October 13, 2008

My Week with Steve: Day 1

Filed under: Feature — Tags: , , — Joe Hennes @ 11:28 am

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Recently, the one and only (as far as I know) Steve Whitmire agreed to sit down with us for an informal chat. And true to the teachings of Richard Nixon, we taped the whole dang thing.

Over the following week, I’ll be posting segments from the interview, so keep on coming back here to ToughPigs to read what the voice of Kermit has to say.

Special (and obvious) thanks to Steve Whitmire for helping to make all of this happen!

ToughPigs: First off, thank you so much for agreeing to talk with us. So, I want to ask you about the viral Muppet videos that have shown up on YouTube. A source tells me that you were kind of the moving force behind those. Is that true?

Steve Whitmire: The idea for that came from the whole department at Disney.Actually it was Dave Cook who decided we should originally be involved in that. So kudos to the executive force, you know? I had a lot to do with putting it together, making it work, along with the guys from a company called Soap Box, which I think is an outside production company that was brought in to produce the pieces. Great group of guys. They hadn’t worked with the Muppet before, but they’re very big fans and eager to learn about the characters. I helped in that respect, just in terms of “We should get a music director for this,” “This is hard to do, we should prerecord these.” We went the route of, when we were in the studio, we had each separate character pumped into the ear of the performer so we could hear what we were doing. In other words, we were doing it to a mass playback. Really important in something like that to be able to distinguish what we were doing.And then we worked with a guy named Ed Mitchell who was the music director, who we had worked with in the past on Sesame Street, and he won the Grammy for directing the Red and Green Christmas album. But Ed is terrific, and he really understands the Muppets and their sensibility, and what we need with our limited abilities to get through it. So he was instrumental in pulling that together. We recorded that Stars and Stripes thing, we all did our own little pieces, and thought it was going to sound great.We went into the control room to hear the playback and it was just a mess. It sounded like a zoo, you know, with all the noise. Ed’s the one who got us adjusted, got everything back on the right mark to make it sound good.

TP: Yeah, that’s a great piece. They all are.

SW: Well, I loved working on those. To me, it really felt like a real return back to the old Muppet stuff. That’s something I’ve always pushed for and fortunately there’s a group at Disney now who really understands that. And what they don’t understand, they listen to. It’s really nice.

TP: Who directed those?

SW: In the end, Kirk Thatcher directed them. But that was a last minute thing. It was originally going to be directed by one of the guys from Soap Box. And I did a lot of the prep on it, but I really wasn’t looking to direct them.And at the last minute, we had just come off of the Studio DC: Almost Live the day before, so Kirk came into the studio the next day and oversaw it as the director. It would have been fun to direct, since I did so much prep on them, but it was easier not to do that. It was easier just to concentrate on the performers’ part.

TP: Actually, we were trying to figure out: were you Beaker?

SW: Yeah, I was Beaker in all of that. And Kermit. Oh wait, Kermit wasn’t in those, was he? What am I thinking? It was Beaker and Gonzo. I actually puppeteered Gonzo for that, because Dave was having surgery at the time. And then he dubbed it. But musically, I love the music of the Muppets so much. And we’re getting back and doing more of it, but it’s been missing for a lot of years. So we did four strong pieces that were all about music, and just sent them out there and see what they did.And they did very well. I’m just thrilled that they did well with not just our fans on the internet, but everybody who saw them. I hope we do more of those. And if not those kinds of pieces, at least more viral videos. I think we have to top what we did last time somehow. (Laughs)

TP: The Muppets.com sketches have been pretty great too.

SW: Oh yeah, I love that stuff. That was kind of the first indication to me that we were in a good place with Disney. All of the sudden, we were doing that kind of stuff, those short little bits. It’s a great way to reintroduce the Muppets to people who don’t know them.

TP: Were the viral videos the first time you were involved in the concept stage of a Muppet production?

SW: I guess we kind of always took them. We definitely did more in-depth work on that than a lot of the other things we do. We always collaborate and have input on nearly everything. I was kind of sitting at home, plucking out notes on the piano, trying to think of what character should sing what. So, that kind of stuff on those things.I love doing that.

TP: I know Bill Baretta has kind of been transitioning into directing more. Have you thought about doing the same?

SW: Not really.I never had a great desire to direct anything big like Kirk does. I would like to do some of the little things, where you work hard and it really pays off and all of the details on the viral pieces. That would really be fun to do, but to do films and specials, I’m not really interested in it. It takes so much personal time, and I’d just as soon have my time for me. When I’m not working, I want to go home.(Laughs)I’m a real homebody. I’m very domestic.(Laughs)

TP: You are one of, or the only, main Muppeteer to not work outside of the Muppets.Frank Oz has directed, Jerry Nelson has his work with music, Dave Goelz did some work with Walt Disney World. Was that a conscious choice, or did the opportunity just never come up?

SW: A little bit of both. The way my whole time with the Muppets timed out, with Jim’s death and doing Kermit, it was at a point where… my whole life changed overnight in terms of the amount of time I spent working. I went from doing Rizzo and I’d walk in and hang out at the crafts services table, or I’d do a couple of lines and I’d do a background puppet, and suddenly I was doing this big thing. It takes so much time, and there’s so much demand for Kermit, with all of the appearances that we do, and I love it. But I’d just as soon get away from it when I’m not doing it. I’ve been fortunate in that I haven’t needed to do that, I’ve had a decent career and I make a decent living, and I’d also just rather have the free time in between.

TP: Have you ever been asked to do any of the Henson company stuff like Puppet Up?

SW: No, we haven’t been involved with that. I think Brian found a team of folks to do that, and they were available. If they asked us, they have to work around [our schedules] all of the time. So, not a lot of contact since the sale. Which is fine, they kind of do their thing and we do ours.

TP: There was the issue a few years ago about the Muppet recasting. Has that situation resolved itself?

SW: It has. It was a real tough patch. I always try to see it from both sides of the issue. It was necessary to get these characters back out into the world. It seemed like the way to do it, I guess, from a certain point of view to have a bunch of people doing them everywhere. But actually, as soon as the Muppets moved under [Muppet Studios], they just didn’t see the need, and there really wasn’t a need for it as it turned out. The idea was that we were going to be this gigantic worldwide thing and they were going to need that. But I think they understand now why it’s important, to keep them individual. And to be frank on that issue, I kind of look back on that whole episode and I’m kind of happy for it. Because it certainly gave me the responsibility to do some deep thought on what it is we do, and how it works, and why it’s important. And I’m not sure if Jim was actually conscious of why it’s important. He just instinctively knew that you cast someone and they stay that character. But it gave us the chance to analyze it a little bit, we sort of had to, and I’m glad for that now. I could give a lecture series on the individuality of the Muppets, the integrity of the Muppets (laughs).

TP: Had they ever asked you to be involved in something like the Muppet cruise?

SW: I did one, really in order to just make sure that Kermit stayed Kermit. It was just a weird time. Nobody knew exactly what was going on, why it was happening. Especially the people who were being asked to duplicate the characters. I don’t think they knew what was going on exactly. It was just a rough patch. And we got over it, and I’m glad it’s behind us. And it feels like it really is behind us. There’s been no indication [of more recasting], and that’s just not something they’re interested in doing.

Click here for part two of our interview, where you’ll see what Steve has to say about obscure characters, Disney’s new direction for the Muppets, and The Christmas Toy!

Click here to discuss this discussion on the ToughPigs forum!

by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com



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