Right now, the "web…blah…log" is not being updated regularly, but feel free to peruse the archive, and check out our carefully selected highlights from Season One, Season Two, and Season Three.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

holoblomo day 26: underneath

note: “holoblomo” stands for Horribly Local Blogging Month, my response to National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) that happens every November. The NaNoWriMo challenge asks writers to compose 50,000 words in a month; I chose 10,000 as my goal. Enjoy.

So here we are.
Something has been bothering me this week as I see all of the hoopla about the new Muppet movie. It has nothing to do with the actual film. It has to do with credits. 
You may not notice anything missing from the film’s poster, or the reviews, or the music credits, but I do: the names of the Muppet Performers are not to be seen. 

Yes, the puppeteers do get nice solo screen credits at the film’s end, as well they should (and as the Screen Actor’s Guild no doubt dictates). However, in the music credits, songs are performed by “Kermit” and “Miss Piggy” and “Walter,” not the actors who portrayed them. But if Jason Segel and Amy Adams happened to sing those songs, their actual names are listed, not their character names. So a music credit doesn’t say Performed by Jason Segel and Steve Whitmire, or Performed by Gary and Kermit; it says Performed by Jason Segel and Kermit
Likewise, in the major reviews I’ve read, there is not a single mention of the puppeteers, even though they are certainly giving reviewable performances. And none of the Muppet Performers’ names are on the movie poster.
I know these guys, and as a Muppet Performer myself, I know exactly what it is they do. They are actors, and the only difference between them and Jason Segel is that you don’t see their faces. They do what any actor does: they bring a character to life. In this case, that character happens to be a puppet. Without them, the Muppets simply do not exist. Without them, the Muppets are pieces of cloth in a box. 
But it’s more than that. Being a Muppet Performer is anything but easy. Say what you will about Hollywood’s biggest stars, but I’ll wager you that despite their formidable talents, not a one of them could just pick up a Muppet and do that job with as much grace and believability... or even do it at all.
You always hear big stars at press junkets when they do an animated feature, saying things like, oh, it was so hard! To act with just your voice! You can’t use your face, or your hands, or your body... it’s such an amazing acting exercise!
Well, imagine acting with just your voice while sweating under a heavy puppet, with your arm up in the air for hours on end, giving full expression to a character who has no facial muscles and no benefit of a skilled animator’s hand, and making it so three-dimensional that people believe this inanimate object with no legs or voice box is actually walking and talking. 
I’m sorry, Meryl, but with all due respect and more, even you couldn’t do it.
And yet, the Muppet Performers are shoved into the shadows as if they don’t exist.
I always found it a backhanded compliment when people would ask me if I ever forgot that the puppet wasn’t real, and to this I would reply, I’m sorry, but I’m working too hard to forget that it’s not real. I get it, though. When you do your job well, it looks easy. Goodness knows that people like Jeter, Jordan, Astaire and Baryshnikov made it look easy. And that’s a sign of brilliance.
But for some reason, the brilliance of the Muppet Performers is kept a huge inexplicable secret. Some say, well, you want to maintain the magic, don’t you? Otherwise it would break the illusion, if you made a big deal about the performers instead of their characters. 
Well, riddle me this: who voices Buzz Lightyear? Who voices Shrek? Does seeing a trailer where these actors are shown in the recording booth and animators are shown creating wire-frame renderings make the characters less real when you’re watching the movie? Of course not. And those actors’ names are splashed all over the posters and reviews. 
In fact, side by side with reviews of The Muppets are reviews of Arthur  Christmas, the new animated feature from Aardman. In the New York Times review of The Muppets, the cast is listed as such:
WITH: Jason Segel (Gary), Amy Adams (Mary), Chris Cooper (Tex Richman), Rashida Jones (Veronica), Jack Black (himself); and Walter, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, the Great Gonzo, Animal, Statler and Waldorf, Swedish Chef, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, Sam Eagle, Rowlf the Dog, Scooter, and Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem Band.
In the New York Times review of Arthur Christmas, the cast is listed thusly:
WITH THE VOICES OF: James McAvoy (Arthur), Hugh Laurie (Steve), Bill Nighy (Grandsanta), Jim Broadbent (Santa), Imelda Staunton (Mrs. Santa), Ashley Jensen (Bryony), Marc Wootton (Peter), Laura Linney (North Pole Computer), Eva Longoria (Chief De Silva), Ramona Marquez (Gwen) and Michael Palin (Ernie Clicker). 
Did you notice something? The Times’ style dictates that character names are in parentheses after the actors’ names. The Muppet characters are listed as though they’re actors, as if there is no one sweating underneath them. This is the New York Times, mind you, a periodical not typically read by preschoolers -- no, not even Manhattan kids -- who would be disillusioned to see an actor’s name in front of a Muppet’s. (Not to mention that they have no problem with saying that Jim Broadbent is Santa.)
And even preschoolers don’t care. We see so many little ones who visit Sesame Street, and their eyes don’t even notice the very large puppeteer holding their favorite character. They only see Elmo or Telly or Grover. 
So if you go see the movie this weekend, give a small thought to my friends Dave, Steve, Eric, Matt, David, Peter, and Bill, as well as all the additional puppet folk filling the frame. 
Of course, they do their job so well that you’ll probably forget. I understand.
And that’s 12,514 words.
Yes indeed. Welcome to me.


