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August 31, 2016

ToughPigs Turns 15: From Fan to Fanatic

Filed under: Feature — Tags: — Joe Hennes @ 10:53 am

Launched in August, 2001, ToughPigs is celebrating its 15th year of existence!  That’s a decade-and-a-half of interviews, newsbits, silly commentaries, complaints, observations, and witticisms all about the Muppets. Thanks to all of you for a great 15 years, and here’s to 15 more!

joe7When people find out that I run a Muppet fan site, I’m guaranteed one of two reactions.  Either a twisted sense of excitement (“OMG what??? I can’t believe Muppet fan sites are a thing that exists!”) or extreme disinterest (“You mean… the kid’s show? Aren’t you, like, 35?”).  Either way, the first question I often get after the person calms down/livens up is, “How in the world did you get into something as random as Muppet blogging?”

With ToughPigs turning 15 this year, and my tenure as co-runner (along with Ryan Roe) approaching ten years, I’ve been thinking back to how I got here and what I’ve been doing with the past decade of my life.  We rarely let things get personal around here (after all, the website is called “ToughPigs”, not “ToughJoeAndRyanTalkAboutTheirFeelings”), but I’d like to revisit my journey into Muppet fandom with you all, hitting all the greatest hits along the way.

Like many of you, I was raised on Sesame Street.  I was obsessed with Kermit the Frog, I thought Ernie was my best friend, and I was so captivated by the show, I accidentally learned how to read long before most other kids my age.  Sesame Street imprinted its furry claws into my DNA at an early age, and it never let go.  As I grew older, I discovered the Muppets, which led to the other works of Jim Henson, and then learning more about Muppet history, and then absorbing every morsel of Muppety goodness, and then and then and then.

Sound familiar?  It should.  It’s probably your story too.

By the time I got to high school, I was known as that Muppet kid (not always lovingly), and I slipped the Muppets into every part of my life that I could.  I remember writing what might be the most terribly-written English paper about the life of Jim Henson, complete with hand-drawn illustrations (yes I still have it, and no you can’t read it).  I had “Rainbow Connection” played at my bar mitzvah.  In college, I wrote a research paper about how Sesame Street can save the world (I got an A on that one).  Since I didn’t have any aspirations to become a puppeteer, I was left with all this useless knowledge and nowhere to direct it.

Around 1994, my dad discovered a list of self-published zines, all of which were run by fans of a certain TV show or movie or franchise, and you could actually receive them in your mailbox on a regular basis like how people corresponded in the olden times.  As a pop culture fan himself (specifically: Star Trek, Stephen Sondheim, The Jetsons, and the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile), he couldn’t help but sign us up for a few magazines.  Since the internet was still in its infancy, this was the closest we were going to get to other fans.  (As I recall, one of those zines was a Dick Van Dyke Show newsletter, “The Walnut Times”, which featured the headline story: A color photo of the Petries’ living room, which revealed green carpeting!)  Our expectations for the other zines were understandably low.  And then we got our first issue of MuppetZine.

When I first read MuppetZine, my mind was absolutely blown to smithereens.  I always knew I couldn’t be alone in my obsession, but this was the first time I had solid confirmation that there were other Muppet fanatics in the world.  Not just the creators of the zine like Danny Horn and Smig, but also the people writing letters to the editor, listing items for sale, reporting on news, and sharing personal stories and opinions.  I didn’t know these people, but I already felt like we were family.

Beyond that, this was the first time I’d realized that there was something else someone could do with a strangely specific encyclopedic knowledge of the Muppets other than bore their friends or try and memorize every page of “The Works.”  There was news to discover, rare videos to find, commentaries to write, and more.  I even tried my hand at writing some of those commentaries in the pages of MuppetZine (go ahead and try to find them… they’re awful).  I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a spark of my own purpose in those black and white pages.

