This article was originally posted on Just for the Halibut, on May 9th for Kermit’s unofficial birthday.
Suspend your imagination just for a moment. Drop the illusion and have the courage to back up and glance beneath the safe-zone of the camera’s frame. Forget his lovable, iconic stilted eyes and really observe the shape of his green face. Notice how his felt- no, not skin- felt resembles that of a peculiarly poised hand. The puppeteers hand. His neck is the puppeteer’s wrist. The famous pointed-collar covers the seam attaching the head to the rest of his body.
Kermit the Frog is, as painful as it may be for you to read, a puppet.
“Now hang on!” I can hear a good many of you cry, “Don’t address Kermit as something so simple! He is so much more! A Muppet! A Muppet who is adored worldwide! How could you just strip him down so easily?”
My answer to that question is a question of my own, “If you don’t dig down into the layers of something, how on earth could you expect to find its centre?” The centre of any character, whether animated, acted or physically manipulated, is not their voice, traits or characteristics. It is their ability to become much more than a single thought in the imagination of their creator. If you claim to know Kermit as well as you do, then the name Jim Henson should be pretty much synonymous with the frog.
Jim and Kermit’s (rainbow) connection is one of Walt-and-Mickey proportions. Muppet fans treasure the story of Kermit’s conception, first built by Jim in 1955 while tending to his ill grandfather, made from the now-famous milky blue coat of Jim’s mother, Betty. Kermit was built as a means of experimenting with a concept. As equally abstract as all the characters Jim had created thus far, Kermit still managed to be rather different. He was as simple as a rod-puppet could be, his material stitched and fitted around Jim’s large right hand, the lack of structure allowing a range of expression other characters such as Sam (of Sam and Friends) could not possibly produce. The concept of ‘simple is good’ was one Jim adored and cemented the link between puppeteer and Muppet that would become legendary.
There has always been a rumour that Kermit was named after Jim’s childhood friend, Kermit Scott. However, Brian Jay Jones disputes this in Jim Henson: The Biography. Not only was the name popular in that half of the century, but Jim had an affinity for names that had a certain, shall we say ‘pop’.
‘…it was all about the sound of the word; with it’s hard K, pressed M and snapped T, the name Kermit was memorable and fairly funny.‘- Jim Henson: The Biography, p.47
But let us take a quick step back for a moment and return to the matter of a characters ‘centre’. The medium from where a character comes from determines its origins. The centre of Looney Tune’s Bugs Bunny originated from a very different place in comparison to, say, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory. We can establish that Kermit himself is a puppet (Muppet Babies notwithstanding), which narrows down the characters medium. But this brings up another very important question: What is a puppet exactly?
To answer this question, I must introduce the third subject in this discussion. Steve Whitmire, a man who found himself dragged into quite a bit of controversy and criticism following Jim’s untimely death in May 1990, has been Kermit’s puppeteer for the past 26 years. When presented with the task of defining puppetry as an art-form, Steve and several other veterans in the puppetry world came together to scratch their heads and ponder. The definition was later presented at the Centre for Puppetry Arts (Atlanta, Georgia) in 2010. In Steve’s lectures titled ‘Perspectives: The Sentient Puppet’, he presented puppetry as being:
Manipulating an inanimate object in order to give it the appearance of having movement not inherent to its own mechanism.
To clarify, a puppet could and should have the appearance of actual life. The way it has been built doesn’t dictate who the puppet is. The puppet by itself is a shadow of a personality, the puppeteer is the soul. The puppeteer gives the puppet full world-aware consciousness and provides it with a memory bank. The Muppets are a defining example of this because, as Steve explained in his lecture, if you were to talk to a Muppet on a Monday and then again the following Saturday, the Muppet would remember you from earlier in the week. They are not a ‘what’, but a ‘who’. They have the capability to remember a person or event weeks, months and even years into the future because they have a single performer. Muppets are attached to their performers, by tradition, until the performer either dies, or retires and passes the character to a trusted understudy. Kermit and Jim (and now Steve) were/are one and the same, but they are/were also two separate entities in the world. There was a Jim in the world without Kermit and a Kermit without Jim. Together they could create ‘Kermit’ as a tool to play a character that wasn’t Kermit (such as Phillip Phil in Muppets Take Manhattan).
