Disney's Muppets Problem: Can the Franchise Reckon With Its Boys' Club Culture?
ILLUSTRATION BY ROBERT SAMMELIN

Disney's Muppets Problem: Can the Franchise Reckon With Its Boys' Club Culture?

In a streaming-centric Hollywood, the beloved ragtag troupe is poised for a rebirth, but first its corporate overlords must rectify a workplace that hasn't been inclusive.

Since buying the Muppets in 2004, Disney has never been quite sure what to do with the ragtag gang. But after years of fits and starts, the Muppets may have found their moment. Hollywood's streaming-first strategy has primed the property — with its rich back catalog including 10 features, 120 episodes of The Muppet Show and dozens of specials and spinoffs, its deep bench of beloved character IP and its ability to captivate homebound children for hours on end — for a renaissance. They even have the boss' favor: Bob Chapek, the former head of Disney parks who took over as CEO in February, is internally known to be much more of a fan than former CEO Bob Iger ever was. And the brand's latest swing at relevance, a six-episode series for Disney+ called Muppets Now, has been lauded by critics as having ushered the Muppets into the TikTok era.

Despite this potentially rosy and modern future, however, the internal culture of the Muppets remains mired in the past — little has changed since its boys' club beginnings in the early 1970s. The world has evolved, but behind the scenes — particularly where it involves current sensitivities around sexism and inclusivity — the Muppets have not. Muppets insiders interviewed for this article say it's virtually impossible for female Muppets performers to advance alongside their male counterparts by being invited into what's known as the "core Muppets players" — an elite cadre of six puppeteers, all of them white men, who perform the most famous characters. The current core consists of Matt Vogel (Kermit the Frog), Eric Jacobson (Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy), Dave Goelz (the last original Muppets performer and creator of Gonzo), Bill Barretta (Rowlf the Dog), Peter Linz (Walter, a character from the 2011 feature reboot The Muppets) and David Rudman (Scooter, Janice).

A seventh full-time Muppets performer, Julianne Buescher, who has worked with the company for 30-plus years and plays a leading role on Muppets Now (Beverly Plume, a turkey who hosts a cooking show), has never been invited to join the core, keeping her at a lower rung than her male counterparts. Buescher, who would not comment for this story, is listed as an "additional Muppet performer" on Muppets Now — a credit typically assigned to supporting puppeteers who operate hands or play rats and chickens. For that, she earns scale — or $1,500 a week, far less than what the core performers make. (Disney would not reveal those figures, nor would it make any Muppets Studio employees available for comment. But insiders say they command fees more in keeping with typical live-action series leads — easily tens of thousands of dollars per episode.)

Compounding the problem is Disney's hands-off approach to the property. Between 2004 and 2017, the Muppets Studio (formerly the Muppets Holding Co.) was shuffled among Disney Consumer Products (whose president, Kareem Daniel, was recently elevated to lead the company's new Media and Entertainment Distribution division), Walt Disney Studios, its special events group and Disney Interactive Media. (The Muppets finally landed in Chapek's domain when a 2018 company reorganization moved digital under his Parks, Experiences and Products unit.) Throughout, Disney has tried to evolve the property creatively, resulting in hits (2011's The Muppets, which won an Oscar for original song and grossed $165 million worldwide) and misses (the low-rated 2015 mockumentary sitcom of the same name, canceled by ABC after one season). But to those who work there, the Muppets have never seemed a priority.

According to Muppets performers consulted for this report — several of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity — Disney's frugality (it has tried repeatedly to skirt union minimums for puppeteers by giving them nonperformer titles) and general lack of HR oversight (there are no Muppets performers of color at Disney, nor has there ever been) has taken a toll on the brand. Says one veteran puppeteer, "I believe very strongly that there is not enough diversity within the core group."

Asked about a pattern of underpayments to Muppets puppeteers by Disney that dates to 1990, a SAG-AFTRA representative responds that "some companies have attempted to place puppeteers under contracts that are inappropriate to their type of work in order to get around contractual obligations like consecutive employment and overtime. Just as an example, puppeteers have sometimes been hired as [lower-paid] stunt puppeteers when they are not performing any stunt work."