  1. is it weird that I was literally thinking the other day what kind of opinion you have on this?

  2. Hey Stephanie,

    Me and the family saw the Muppets n the 23rd and we loved it!

    I always give thought to the performers whenever I watch a Muppet, Sesame or Henson production and you guys are all great and talented performers. and I do mean performers because you guys aren't just puppeteers when you do your job. You're also an actor, a singer and a comedian when you do this. You are absolutely right, if it weren't for great performers like you, Steve, Dave, Bill, Eric, Matt, David, Kevin, Marty, Fran, Caroll and Leslie the Muppets are nothing more the pieces of foam and cloth with plastic eyes!


  3. An interesting discussion, but I recall an old interview from Jim Henson that he made it a point to maintain the "illusion" of the characters being separate from their actors (puppeteers) as much as possible. So this seems to be a continuation of his desire on this course.

    Take a look at the Kermit appearances on the Tonight Show (with Johnny Carson)... most were just "Kermit", occasionally "Kermit and Jim Henson" (but NOT "Jim Henson as Kermit", these were instances where the two actually appeared as unique guests that interacted with each other)... or look at the list of guest hosts of the Tonight Show, you will see a listing for "Kermit and Miss Piggy", but no mention of "Jim Henson and Frank Oz".

    Yes, maybe in the modern age it's a bit "too cute" to treat muppets as real characters, interviewing them on morning shows and radio talk shows and red carpets, but the world is pretty short of "cute" these days.

  4. George---

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments on this.

    I think there is a big difference between the Muppets appearing on talk shows, where they should indeed be treated as unique, individual characters, and an actor's performance in a film or television narrative. Of course the Muppet characters are real entities. That's what makes them special. I would never deny the characters their identities. Whenever Piggy showed up on Regis, I would never expect nor want Regis to pull Frank or Eric up off the floor to say, "Let's give this guy a hand!" And I don't even care if the puppeteer's names don't show up in those talk show credits. That's a different thing entirely.

    I'm talking about credit for the films. Jim Henson's name was on those movie posters along with the other Muppet Performers in all of the other Muppet movies, and even when the characters' names showed up on "The Muppet's Christmas Carol" and "Muppet Treasure Island" posters, the puppeteers' names did as well. And the characters were only listed because Kermit, Piggy, et al were technically "playing" other characters - cute, yes, but in an appropriate way.

    And you're right - Jim Henson was adamant in protecting the integrity of the characters, but that didn't mean he couldn't show or discuss the goings-on behind the scenes in specials and documentaries about "The Muppet Show," "Fraggle Rock," and "The Jim Henson Hour." It didn't make the characters any less magical or cute, and it didn't ruin the illusion when they would turn around the next day and appear on the Today Show.

    Also, Jim Henson, when talking to Johnny Carson, or Mike Douglas, or Michael Parkinson, would always acknowledge the work of the puppeteers, and talk about Frank Oz's performances as Miss Piggy and Bert and Fozzie. I'm not going to attempt to get into Jim Henson's head, but all evidence points to him making sure the public knew who was ultimately responsible for bringing those characters to life, and that includes the builders, workshop folk and writers as well.

    I believe - and again, not trying to get into his head - his comments about keeping the puppeteer separate from the character meant that Kermit wasn't going to look down and start talking to Jim, or talk about Jim in interviews. You'll note that the few times this is brought up ("The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson," "Henson's Place," or when Jim Henson was inducted into the TV Hall of Fame), where the puppet is asked about Jim Henson, it's handled delicately, but never overtly. The puppeteer and character weren't intended to have the sort of relationship that say, a ventriloquist would.

    And, please know that I'm not trying to one-up you, but at the end of the Tonight Show that was hosted by Kermit the Frog in 1979, while there are no credits for the performers in the crawl, as the show ends and the credits roll, Kermit (as performed by Jim) does give a vocal shout-out to "all the guys under the Muppets" and rattles off all of their names (except his own). He prized these guys. He wanted them to get at least some recognition whenever he could, and always when it was appropriate to do so.

    I hope you understand the distinction I was trying to make here.

    Thanks again, George, for engaging me in this, and forgive the lengthy comment. I may re-print it as a full-on post, but I wanted to address it directly first.