(If this is sending your brain into infinite loops, don’t worry because I’m still trying to grasp it myself. I highly suggest listening to Episode #146 of Steve Swanson’s ‘The MuppetCast’ podcast on muppetcast.com. He gives a fuller, more coherent explanation of Steve Whitmire’s lecture, as well as a rundown of the workshop that accompanied it.)
So, now that it has been established that Kermit is in fact a puppet and we’ve also defined what a puppet is, we can build Kermit back up to being known as a real, conscious, living being in our world. If we are to consider him a living being, than it makes sense that he has the ability, like other beings, to evolve. And Kermit has evolved in the 62 years since his conception. In the beginning on Sam and Friends, he wasn’t even a frog, just an obscure lizard-like creature with club-shaped feet and no collar. Many appearances on variety shows during the early 60’s featured Kermit in a red turtle-neck sweater. It was around The Tales of Tinkerdee (1962) that the transition into a frog finally began, as Brian Jay Jones will explain-
‘..with his crenulated minstrel collar on, Kermit suddenly looks every inch a frog-or close enough so that from here on out it would be a no-brainer to definitely call him one.’- Jim Henson: The Biography, p. 93
By the time Sesame Street came into fruition in September of 1969, Kermit had fazed into what I like to call ‘Kermit 2.0’. His feet were flippers and the red turtleneck had been replaced with a double pointed collar, undisputedly frog-ified. Kermit’s hands retained their unstructured floppiness from the previous version, I’ll just mention here that his eyes were somewhat disconcerting, not quite formed into Jim’s perfect ‘magic triangle’ with the tip of his nose. To put it bluntly, this particular evolution of Kermit was somewhat, in my opinion, horrifying.
Luckily, somebody in the workshop must have caught on to this particular creepiness and fixed it accordingly. This version of Kermit continually improved and changed throughout the 70’s, the double collar was replaced with a single 11-pointed collar. By 1976 with the debut of The Muppet Show, Kermit was ready to grace the TV sets of millions. The next (and arguably final) physical evolution of Kermit came with The Muppet Movie in 1979. Built out of a different, cleaner-looking antron fleece, Kermit became a lighter shade of green, with a neatened collar and bigger, wired, properly structured hands. This sturdier looking Kermit was perfect for the big screen and has barely changed since that time.
Of course, with physical evolution comes the evolving personality. The Kermit of Sam and Friends often catered his personality to whatever sketch he was cast in. He could be a deputy sheriff in one sketch, then dressed in drag while having his leg chewed up by Yorick in the next. The concept of a character having a continually developing, yet permanent personality wasn’t really considered by Jim Henson until Rowlf the Dog became a regular on The Jimmy Dean Show (1963-1966). The earliest Muppets could be considered akin to fairy-tale characters (in fact, certain characters like Taminella Grinderfall were fairy tale characters) in that they were based on single, simple character traits or archetypes. The character’s development never expanded past the story’s plot, or outside of the expected traits for that particular type of personality.
Fortunately for Kermit, Jim’s fondness for him lead to the frog being cast again and again from project to project. By the time The Tales of Tinkerdee came around, Jim had begun to turn Kermit into an offshoot of his own self. The character felt so familiar and enjoyable to him, that it only made sense that Kermit would also make a great narrator for the stories that Jim wanted to tell. It is rather odd that, leading on from these projects, Jim didn’t immediately consider Kermit for the position of host when it came time to start pitching his dream prime time show. The Muppets Valentine Show (1974) had a humanoid Whatnot named Wally at the helm, a kind of hip-beatnik that came off as rather bland despite being performed by Jim himself. Also performed by Jim and just as bland was weedy little Nigel, the host of second-attempt The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence (1975). When Lord Lew Grade finally struck a deal for what would become The Muppet Show, it was a very wise decision to place Nigel in charge of the Muppet Theatre’s house band while the ever-reliable Kermit took charge of the wackiest and most aloof characters, television audiences had ever seen before.
This was simply the beginning of Kermit’s journey. In the next installment of this article, not only will The Muppet Show be discussed, but we’ll also journey through the following 15 or so years until Jim’s tragic and untimely death. We’ll look at the basics of Kermit’s character and the vital relationships he had not only with his fellow Muppets, but with his fans.