Over the next few years, the internet became a Thing, and I drifted in and out of online discussions.  I dabbled in the usenet newsgroups and Muppet Central, but neither provided me with much stimulation at the time.  I eventually caught wind of ToughPigs, which was equal parts brutal honesty and hilarity, as Danny Horn unapologetically spoke his mind while simultaneously educating his readers about the most obscure details of Muppet history.  There was a forum attached (and there still is!), and I quickly became a member of the community.  When I moved to New York City, I met a few of the ToughPigs in person, and for the first time I was in the same room as those people I’d only imagined when first reading MuppetZine: Highly dedicated fans, with a strong passion for both the Muppets and the Muppet fan community.

joe4I became close friends with a number of people from the ToughPigs forum, often getting together in the Real World (which was much easier to do in New York, as opposed to my hometown in Cleveland – are there even any Muppet fanatics over there??).  In 2006, Ryan Roe told me that he was thinking of moving from Texas to NYC.  As luck would have it, I was thinking of separating from my weirdo roommate, so Ryan was able to slip right in and take his place on the lease (every apartment needs a weirdo).  Suddenly, our shared apartment became Muppet HQ, with toys on every shelf, a constant stream of Muppet videos on the TV, and even that same framed photo of Bert and Ernie they have in their apartment.

Meanwhile, ToughPigs had been on hiatus for all of 2006.  Danny had taken a break from the site to focus on his new project: A collection of information about the Muppets, including character lists, episode guides, and more.  You may have heard of it.  It’s called the Muppet Wiki.

Just a few months after Ryan moved in, Danny came to New York to visit.  We asked if he ever wanted to bring the site back, and he didn’t seem interested.  “So… what if we take it over?,” we asked, thinking that ToughPigs was so near and dear to Danny’s heart, he’d never give it to these jokers.  But Danny was excited about passing the torch, and told us to go nuts.

Our first couple years were a little shaky.  Some articles rambled on.  Some were solid ideas, but far too short.  We were rarely ambitious in our reporting or commentaries.  We often found ourselves trying to recreate Danny’s work, and we’d kick ourselves for not being as funny or clever as he was.  We’d go weeks without publishing anything new.  Maybe we were just keeping the site alive until the next showrunner came along?  Or more likely it was just a hobby that would eventually be replaced by going to the gym or having a baby or taking bowling classes.

joe2In 2008, I lost my job, and I found myself on unemployment for longer than I care to admit (thanks, recession!).  That fall, I found out that the Muppets would be filming on a public street in Brooklyn, which meant that anyone could just go and watch.  With nothing else to do, I went for it and spent the day watching them film a scene for the upcoming Letters to Santa.  A few hours in, I managed to get the attention of Steve Whitmire, and I was shocked to learn that he knew and loved ToughPigs.  He offered to bring me behind the scenes so I could meet the other performers, and later invited me and Ryan to spend another day on set with them the following week where we’d get to interview him. (You can read more about our Letters to Santa set visit here.)  I consider those two days as the pivotal point when ToughPigs ceased to be just a fun little blog and started to become something real.  Or, as real as a Muppet fan site could potentially get.

Over the following years, we redesigned the website to make it more accessible while making it easy to comb through the archives.  We snagged interviews with people like Jerry Nelson, Joey Mazzarino, and Leslie Carrara-Rudolph.  We got to visit the Sesame Street set and the Henson Company offices.  We started our monthly live screening series The Muppet Vault to bring Muppet fans together, just as we would’ve wanted to do in those early days of Muppet fandom.

As time went on, we got more ambitious with the sort of things we wanted (or were allowed) to do.  We hosted a panel at New York Comic Con!  We interviewed Paul Williams!  We performed at Lincoln Center!  We got to work the red carpet at the Muppets Most Wanted premiere in LA!  We had our own Unboxing webseries with The Jim Henson Company!  I was on an episode of Sesame Street!  We’ve had so many experiences that we’ve only dreamed about, all thanks to the Muppet fan community.

joe5Since ToughPigs currently doesn’t accrue any income, we do all of this because we love the brand, and we love the work.  Our meager rewards come in the aforementioned experiences, all of which we’ve paid for in sweat and tears and carpal tunnel syndrome.  Needless to say, it’s all been well worth it.

The best part is that we’ve got a lot of great stuff on the horizon, most of which we can’t even tease yet.  And as the ever-growing Muppet Wiki has taught us, there’s no end to the amount of material we can build around the Muppets.  There will always be more commentaries and over-analyses to make, and (Frog willing) there will always be new things to talk about.

So after 15 years of ToughPigs and almost ten years of my own career as a Professional Muppet Fan, it’s exciting to see how far we’ve come.  From kids kneeling in front of the TV mesmerized by the glow of Sesame Street to adults being taken seriously by the men and women responsible for the Muppets, we’ve grown a lot alongside the fandom.  It makes you wonder: What will the next 15 years hold?

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Click here to stroll down memory lane on the ToughPigs forum!

by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com



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