My Week with Steve: Day 5

Published: October 16, 2008
Categories: Feature

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ToughPigs: On Studio DC, the Ashley Tisdale segment, I thought that was one of the only redeeming segment of the whole special. The choreography that Kermit was doing: how did you do that?

Steve Whitmire: It was SO HARD. There were two of us, a guy named Bruce Lanoil and myself. I was in the head and he did both hands almost throughout. I was just so afraid of it because at that point, I wasn’t familiar with the number. We were trying to match the original. When I first heard the song, I thought it was out of character for Kermit, but in the context when we actually did it, it was totally fine. [Ashley] of course knows the number by heart, she’s done it a thousand times, and was perfect the first time, but I kept having to stop her. We had a great choreographer, Bonnie Story, who choreographed the original. We had to do it in slow motion, and I had to ask Ashley, “show me what you just did in slow motion,” and she would do the moves in slow motion and Bruce would do the arms, and then we’d try it with the music track and it was ten times faster than we remembered. It was really hard. And Bruce is considerably shorter than me, so I was just dragging the poor guy all over the sound stage. He was just floating above the ground trying to keep up. It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done from a manipulation standpoint. And it was saved by the edit, because we’d obviously stop-and-start. Very tough one, but also something to be proud of.

TP: So that was just a normal Kermit puppet with arm rods.

SW: Yep, normal Kermit puppet. And one of the things that Disney wants to do, and it’s very expensive, but they do it on virtually everything we do, is they digitally remove the rods. You see Piggy sitting in a chair on that special and motioning, and there’s no arm rods. It throws me sometimes, I expect to see the arm rods, but they removed every one from that piece, so Kermit’s just leaping through the air.

TP: Do you think that’s a good decision?

SW: I like it. Jim would have liked it too. Whatever new technology there was, he always wanted to jump right in the middle of it. He would have been fine with all that stuff. He was surprisingly not terribly precious about the characters, he was willing to just, you know, do things, just experiment. And in many ways, that’s the reason why he and Frank balanced each other so well. Because Frank is extremely intense and analytical about the characters, and Jim is much more whimsical and free-spirited. The balance of that is what defines the Muppets to me, and that’s what I always tried to learn in the early days when I showed up as this 18-year-old. I had the best teachers in the world, I had Jim and Frank and Jerry and Richard and Dave. Jim was the overseer, he could see the big picture. He would look at a frame and he was seeing the whole thing, almost squinting, and he’d say “We need a puppet up here.” He was never just watching Kermit or his character, he was looking at the whole thing all the time. Frank was very focused and analytical about character and comedy and what’s funny and precise. Dave was extremely precise as a manipulator. Every move was sharp and perfect. Like, if a puppet had to spin in place, obviously we have to run around in a circle, everything was precision and I love that. Jerry was this guy who had these incredible characters that just came out of nowhere. One thing I noticed about Jerry is that he wasn’t afraid to use just his own voice. He’d just do a little thing to it, it wasn’t some extreme character voice. Richard was a lot about justice. He was always about the underdog. He’d bring people in and help them and show them and give tours of the workshop. He was a great diplomat for the Muppets as much as anything. All of that together, and being able to take the best of the little pieces and integrate it into something was very important to me.

TP: Have you seen the Muppet parodies like Sad Kermit or BeakerRoll on the internet?

SW: Yes. It’s a little sad. I had people send me some of the pieces that have been edited for YouTube, and I don’t find any of that stuff really offensive, but I kind of understand it. We sort of live in this deconstructionist world these days where the best way to pay tribute to something is to take it and break it down into little pieces and put it back together the way they like it. And I also think part of that is because we’re not doing very much. If our stuff was out there, there wouldn’t be a void to have the Muppets. Again, I’m not offended by it, I’m not a puritan, it’s art. And some of them are done so well. The lip sync is perfect. So I kind of giggle at it and shake my head, there’s no point in being offended by it. At the same time, I don’t think Jim would have been offended by it either. As an aside, when we were doing Fraggle Rock, Jim was in Toronto, and I went out to lunch one day. I went across the street and someone had made these Muppet hot pads for your oven. And it was this knitted Ernie head. It was pretty terrible. And it was $10, so I bought it. I took it back and I said “I got you something over lunch,” and Jim smiled and I handed it over to him, and the look on his face… it was really devastating to him. And he said “Do I have to take that?” And he was serious, so I said, “No, of course not!” And I realized, he never had a problem, he almost let people rip him off if it was good. When people made things that he didn’t feel were up to par, then it upset him. I don’t think he took a lot of legal action against things like that, but he wanted it to be at least complimentary. So I can’t really say what he’d think about [the videos]. I don’t think anyone confuses that for us. Nobody’s going to think we’re going to do that. But again, the more we do, maybe the less room there will be for it.

