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A Frog We Can Believe In

Kermit the Frog photographed by John E. Barrett / © 2011 Disney

The Muppets finally return to the silver screen this holiday season in The Muppets. Steve Marsh visits Kermit and Miss Piggy in Hollywood to inquire if, after all these years, they're still themselves.

 

Kermit the Frog photographed by John E. Barrett / © 2011 Disney.

Nine a.m. is way too early for Muppet magic. I’m at the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, watching a 20-minute reel of The Muppets, Disney’s big relaunch of the property it bought in 2004. Nothing feels quite normal on this Hollywood morning—maybe it’s the strange uniformity of the SoCal light or the salmon-colored Greek temple being held up by the seven dwarves I walked past moments ago, just as somebody was shouting, “Come this way if you’re a mommy blogger or a daddy blogger! If you’re wearing a laminated Miss Piggy, come with me.”

I’m a 35-year-old man wearing a laminated Kermit the Frog press badge, sitting in a dark screening room at 9 a.m. watching The Muppets. And I’m crying. Onscreen, Kermit is trying to keep a stiff upper frog lip himself as he sings “Pictures in My Head,” warbling his way through a hall of portraits in a Sunset Boulevard-style Hollywood mansion like a Muppet Norma Desmond. The music supervisor on The Muppets is Bret McKenzie, the cuter half of the New Zealand satirical folk-duo Flight of the Conchords, and “Pictures” is a Kermit showpiece in the sentimental tradition of “It’s Not Easy Being Green” or “Rainbow Connection.” It gets me. Even though I’m not a mommy or a daddy blogger, it gets me.

It’s just too early to maintain a balanced emotional response to this intense dose of Muppet nostalgia. Kermit misses his long-lost friends—Fozzie Bear, Gonzo and Miss Piggy—just as much as I have. The Muppets nostalgia is meta in this way: There hasn’t been a Muppets movie in theaters since 1999 (Muppets from Space) and, honestly, they haven’t felt relevant since long before that—probably since I was a kid watching reruns of The Muppet Show and going to see The Muppets Take Manhattan in the movie theater. People my age have a weird thing with the Muppets. Why? Later that afternoon, I would get a chance to ask Kermit the Frog that very same question.
 

   
Walter, Mary (Amy Adams) and Gary (Jason Segel) in The Muppets. Photo by Scott Garfield. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.    

Disney understands the power of nostalgia in the entertainment market, and the studio probably has it down to a formula on a spreadsheet somewhere. Childhood touchstones are lucrative. The Muppets producers David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman have both worked with Disney long enough to know how long it has had its eye on Jim Henson’s most famous creations. “[Former Disney CEO Michael] Eisner was in the middle of trying to do a deal with Jim right before he passed,” Hoberman says. “Disney wanted to buy the Muppets for years.” There hasn’t been a film until now because for the last few years the Muppets have been in the Hollywood version of Dante’s ninth circle: development hell, where executives talk around a conference table forever without agreeing on any new ideas. “It’s only in the past few years that [Disney] has been making a concerted effort to get them out there as a platform for a film,” Hoberman says, pointing out that his 12-, 11- and 6-year-old kids didn’t even know about the Muppets until he started doing research for the new film. “And the great thing about film is that it drives so many things.”

After screening part of The Muppets at the Disney Studios in Burbank, I’m taken with various other members of the “international media”—an editor from Rolling Stone Argentina, a writer from the Sunday magazine in a Venezuelan newspaper, reporters from Spain and Mexico City—down to Jim Henson Studios, just south of Sunset on La Brea, right in the heart of old Hollywood.

A Disney employee named Dean lays down the history: Jim Henson Studios, home of the “old Muppet Theater” in The Muppets, is actually Charlie Chaplin Studios. In 1918, Chaplin built a studio on five acres of orange groves, eventually shooting classics such as Modern Times and The Gold Rush here before selling it in 1957. Greta Garbo shot her last screen test here in 1949. Red Skelton owned the Chaplin Studios for a while, and Raymond Burr lived on its grounds while shooting Perry Mason. Dean showed us where USA for Africa recorded “We Are the World” (A&M Records bought the studio in 1966), and when we turned another corner, I saw where the Henson family had installed a huge fiberglass Kermit. It wasn’t until then that I realized, Jim Henson was never actually here.

