Warning: Explicit Language
Right, it’s time for what I foresee as my weekly bitch-session.
Being the curious person I am, over the past three months, I’ve been trekking my way around the internet to gain some kind of consensus from the general public about both Steve Whitmire’s termination and Matt Vogel taking up the role of Kermit the Frog. While the majority of opinions have been rather reasonable and tolerable, there have still been some that have pressed down on my nerves in a very uncomfortable way.
There is one opinion in particular I managed to ignore at first, but soon rose above all others to the point where I can no longer leave it be. It’s ridiculous that such a minor observation could make me want to scream in frustration, but you what? I’m a die-hard Muppet fan; it’s my responsibility to inform the general public about why they are bloody wrong…especially about this…
To sum up the collective bullshit in a single phrase:
“Who cares who voices Kermit? As long as it sounds like him, it’s fine. Being a Muppet guy is the easiest job in the world.”
first of all…
to everyone who holds that opinion….
go fuck yourselves.
Secondly, you could not be more misinformed, you ignorant cock-splashes. For starters, the voice is only worth 10% of the entire performance. If you can’t grasp that fact, Frank Oz may be compelled to hunt you down and etch it into your forehead using the tip of an arm-rod. The proper term is either simply ‘puppeteer’ or ‘Muppet Performer’-
NOT VOICE ACTOR.
The Muppet Performers don’t just speak in funny voices and clamp the Muppets’ mouths open and shut to make it look like they are talking. Holy fucking Henson, there is so much more to it than you seem to think there is! I’m certainly no puppeteer by any means (yet) but from the research I’ve done through my recently discovered interest in the art-form, I can tell you with all certainty that there is not a single style of puppetry in existence that doesn’t come with its own intricacies and challenges.
The Muppet-style of puppetry (or ‘monitor-puppetry’ as I have seen it referred to as), is particularly difficult due to its use in television and film. It’s also utilised for the stage, however, Jim Henson originally intended for this style to cater to the needs of television. By treating the frame of the TV like the proscenium of a puppet theatre, the Muppets and their cousins are able to use the entire space in the frame to move around.
Basically (I apologise to my readers who already know about this shit), a puppeteer holds the puppet above their head in front a camera, ducking their head so that it isn’t seen within the camera’s frame. In order to watch what they are doing, the puppeteers don’t stare up at the puppet, they look down and around at strategically placed TV monitors so they can see what the camera is capturing-effectively becoming their own audience.
That is the most basic of set-ups when it comes to monitor-puppetry, as there are circumstances of filming where the puppeteers are placed in far more restricted and challenging circumstances. They could be performing on elaborate sets that have multiple levels and have to also accommodate to actors all while working with multiple cameras and monitors. They could be dealing with between two-to-fifty other puppeteers that they have to get in close quarters with or dodge as they make their way around the set during a take. And what about those times where there’s a mix of traditional and animatronic puppetry going on? How do they coordinate all that?
And don’t forget the times where puppeteers find themselves crammed into ridiculously cramped spaces. The easiest example would be Muppets who go on talk shows for an interview where they are sitting on a couch. Kermit might look nice and relaxed in the photo below, but Steve, a man who is over 6-feet-tall, certainly wasn’t comfortable being stuffed into such a small space.
Muppet/Sesame/Henson performers constantly find themselves working in circumstances that most of the general public would hear about and immediately think, “Fuck that! Why would anyone willingly do that to themselves?” I will get to the answer to that particular question in the conclusion of this rant. For now, though you may have noticed that I haven’t even gotten to the performance side of things yet.
Well, luckily for you, I’m just about to dive into it!
Like I already said, performing a Muppet is not just about providing a voice and making the puppet move. You don’t just play a character- you embody it. Once you have created or been assigned to a character, you are the cause of it’s very existence and must provide all the basic functions that a normal human being possesses. You are the source of its personality and the one ultimately in charge of preserving and evolving it. You are the Muppets’ memory bank: the Muppet should be able to remember places they’ve been, people they’ve met and things they’ve said and done because you yourself were there.
The Muppet should be an extension of your own being as you perform it. If I were performing Miss Piggy, I stopped being Marni Hill the second I placed her on my arm. Marni ceases to exist entirely. There’s only Miss Piggy until the director calls for a cut, sometimes even then!
Trust me when I say it takes a shitload of time to get to the level of discipline where a puppeteer can accomplish such a feat. No matter how naturally talented they are, no one can just pick up a puppet, throw their arms up into the air and immediately be able to pull off a believable performance.
There are so many aspects to take into consideration:
- body posture
- body language
- facial expressions
- lip-to-hand sync (keeping the puppets mouth in time with the voice)
- arm gestures
Is the Muppet holding a prop? Do they have extra mechanisms in their head to work with?Is the Muppet playing an instrument? How many other Muppets is the character going to be directly interacting with within the space of one scene? Is it a full-body shot where several puppeteers are working different limbs in order to give the Muppet the illusion of walking or dancing?
There’s almost too many things and variables to take into consideration.
Here’s a scenario for you:
You’re the puppeteer of one of the main characters. For the sake of context, let’s go with Fozzie Bear. In this situation, you are Eric Jacobson. As Eric, you currently have Fozzie on your arms, your right hand performing his head and left arm performing Fozzie’s left arm. But you’re not alone, there’s a second puppeteer performing Fozzie’s right arm. So now you have someone else to consider within the performance. Luckily for you, the second puppeteer happens to be Peter Linz, someone you know quite well and already know the rhythms of, therefore making a great duo.
