Last week, two Muppet fan communities jointly reported a shocking turn of events: After decades of playing some of the franchise's most recognisable characters, including Kermit the Frog, veteran puppeteer Steve Whitmire had been fired. Muppets Studio later confirmed the news, simply telling Gizmodo and other outlets that it "thanks Steve for his tremendous contributions to Kermit the Frog and The Muppets franchise" and wishes him well "in his future endeavours". Fans were left wondering what really happened.
Disney — the owner of the Muppet franchise since 2004 — only gave out a cagey response through a spokesperson in the immediate aftermath of the news, and Whitmire himself has almost no internet footprint, making him an intensely difficult man to reach. In the absence of more information, a familiar (if highly speculative) story emerged, egged on by sympathetic viral coverage on entertainment blogs: The principled artist being crushed under heel by a shrewd corporation.
But that was last week, and every detail that's emerged since then has muddled that easy narrative.
The impetus driving these developments has been series of posts written by Whitmire himself on a personal blog called "Muppet Pundit". At first, fans were uncertain if the posts were truly coming from the former hand of The Frog, but the veracity of the posts was confirmed to Gizmodo by Henson biographer Brian Jay Jones by way of Muppet Treasure Island writer Kirk Thatcher.
On the blog, Whitmire claimed that his firing came down to "two stated issues" which had "never been mentioned" to him before a October 2016 phone call with Disney executives, but did not elaborate on what they were. These issues were later reported by The Hollywood Reporter to be his propensity to give detailed notes to show executives and his "overly hostile and unproductive" negotiation style. In subsequent entries, the Muppet veteran painted himself as "the last samurai" keeping Disney from "trampling Jim's legacy", and even railed against greener cast members for allegedly lacking a connection to that legacy.
At the time of this writing, the most recent blog on Muppet Pundit was simply a quote from Teddy Roosevelt's "Man in the Arena" speech dismissing critics. One of the many comments left by supporters begins: "I hope Disney knows they broke the heart of my 15yo autistic son."
Image: Muppet Pundit
Whitmire's crusade could easily be interpreted as an emotional reaction by someone suddenly fired after spending the entirety of his adult life working as a beloved children's entertainer. But according to one source who asked to remain anonymous, "all the fans are pining for him, when they don't know that he kind of deserved it."
Two sources with knowledge of the situation described a very different Steve Whitmire to Gizmodo, one who thought of himself as untouchable, invaluable, and the only one able to channel the spirit of Jim Henson.
"He's saying he's been trying to give advice to Disney for years, but on more than one occasion — even once to me personally — he's said the last few years have felt like the good old days again. So either he's exaggerating the truth now, or he lied then," one source told Gizmodo over Skype. "People think he left Sesame Street to focus on The Muppets. He was actually fired for demanding too much money."
In the past, some of Whitmire's demands have allegedly included higher pay than the other performers, first-class flights to and from his home in Atlanta, and a puppeteer's salary for his wife who acts as his manager, according to one source. Potentially for these reasons, Muppets Studio later amended its initial comments to the press with a second statement, writing, "We raised concerns about Steve's repeated unacceptable business conduct over a period of many years and he consistently failed to address the feedback."
Whitmire's narrative hinges on his tenure with the show and professed understanding of what Jim Henson would want. (While some fans are under the impression Whitmire was personally appointed to the role of Kermit by Henson before his untimely death, multiple sources have told Gizmodo those anecdotes are inaccurate — Whitmire was chosen by son Brian Henson after his father's passing.) But Henson's children, still very much alive, have jumped into the fray, defending the decision to hand the Muppets' leading man to replacement Matt Vogel.
"He'd send emails and letters attacking everyone, attacking the writing and attacking the director," Brian Henson told The New York Times yesterday, in an interview that read like a more diplomatic version of a since-deleted Facebook post from Cheryl Henson leaked to Gizmodo. In that post, Cheryl wrote that the decision was "long over due (sic)".
Negotiating for higher pay is understandable (as Muppeteers work as freelancers, according to two sources) and a defence of the Muppet legacy, however misguided, might come from a place of genuine concern. But Whitmire apparently also had a capacity for cruelty, displayed when Disney attempted to cast alternate performers for some of the Muppet roles. "[Steve] told Disney that the people who were in the audition room are never allowed to work with the Muppets again," a source told Gizmodo. "It's not really fair to someone who just went in for a call or they're looking for a bit more notoriety as a puppeteer which, as you can imagine, there's not a lot of puppetry jobs out there." This may be the behaviour Lisa Henson — current CEO of the Jim Henson Company — spoke about when she told the Times that Whitmire "blackballed young performers". She added, in an interview with Inside Edition, that simply getting Whitmire to the set to perform was often "difficult".
Users on Muppet fan sites such as ToughPigs, Muppet Mindset and Muppet Central are divided on who to blame. In the opinion of many, Disney saved the Muppet franchise from extinction, but has also turned out subpar products since the purchase. Whitmire remains a hero to a lot of fans as well, but one who grows less defensible with each blog post.
But the Muppets are not as popular as they once were, and many of the fans populating these forums are now well into adulthood. A survey of the sites shows many of the posts on the controversy are by users who haven't regularly visited these communities in years. A Change.org petition to restore Whitmire to his role has struggled to reach even its modest goal of 1500 signatures. More than anything, it seems, the tumultuous week of revelations has been damaging to the core appeal of the Muppets: A safe, zany, colourful world free from wild egos, petty contract negotiations and internet self-martyrdom. The dedicated-but-dwindling fandom doesn't know who to be mad at, or if there's even a villain at all.
One of the more recent comments on ToughPigs comes from a user named Magictoast15. "I'm officially done with this day, this whole situation really," reads her post. "I want to go hide under my Kermit blanket." Another user asks, "Is there room under that blanket for all the rest of us?" She replies, "It's kinda small, but I'm sure we can make it work."