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Kermit and Kimmel Behind the Scenes

By Nikolas Zane
October 3, 2003

Muppet fans are in for a treat this week, our beloved Kermit the Frog is guest hosting the Jimmy Kimmel Live show, the first late-night talk show to air live in over 40 years.

Excited to see a real live Muppet, my fiancé Emily and I headed into Hollywood three hours prior to the audience call time of 6:45 pm. Suffice it to say, we were the first guests waiting for tickets outside the El Capitan Theatre. So we stood there, watching the effervescence of Hollywood Boulevard for around two and a half hours before anyone else arrived. We’re big Muppet fans.

Closer to call time, our small queue of two became four, then ten and very quickly, many. At around 7:15 pm we were ushered through security and into the El Capitan foyer. To our great delight, one of the foyer monitors showed the stage set up. Steve Whitmire was on the screen, practicing the motions of his Kermit performance.

This was our first glimpse of a Muppeteer in action and it was a fascinating sight. We watched Steve, with a Kermit adorned arm, rehearsing his performance and taping various runs for Kermit’s studio entrance routine (to be shown later that evening).

For Kermit’s entrance, Steve was laying on a furniture dolly which enabled him to scuttle himself smoothly along the floor so Kermit could walk, while also waving Kermit’s arms and smiling brightly to the non-existent audience.

Our wait in the foyer was brief and soon we were let into the studio. We were seated rather close; row four, center stage, perhaps ten feet from Jimmy and the guest’s seats, but more importantly Kermit.

We endured the half hour warm-up prior to airtime at 9:06 pm. The routine was fairly standard and included a brief on-stage competition. The prize included the forthcoming Very Merry Muppet Christmas DVD and a small, extremely cute, Kermit plush toy.

My biggest fear before the show was that seeing behind the scenes of a Muppet performance might destroy the magic. It did not. In fact, being able to see Muppet and Muppeteer made it more special.

Towards the end of the warm-up, the guests were introduced: Evander Holyfield, Darryl Hannah and of course, the world’s most famous felt celebrity, Kermit the Frog. To my great satisfaction, Kermit received the loudest applause, a true show of the general public’s love for our little green friend.

A few minutes before airtime Jimmy Kimmel entered the studio to say a quick hello then exited again. The show began with his routine run into the El Capitan and pull of the switch for the Jimmy Kimmel Live sign.

During the first break came the moment I was waiting for, a behind-the-scenes look at a Muppet set up. The studio lights dimmed and production staff and stagehands swarmed the stage. Steve Whitmire entered with a couple of assistants. He quickly laid down in position below the guest seats at the foot of Jimmy’s desk. Stagehands replaced the usual coffee table with a longer one and a monitor was placed on the floor for Steve to view while working Kermit. What looked like a faux cushion seat with a black silk cloth draped over it was placed on the guest seat closest to Kimmel’s desk. The cloth was removed to reveal Kermit the Frog. Steve immediately began animating Kermit. From the moment we first saw him, Kermit was alive, looking about the studio, chatting with all the people darting about on stage.

We were told, “You are about to witness TV magic people. Just ignore what is happening on the stage right now. You see nothing. There’s nothing going on. Please, no yelling out that you see the guy with the puppet. When we exit this break, just watch the monitors closely for Kermit’s entrance.”

And Kermit’s entrance was fabulous. The pre-recording, then cut-to-live-Kermit, was seamless. My biggest fear before the show was that seeing behind the scenes of a Muppet performance might destroy the magic. It did not. In fact, being able to see Muppet and Muppeteer made it more special. Kermit was still as real to me as he ever was and it just looked as though there was this man comically lying on the floor lip-syncing to Kermit’s voice, not providing it. That said, it was also fascinating to watch Steve speaking Kermit’s dialog while intently watching the monitor, ensuring Kermit’s line-of-sight and arm actions were correct. It was like watching someone pat their head, while rubbing their tummy, singing star spangled banner and drinking a glass of water.

During the next break, it was time for Kermit to move seats and make way for the next guest. As Steve began to rise from the floor, he appeared to cough or clear his throat and it was funny to see that Kermit also mimicked this action. Later in the night during another break, one of the assistants bent down to speak to Steve and as he was replying back, he kept moving Kermit’s head and mouth to his speech. I wonder if all Muppeteers do this, to stay “in the zone”.

After the cough, Steve removed his arm from Kermit and very gently placed him in a laying position, almost as if to ensure his comfort. For a very brief moment I was witness to a limp, frozen-in-time Kermit. It was like a bad car accident, a little disturbing and I wanted to look away, but at the same time I was mesmerized by the sight. Kermit was covered with the silk cloth and taken away. Whitmire moved behind the seats and out of view from the audience, ready for the next segment. Shortly after that, Kermit appeared once again, alive and fully animated. There were three Kermit’s used for the night; first a legless Kermit for the entrance, second the cushion-seated Kermit and third a fully limbed Kermit.

For the next couple of segments, the human guests were brought on and Kermit received little attention from both Jimmy and the cameras. I, however, paid little attention to the humans and watched with my little green childhood friend up on stage merely feet away.

Kermit is as great as ever. He was so attentive to the action around him, moving his eyes from Jimmy to the other guests and back again, laughing and smiling all the time. He would look around the studio, to the band, the audience and down at the stage monitors. We were fully immersed in Muppet magic. And it was live.

My favorite moments were watching Kermit during the breaks. After Steve had moved behind the chairs I saw him rest his arm only once, and only very briefly. For the rest of the time he was 100% Kermit. He is clearly dedicated to the performance, allowing Kermit to “live” for as long as his own endurance would last and it was a pleasure to see such dedication from this great artist. During commercial breaks when staff would swarm the stage, Kermit would just sit there quietly bopping to the band and playing air-guitar to himself. He’d look around the studio often acknowledging the audience by smiling and waving. The funniest thing I saw was our favorite felt amphibian in his most candid of moments; making a crooked face and scratching his butt!

At the end of the show following the credits, Kermit waved goodbye and suddenly disappeared behind the chairs. Steve Whitmire appeared once again and was quickly surrounded by assistants. One of the producers walked on stage to congratulate Steve on a performance well done.

Emily and I laughed so much throughout the night. We sat there grinning intensely, in awe of seeing a real live Muppeteer and Kermit.

We slowly shuffled our way out of the studio and as I passed the stage, I desperately wanted to call out my appreciation to Steve, but was held back by a combination of both nervousness and giddy elation from the fantastic performance we had just seen. Thank you Steve and the Jim Henson Company team for such a wonderful show, and for your dedication to keeping Muppet magic alive.

A Note from Steve Whitmire

Editor's Note: Steve Whitmire sent us a wonderful response to the Jimmy Kimmel editorial. He asked that we share it with everyone. Here is what Steve had to say...

I hope this makes it through! I'm typing on a computer in the Sesame Street Fix It Shop set, using what may well be a fake e-mail address. Sorry to say, I am a dinosaur and truly don't have an e-mail address. Yes, for you Sesame Street fans - there are two real Internet connected Macs in the Fix It Shop set on the Street.

I wanted to thank Nik Zane for his kind words after visiting the Kimmel Show. FYI, ABC wants us back for sweeps week in November for (probably) a one time appearance. Don't yet have a confirmation or a date. Knowing you guys (the fans) you may know before I do!

I wanted to say that Zane said he resisted saying hello that evening, but I would have enjoyed it if he had. Don't be shy - we are generally very accessible folks! We love this site and we love our fans!

Thanks!
Steve Whitmire


 
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