   
Filming a Muppets scene starring Walter. Photo by Scott Garfield. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.    

The original Muppet Theater on The Muppet Show is in London somewhere. Part of The Muppets was shot on Universal’s (now Sony’s) lot. Henson’s family bought this place in 1999, and Disney bought the Muppets in 2004. Like the early Christians, who borrowed whichever local mythology was handy as they expanded their territory, Disney knows exactly what it’s doing: All that old Hollywood, whether it actually has anything to do with the Muppets or not, makes this place feel like sacred ground. Before sending us off to lunch, Dean says, “And happy birthday to Jim Henson! He would’ve been 75 today!” Actually, Henson’s birthday was two days ago, but who’s counting.

Considering the legacy, it may be somewhat surprising that Disney handed over such a venerated franchise to a pair of 30-somethings: Jason Segel, a comedian most famous for his role opposite Neil Patrick Harris on CBS’s How I Met Your Mother, and James Bobin, an English television writer/director half-responsible for Ali G and Borat. I had lunch with Bobin, the director to whom Disney has entrusted this insanely valuable property.

Dressed in smart tweed even on this perfect California day, Bobin looks and sounds like he either plays keyboards in a British prog band or teaches a class on 17th-century poetry. He was friends with Borat himself, Sacha Baron Cohen, at Cambridge, and was Cohen’s partner on Da Ali G Show’s first iteration on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom. He later developed Flight of the Conchords for HBO. I ask him if Disney had any ground rules—was he allowed to get Bruno-rough with the sweetest characters in entertainment history?

“I think in terms of the comedic tone, what’s happened is that the Muppets’ sense of humor, this 1970s, wide-eyed innocence, with fourth-wall breaking gags and puns, well,” he says, “I feel it’s kind of coming back in a way.” Comedy is cyclical, and according to Bobin, “I think we had a long 10- to 15-year period of very observational Office-like comedy, where you’re watching people in real situations make sarcastic remarks and being kind of mean to each other, which is very reflective of the real world. The Muppets are kind and good.”

But wasn’t he tempted to mess with these puppets? Throw a couple of irony bombs? Maybe weave in a streak of cold sarcasm just for fun? “It wouldn’t fit,” he says. “The problem with that is, you don’t ever try to be cool or try and make it cool. It never works. It’s a disaster. It’s a terrible idea. Anything cool by committee is awful. And if you watch Conchords, even though it’s brand-newish contemporary comedy, at its heart it’s quite innocent. It’s not mean and we never swear in it, and it’s kind of goodhearted and it has a very positive feeling about it. One of the great things about the Muppets is the positivity about all of them. Particularly Kermit, who’s the classic everyman: He believes in humanity. And, usually, in comedy in the last 20 years, that would be somebody you’d laugh at rather than with. Now, you laugh with the guy because he’s right.”

Yes, we can! This is an Obama-era comedy, then. “Well, you want to be positive about things,” Bobin says. “We live in a society that is very cynical, which places a lot of emphasis on money and status, and the idea of Muppets being pleased to be here and having a laugh, does that still matter? The whole theme of the movie is, yes, it does.”

   
Kermit, Mary, Gary, Walter and Rowlf the Dog. Photo by Patrick Wymore. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.    

After lunch with Bobin, I sit down with Segel, the 31-year-old actor who wrote the Muppets script with his Forgetting Sarah Marshall partner Nick Stoller. Segel stands 6-feet-4, a former California state basketball champion with a face full of big, claymationesque features that have to be at least part of the reason why even the Muppet people describe him as “Muppety.” In fact, he’s so Muppety that his co-star in The Muppets (in addition to Amy Adams) is Walter, an actual Muppet, who plays his brother. But how did this sitcom actor and sometimes writer get the nerve to pitch Disney a Muppets script? “Well, nobody else was doing it,” he says. “And Nick and I just came up with an idea that made so much sense. As soon as you come up with the idea that the Muppets are disbanded throughout the world, it becomes a reunion movie. Which is a much bigger event than just another Muppet movie, where it’s like Muppets Underwater or something.”

