The Whit of The Muppets’ Steve Whitmire

Kermit the Frog – much like Mickey Mouse – is an everlasting icon. The type of wonderfully simplistic creation that transcends eras. Jim Henson has received so much obviously deserved praise for creating something as long lasting as Kermit on every level. The design, the voice, the personality. Yet, there’s someone who often gets tossed to the side for keeping that character alive. Said someone is Steve Whitmire, a puppeteer who worked with the Henson Company for decades and continued the legacy of many personalities puppeteered by Henson himself after his untimely death in 1990.

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It’s weird thinking about that. Despite how crucial Jim Henson was to creating The Muppets, many of the productions that have been made in the lifetimes of more recent generations of fans – including myself – have been brought to life by Henson’s successor. Now, after nearly 40 years with The Muppets, it was recently revealed that Whitmire would be leaving The Muppets. One can speculate as to why this change happened, but what really matters here is celebrating Whitmire’s talents as a performer. Something that goes unsung given how often the Muppet characters are treated as identities on their own. We see so many interviews where The Muppets are treated as their characters rather than give credit to their performers. Which shows just how dedicated Whitmire and his contemporaries were and still are to these roles.

When Whitmire first took over for Kermit, like with any change, his voice was mercilessly judged for not being Henson’s. Admittedly, it is quite different. Whitmire has a more nasal approach, missing some of the natural gruffness that oozed out of Henson’s beard. The missing base was especially noticeable early on when Whitmire performed as Kermit. It didn’t help that his first performance in the role was The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson, a massive tribute special to the beloved Muppets creator. Where everyone from Steven Spielberg to Harry Belafonte pay tribute to the fallen creator. Even his own felt creatures acknowledge his death and dealt with it through mutual song. So, it was just set up for Whitmire to fail by comparison even at this very early point.

Still, Whitmire proved his performing potential in The Muppet Christmas Carol, his first major production as Kermit. Despite a lack of that clear Henson voice, the earnest charm manages to shine through even in these early stages. The musical number “One More Sleep Til Christmas” doesn’t sound like someone doing a half hearted Kermit impression as much as a person with boundless love expressing it through a slightly more nasal voice than we’re used to. Part of the genius of The Muppet Christmas Carol really is in how it utilizes The Muppet characters for casting in Charles Dickens’ story. By having these lovable characters as important human characters while new pitch perfect puppets are used for the ghosts, we allow the audience to empathize far more. Kermit as Bob Cratchit is the prime example. Kermit as the public knew him was always a hard working fellow constrained by the situation he was in. Perfect casting for one of the archetypes of the underappreciated worker. Even if it is weird to see his and Mrs. “Piggy” Cratchit’s pig & frog children.

Muppet Kermit the Frog and his operator Steve Whitmire take questions from the audience at Barnes & Noble

From here, the uses of Kermit do vary, mostly due to an inability to fully grasp what The Muppets could be after Henson’s death. Between them adapting Robert Louis Stevenson and Gonzo revealing himself as an alien, the Henson company clearly were taking things in odd directions. Still, Whitmire’s turns as Kermit never felt underwhelming. The sword fighting scenes in Muppet Treasure Island are some of the best examples of Kermit’s physical comedy abilities. He even has a few funny moments of straight man style comedy in Muppets From Space. He even kept up the hosting duties that Henson had as Kermit for the original Muppet Show during Muppets Tonight for a brief point in the mid-90s.

As time continued, he grew even more accustomed to Kermit as a character. After years of obscurity, when The Muppets film from 2011 gave the characters a return to form, Whitmire gave the role of Kermit even more life than had ever been truly brewed into the character. His Kermit in that film is one that has seen much better days and acknowledges that the puppet characters we know and love have been undervalued by time, allowing Whitmire give Kermit a sense of regret and loss that weren’t available previously. Thus, when we get Whitmire’s rendition of “Rainbow Connection” to serve as part of the telethon climax, it means more for Kermit as a performer wanting to touch as many people as Jim did before. It helps that Whitmire served as an assistant operator for Henson during Kermit’s initial rendition of that song for 1979’s The Muppet Movie, giving life to the arms that plucked Kermit’s banjo strings.

