The facts, as they were initially reported, are as follows: Steve Whitmire is no longer working with the Muppets, and Matt Vogel will be taking over performing Kermit the Frog. The lack of details regarding the reasons behind the upheaval (who cut ties with whom, and why) is as ominous as it is perplexing.
What is most upsetting to me is that, with all the other bizarrely ominous things going on in the country and the world, particularly with regard to a certain reality TV star and his sham presidency, I had to learn out about it through this disturbing and ill-conceived bit on the Stephen Colbert show. Moreover, initial reports implied that Whitmire was leaving of his own volition, which was ominous in itself, because I know that he would never choose to leave the Muppets unless he had some sort of personal problem or issue that would prevent him from performing.
Methinks that something is rotten in the state of Muppetdom.
Fortunately, Steve Whitmire himself started a blog in order to set the record straight.
(It's really him. And it's magnificent.)
Whitmire goes into a bit more detail about his premature departure from the Muppets. He asserts that Disney cut ties with him rather than the other way around, informing him via phone as early as October 2016 that his services would no longer be required. He is still rather vague on the reasons for the dismissal, however; he makes reference to "their two stated issues which had never been mentioned to me prior to that phone call," but he doesn't get any more specific than that.
Every Muppet fan is going to have their thoughts and feelings, opinions and theories about what happened; what follows are mine.
I emphasize again that, "from this point forth, we shall be leaving the firm foundation of fact and journeying together [...] into the thickets of wildest guesswork."[*](Thank you J.K. Rowling and Dumbledore.) This is, I reiterate, pure speculation on my part, but here is how the situation looks to me: either Disney was looking for a scapegoat on whom to blame the underperformance of Muppet projects in 2014 and 2015 and decided that Whitmire, as the performer of the Muppets' central character, was a convenient choice, or they were dismayed that Whitmire was unwilling to "play it the company way"; i.e. go along unquestioningly with whatever ill-advised idea(s) Disney was coming up with for the Muppets. Whitmire served an apprenticeship with Jim Henson, working on The Muppet Show when he, Whitmire, was just 19 years old. If forced to choose between playing it the Disney way and playing it the Henson way, I know that Whitmire would always choose the Henson way. Maybe that ruffled some feathers at Disney. Maybe Disney didn't like the fact that Whitmire is Henson's man through and through[*](to paraphrase another quote and co-opt another concept from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). In either scenario, or a combination of both, it wouldn't be difficult to come up with a pretext, a flimsy excuse, for firing him that could be easily communicated over the phone.
It just seems to me that if Disney had a good reason for firing Whitmire, they should have made it public in the first place. Considering all the Muppet performers we've lost--sometimes suddenly, sometimes gradually; sometimes tragically in a strictly emotional sense, sometimes tragically in a more classical sense--the idea that Disney would suddenly and arbitrarily recast a part when they don't have to is entirely inconceivable to me. But even if I could forgive that, it's the sneaky, underhanded way they've been going about this that is truly appalling to me. They knew this was going to happen for at least nine months now, but never even made an announcement until prodded with questions by Tough Pigs. Were they going to try sneak Vogel's Kermit past us and hope we wouldn't notice? News flash: we've been analyzing Kermit's voice in our heads for 27 years now! OF COURSE we were going to notice. We were always going to notice!
There is one piece of encouraging news in all of this, which is that Disney chose Matt Vogel as the new Kermit performer. While I disagree--strenuously--with recasting Kermit, if Disney insists on doing so, (which apparently they do), Vogel is probably the best possible choice. Even though he's only been performing with the Muppets since 1996, he gets it. He gets the whole Muppet/Henson gestalt worldview, so I have no qualms about that whatsoever. My concern about Vogel is that he may stretch himself too thin; not only has he inherited a slew of Muppet characters from Jerry Nelson, he's also very active as both a performer and a director on Sesame Street, not the least of his responsibilities there being understudying Carroll Spinney as Big Bird, with the understanding that he will take on performing that character full time whenever Mr. Spinney is no longer willing and/or able to do it. Add to all that the Muppets' central character, and Vogel has a lot on his plate. He may be awesome, but he only has two hands.
