ToughPigs: Feel free to not answer this question, but how does your relationship with Disney work, contract-wise? If they decide to make a Muppet production, are you contractually obligated to perform?
Steve Whitmire: No, we’re freelancers. We’re still freelancers, just as we were with Henson. And that’s nice. Jim was always about a handshake, and while things would certainly be more formal with a big corporation like Disney, but it’s very laid-back, very easy-going in that respect.
TP: And you have a similar relationship with Sesame Workshop?
SW: Yeah, we’ve always been freelancers.
TP: There’s one glaring omission from the recent Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock DVD sets that have been coming out over the last few years, and it’s that there’s no commentary. If they would have asked you, would you have contributed commentary to a few episodes?
SW: That would have been fun, yeah.
TP: Too bad they didn’t ask then.
SW: Treasure Island, we did one, I think. And Muppets From Space.
TP: When Elmo makes public appearances, he makes reference to the fact that he doesn’t know he’s on a TV show. Is that a Sesame Workshop decision?
SW: I think on Sesame Street, they try to play it off like it’s a real street, that that’s really real life for those guys. And I think for Sesame, it kind of makes sense. Because Elmo’s so young, he’s meant to be young, in our world he really is, but I mean he’s meant to be a little kid. So Kevin just tries to keep him like a little kid. But I’ve heard Kevin do interviews with more funny, adult things, not just adult humor but in adult interviews where Elmo breaks out of character a little bit, and it’s always funny.
TP: Yeah, we saw him at the Long Island Huntington event where Gonzo was flirting with Zoe, and Elmo was kind of in the middle of that. It was the kind of thing you’d never see on Sesame Street.
TP: I have a few questions from some of the ToughPig forum members that are not Muppet related. Anthony wants to know who your favorite superhero is.
SW: Oh my god. Probably Batman. And probably the original, the original being the Adam West show. By all means. And it’s really funny, we’ve had the opportunity to run into him a couple of times and Eric Jacobson and I are like drooling groupies. You know, we did the TV Land Awards a few years ago and Eric and I were like stalkers. There was an interview online with Adam West later where you see my hand reach out from behind and I snap a picture with my phone. Very nice guy, we met him and talked to him. And I started thinking about it, and you know, Batman, when I was 10 years old, he’s this guy who has this true identity, which is a little like us when you think about it. He puts on his mask, we put on these puppets and nobody knows who you are. Maybe that was part of the warped childhood I had that led me here (laughs).
TP: Carolyn from our forum wants to know, “How is your work with cats going?”
SW: That’s a good thing to mention, especially since we’re online. I’m on the board of this place called the Shambala Preserve, which is Tippi Hedren’s place. She’s a very dear friend, I’ve probably known her for 15 years now. I do a lot of video editing for them. In my spare time with her in LA, I go to the preserve and I shoot, which is fun for me, I shoot all this video and edit it into these little pieces they can use for fund raising. In fact, I’m in the middle of one that we’ll put on YouTube once we’re finished with it. So you ask me if I work outside of Muppets: Yes, I’ve got my volunteer work at Shambala. But that’s big cats. My wife Melissa and I did almost a year of intensive work at a local humane society outside of Atlanta in 1987. We had almost that whole year off from Muppet work. Really hands-on work, cleaning the cat cages and giving injections to the cats. At the end of that, we had 13 cats of our own. And at one point, we had 36 cats that we were fostering (laughs). We were crazy, we were insane.
TP: Did you name them all?
SW: They all had names, but they all had stupid names, because we knew people were going to adopt them. It was a ridiculous thing to do, but good for the cats. So I don’t do that stuff so much anymore, but I still do the Shambala stuff when I can.
TP: Speaking of your wife, Melissa, I noticed on the Muppet Wiki that she’s puppeteered a few times with the Muppets. I don’t know much about her; is she a professional puppeteer as well?