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Of course, Kermit wasn’t the only character Whitmire ever played. Probably his most famous original role was Rizzo the Rat, a streetwise New Yorker rodent who often served as a wonderful comedic foil to Gonzo The Great. The chemistry between Whitmire and Gonzo performer Dave Goelz was quite palpable. In Muppet Christmas Carol, the two show a comedic duo styling that helped breathe life into the post-Jim years. Rizzo brought a genuine grounding to Gonzo’s usual insane antics. He had the perfect type of urban charm that may have been needed when he was introduced during Muppets Take Manhattan. Whitmire took what initially seemed like a parody of Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy and turned him into a hilarious full fledged comedic character of his own.

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Steve Whitmire has also brought to life many other lasting Muppet characters. Whitmire continued the roles of other Muppets characters like Statler, Beaker and Link Hogthrob. He created the role of Bean Bunny, who was introduced to audiences in 1986 and continues to delight them in Muppet Vision 3D at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. He also gave smaller yet notable characters life in Henson Company projects like The Dark CrystalLabyrinth and the TV series Dinosaurs. Whitmire also took over important roles on Sesame Street, mainly that of Ernie. He even had a technical plunge that put his mark on the creatures on a mechanical level, as he created the mechanism that allowed Rizzo the Rat the ability to move his mouth.

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It shows just how many technological and artistic achievements Steve Whitmire ultimately provided to The Muppets characters. While he wasn’t the most celebrated person within the company, Steve Whitmire deserves so much credit. And not just for being the man who took up the mantle of Kermit for nearly 30 years after someone who created the character passed on. No, Whitmire helped give so much new life to the character in the intervening years following Henson’s death. He allowed The Muppets to endure for children in the dawn of the new millennium, who sought comfort in the age of burgeoning technology. The Muppets can often seem like a relic of the past, trying to get through modern times with new gimmicks. Given there’s been moments like the recent 2015 sitcom or lesser webshows to prove weakened attempts to adapt to the times.

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Yet, Steve Whitmire always seemed to be willing to keep the characters alive. Even through obscurity and reality TV show appearances, Whitmire was instrumental in helping keep these characters from fading into the dust and deserves proper thanks for his actions. Though he wasn’t Jim Henson, Steve Whitmire was a puppeteer who knew that these characters transcended the hands that operated them. Without people like Whitmire or recent puppeteers like Eric Jacobson, Bill Barretta and Matt Vogel (who will be taking up the role of Kermit following Whitmire), The Muppets wouldn’t be around to inspire children to laugh, love and sing for nearly 30 years.

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Jim Henson got this ball to start rolling. And that’s incredibly vital. Yet, it takes a determined and devoted person to keep things alive. That’s something Steve Whitmire helped provide to these evergreen characters at a time when they were most needed. He wasn’t necessarily Jim Henson, but he was a dedicated performer who helped keep the role alive. Now that he’s gone, it’s important to note the legacy he helped keep alive still stands to this day. Without Mr. Whitmire’s work, it’s safe to say I myself wouldn’t appreciate the lasting legacy of these characters as much as I do. They may be felt and lacking in human flesh, but The Muppets are eternal pop culture creations. Ones that may outlast Steve Whitmire, but shouldn’t keep his accomplishments in mind when looking back on their history. No matter why he decided to leave, Whitmire’s accomplishments deserve to be noted in history for all time. And they will, along the great Rainbow Connection of life.

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Samurai Jack: Cultural Collage At Its Finest

This article contains spoilers for the entire series of Samurai Jack.