In fact, I feel a little bad for Matt Vogel, considering what an unfairly awkward position Disney has put him in with all of this. I'm trying to imagine what it must feel like to be him right now: on the one hand, to feel loyalty to Whitmire, a fellow Muppet performer and mentor; to feel incensed about the shabby way that Disney is treating him. But on the other hand, to feel responsibility to Jim Henson, to preserve and protect his legacy, which means staying with the Muppets. And to a lesser extent, I think this dilemma applies to the other Muppet performers as well. I'm just trying to imagine how I would feel and what I would do if I were one of them. There would be a temptation to stand up to Disney, to take some sort of principled stance, such as trying to organize a strike or even quitting in protest. But in that scenario, Disney would surely have no qualms about just hiring someone else, someone who may not be qualified for the job or may not have an interest in preserving Jim Henson's legacy. And even if they did hire new people who were qualified and capable and interested in preserving the Henson legacy, I think it is vitally important to keep as many people who knew Jim personally as close to the Muppets as possible for as long as possible.
Whenever there's a culture clash like this in the Muppet world, it's always a huge temptation for me, personally, to want to paint the Disney people as the bad guys and the Henson people as the good guys. But, as is so often the case in life, things aren't exactly that simple. The more I think about it, the more I realize that the Disney people view puppets differently than the Henson people do, and it's not necessarily a matter of right/wrong or good/bad; it's just a difference of opinion, of point of view.
You see, I think the Disney people view the puppets as smaller, more articulate versions of the walkaround Disney characters that perambulate through the various theme parks. The people inside those suits are interchangeable; you can put anyone in a particular suit on a particular day, you can mix and match them as you please, and it makes very little difference so long as the outward appearance of the character is intact. Therefore, I don't think they realize how much of the Muppet character grows out of the performer's personality. From their point of view, all of the Muppet performers are expendable because you can always find somebody new who can put their hand in a puppet and do a voice, and as long as the outside--the puppet itself, the outer shell--is intact, the audience will believe in the character. That's Disney's point of view, and considering how many Muppet characters have been recast in the past, out of necessity, and people still accept and love the Muppets, they have a fair point. What is not fair is their deliberate obtuseness, their complete refusal to respect the Hensonian point of view or even to acknowledge it.
There's nothing new about this, unfortunately; nearly 30 years ago, Jim Henson made heartfelt, detailed appeals to the Walt Disney Company that the real value in the Muppets was honoring the integrity of both the characters and the performers. As he was hammering out the original deal with Disney back in 1989, he fought hard to ensure that his puppeteers were "protected" in the deal (i.e. financially) and if they weren't, he was willing to walk away from the deal; it was that important to him that his people be well taken care of. So while it's always risky to make grand sweeping announcements about "Jim Henson wouldn't like this!" or "Jim Henson would never approve that!"--statements which are based more on our personal preferences as Muppet fans than anything that Jim Henson ever said or did--and while it's particularly dangerous in this scenario since we really only have one side of the story, it's next to impossible for me to imagine that Jim Henson wouldn't stick up for Steve Whitmire, or that he wouldn't be livid with rage about one of his core puppeteers being summarily dismissed. Some people would say that getting livid with rage would be out of character for Jim because it didn't happen often. And it is true that he didn't often get visibly angry, but he wasn't immune to it by any means. And when he did get angry, it was always about things that were vitally important to him, and I imagine that this would certainly qualify.
