If it please Your Honor, please enter into evidence in the case “The United States of America v. Nice Things,” the recent firing of Steven Whitmire from his role as Kermit and his bitter, public dispute with the Henson Family.
For 27 years, Whitmire was the voice and the body animator of Kermit, a frog with immense gravitas whose green felt limbs were skinny and lanky and long enough to hold the country together. Then, in October, he wasn’t anymore. Two executives for Disney, who bought the rights to the Muppets from the Henson family in 2004, let him go. First there was silence. Then, nine months later there was a blog post. Then there was a New York Times interview, then a countervailing interview in The Hollywood Reporter with Brian Henson, Jim’s son, in which Whitmire is essentially accused of destroying Kermit from the inside out.
“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.
Caught in the middle is a frog who bleeds felt and weeps dropped stitches. Other civilian casualties include children of all ages everywhere.
Unlike, say, property or patents, Kermit isn’t just a thing but an animate character. Animate, of course, coming from the Latin word “anima” meaning soul, breath or inner being. It matters little — or it mattered little — that the actual inner being was a dude named Steve. But, now that Steve is gone and the inner workings have been laid bare, Kermit is being treated like so much fabric and pulled apart in front of our eyes. This despite the years of accreted emotion for the puppet. Puppet? Nay, friend.
Purportedly, and I daresay probably, the dispute has to do with differing understandings of Kermit’s true essence. Whitmire, according to Henson, envisioned Kermit as a lovable wholesome creature. On the other hand, Jim Henson purportedly imagined Kermit as a trickster, a little edgier, less cuddle-able but no less lovable. Whitmire ended his post with this super sad kicker: “I am sorry if I have disappointed any of you at any point throughout our journey, and to let everyone know that I am devastated to have failed in my duty to my hero.”
It’s easy to see that both parties care greatly about Kermit. It is also fairly clear that the rise of the Muppet Industrial Complex, a development hastened by Disney’s ownership, riled Whitmire. Reports indicate Whitmire bristled at allowing myriad Kermits to appear at so-called B-level events like ribbon cuttings. It beggars belief that the global demand for heavily branded-up Kermits didn’t play into it either. In this way, Whitmire, who began his career with Jim Henson in 1978, is Mike Mulligan’s steam shovel. He worked so hard he dug his own grave.
The current messy break up and subsequent de-magicking could very easily be Exhibit A for anyone making the case that we no longer deserve the nice things. After all, this is a story of greed, of seeing, rather than being, green. But, after sitting with this news for a while, reading the deluge of coverage, much of which seems hell-bent on drumming up controversy, I am left feeling something else entirely.
What comes across from all the interviews, from the six months Whitmire waited for Disney to reconsider, from his pitiable offers to be nicer, from his subsequent carefully worded defense of his own actions, no less from Henson’s direct but in no way ad hominem critiques of Whitmire’s performance is this is a shitty situation born of love. They are, like us, invested in his well-being. And, as happens often, the two sides simply do not agree on the best way to move forward.
Twenty seven years is a long time for any partnership, especially one as intimate as Whitmire’s and the puppet to whom he gave voice. The lesson might not be that we ruin nice things but that things — nice or not — do not last forever. Let this be a lesson in impermanence rather than malice. Let this draw us closer to our loved ones, for there are some truths a green frog and his warm embrace cannot contain. One of them is things fall apart. The Kermit can not hold.