In the scene you are about to perform, Fozzie is the unwilling sidekick in Lew Zealand’s Boomerang Swordfish Throwing Act. On the other side of the set is the team of Matt Vogel and…..for kicks, let’s go with Tyler Bunch for Lew, who like Fozzie is a live-handed puppet. So now not only do you, as Eric, need to work with tandem with Peter, there are also another two puppeteers to play off of. Towards the back of the set are a bunch of other puppeteers performing various Muppets that make up the audience for this scene.
The scene begins with Fozzie standing still, nervously facing Lew as he winds up his pitch, swordfish in hand. They exchange lines, Fozzie protests his ‘volunteering’, Lew assures him everything’s safe and that the act is going to go off without a hitch. Fozzie disagrees with that sentiment and loses his cool, running away from the situation. Lew takes after him, still reassuring him and winds up throwing a swordfish after him in his enthusiasm. Fozzie screams and jumps behind the audience of Muppets. This causes the crowd to start panicking and they too start screaming and running for their lives. At this point, Lew is using his seemingly endless arsenal of swordfish, excited that the act suddenly includes audience participation. For a minute, there’s nothing but Muppets running around yelling and random swordfish flying all over the place before the scene ends.
Seems pretty simple, right? Well, only on the surface. Those idiots that think The Muppets are the easiest gig in the world clearly have no idea what the fuck is going on underneath the frame. In two words, “Absolute chaos.”
Aside from having to stop and start over many takes and other normal proceedings that occur during film-shoots, the Muppet Performers have to split their concentration into many different sectors in a single moment. In this situation, as Eric, once Fozzie starts running from Lew, you immediately have to take into consideration that Peter needs to run with you, so off the two of you go, trying not to trip over each other. You’re not just heading around the set aimlessly, there are certain points you have to hit to make sure you can find a monitor.
Once the other Muppets take their cue to start panicking, suddenly there’s about 15 other people to avoid and duck around, the set is ruckus and noisy, there’s tripping hazards like wires and set pieces to avoid, you have to keep your head out of the camera’s frame, you have to remember the timing of Fozzie’s actions, you can’t get too far away from Lew too quickly or otherwise Matt and Tyler won’t have time to aim and fire the swordfish over your head, there’s crew members also throwing the fish from the sidelines, so you have to dodge them too, if a fish hits Fozzie, you need to be ready to react and on top of all of that, you need to keep Fozzie in character at all times and remember his lines.
All. At. Once. Take, after take, after take, until it goes as smoothly as it possibly can. You could be doing that for hours. That’s not easy; that’s a nightmare. A fun nightmare, but still a huge pain to accomplish no matter how experienced you are.
And speaking of pain, have I mentioned yet that performing Muppets fucking hurts? No? Well, now you know!
The Muppet Performers don’t talk about it often, but in order to bring the characters we love so much to life, the puppeteers find themselves constantly pushing their bodies to their physical limits. Performing with their arms over their heads is painful enough as their arms start to ache from keeping the Muppet steady in addition with the weight of it. There’s also those situations where the performers may be required to perform on their knees, backs, stomachs and/or contorted in uncomfortable way to fit under a couch or table or something to that degree. Imagine doing that shit for hours and hours on end!
I’ve heard stories about Muppet Performers eventually needing surgery due to the permanent damage the work does to their nervous and skeletal system over time. I’d be horrified to know the cost of their chiropractic bills! Watch this video about the workings of Big Bird where both Carroll Spinney and Matt Vogel reveal painful incidents that have occurred while performing the Sesame character.
My question to those out there who think being a ‘Muppet guy’ is so easy, my question to you is this: if Muppets can be such a pain in the ass to perform, why do these people decide to make a career out of this? Why put themselves through such physical strain just to make a frog play the banjo, a bear tell jokes, or a humanoid throw rubber fish?
The answer: they do it for you, you ungrateful dipshits!
I mean, yeah, they mostly do it as a means of expressing themselves and utilising their various skills, but at the end of the day, you and I as the audience are the main benefactors of the end result-The Muppets at their very best! What pisses me off the most about your ignorance is that you completely underestimate the sheer talent and dedication it takes to be in the top tiers of the Muppet legacy. This amazing group of people didn’t spend years honing their craft just for you to brush off their efforts and dismiss their careers as a piece of cake.
So the next time you’re watching The Muppet Movie and you’re enjoying the beautiful song that is ‘Rainbow Connection’, take into consideration that Jim Henson himself was crammed into a modified diving bell, underwater with a monitor in his lap, and his right arm sticking up through the log for several hours over the course of several days.
Just so you could enjoy the simple sight of Kermit in his natural habitat.
So yes, it does matter who performs a character like Kermit because the puppeteer is so much more than just the ‘voice’! If you really don’t want to know about the behind-the-scenes stuff as to not ‘break the illusion’ than that’s okay. Just promise me you’ll be more considerate and appreciative of what’s happening below the frame in the future.
This is a now fizzled-out Marni signing off…
Muppet Enthusiast, Film Lover, Book Adorer. No one original, but (hopefully) providing brand new perspectives for the world to process. Currently a Bachelor of Arts undergraduate at Deakin University.