Samurai Jack is a true melting pot of a show. Created by Genndy Tartakovsky, an animator/immigrant born from the Soviet Union, was clearly inspired by a multitude of influences. The world that Jack – our titular samurai warrior flung out of his  time into a future ruled by the evil Aku – inhabits is a mishmash of many cultural touchstones. This premise was born from limitations. Building a show around a sword wielding samurai had the obvious trouble of getting past killing humans on a program aimed at children. So, Tartakovsky decided upon the conceit of killing robots instead, eventually leading to the premise that sparked Samurai Jack into the show it is. This conceit not only got this concept past the Cartoon Network board of directors, but also allowed for the cultural mesh that enabled so much creativity to spring forth for the production staff behind Samurai Jack.

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Right from the first episode “The Beginning,” Jack is seen training under the guidance of an African tribe, Chinese Monks and even Robin Hood himself. This elaborate montage showing Jack crafting his fighting skills is not only meant to showcase the massive amount of skill Jack has obtained in order to vanquish his foe Aku. It also shows the major theme of the knowledge Jack learns across his travels. Presenting Jack as a man willing to learn and take the guidance of those around him manages to give him an endearing desire to learn, but also a varied set of skills to boost the legitimacy of his prowess as a fighter able to nearly defeat a demonic entity like Aku. The variety of influences that give a balance of the tone and much in this same way, Tartakovsky took a variety of influences from his youth through his career in animation up to that point.

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The easiest influences to spot are Japanese, given the titular character. Moments of quiet contemplation followed by extreme action having the pacing akin to the works of Akira Kurosawa. Indeed, Jack has the typical weakness of the more authentic heroes of those stories, in that he has a soft spot to help those in need. After all, his entire quest in spearheaded by a desire to help his father after he’s been captured by Aku in the opening moments of the show. The father who had a fight sequence that visually mirrors the iconic arrow death scene from Throne of Blood. There’s also some definite recall of grand scale anime like Akira, particularly during the future scenes of city leveling destruction. This type of influence helped Samurai Jack find a place on the Toonami block during its initial run. The subset of Cartoon Network known for playing anime programming like Dragonball Z or Big O. Yet, it also helped the show find an artistic identity with the use of red on black that mirrored Katushiro Otomo’s harsh dystopian layout. The combination of red, black and green serves as a motif for Aku’s presence, especially when considering episodes like Jack and the Warrior Woman where Aku’s manipulation haunts Jack into doubting many potential allies.

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Yet, those would be too obvious a turn for cultural tributes for Samurai Jack. The genius of Samurai Jack‘s premise is that it allows for so many different styles to take place in a world as uncertain and maddening as one ruled by Aku. Thematically, this fits the perception of Jack within the culture of Aku. Adults like the western themed bounty hunters of the episode The Good, The Bad and the Beautiful know that Jack is a force of much curiosity for the formidable ruler of this land. In The Princess and the Bounty Hunters, a wide variety of bounty hunters from different backgrounds – from a Russian brute to a southern gentleman to an intergalactic warrior princess – detail their alternate ways to defeat Jack. All of them present their individual concepts of Jack, giving the character further mystique in universe that helps mirror another clear influence on Tartakovsky’s: Sergio Leone. The Italian filmmaker’s love of quiet staredowns before sudden action and Man With No Name-style protagonist is clearly reflected upon with Jack’s various violent encounters. One can even hear a remix of the famous Ennio Morricone score track “Ecstasy of Gold” from The Good The Bad and the Ugly during the big fight that takes up so much of season 5’s second episode.

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There’s also a perception of doubt within this world, arousing the spirit of rebellion in those raised under Aku. The most notable example would probably John Dimaggio’s Scotsman character. A recurring tough brute who initially sees himself as the only great warrior of the land, his encounters with Samurai Jack transform from head butting confrontation into a mutual respect. This continues the trend of seemingly clashing cultures can come to a consideration of each other’s strengths. This continues into episodes where Jack helps to bring back the cultural reigns of a cursed people. Like saving a group of Frank Miller’s 300 type Spartans from an unending war against machines or rescuing a Bavarian, Germany-esque town’s children from the hypnotic influence of rave music. All these conflicts involve a conflict between older and newer styles of cultural influence, the latter usually the more sinister object based ideas of technology. They conflict with Jack’s anti-materialism stance in a way that constantly builds upon Jack’s desire to destroy the material wrongs of Aku’s robotic minions.

