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Joseph Scarbrough launched what he called "The Scarblog" as a way of cataloging his work over the years, as well as going into greater detail of things on his mind (known as "Unfinished Thoughts").

Monday, July 17, 2017

My Unfinished Thoughts on Steve Whitmire

Boy, the world of the Muppets just can't seem to catch a break these days, can it? 2012 saw the loss of performers Jerry Nelson and Kevin Clash - Jerry having passed away in August after battling COPD in the final years of his life, and Kevin resigning from SESAME STREET in November after an unfortunate scandal tarnished his reputation. 2013 saw the loss of Jim Henson's wife and original performing partner, Jane, after quietly battling cancer. 2014 saw the loss of Jim and Jane's second son and fellow performer, John, who suffered a sudden heart attack. In 2016, performer and writer Joey Mazzarino left SESAME STREET (this after rising to the rank of head writer for Season 40 in 2009) over creative differences with Sesame Workshop's new staff. And now, in 2017, performer Steve Whitmire, who had notably took over Kermit the Frog after Jim's untimely death in 1990, has been let go by Disney.

I'm sure that a majority of the people who read Scarblog (if anybody even still reads this thing, since blogging has pretty much died in recent years) are either fellow Muppet Freaks or fellow puppetry aficionados, and as such, you're probably already familiar with this situation that's been in the news all week long, so I'm not going to waste any body's time and repeat all of the known sordid details, because you've probably already read about it yourself from various different sources. What you can do, however, is see Steve Whitmire's statements for yourself, as he has recently started his own blog to share his experiences with fans and friends across the globe:
http://stevewhitmire-muppetpundit.com/
Note: It's been speculated that this may not actually be the real Steve Whitmire behind this blog, so take it however you will.

What I am going to do, however, is offer up my own two-cents worth on why the Muppets seem to be struggling so much lately. . . . Actually, the Muppets haven't been struggling so much lately, rather, they've kind of struggled since Jim Henson's sudden death in 1990 - the struggle has just gotten more and more apparent in recent years because of the things that have transpired, and more. Since Jim's death, the Muppets have been in multiple hands over the past two-and-a-half decades: the Jim Henson Company retained them up until the late 90s when they sold the characters to German media company EM-TV, and when that failing company began going under in 2003, the Jim Henson Company bought back the Muppets, only to sell them again a year later to Disney, where they have remained ever since. This isn't the first time Disney has had their hands in the Muppets: Jim was already in negotiations to sell his company and all of its properties (minus the Sesame Street Muppets, which Jim promised to leave with what was still known as the Children's Television Workshop at the time) to Disney before his death, but because the deal was never finalized in writing (as Jim always prefered to do business with a handshake), the Jim Henson Company continued to own the characters and properties, while Disney distributed certain titles like THE MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL and MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND.

Bad concept.
Still, Disney didn't finally get complete control over the Muppets until 2004, and since they were so eager to get their hands on the Muppets, what did they do with them? Nothing. At first. Well, that's not entirely true: they did give us a TV movie in 2005 with THE MUPPETS' WIZARD OF OZ, and a TV special in 2008 with LETTERS TO SANTA, but other than that, Disney pretty much did nothing else with them. Years later, actor/filmmaker Jason Segel sought to remedy that, and shopped a script to Disney that eventually lead to the Muppets' first theatrical movie in over a decade in 2011: THE MUPPETS. THE MUPPETS, while met with mixed reaction from fans and critics, did well enough to garner a sequel in 2014, MUPPETS MOST WANTED; with the Muppets back in the public eye, Disney felt like they were ready to blow the dust off a new Muppet show they had previously shelved several years prior - a Muppet version of THE OFFICE, known as, well, THE MUPPETS . . . and the show failed, thus getting canceled after a single season. Meanwhile, there's certainly been some creative differences within the Muppet world: although he had long retired from the Muppets, Frank Oz strongly disliked the 2011 movie, feeling is was disrespectful to the characters and failed to capture the spirit of what made the Muppets so unique and wonderful in the first place. Not only that, but based on information that's floating around, it seems that Steve Whitmire has also not been entirely pleased with the way Disney has been handling the Muppets all this time, and this is supposedly what lead to his termination.