Segel grew up with The Muppet Show, and he calls the Muppets his first comic influence. “They were so cool,” he says. “When you’re young, watching The Muppet Show is like watching SNL. And then when I got older, I learned that the Muppets were on the actual Saturday Night Live.” I ask him if Jim Henson’s “harmless anarchy,” as Stoller puts it, is still part of the Muppets.

“There was a unique tone the Muppets had that got lost a little bit in the shuffle when Jim Henson died,” he says. “They got sold to a German media company, and I think there was something very special that got lost in the shuffle of becoming a property.” But doesn’t Disney think they’re a property? “I think this movie has reminded people that they’re not, that they’re something special,” he says. “Because another thing had happened: The term ‘family entertainment’ had somehow come to mean kids entertainment. And then Pixar came along and just knocked that idea out of the park. Parents were crying harder than their kids at Toy Story 3.”

Still, I persist, there must have been some ground rules? “Well, our first draft did have too many puns in it,” he says. “But it wasn’t [the studio’s] notes, it was the actual puppeteers who really know these characters who got involved. They were nice enough to give us sort of like a Muppet bible, detailing what Muppets can and can’t do.” I ask him if he remembers any chapter and verse. “First of all, they don’t age: Muppets always stay the same age,” he says. “And one of the first things they told us was, ‘In the Muppet world, you try as hard as you can to avoid invoking the word puppet, ’cause you don’t want to remind the audience that these are puppets.’ Kermit is a frog. Miss Piggy is a pig. They like to think of themselves as people.”

So Walter is just a fuzzy person? “Yes, he’s just a fuzzy person.”
 

   
Miss Piggy, as the editor of Vogue Paris, with Kermit. Photo by Scott Garfield. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.    

When I first pitched this story, I wanted to interview the Muppets and their Muppeteers—I wanted to understand how Kermit and Miss Piggy and the guys who play Kermit and Miss Piggy, Steve Whitmire and Eric Jacobson, respectively, were adjusting to going from Jim Henson’s mom-and-pop puppet shop to the giant Disney corporate empire. The spokeswoman at Disney took my pitch and came back with good news/bad news. Great news: I would be interviewing Kermit and Miss Piggy! Bad news: No way on the puppeteers. She didn’t even bother to invoke the Muppet bible.

The whole thing felt a little big brother: No photographer allowed, no iPhone pictures or video—all I could use was my voice recorder. Still, unless I was speaking to robot Kermit and Miss Piggy, I was going to be in the room with the puppeteers. How was that going to work? Was I just going to sit there and pretend there were three of us when there were really five of us? Would there be people hiding under a table? A cabinet with a trap door? Would Miss Piggy diva-out if I made eye contact with the guy whose hand was up her dress?

At 3:00, they let me know I would be getting 15 minutes with Kermit and Miss Piggy in a group and 15 minutes with Kermit alone. I’m sitting around a conference table with my media colleagues when Kermit and Miss Piggy walk into the room. They’re perched on the arms of Whitmire and Jacobson, kind of held aloft like toddlers being carried by their parents. Right away, I steal a glance at the two puppeteers: Jacobson looks like a middle-aged dad dressed in L.L. Bean, while Whitmire reminds me of a high school shop teacher with longish hair and a scraggly goatee. But there they are: Kermit and Miss Piggy. When I ask the first question, both of them turn to me and make Muppet eye contact. Whoa. So how have you guys managed to stay in a long-term relationship?

“Love!” Miss Piggy says. Kermit looks down and kind of nods his tiny green head and says, “and willfulness.” One of the Latin reporters asks, “Sex?” and you could practically see Kermit blush. “Well, there was some duct tape involved, but mostly we compliment each other,” he says. “And I’m alright with that.” Piggy sneaks over to put her hand on her man and squeals, “I’m literally stuck on you!”

I’m misting up my sunglasses again. “I try to make him jealous,” Miss Piggy says. “I like to be seen about town with gorgeous hunks. You know all those stories in tabloids that you read . . . and maybe write.” (This gets a big laugh from the international press.) “Those are just planted by moi to make him jealous.”