TP: Right, as we’ve seen from the official viral videos.

SW: Yeah, and it’s interesting, another thing I noticed about that is we only did the four, and we haven’t had time to do any more, we’ve been busy with other things. But I’ve noticed, for a while there, you’d go to the main YouTube page and they were being recommended there for people to see. Now when you go there, occasionally you’ll see a Mahna Mahna or another Muppet video, and it’s like there’s a hunger for that. And we’re not filling that void, but we’d like to, and we will once we get back on track.

TP: I’ve noticed that there tends to be trends on blogs related to Muppet videos, where for a few weeks every blogger will be posting the Mahna Mahna video, and then a few weeks later it will be something else, like The Leprechaun Brothers. It’s exciting for us, because people other than us are talking about the Muppets.

SW: People want the Muppets out there. I know when Charles Schulz died, I was a huge Peanuts fan when I was a kid, before the Muppets, I think his family decided it wasn’t going to go on, nobody else was going to draw the strip. And it really upset me. It wasn’t because I would pick up the newspaper and read Peanuts every day, but I just sort of knew that they were there, and soon they weren’t going to be. I’d like to think that [the Muppets] are a part of our culture, and I think people think the same way. Yet, we go out there and we do a series, and it’s hard to keep it on the air. We have our fans, and I think Disney has strategies that will build us up. If we do another series, and I hope we will, by the time we get there, I hope we will have found our following again. To that end, I think the Disney Channel specials serve a really good purpose, just to draw that group in. We were kind of on the periphery of them in a way. They weren’t Muppet specials, it was just a lot of stuff with the stars that were already there. At least we got that audience, and apparently, that show rated extremely high for Disney Channel.

TP: So you think there would be a big marketing push behind a new series?

SW: Oh, I think there would be. Things move very slow in a company like Disney, but they move. And a lot of it has been about establishing the Muppets within Disney. We’re trying to reach the other departments in Disney and say, “Hey, we’re here, and this is what we can do.” It’s a lot of reproving who the Muppets are and now there’s a lot of interest because we’ve had some recent successes between the viral videos and the Disney Channel.

TP: I’d [Ryan] actually seen you once before, in Hondo, Texas, in Extreme Makeover. How involved were you in the making of that episode?

SW: As it turned out, pretty involved in the making of it. It was one of those Disney-ABC connections. At the time, the producer was a pretty big fan of the Muppets. It was great, I had such fun. I guess a lot of that show was ad-libbed anyway. We had a vague outline of what we were going to shoot, and I ad-libbed the whole thing. I had so much fun on that show. I love it when Kermit’s in unexpected places, like Hannity and Colmes. Nobody expected Kermit to be there, we did it a couple of times, it didn’t make any sense. Nightline‘s a good example of that, and Extreme Makeover worked the same way. It was just great fun. Having him ride around in the John Deere vehicle, I have one of those at home, so it was perfect (laughs). One of the fun things was, I guess Ty [Pennington] always runs around with his own camera, and they built one for Kermit, and it was an actual camera! So I was really running the camera, and I could turn it around and have Kermit film himself. I had two monitors, one of the camera on me, the broadcast version, and one for Kermit’s camera.

TP: When you do a shoot like that, when it’s just Kermit, how much crew do you have with you? Is it just you and a puppet wrangler?

SW: Usually, somebody from our studio is there and somebody like [puppet designer] Jane Gootnik, Jane herself if possible, though she wasn’t on that shoot. Jane was hired a month after I did, so she’s got a 30-year history with the Muppets too. It’s especially important, especially if it’s on location like that, for someone to be able to just dive in and do something in a hurry, like a rigging thing, because there’s just no time. But in that case there was just four of us, including Carmen Osbahr who puppeteered Kermit’s right hand for us. And then I think Jim Lewis probably contributed ideas from Los Angeles for the writing. On that shoot, I was literally in the bus, and Kermit was driving it. And that was really scary, because no one could see. I just put the thing in drive, hit the gas, went fifty feet and hoped it stayed on the road. They said, “The only thing that could happen is you could run into the ditch,” and I said, “I know! I could run into the ditch!” (Laughs)

TP: How about when it’s a talk show appearance? Do you have stuff pre-written?