Recently, Disney has been hiring fewer and fewer noncore puppeteers as a cost-saving measure. Not too long ago, Michelan Sisti, who got his start when Jim Henson chose him to play Michelangelo in 1990's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, made a steady living with the Muppets. "I was the drumming hands of Animal for the last decade or more," Sisti says, "and penguins, chickens, rats, things of that nature." But well before the COVID-19 pandemic, Sisti's work with the company had dried up. "They stopped using as many of us additional puppeteers as they did before," he says. "That's been the biggest change." He figures he's hung up the drumsticks for good: "Where the Muppets are concerned, I'm a retired guy."

Also controversial was the 2017 firing of Steve Whitmire, a Henson disciple who joined The Muppet Show in 1978, eventually inheriting Kermit from Henson after his 1990 death. A virtuoso puppeteer, Whitmire was nevertheless a thorn in Disney's side for years, advocating aggressively on behalf of puppeteers' rights while doing his best to ensure that the Muppets ethos — i.e., "how Jim would have done it" — remains intact. A Disney statement at the time of his termination referred to Whitmire's "repeated unacceptable business conduct over a period of many years." Whitmire refutes that characterization, telling THR, "There's a fine line between being difficult to work with and being difficult to take advantage of."

Many in the Muppets community found his dismissal shocking. "All I could see was Steve being very professional," says David Alan Barclay, a veteran puppeteer who manned Jabba the Hutt in 1983's Return of the Jedi and worked alongside Whitmire on ABC's The Muppets. "There would come up certain things in the scripts that all us puppeteers would say, 'Well, Kermit wouldn't say that,' and Steve would very gently say, 'I'm not sure this line is quite correct for Kermit.' He seemed to be very caring about the characters." (Others, however, counter that Whitmire grew too powerful and protective of the Muppets legacy, going so far as to blacklist puppeteers who did not fall in line with his views.)

Puppeteer Alice Dinnean, who also worked on the ABC show, says: "I don't know what the issue was that caused that cataclysmic disruption in our community. That was hard on everyone and was a little bit mysterious. Steve was Kermit — and Kermit is a movie star."

*****

The Muppets and Disney have always made for uneasy bedfellows. On Oct. 17, 1989, eight months before he died of untreated bacterial pneumonia, Jim Henson wrote an uncharacteristically pointed letter to Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg. He had for months been locked in bitter negotiations with the then-Disney chiefs, who wanted to buy his Jim Henson Co. for $150 million (about $315 million today). It was meant to be a happily-ever-after scenario for Henson, freeing him to focus on new creative endeavors. But as Disney's army of lawyers nickel-and-dimed him into submission, it was quickly turning into a nightmare.

"We are getting started in a way that is not going to work for me in the future," Henson said, questioning how Disney could have the gall to balk at the modest $1.2 million budget he'd requested for their first major collaboration — Muppet*Vision 3D, a Captain EO-inspired short-film attraction for Walt Disney World. That figure included his directing fee of $200,000, a number Eisner and Katzenberg rejected as "too high and precedent breaking." Fumed Henson, "I really don't intend to do battle with you guys for the next 15 years."

Tragically, he wouldn't live long enough to have to. But he would prove prescient about the timeline: Save for some specific deal points (domestic rights to Henson theme park attractions, theatrical and home video distribution of movies like 1992's The Muppet Christmas Carol and 1996's Muppet Treasure Island), the actual sale of the Muppets to Disney did not happen until Feb. 17, 2004. It was then that the beloved (and highly merchandisable) suite of Muppets characters — Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the rest — became the sole property of Disney, as did classic films like 1979's The Muppet Movie and 1981's The Great Muppet Caper, as well as The Muppet Show, which aired in syndication from 1976 to 1981. (With the exception of Kermit, Sesame Street Muppets like Big Bird and Cookie Monster were not included in the deal and remain property of the nonprofit Sesame Workshop, now a third-party content provider to HBO Max.) Disney paid $75 million for the company — half the originally proposed sum. "They wanted to pay less money because Jim wasn't part of it anymore," says a contemporary of Henson's. "It just really soured the [Henson] family, I know that."