And then there I am, just talking to a pair of my childhood idols. I stop looking at the L.L. Bean dad and the shop teacher and start talking to Kermit and Miss Piggy. I ask them if their roles in The Muppets demanded them to stretch. Miss Piggy answers first: “We have a lover’s spat, and that made me very sad when we had to do that. Because I do not like having to yell at my Kermie.” Her voice goes up two octaves. “I don’t like to do that at all.” Kermit takes a minute before answering: “I’m actually pretty dramatic in this film—more than ever before. The weight of the world is on my shoulders—and I don’t even have a shoulder.” I ask him if this is going to be like Manhattan, when things weren’t going well and he kind of blew up at his fellow Muppets. “Well, I don’t really get angry at people in this, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about how horrible things are. It is a stretch for me to play that beat over and over and over. I hope it doesn’t get boring for people.”

“I’m sure it won’t,” Miss Piggy says.

I ask him if this is the bleakest Muppet movie. “I don’t think the movie is bleak, but certainly my portrayal of Kermit the Frog is not quite who I really am in terms of my day-to-day life. I tend to be playing pretty down in the dumps. But I’m a swamp-half-full guy.”

Miss Piggy tries to clear it up: “The conceit of this movie is that we’ve all split up and haven’t seen each other for a long time. Of course, it’s not really the case. So we start at a very low point. But! But it has a happy ending. I hope I’m not ruining that for anybody.” (Another big laugh.) “And it’s wonderful to see Kermit turn and be the Kermit we all know and love.”

“Yes, I have an arc right back to myself,” Kermit says. “I do that in a lot of movies, actually.”

After the Kermit and Miss Piggy conference, I wait for my one-on-one with the frog. When I walk into the interview room, Steve Whitmire makes eye contact with me and says, “Hi.” What was that? Kermit quickly covers, “I don’t know who this guy is—he’s been following me all day.” When I ask Kermit if there are differences between “working with Jim and working with Steve,” he offers another artful dodge: “Boy, it’s hard for me to tell. They both have very warm hands, I’ll put it that way. Hard question for me to answer.”

But this idea of Kermit playing Kermit: Is there an essential Kermit? Does Kermit, a product of Jim Henson’s imagination, a piece of Disney’s intellectual property and with a puppeteer’s hand animating him, have real character? This time I can see Whitmire’s hand crinkling at the top of Kermit’s skull—the puppet is thinking. “Like most people, I’ve kind of evolved and changed over the years,” Kermit says. “When I started out, not only did I look different, but I moved different, I acted differently. At one point, I had a double collar. My voice changed, even up to 1990 [when Henson died and Whitmire took over], and it’s continued to alter a little. But I don’t want to just keep doing the same thing over and over again like a copy of myself. I think it’s important that all of us Muppets continue to grow. Really, it’s evolving. You know? Gee. I am kind of a day-at-a-time kind of guy, though. I’m one of those in-the-present-moment people.”

When did he hit on that? “Oh, that’s just part of my life philosophy—that’s growing up in the swamp. When you’re as low as I am on the food chain, you take it one moment at a time: You could be eaten alive at any moment. And Hollywood is very similar,” Kermit says. “But I hope I can make the world a better place. I’ve always been about that, with the environment and people in general. At a time when it’s kind of hard to follow and the world is not always in a good place, I hope we can give people something to hope for.”


Related:
The Muppets Are Back!

Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

Kevin O'Connor
Is there a way to get a digital copy of the article on Turkey in the latest edition? I'm a customer on my way there.
12/8/2011 10:40:11 AM

Eleanor Traubman
I was so excited to see Kermit on the cover of Sky! Readers of this article might enjoy my piece based on an interview with Bonnie Erickson, creator of Ms. Piggy and other legendary Muppets.
http://www.yasni.com/ext.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Fcreativetimes.blogspot.com%2F2010%2F02%2Ffrom-muppets-to-mascots-incredible_24.html&name=Bonnie+Erickson&cat=filter&showads=1
12/29/2011 9:26:08 PM

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