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Samurai Jack‘s consistent stance against these robots even seeps into the youths of this world. In the episode Aku’s Fairy Tales, Aku attempts to curry the favor of Jack-obsessed youths with stories based on the folk tales like Little Red Riding Hood or The Three Little Bears. Despite his rather phony and half hearted tales of propaganda against Jack, the children question his stories and Aku disappears in a puff of anger. This leaves the children to think up their own more grounded tale of the heroic Jack vanquishing Aku. This shows Jack’s multi-cultural influence spreading amongst children of all races and species in a beautifully mythological fashion, giving him even more importance than just a warrior. He’s a symbol of what could be beyond the world that has existed for hundreds of years. A foreign force for good against the evil establishment that rules over all. Jack even demonstrated this with the initial series finale Jack and the Baby as the samurai tends to an abandoned child while telling the tale of Momotarō, a boy born from a peach.

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With the recent revival, Samurai Jack has continued to mix pop cultural ideas with relish. One of the more blatant examples is the robotic assassin Scaramouche the Merciless. His name comes from a stock commedia dell’arte, Tom Kenny’s speech patterns denote a Sammy Davis Jr. style speech pattern and his musical style of combat has shades of a Pied Piper style character. He even has a blade that has the properties of a tuning fork. The other fights Jack has – mainly with the daughters of Aku – have shades of the recent epic fights from wuxia films like Zhang Yimou’s House of Flying Daggers and Hero. There’s a ballet style precision to the choreography that gives every step that makes the animation still feel seamless.

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Season 5 has some of Samurai Jack‘s best examples of cultural recontextualization. Jack and Ashi – the Aku daughter who survives and accompanies Jack – journey through the belly of a whale-like being, much in the vein of The Book of Jonah… with more monsters, obviously. Jack is haunted by a warrior on a horse, an illusion to the German spectre Nuckelavee and the Japanese God of Death Shinigami. We even see the return of Odin, Ra and Rama, the three gods who we saw forge the mythological sword from the earlier episode The Birth of Evil. All of the historical context of Jack in this world becomes abundant as we see all the various people he has touched since the start of the series. That Jack has helped to bind all these people in a world that Aku has manipulated to separate them. The fruits of those labors pay off in a big fashion during the series finale, where all these people unite to help Jack in his time of need.

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Then again, Samurai Jack has occasionally had uses of cultural homage that feel cloying. The main example would actually be during this recent season. Jack and Ashi had an interesting relationship that built over the course of the initial seven episodes. One that went from adversarial to respectful. A chemistry built, but one that seemed more based on mutual admiration of skills and independent gumption. Which means a lot in a world ruled by Aku. Unfortunately, the eighth episode of the season turns this into a much more romantic connection. Which in a better built up scenario wouldn’t be much of a problem. However, the entire episode that leads to their romance suddenly blossoming feels so sudden and more for the sake of Tartakovsky making his own little action romantic comedy plot rather than paying off something he failed to build up properly. It’s not a deal breaker for an otherwise brilliant season, but it’s an instance of Tartakovsky’s desire to splice genres getting in the way of making his story seem more effective.

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Since it’s return, Samurai Jack has been accused of cultural misappropriation. That is, the idea of taking from varying cultures in a way that can be seen as disrespectful. Given this is a show about a Japanese samurai created by a Russian man, one can see the initial hesitance. Yet, what makes Samurai Jack as engaging an artistic achievement as it is is a true respect for all the sources it homages. So many different cultures ingrained into its DNA that it stretches beyond what some may argue to be cultural misappropriation. Samurai Jack is an immigrant story from an immigrant’s perspective. A “stranger in a strange land” trying to find his place in the world. Jack as a character has such respect for the people who helped train him. He learns more from them than just how to fight. He learns how to respect others who are different and respect their traditions as much as his own. A concept he carries over into the future. As we all should.

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