SW: Almost always. Usually we’ll have Jim Lewis write something, I always try to get Jim to write for Kermit if I can because he has such a great sensibility for Kermit, in the way that Jerry Juhl did for Kermit on The Muppet Show. I think Jerry wrote most of Kermit’s stuff on The Muppet Show. So, usually he’d write several pages of talking points, and I can rely on those. And it’s a mix, he gives me three choices for every answer, and sometimes it’s ad-libbed. Occasionally we’ll have an interview where they’ll go straight down the script and I’ll just read the answers while trying not to sound like I’m just reading them.

TP: I remember seeing Kermit and Fozzie being interviewed and hearing some funny responses when asked about the Jason Segel movie, like they hadn’t heard about the movie.

SW: Yeah, we had to come up with something to say, because we kept getting asked.

TP: Was that written by Jim Lewis?

SW: No, that was just Eric and me being silly. We did 100 interviews around then and we try to do something different for each one, even though it doesn’t really matter. And that was the first satellite media tour we did with just Kermit and Fozzie, with Eric and me. And it was great, the two of them haven’t been seen together all that much, so it was nice to have Kermit and Fozzie back together instead of it always being Kermit and Piggy. It gets a little old after a while. We’d always get the same three questions. “Are you married?” Oh no, we’re not married, or maybe we are. We’d really like to move beyond that, but we can’t because that’s what everyone wants to know. But it’s great to have that Kermit and Fozzie dynamic back. Two pals, two buddies. And in the same way, it’s great to have that little core group: Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, Scooter. To have those main Muppet Show characters back in a way is also nice.

TP: Do you feel like there’s a different dynamic there between you and Eric and you and Frank?

SW: A little. Eric’s just so darn close to Frank, it’s really incredible. His voice is so close, and obviously the other part of that is the character. And I would have to say that in the last few months, he has just gelled as Piggy. We did a satellite media tour not too long ago, and she was like she’d never been before. And the challenge for Eric has been that it’s so easy for her to always be angry. Because that’s sort of the default position: she gets mad, she hits somebody, she storms out. But to play her as anything other than angry, you really have to dig into the character. And he gets in there so well, and that takes a long time. If we can get through an interview without Piggy getting angry, then I think it’s a great thing (laughs). It’s different than Frank, but less different. It just takes a long time. Frank’s characters are so deep, there’s so much to them, it’s just a hard thing to do. Eric hasn’t really worked with Frank on the characters, so he’s just kind of taking the character from what he sees.

TP: When was the last time you worked with Frank Oz?

SW: The last time we worked together was… (thinks) a while ago. I’m not even sure I can remember. It’s been quite a while. Probably the last thing was Sesame Street. Every so often, he’ll come in and do Bert. And that’s a little weird for me, with them both doing the character, but it’s Frank. You can’t say no to Frank. If Frank said he wanted to come back and do Piggy for something, he should do it, and I think Eric would be totally fine with it. (Laughs) I don’t expect that to happen.

TP: I think that’s all we have. Thank you so much, Steve, for taking the time to talk with us.

SW: You’re so welcome. As you know, as we’ve said repeatedly and repeatedly, we love reading ToughPigs because you’re our best critics (laughs).

TP: Well, we’ll continue to criticize you as long as you continue to make stuff.

SW: Exactly, it’s a reciprocal arrangement. I said this back at MuppetFest, and I think the crowd got it, but it feels like we’re in this sort of partnership, we’re kind of in this together. Especially with the Muppets, and I don’t know if other actors feel this way, but with us doing these characters that are ongoing for years and years and years, the fans contribute nearly as much to this as we do in keeping it alive, especially during the slow times.Once again, super special thanks go out to Steve Whitmire for taking the time to chat with us, plus being an extra cool guy!

And thanks to all of our dedicated ToughPigs readers for sticking it out for this entire week. As Steve said, he can’t do this without us, and we can’t do this without you!

Click here to sing the praises of Steve on the ToughPigs forum!

by Joe Hennes –

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