It’s A Very Muppets Controversy!

President-elect Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton with Kermit the Frog at the Kennedy Center in 1993. Steve Whitmire, the actor who played Kermit for nearly 30 years, was fired by Disney in October 2016. (J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images)

A kerfuffle over Kermit is causing a Muppets media maelstrom.

In October, parent company Disney fired Steve Whitmire, the man who has voiced and handled Kermit the Frog since creator Jim Henson’s death in 19990. While Henson was alive, he was the sole voice of the famous frog. When he died in 1990, his son Brian took over his company and tapped Whitmire, who had been part of the Muppet family since 1978, to keep Kermit alive.

Last week, Whitmre wrote about his sudden firing in a blogpost.

For me the Muppets are not just a job, or a career, or even a passion. They are a calling, an urgent, undeniable, impossible to resist way of life. This is my life’s work since I was 19 years old. I feel that I am at the top of my game, and I want all of you who love the Muppets to know that I would never consider abandoning Kermit or any of the others because to do so would be to forsake the assignment entrusted to me by Jim Henson, my friend and mentor, but even more, my hero.

Whitmire’s complaints are typical of someone pushed out of a career after decades. Why didn’t you give me a warning? Why are you taking away everything I’ve ever cared about?

He later told The Hollywood Reporter that he was fired for giving unwanted notes on the short-lived ABC sitcom The Muppets, as well as a union-related disagreement. Disney and the Muppets Studio countered that Whitmire exhibited “unacceptable business conduct” for years, and was “overly hostile and unproductive.” One note on the sitcom, according to Whitmire, concerned a scene where Kermit lies to his nephew about his breakup with Miss Piggy:

“I don’t think Kermit would lie to him,” Whitmire explained. “I think that as Robin came to Kermit, he would say ‘things happen, people go their separate ways, but that doesn’t mean we don’t care about you.’ Kermit is too compassionate to lie to him to spare his feelings.”

As The Guardian noted, Whitmire wasn’t the only one who took issue with the sitcom’s depiction of the muppets — veteran performer Frank Oz said the show “wasn’t true to the characters.”

Now Henson’s son Brian has reluctantly stepped in, telling The Hollywood Reporter in a follow-up story that Whitmire “made ‘outrageous demands and often played brinkmanship,’ which he was warned as far back as the mid-1990s needed to stop.”

According to THR, “Henson declined to go into specifics about Whitmire’s exact demands, but did say, ‘Steve would use “I am now Kermit and if you want the Muppets, you better make me happy because the Muppets are Kermit.” And that is really not OK.'”

The younger Henson also argued that Kermit was suffering under Whitmire:

“Kermit has, as a character, flattened out over time and has become too square and not as vital as it should have been,” Henson explained. “Again, what my dad brought to it — without even thinking because he was accessing his own character that was coming out of his own personality — was a wry intelligence, a little bit of a naughtiness, but Kermit always loved everyone around and also loved a good prank.”

The character, as Whitmire had interpreted it, was getting away from what the elder Henson imagined, his son said.

“There was an awful lot of stuff to Kermit where people thought, ‘Oh, Kermit is a wholesome, all-American lovely guy,’ which was not really what my dad developed,” Henson said. “What my dad developed was that Kermit the Frog is a little bit of a prankster, he likes to put an act on stage that will shock you and is kind of weird. But, Kermit the Frog, when push comes to shove, is loyal and believes in the family of friends. Kermit believes you should love and respect the being most different from you because of how different they are.”

The argument is interesting in light of a quote from Whitmire that appeared in Jon Irwin’s profile of him for Longreads in 2015:

“The number one goal in trying to continue a character like Kermit,” Whitmire explains in a behind-the-scenes interview from 2010, “was to make sure the character stayed the same and consistent, but didn’t become stale and just a copy.”

As Irwin’s piece makes clear, Whitmire may haveofficially started working with Henson in 1978, just a couple years out of high school, but his relationship with Henson — and his devotion to Kermit — started many years earlier. Though Sesame Street was more age-appropriate for his four-year-old little brother when it first aired, the show and it’s puppets captured Whitmire’s 10-year-old heart.

Goldene Kamera, Preisträger Steven Whitmire mit Kermit

Twenty-year-old Steve Whitmire with Kermit the Frog in 1979, a year after he began working with Jim Henson.

Whitmire wrote to Henson about his love of the Muppets. Henson replied with encouragement for Whitmire to build his own, and included patterns to help him. Whitmire immediately took to the craft, spending the rest of his childhood filling his family’s home with puppets. He attempted to score a job at Six Flags Over Georgia with a handmade Jim Henson puppet. His high school yearbook lists among the clubs in which he took part “KSW, Inc.” — Kermit Steve Whitmire, Incorporated. His love of Kermit continued even after he gained employment with Henson: at a memorial for Henson after his death, Whitmire dressed up exactly like the puppet.

It’s not surprising that Whitmire is balking at being forced to relinquish the green puppet. While it may be debatable whether Kermit can really be Kermit without Whitmire, the greater question seems to be: Can Whitmire be Whitmire without Kermit?