In the long and illustrious history of The Muppets, one of the more important, pivotal moments took place on November 21, 1990. That’s the night that a special called The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson aired on CBS. Henson, the Muppets’ creator, had suddenly died six months earlier, and the special took the form of the Muppet characters putting together a TV special in order to pay tribute to their own creator.
The special, if you haven’t seen it, is certain to elicit a whole lot of tears from anyone who is any degree of a Muppet enthusiast - especially when the Muppets perform the classic number "Just One Person," which they famously sang, in character, during Henson’s memorial service. But the special’s most important moment comes at the end.
Kermit the Frog has been absent for the previous 50 minutes, away traveling. At the end, he appears, and speaks, and an unspoken realization sets in: Jim Henson is dead, but Kermit the Frog is alive. That special proved that The Muppets, and Kermit, could not only outlive their creator, but thrive.
The man who portrayed Kermit that night, as he would continue to do for nearly three more decades, was Steve Whitmire, who had performed with the Muppets since 1978. Sure, there were some who complained, at the time and for a few years afterwards, that the voice wasn’t quite the same. But Whitmire portrayed the most famous Muppet in movies, specials, TV series and even viral videos, as the original Muppet performers were gradually replaced by a newer generation.
Whitmire’s 27-year tenure as Kermit came to an abrupt end earlier this month with the news that he would be replaced, with Matt Vogel stepping into the Kermit role. The reasons for the shift remained murky at first, until a series of stories in which the two sides sniped at each other. First, Whitmire revealed in a blog post that he had been fired, nine months earlier, and expressed sorrow that the Muppets Studio hadn’t reversed course before his sacking became public.
The studio fired back, claiming that Whitmire had been “disrespectful” to colleagues and higher-ups, while also bringing to light another dispute over whether or not the performer had secured permission to appear in an outside project. Even Brian Henson, Jim Henson’s son and the current head of the Jim Henson Co., took shots at Whitmire in a New York Times article, although the Henson Company no longer controls the Muppets and hasn’t for years.
Sad as the Whitemire/Muppets split is, Vogel is a capable pro and likely able to carry on the Kermit tradition. But beyond that, the Muppet franchise - and the Muppet tradition more broadly - faces a crossroads, with serious questions about what the future holds for the Kermit, Miss Piggy and friends.
The Muppets had some ups and downs in the year’s following Henson’s death. There were a couple of short-lived TV series, as well as movies – The Muppets Christmas Carol, Muppet Treasure Island and Muppets From Space – throughout the 1990s, and they have their fans, even if they fall a bit short of the Muppet Movie/Great Muppet Caper/Muppets Take Manhattan canon of the decade previous. The characters were briefly owned by a German company called EM.TV, before Disney finally acquired them in 2004 and spun them into a division called Muppets Studio, while continue to run Muppet-associated theme park attractions. There were a few viral videos and TV specials produced in the early 2000s, but the Muppets were decidedly on the cultural back burner for most of that decade.
That changed when actor Jason Segel asked to take a crack at a rebooted Muppets movie. The result, the 2011 movie The Muppets, was nearly a total creative triumph - one that absolutely understood The Muppets as characters and what they were about. Written by Segel and Nicholas Stoller, and directed by James Bobin, the movie featured a full suite of outstanding original songs by Flight of the Conchords’ Bret McKenzie, one of which (“Man or Muppet”) won the Oscar for Best Original Song.
The 2011 movie got stellar reviews and earned $88 million at the domestic box office, the highest total of any Muppet film. But beyond that, the Muppets were suddenly everywhere, from the Hollywood Walk of Fame to cable news to even WWE Monday Night RAW, giving the Muppets their most significant period of cultural relevance since Henson’s death.
A sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, arrived in the spring of 2014, and while it wasn’t quite as well-received as the previous film, it garnered its share of big laughs. Rather than a movie about the Muppets in general, like The Muppet Movie or The Muppets, it dropped the Muppets into a genre film in the tradition of The Great Muppet Caper. That film earned $80 million domestically.