Special thanks to Rick Lyon for the use of the image at the top of this article!
ToughPigs: So, you recently took over performing Statler and, more recently, the Newsman. What is that like? And how did you prepare for those?
Steve Whitmire: For Statler, I was trying to decide if I should make it more like Jerry’s original, or do I make it like Richard’s, which everyone knows from The Muppet Show, or do I make it like Jerry’s since Richard’s. He’s just been passed around a lot. It’s always been a problem for me that the characters got passed around. I get very conservative about this idea of one person doing the characters, and we shouldn’t recast them so the character can grow and not be different every time we see them. So, I’ve tried to aim for more like what Richard did on The Muppet Show. And I know I don’t really sound like Richard, and I have so much fun doing the character. And they only do like three lines at a time, but when we ad lib with them between scenes, it’s so much fun. We have so much fun.
TP: And you work so well with Dave Goelz.
SW: Yeah, you guys know there’s all these Muppet duos. Jim and Frank did all these characters together like Ernie and Bert, and Fozzie and Piggy with Kermit. Jerry and Richard did a lot of characters together like the Two-Headed Monster, and Floyd and Janice. They always seemed to team up as a performing team, and Dave and I do that too. Dave was actually the person who suggested that I do Beaker when Richard died. So I had to learn to make that noise by sucking air in. So it wasn’t “Mee Mee Mee”, it was ((sucks air in)) “ìMee Mee Mee.” You’re pulling air in the whole time, so if you’re doing a long thing, and you forget and take a deep breath, you’re doing the wrong thing. You have to exhale before you start. It’s bizarre, and Richard could do that. I had to learn to do that without choking. (Laughs) The truth of the matter is, it’s always hard; the more you know about the person who did these characters, the harder it is to take them over, because it’s something we never had to do when the person was alive or still doing the character, because we have a desire to be really faithful to what that person created.
TP: Do you think that’s easier with a character like Beaker where he never actually speaks?
SW: A little bit. And it helps that Dave is consistent with Bunsen. I can’t tell you exactly where that character came from, from within Richard, because I just don’t know. Whatever was going on in Richard’s head with what he did with that character, I don’t know what it was. I’m winging it in that respect, I’m taking it in a different direction. These days, after we did the viral stuff, I get the impression that Beaker is a guy who goes home at night, you know he’s pretty intelligent, he’s a smart guy, he works in a lab, and he probably doesn’t have much of a social life. He’s pretty introverted because he really can’t talk, so his only means of communication is the internet. I love the idea that he spends all of his time in front of a computer, which is perfect for the YouTube stuff. (Laughs)
TP: Can you describe for us what you’ll be doing in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade this year?
SW: Yeah, we’re on the Macy’s float, which is kind of a big deal to me. It’s the last float of the parade before Santa. So, I’m basically in a box, which is very much like a coffin, and I’m working lying on my back with my arm up for about three hours (laughs), at the end of which, I sing a song. So it’s going to be wild and crazy.
TP: Will you be singing live?
SW: Fortunately, the song’s probably going to be prerecorded. But the fun thing about things like that are that we’re fixing it so I’ve got a monitor with four images, one of which, the most important one probably, is from a camera mounted in the float shooting the back of Kermit’s head and a big wide shot of the audience, so I can see what Kermit is seeing. And we’ve got a PA system, and I also have the ability to hear the crowd, so Kermit can actually communicate with the crowd.
TP: So they’ll be able to hear you.
SW: Right, they can hear me and I can hear them. I can really talk to them, which to me is really important. I mean, to those people, they will know that it’s really Kermit. I think that’s great.
TP: So, you’ve seen the New York Times article [which explains Disney’s extended plans for the Muppets]. Have you been involved in any of the plans Disney is making, or is this all news to you?
SW: I know about most of what’s been mentioned, to the extent of what’s been mentioned there. I’m not hugely involved yet. At this stage, most of the plans are something that happens on a corporate level. They own the characters and that’s the way it works. That article was more from the executive side of things, it was really talking about Disney’s approach to the Muppets. When we talk, it’s more about the characters. It’s really nice to know, now that we’re with people at Disney who “get it,” it’s nice to know we have that behind us, because it’s very easy for the Muppets to just sort of disappear. To have somebody behind us who understands the characters, but has that machine that can get them out there. And as it gets more integrated, this corporate side with this little family business thing, I think it’s starting to work. Someone told us once that we’d never be able to have our own creative little bubble within Disney, but it’s really starting to feel that way. That’s what we need.
TP: Do you see things getting better and better from here on?
SW: It feels like it, and Letters to Santa is a real good example of that. I feel really positive about it. We keep saying, and I’ll probably say this and it’ll be a big flop, but it feel like it’ll be one of those perennial shows and it’ll really catch on. It’s just so true to the characters. A lot of that happened when we started having script meetings with the writers and they had a great face and we added little character bits, and then we’re running as we go.
TP: Is there a lot of ad-libbing?
SW: Some. We’re always free to try. We have to be careful when we’re shooting out of order, that you don’t do an ad-lib where you realize that what you said doesn’t work in the story anymore. (Laughs) It’s really coming together well. We’ve got a really short time frame to shoot a pretty complicated show. It’s really just beautiful. Perfect Muppet stuff.
TP: One thing they mentioned in the New York Times article is that there’s going to be a “Desperate Housepigs” sketch on the Desperate Housewives DVD set.
SW: Oh, I heard something about that. I don’t think that’s definite though.
TP: So that hasn’t even been shot?
SW: No, we haven’t shot it yet. There’s been talks about doing some things with other shows that have something to do with Disney. I don’t know much; I can’t give you any info on that.
TP: Likewise, the Muppets appearing on Nightline? Do you know anything about that?
SW: There’s been talk about doing something related to the piece they did years ago. Again, it’s just out there, there’s no plans to actually do that yet. I’m not sure if you’ve seen it, but years ago Jim and Frank went on Nightline to explain the bull and bear market.
TP: Right, there was some great stuff with Rowlf and Sam.
SW: Yeah, they loved that, and they want to go back to it. And there’s the obvious relationship there with ABC because of Disney. And Letters to Santa is NBC, which is great.
TP: That’s a good point, I’m glad Disney has allowed you guys to do that. I remember when you were on Saturday Night Live a few years ago, that was terrific. We didn’t expect you guys to even be on NBC, let alone the surprise of being on Saturday Night Live.
SW: Yeah, it was a surprise to us too. To my knowledge, aside from the characters that Jim built for Saturday Night Live, the Muppets have never been on the show before. It was the first time. Only parodies, no real Muppets. By the way, you’ve seen the one where they knock over the puppet stage and they get into a wrestling match? I got so many calls the next day from people who know me saying “Was that you guys? Did you do that?” No, we’d never do that. (Laughs) I laughed at it, but I started getting calls from people thinking it was me. I don’t even look like that! (Laughs)
TP: On that note, do you ever overhear people in public talking about the Muppets, and you want to stand up and say something?
SW: Not too much. I can say, I won’t say anything specific, but I’ve seen things on Muppet Central and ToughPigs, and I’m just dying to get in on the conversation, but I really shouldn’t comment. You know, people saying, “You’re wrong, you’re wrong, you’re wrong, it’s this way!” You know how it is, whatever it might be. I’m dying to do it, but I kind of have to lay low. (Laughs)Click here for part 4 of our interview, where you’ll see Steve talk about where Kermit and Rizzo fall into different levels of spiritual and psychological development. No, really.
Click here to try out your Beaker impression on the ToughPigs forum!
by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com