8 Questions for Kermit
Self-proclaimed "nerdy puppet guy" Steve Whitmire has been the man behind Kermit the Frog for the past seventeen years. The Georgia native started on The Muppet Show in 1978 and has had a hand — literally — in almost every Jim Henson project since. Whitmire filled some pretty big shoes after Henson's death in 1990, taking on both The Muppet Show's Kermit and Sesame Street's Ernie.
What is it like when you're performing with Kermit for children in person, instead of on TV?
One of the most enjoyable things we [puppeteers] do is when we do end up in front of kids. It's really nice to liven things up and see their expressions. One of the most interesting things is that parents will say, "I didn't bring my daughter or son because I didn't want to ruin the magic," but children almost never care. They walk in and want to talk to Kermit and just totally ignore me even though I'm sitting right there. Older kids are more apt to be interested in the puppeteer. I think they relate it to playing with their own toys and how they give them personalities and voices.
Why do you think children find puppets so engaging?
One key thing is that most of their eyes are white and black — a white eye with black pupil — which is something Jim Henson started doing. They're these big contrasty things that are built so that they look right at you like a real person does. Children really feel like they're looking at something that's conscious and actively engaging them and looking them right in the eyes.
Another thing we do is try to be aware of the puppet's thought process like a real person's — being aware of what they're thinking and looking at. We only really move the puppets if there's a reason. It's not just frantic movement. They're always motivated by something, like there's something happening over there and that's why they look over to the left. There's a purpose for all the movements.
Are puppets useful beyond pure entertainment?
Puppets can say things that people can't say sometimes — people are being taught without really knowing they're being taught. It's an entertaining way to give information.
Do puppets have a bigger impact than, say, an adult acting in a very animated way?
Puppets can be so many different kinds of things — creatures or humanlike characters that can talk. A lot of the Muppet characters are kind of ageless. Children won't feel intimidated by them, these gentle characters that meet them on their level. We've never tried to talk down to children. Most of the humor on Sesame Street was done to make us [as performers] laugh as we were doing it, which brings children up to be treated in a more adult way.
If children can relate to puppets almost as peers, what implications might they have on social learning?
That's a lot of what Sesame Street is about — the characters learn things, and children learn through their eyes. The Muppets are, in a way, almost stand-ins for children on the show. Muppets are learning how to get along with other people, learning about different types of people in the world, and it's all being taught through the interaction between the characters and with adults on the show.
Besides their big, black and white eyes, why do you love puppets?
Being a part of the Muppets is a big deal for me. I was a huge fan as a kid. I was about 10 years old when I decided it's what I wanted to do. I was kind of this nerdy puppet guy through school. I really like to see the reaction of people seeing Kermit in person for the first time. I never wanted to be on stage as myself. There's something about being able to play-act through this other object to explore other parts of your personality. You get to be a character you'd never explore otherwise — I feel that as a puppeteer.
I was always drawn to the Muppets. When Sesame came on the air, I was fascinated by the characters and how they worked. How did they make these things look like that and do the things they did? I was fascinated by how real they seemed. And yet they were actually physically out there in the world. I had this sense that when Sesame Street went off the air every day, they were still there, like you could knock on Oscar's trash can and he'd pop out.
You also perform Ernie, but tell me more about what you love about Kermit.
I always think of Kermit as the best next-door neighbor you can have. Easygoing, diplomatic, cares about the world — an all-around nice guy. All the other characters run the gamut. He speaks to a lot of different people in a lot of different ways.
Even adults seem to like him, right?
Yes, and that's one great thing — multiple generations are entertained by puppets. That was always the idea of Sesame Street: to bring moms and dads to the TV with their kids instead of just sitting kids in front of it.