme song to ‘Madeline’).
Doctor Fozzie and Doctor Clifford is a funny concept. Piggy flirting with a male guest is a tried and true routine. Animal eating a music player is good, as is throwing Gonzo like a basketball. It’s just that… It feels odd? Obviously, it’s because it’s some French version of something that looks familiar to us, but rather than feeling like I’m watching The Simpsons dubbed into French, this is actually being broadcast as intended and The Muppets feeling like strangers.
Back in 2005, Disney was in its Muppet owning infancy. Having purchased them in 2004, executives were looking at a pile of puppets and thinking to themselves ‘…Now what?’. Oppurtunities seemed endless, and yet they didn’t know where to start. And it was in these opening months and years that Disney made a few missteps.
In the fall of 2005, Disney began looking for alternative puppeteers to play the core Muppet characters in various projects and events. Kevin Clash played Miss Piggy at a fashion show (though didn’t speak), Drew Massey and Victor Yerrid played Statler and Waldorf and other various characters in the later episodes of Statler and Waldorf: From The Balcony. The Muppets did a live show, Muppets Ahoy on the Disney cruise line which exclusively utilized different puppeteers.
Even though these new Muppet performers did a solid job, this was abhorrent to us Muppet fans. The idea of someone other than Dave Goelz playing Gonzo while Dave was perfectly able to do so was unthinkable. There was an uproar, and the Save The Muppets campaign was launched by previous ToughPigs contributor Kynan Barker, and supported by the actual regular Muppet performers themselves.
Steve Whitmire, one of the biggest advocates against multiple Muppet performers per character, said:
“I am a real advocate that we don’t need alternate versions of the characters. I don’t think there’s any level of our work where that is not important. I don’t distinguish between Kermit at the theme park and Kermit on TV or in a movie. Kermit opening a shopping mall – which we haven’t done – but we go to a museum, it still needs to be the Kermit, not a Kermit – the Kermit, or whoever, whatever character it is. Otherwise once you have version, after version, after version, you sort of have to start thinking “well, what is the essence of this character and how do we duplicate that?” Once you’re only focusing on the core of the character, that leaves it to interpretation or no interpretation at all. You either have 17 versions of Kermit or you have this homogenized version that can only do a dozen things… you’re not getting more, you’re getting less“.
Steve was absolutely correct, by having 3-4 different Kermit’s, you suddenly have zero Kermit’s. Muppet recasts are something the fans, and the performers themselves, take very seriously, even years after the fact. So by having a Kermit played by Steve, a Kermit played by Drew Massey, and a Kermit played by a French puppeteer being dubbed by Sébastien Cauet, all existing in the same moment in time, Kermit ceasing being a real character and instead becomes a throwaway story telling tool. The Muppets had never before been treated this way, so Disney agreeing to have a whole new team of puppeteers take on these roles, only to have them dubbed later, means The Muppets aren’t themselves – they’re cartoon characters being tossed to an off-shore animation studio.
Watch some more Muppets TV:
Are these ‘our’ Muppets? Are these Muppets from another universe? If I were to interview Kermit tomorrow, being played by Matt Vogel, would he talk about doing the show if I mentioned it? Where does it sit in the pantheon of Muppet content? Where does any of that ‘unofficial yet official’ content from 2005-2006 fit?
Muppets TV, though airing a pilot in 2005, didn’t air fully until 2006, ending on New Years Eve. Aside from the infamous America’s Got Talent/Lady Gaga/Artie Esposito moment, Disney seemed to abandon their quest to have multiple Muppet performers around that time, and we’ve consistently had just one performer at a time, even with a couple of recastings. And I have to wonder if it was Muppets TV that put that final nail in the coffin.
Because here’s the thing: Watching Muppets TV, I can recognise that that’s Miss Piggy, or Scooter, or Zoot, or whomever. But there is so much of Eric Jacobson, David Rudman and Dave Goelz that go into those characters that it’s extremely hard, if not impossible, to just… reproduce. It’s why it’s imperative that any Muppet recast has to come from within the existing performers – they know these characters better than anyone else. Matt taking on Kermit works because he got to spend a long time with Steve, who in turn got to spend a long time with Jim. Where as French Kermit was just a puppeteer taking on a gig they auditioned for, and they didn’t even get to do the voice. They aren’t embodying a character they’re a deep part of – they’re a hired hand (Wocka Wocka).
It’s why these ‘new in 2005’ Muppet performers didn’t get to do a lot with them too – I’m assuming by seeing things like Muppets Ahoy or From The Balcony, and then finally Muppets TV, Disney seemed to finally understand that by saturating The Muppets, they were actually watering them down. Muppets TV is perfectly fine, but it doesn’t work, because that’s not our Kermit. Had Disney continued down this route, I have no doubt that The Muppets would have lost what made them special, what made them The Muppets. They’d have become literal tools for entertainment, thrown to whoever was available, and the franchise may have been destroyed. Things like Muppets TV prove that The Muppets only work when it’s one character/one performer. And thank God Disney realised before it was too late.
Also, I don’t speak French, so can someone tell me if they did a Frog Legs gag?
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By Jarrod Fairclough – Jarrod@ToughPigs.com