SW: I don’t think she’d think of herself as a professional. She’s not one of those people who decided she wanted to work with the Muppets when she was a kid like us. She basically decided to do it because she’d be sitting around on set in the early days, and it just sort of made sense. It’s something she kind of picked up, we needed extra people and she never had any aspirations to be a big Muppet star with a main character, so sometimes we’d need people to do background characters. She worked intensively on The Dark Crystal with Kathy Mullen. She was Kira’s right hand for the whole film. So any time you’d see Kira’s right hand, that was Melissa. And she worked on Muppets Take Manhattan as one of the background puppeteers. Kermit’s Swamp Years I think she puppeteered a little bit. And she worked on a few things where she didn’t get credit in the end.
TP: If you let us know what they were, we can make sure she gets credit for them on the Wiki.
SW: I’ll let you know, I can’t remember offhand (laughs).
TP: Kynan from our forum wanted to ask you about tractors. Care to explain?
SW: (Laughs) Kynan cruised through LA and we met, and we owed him a slight debt of gratitude [for the Save the Muppets campaign]. Tractors, yes. I have several. I’m a farm guy. Not a legitimate farm, but I do a lot of mowing when I’m not with the Muppets. I’m a bit of a homebody. I mow about six acres a week. So John Deere is very important to me. (Laughs) Hard to imagine, I guess, but that’s what I do when I’m not working. They’re green, the John Deere tractors.
TP: What other interests do you have besides puppetry?
SW: There’s an author named Ken Wilber who most people haven’t heard of, but he’s the most translated author in the world. He’s an amazing guy, he’s just a thinker. And for the last few years, he’s written on what he calls “integral theory.” It’s the idea that everyone is right on some level, whether it’s politics, math, science, the world at large, puppets, showbiz, being a lawyer, whatever. Everybody brings a piece of the puzzle that makes the world up to the same table. And it’s a matter of choosing those things and integrating all of that together, which is a huge part of what’s happened to Disney in the last five years. And I’ve been reading his stuff for maybe 8-10 years, and I met him a couple years ago, and he’s a terrific guy. And his stuff is extremely academic to wade through. But yet, it’s a pretty simple idea. It’s the idea that the more you can integrate things together in your life, the better chance you have at getting through your life. And he calls himself a mapmaker. And he literally has taken every discipline in the world, and I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but he’s brought all that into one place, and he’s integrated it together in his books. It’s not conservative, it’s not liberal, it’s every point of view. And it goes all the way from the lowest levels of everything up to these spiritual places. It fits the Muppets perfectly. And I can look at the characters that we’ve created, and that Jim created, and they all fall under these different levels of development. It’s not something any corporation will look at and say, “We should look at that map,” but for me, and from the Muppet point of view, I use it every day.
TP: So where do Kermit and Rizzo fall on that level of development?
SW: Well, now we’re really getting complicated. Rizzo is very egocentric, in that he is very much about himself. There’s all these levels of development: there’s egocentric, ethnocentric, world-centric. As people develop through their lives, they go from being totally focused on themselves to being focused on their immediate family or group to being focused on the entire world, where they slowly accept that we’re all a part of this big machine, and beyond, whatever that might be. So Kermit’s a little bit by the world-centric and above level, while Rizzo is much more egocentric. It’s a great dynamic to play for these two guys.
TP: It’s too bad you can’t have them interacting with each other very often.
SW: Exactly. I tried that yesterday, it’s impossible. We were just being silly, because we needed as many puppets on screen as possible, so I had one on each hand. I can’t even make them look in the right place when I do that. I was having them talk to Madison, this little girl on set, and I got confused, I got it backwards. (Laughs)We’re almost at the end! I know, it’s quite sad. Click here for the final part of our interview with Steve where you’ll see him talk about Kermit choreography, his fellow Muppeteers, and how to make a frog drive a truck.
Click here to talk tractors on the ToughPigs forum!
by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com