Fifteen years later, the Muppets are relatively minor cogs in the Disney machine. Henson's dreams of vast Muppet Lands inside Disney theme parks never came to fruition. (The original, 30-year-old Muppet*Vision 3D still screens at Walt Disney World, near a Miss Piggy fountain.) In 2020, nowhere is the brand's redheaded-stepchild status more evident than on the Walt Disney Co. website itself, which features the logos of dozens of Disney holdings including Pixar, Marvel Studios and Lucasfilm — but bears no mention of the Muppets.

Any of Henson's creations that did not involve the Muppets — including popular fantasy properties like The Dark Crystal and Fraggle Rock — remained with the Jim Henson Co., which has been run by Brian Henson and Lisa Henson since their father's death. (Brian, 56, serves as chairman of the company, while his sister, Lisa, 60, is CEO.) What quickly became apparent to those who worked with him was that Brian was not his legendary father — nor did he want to be. "He has hated puppeteers for his entire life," says one longtime collaborator. "He had this thing that these people were siphoning from his father like vampires — Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, Frank Oz," the source continues, citing Henson's original core team. (Of them, only Goelz still performs; Nelson died in 2012 and Oz went on to direct feature comedies like What About Bob? and In & Out.)

According to sources, Brian Henson's aversion to the Muppets persists. At a 2017 live performance at the Hollywood Bowl, after the Muppets led a 17,000-person crowd in an emotional rendition of the Oscar-nominated Muppet Movie ballad "The Rainbow Connection," Henson was overheard backstage, according to witnesses, saying, "I hate that fucking song!" His last directorial effort, 2018's The Happytime Murders, was meant to be a repudiation of the Muppets' feel-good legacy: a raunchy film noir starring Melissa McCarthy and a cast of puppets that ejaculated Silly String and said things like, "For 50 cents, I'll suck your dick." The film bombed and earned six Razzie nominations, winning one for McCarthy. Brian Henson declined to comment, but Lisa responds: "Anyone who knows Brian knows that these claims are ridiculous. Brian Henson’s legacy as a director, producer, performer, and innovator for dozens of puppet productions over the last 35-plus years speaks for itself. He considers the original Muppet performing troupe part of our family and has regarded Paul Williams  —writer of "Rainbow Connection" and Brian’s music collaborator on Muppet Christmas Carol — as uniquely the best songwriter ever for the Muppets.”

Still, his Jim Henson Co. has an exemplary track record when it comes to employing women, thanks in large part to Lisa's push, especially during the past five years, to bring more female artists into the mix. The Disney-owned Muppets, on the other hand, still remain white and male — something that was baked into its beginnings. "Jim Henson and Frank Oz were an amazing double act," says Barclay. "I think that's really one of the fundamental reasons The Muppet Show worked so well. It's like Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy." Adds Whitmire: "When Jim was alive, his core team started out as a fairly male-dominated company. There was no prejudice. I mean, Jim was just about the most liberal, accepting person I ever knew." Nevertheless, the company leaned into "masculine humor — a lot of guys being silly in a room," he says. "And I think oftentimes it took a very special woman to be in that room." As a result, whenever female Muppets characters broke out — like Miss Piggy (originally played by Oz) and Janice (originated by Richard Hunt) — they were invariably performed by men.

To be sure, a handful of influential female puppeteers have worked on Henson projects and with the Muppets over the years, including Fran Brill and Louise Gold (both hired by Jim Henson himself). These days, however, only two women still actively perform with the Muppets: Buescher and Dinnean. Speaking with THR, Dinnean, who also works with the Jim Henson Co. and its affiliated Henson Creature Workshop (she was one of the stars of the Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance), is forgiving of the lack of female Muppeteers: "The Muppets are like Monty Python. Miss Piggy is a wonderful drag role. She's got that over-the-top, diva feel. That's the tradition. She's never going to be played by a woman, nor should she be. She will be played by a series of gentlemen through history."

As for her one female counterpart, Dinnean says Buescher "has some lovely smaller but regular characters like Yolanda the Rat. She's a virtuoso and is amazing. But in order to be one of the central performers, you need to have five or six classic characters." Still, Dinnean points out, the group is "really good about bringing [women] in" to support the core. "Not only because we deserve it. But because they want a little more representation."