On a personal level, I feel caught up in a dilemma on how I should react, and what my relationship with the Muppets--and the company that owns them--should be in the future. On the one hand, I want to show my support for Steve Whitmire; on the other hand, I don't want to lose the Muppets. Because Disney owns the Muppets, they have all the leverage. They hold all the cards. The sad truth is that Disney doesn't need the Muppets as much as we, the fans, do. If the Muppets aren't profitable, Disney can just put them away and forget about them. As distasteful as the notion of the Muppets without Steve Whitmire is, wouldn't a world with no Muppets be even worse? Is the notion of the talented Matt Vogel performing Kermit more disheartening than the notion of no one performing Kermit at all?
There are online petitions circling to bring Whitmire back to the Muppets. Generally speaking, I don't have a lot of patience with online petitions; at best, they are self-indulgent and silly, and at worst, they just add fuel to the fire. Therefore, I don't have much faith that it signing such a petition would effect change, but I briefly considered it because the thought occurred to me that it might not do any harm to let Disney know that I'm not happy about the change, even if it doesn't do any good. On further reflection, however, I realized that I couldn't sign any petition unless I understood all that it implied and could sign my name to it without harming my integrity. If, in signing the petition, I would be showing my support for Whitmire and my disagreement with Disney's decision, then that's fine. If, on the other hand, by signing my name to the petition I would be saying I support Whitmire and oppose Vogel, then I could not do that in good conscience. I have no quibbles whatsoever with Matt Vogel, who is a supremely talented puppeteer who has done nothing wrong and is going to have a hard enough time as it is without being shamed or ridiculed.
There has also been talk about boycotting Disney. On the one hand, I do not think that would effect any change. Let's face it: Disney has sooooo many properties that whatever profit they turn from the Muppets is probably a drop in the bucket and one that they could afford to lose. Frankly, and I hate to say it, but I think a Disney boycott could potentially do more harm to the Muppets than it ever could to Disney itself. Nevertheless, it wouldn't do any harm for me to be more judicious in choosing when, how, and if to spend my money on Disney-related goods in the future, and it might do some good.
I know that what happens in the real world is more important than what happens in the Muppet world, but what is happening in the Muppet world is, I believe, sort of a microcosmic parallel to what is happening in the nation and the world at large. I mean, the date that Disney allegedly gave Whitmire his walking-papers phone call: October 2016. Just before the election. October 2016. How odd that the Second Muppet Era was coming to an end at almost the same moment that our nation began facing the greatest threat to our democracy since the Alien and Sedition Acts.[*](I feel like I should cite something more recent than the Alien and Sedition Acts, but when I think of the greatest threats to our democracy, that's one that immediately comes to mind. Moreover, the Alien and Sedition Acts have a lot of parallels to the current situation, because they made it illegal to criticize the government and also made it legal to deport immigrants for essentially no reason...sound familiar? Also, that happened fairly soon after America's founding--during John Adams' administration--so I kind of like to remind people that that almost ended our democracy before it even really got started, and yet we survived it, so we ought to be able to survive what we're going through now.) Is that how they're going to frame it in history books? "In October 2016, Kermit the Frog secretly died,[*](but only in a metaphorical, phoenix-y sense) and a month later, in November, vulgarian TV star Donald Trump, who stood in direct opposition to everything that Kermit represents, became president. Coincidence? Break into small groups and discuss."
To be clear, I am NOT saying that the Disney-Whitmire schism is directly related to the vagaries being committed by the Trump administration, nor am I suggesting that it is a crisis on par with the constitutional crisis that this so-called administration has forced us into. However, I do believe that the ruthless, greedy, unwarranted, shortsighted, self-serving stupidity that caused Disney to cut ties with Whitmire is related to the ruthless, greedy, shortsighted, and clumsily self-serving stupidity that prompted Trump père to fire James Comey and that prompted Trump fils to meet with the lawyer from the Kremlin. Perhaps that kind of ruthless, greedy, shortsighted, self-serving stupidity has always been endemic in our culture, but it seems like it is becoming increasingly virulent with every passing year, and it's heartbreaking to see it tainting Jim Henson's creations, and it's frightening to see these two worlds bleed into one another when they should be entirely separate.