Steve Whitmire: I love, and this just happens to be someone I did at the time, there was a character named something like Eugene. He was a little weasel character who was alongside the director on Muppets Tonight. A little fuzzy thing. I always liked doing those kinds of characters. Rizzo started out that way, as a character who didn’t speak. Just a little character who was always there and always, you know, upstaging. And recently, on XD, when we see inside of Animal’s room, he has a little white bunny rabbit with him, and I did the rabbit. I just love the characters who are just there. They don’t have any lines, they just contribute to the atmosphere. And they’re all rodents for some reason. (Laughs)
TP: Are there any previous characters that you would want to bring back?
SW: It seems really important that we get back to some of the Muppet Show characters that have been missing for a while. But those are kind of coming back. What I’d like to see, if we ever get back into doing another series, is the opportunity to bring in new characters. And I think it’s really time we get into some new characters too. Just to grow the group a little bit. We’ve got the core here, and it’s working pretty well at this stage, between Eric and Dave obviously, and Bill is so great. But I’d like some new characters, and that might mean finding some new performers. When I came along, it was a great time because Jim was actively looking for a handful of new people, and the Muppets were on their way up. And I get letters from a lot of people who say they’d really like to puppeteer with the Muppets, and some of them have some real experience, and it’s just a really tough time for people to break into it with us. I always encourage people to do it anyway, don’t get stuck on the idea to work with the Muppets, just do it if you enjoy it. But it’s hard, right now it’s more about the Muppets getting more known again as a group.
TP: Do you think a new series would help with that?
SW: It has always proven to be the best time for new characters to develop because the writers may have an idea, and they build a puppet, and it’s in for a week. And then if it works, it has a chance to grow. And it seems that our characters always have a chance to grow and evolve over time. The first season of Fraggle Rock is nothing to write home about. And by the second season, we were starting to figure out who they were, and thankfully it was at a time in the world of television where they could afford to give us some time to develop this without just saying “Well, that didn’t work!” and pull it off the air, which is what they do now. (Laughs)
TP: Hugh Fink, Andrew Samson, and Scott Ganz have just been hired by Disney to write for the Muppets. From what they’ve told me, they’ve been hired to give the Muppets a more “prime time” feel and language. How do you feel about their involvement and this new direction Disney wants to take the Muppets?
SW: It seems okay. Two things always sound scary: when someone says they want to give the Muppets a “new feel,” because you never know what that’s going to mean until it’s done, and you can look back at it and say, “Oh, so that’s what they meant.” The other thing that’s always difficult to hear is when people say they’re the biggest Muppet fans and they want to write for the Muppets. Often times, they’re seeing the characters from the outside, and they really don’t know what they feel like on the inside, so it doesn’t work. But once we started working with these guys, they’ve really risen to the occasion. It was a good choice, it turned out to be a great choice, and that hasn’t always been the case with outside writers when they come in.
TP: So, what’s your take on the Jason Segel script?
SW: I haven’t met them, I keep hearing about it. I don’t know what they’re writing, we’re outside of it at the moment. I’ve heard that it’s happening, but I haven’t had any discussions about it. If they’re writing it, then once they’re finished I’ll see it and then I can probably comment about it. And in a way, that’s not bad. Jim was always very collaborative with us on everything we did, but it wasn’t like we all sat down in a room and conceived of the “first idea.” Jim was always very selective about the first three or four people he brought in on a project. He would often have an idea, and then he’d step back and let those people develop it into something. So there was always a bit that would go on before the next round when he’d bring in the puppeteers, or a broader group of puppeteers. It’s easy to get into what I call “endless meeting syndrome” where you’d get twelve people around a table, and everyone’s got ideas, and none of them really get used because the last thing that was said usually gets done. So it’s nice to have a core that expands into a bigger group, I think. That’s the good thing, that’s the smart way to really do it. And in addition to that, the more they bring us in near the early stages, the more we can give them about character, especially if it’s writers who know the Muppets but don’t know them from the inside. We can easily supply some of that. And that’s happening, so that’s a good thing.
TP: I have a question here from ToughPigs forum member and Muppet Wiki moderator Scott Hanson. There’s something they’ve been stumped on at the Wiki, and hopefully you can remember.
SW: I’ll try. You guys usually know more than I know.
SW: Wow. And I ought to know that. But frankly, I don’t remember.
TP: Yeah, I wouldn’t expect you to…
SW: That’s interesting, because it wasn’t that long ago when we were talking about what were the names of their wives, and I think it was only the one, I don’t think Statler had one. It could have been me. I can’t answer, I don’t know!
TP: I promise I don’t have any more questions like that.
SW: (Laughs) That’s okay, I wish I could remember that.
TP: I don’t know if you heard, The Christmas Toy is coming out on DVD next month.
SW: No! That’s great! Is that Henson or Disney?
TP: That’d be Henson. Well, I was going to ask you if you contributed anything to the special features, but you obviously haven’t if you haven’t heard about it.
SW: Nope, I haven’t been involved in special features. I loved working on that show. That was just one of those Toronto productions during Fraggle time. It was a great break from Fraggles, because it was such an intense shoot. We had great fun on Fraggle Rock, but it was intense. And we went off to do this other silly thing, and the hardest thing for me was that Jim wanted me to do this little mouse. And to come up with a voice for this little mouse that wasn’t Wembley or Rizzo (Laughs), it’s like what am I going to do now? It was Rizzo in falsetto, is what it ended up being. I probably couldn’t even do the voice now. My voice has changed, and I know they sometimes change over the years, but my voice has changed and it makes it hard sometimes to do some of those older voices.
TP: Do you ever go back and watch some of the old stuff like that?
SW: I do, and I don’t think I even have a VHS of [The Christmas Toy], I’d love for that to be on DVD.
TP: Yeah, we’re very much hoping it’s going to be unedited.
SW: Yeah, me too.
TP: It’s got Kermit the Frog bookending the film, which is why the Emmet Otter DVDs have been edited versions.
SW: Yeah, I heard about that.
TP: Have you heard much about the Emmet Otter musical that’s premiering in Connecticut this December?
SW: I heard about it, but I’m not involved with it. And I wasn’t involved with the original. What have I heard? Tyler Bunch is involved, it’s half puppets and half sort of costumes suggesting puppets.
TP: Are you planning on seeing it?
SW: I probably won’t end up seeing it. I probably wouldn’t come to Connecticut just to see it. [ed. — On a side note, Dave Goelz mentioned in an earlier conversation that he probably won’t see it either, as he wouldn’t want to leave his family in LA just to fly across the country for a play. It’s too bad he won’t be able to critique the performances of Wendell Porcupine and Pop-eyed Catfish.] I’d love to see it just to see what they’ll do with it.Click here for part 3 of our chat with Steve Whitmire where you’ll read all about his performing new characters, his buddy movie life with Dave Goelz, and Disney’s future for the Muppets!
Click here to take credit for performing Astoria on the ToughPigs forum!
by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com