Jim Henson always saw the Muppets as an ensemble and encouraged the development of hundreds of characters. There are an estimated 3,300 individual Muppets characters in existence, across all Disney and Jim Henson Co. properties. Yolanda the Rat and Beverly Plume might not be considered marginal if Disney took a more holistic approach to the world. But from the start, Disney, not illogically, focused on the Muppets that could generate the most money. "It was based on data they got from all over the world," says Whitmire. "Who are the five characters people responded to the most? And it was Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Animal and Gonzo. And so it was very hard for new, female-performed characters to penetrate."

Disney also veered from Jim Henson's philosophy by choosing to "multicast" the Muppets — meaning assigning multiple performers to the same characters. "It's an animators' approach, where they have the number one Mickey voice, the number two, three, four, depending on how important the product is," explains Barclay. "They've seen Muppets in that same sort of way. But the real soul of the character comes from the original puppeteer — and when you take that away, then you lose the identity of the character."

When he played Kermit, Whitmire agreed. So much so, in fact, that when he learned that Disney was holding an audition for backup performers (it was hastily organized in 2005 after the voice of Winnie the Pooh's Piglet, John Fiedler, died without anyone lined up to take his place), Whitmire, still at the company, allegedly blacklisted anyone who showed up to the audition. Says a puppeteer: "I don't want to make Steve sound like he's the bad guy. But in a sense, he kind of was — in that he was protecting his role as Kermit, and because of that, he kind of threw some people under the bus." Among the blacklisted puppeteers were Artie Esposito, who auditioned to understudy Kermit, and Allan Trautman, a veteran who'd gotten his start working with legendary puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft.

The existence of the Muppets blacklist was certainly known to Disney executives — but Whitmire's sway over the Muppets was such at the time that the studio was powerless to stop him, according to several sources. "It was a big part of why they found a way to dismiss him," says an insider. "Disney wanted understudies. Period. If Kermit's in New York and also has to be on a cruise ship, you might need a couple of performers if you want this franchise to have a rebirth. Because it hasn't happened so far."

Whitmire rejects the narrative. "In nearly four decades of involvement with the Muppets, I never had any 'supervisory capacity,' meaning decisions over who was hired or not hired were never mine, so I could not 'blacklist' anyone," he says. "Artie Esposito was, in fact, hired to be Kermit for appearances four years [after the audition], when I was asked to work nonunion. Also, others who were a part of that 2005 audition to multicast the characters worked with me on subsequent Disney projects." A rep for Esposito responds, "Any TV appearances where Artie performed Kermit were covered by SAG-AFTRA." Trautman declined to comment.

Whitmire was fired in summer 2017 during a phone call with the two executives overseeing Muppets Studio at the time, Debbie McClellan and Kyle Laughlin. "They told me that, after my 37-year career, 'Sorry, we've decided to recast all your characters.' It was handled so disrespectfully, and I was reeling. I went through incredible depression about this and just sadness and desperation to try to sort it out." In early 2019, McClellan and Laughlin also were forced out for unspecified reasons. (McLellan would not speak for this article, while Laughlin maintains that he left voluntarily to take a position at Amazon.)

Now Muppets Studio is led by vice president Leigh Slaughter, an Australian who formerly headed the character and puppetry studio at Disney Imagineering, where she reported to Chapek. Slaughter is reputed to be a highly talented creative executive and, among the insular and gossipy world of the Muppets, has so far made a good impression, having served as executive producer on Muppets Now.

In a July interview with The New York Times, Slaughter hinted at Muppets content in the pipeline. "We definitely have ambitions for the Muppets to be doing more," she said. "But there's nothing that we're ready to reveal." Disney in the future hopefully will address adjustments that need to happen on both sides of the camera — which may end up costing more money and ruffling some old-guard feathers, but which ultimately will result in Muppets that feel truly modern and relevant. If it does that, then this revival might actually have some legs — even if the Muppets themselves do not.

Nov. 2, 7:34 p.m. Updated to include statement from Lisa Henson.

Nov. 3, 10:14 a.m. Updated with response from Kyle Laughlin.

Nov. 6, 11:11 a.m. Updated with response from a rep for Artie Esposito.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.