As I said, after two lukewarm theatrical movies and a failed TV show, it seems as though the Muppets are facing new struggles right now - why? Well, before we get into that, let's take a look at something else: In 2015, longtime Henson/Muppet rivals, Sid & Marty Krofft, made a triumphant return with a new preschool show on Nick Jr. - MUTT & STUFF - co-produced with Cesar Milan; the series became a smash hit, and after enjoying an inaugural season of 40 episodes (impressive, when you consider most Krofft shows from decades past generally lasted 17 episodes), it was renewed for a second season with another generous amount of episodes: something that seldom happened to previous Krofft shows. That same year, Nickelodeon also began airing ALVINNN!!! AND THE CHIPMUNKS; initially produced for just two seasons, this series also became an unexpected hit for the orange network, that it's since been renewed for an additional third and fourth season (the third just began airing this summer). Like the Muppets, these others have also been around for decades: the Kroffts practically dominated Saturday Morning television in the 70s and into the 80s with a string of psychedelic kids shows like H.R. PUFNSTUF, THE BUGALOOS, LIDSVILLE, SIGMUND AND THE SEA MONSTERS, LAND OF THE LOST, THE LOST SAUCER, FAR OUT SPACE NUTS, and several others; meanwhile, the Chipmunks have been putting out squeaky albums and singles since their creation in the late 50s, and they've also successfully starred in a number of TV shows, TV specials, and movies.

With success like that, how is it the Muppets aren't really enjoying that same level of success in this modern age of entertainment? What is the big difference here? I think it all lies in the handling of these properties. Sid & Marty Krofft have the creative freedom to make MUTT & STUFF the way they want to, without a lot of interference from Nickelodeon, and likewise Bagdasarian Productions has complete creative control over ALVINNN!!! AND THE CHIPMUNKS as well (this after they had very little input with the string of live-action/CGI movies that Twentieth Century Fox had control over); MUTT & STUFF has the Krofft charm that their previous shows had, and the Chipmunks certainly sound and act more like the way we knew and loved them than they ever did in those Fox movies. In short: the creative forces behind these shows are in control . . . this isn't happening with the Muppets, and in fact, just the opposite has been happening. With the exception of THE MUPPETS' WIZARD OF OZ and LETTERS TO SANTA being directed by Muppet director Kirk Thatcher, Disney seems to be going out of its way to avoid bringing in actual Muppet writers or directors to handle new Muppet titles: aside from Jason Segel and his writing partner Nick Stoller doing the screenplay for THE MUPPETS (Nick also wrote MUPPETS MOST WANTED), Disney also brought in FLIGHT OF THE CONCORDS director James Bobin to direct both of their theatrical movies; as for the 2015 series, Disney brought in writers from shows like THE BIG BANG THEORY, THE OFFICE, and MODERN FAMILY. It seems to me that Disney feels the need to try to bring in people from other successful mainstream shows to try and give the Muppets more of a mainstream appeal, in hopes they'll achieve mainstream success, but that isn't what the Muppets are about at all (why do you think ALVINNN!!! on Nick is doing better than those terrible Fox movies?): a new Muppet show would have been most excellent if it didn't try so hard to be "The Big Muppet Modern Office Family Theory" - I mean, really, the mockumentary format has overstayed its welcome; not all sitcoms have to follow that format. The Muppets have never been about trying to follow the zeitgeist of what mainstream entertainment is, so why try to conform them to that? Jim Henson was a one-of-a-kind creative genius who always did his own thing in his own way; Sid & Marty Krofft are a dynamite duo who always did things their own way; Ross Bagdasarian & Janice Karman are a power couple who try their hardest to ensure the Chipmunk franchise retains its integrity.

That's right kids, if you're not careful, the evil people from the
networks and major studios will take your creations away from
you!
Why can't Disney take a hint and realize that perhaps the key to the Muppets' success is to just let the Muppets do their own thing in their own way? Because Disney is what Lloyd Kaufman would refer to as a Devil-Worshipping International Media Conglomerate (and ironically, so is Viacom, and they own Nickelodeon, which has been letting Krofft and Bagdasarian do their own thing in their own way, so go figure), and what's the main objective for Devil-Worshipping International Media Conglomerates? Money. Matter of fact, this is what almost all of Hollywood has been reduced to: money-making machines. Why do you think so many movies are turned into franchises and become infected with sequelitis? Money. If entertainment properties don't bring in a satisfying amount of profit or revenue, then it will pretty much just be discarded. Again, THE MUPPETS 2015 series did poorly in the ratings, and as such, it got canceled and was not renewed for another season . . . and why did it do so poorly? Because this wasn't the Muppets as we know them, this was the Muppets trying too hard to be something they're not. Hollywood thought it was doing itself a favor by assuming all creative control over shows and movies themselves, but that has ended up with just the opposite results. Why has MUTT & STUFF been so successful? Because Sid & Marty Krofft have creative control over their own show. Why has ALVINNN!!! AND THE CHIPMUNKS been so successful? Because Bagdasarian Productions has creative control over their own show. So, again, this begs the question: why can't Disney take a hint from one of its rivals, and perhaps start letting the Muppets just do their own thing? The results could very well be surprising.

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