“I’m so confused. Are we supposed to *LIKE* Debbie or should continue to *HATE* Debbie. After all she is one of the people who fired you. Right? This last post sure seems like back peddling.”…comment on July 23, 2017 to my post “The Last Few Days, Part 2”.
I’ve known Debbie McClellan since she joined The Jim Henson Company about a year after Jim’s death. We actually started working together doing publicity events when she became the VP of Corporate Communications and Publicity at Henson. In 2004 with the sale of the classic Muppets to Disney, Debbie transitioned to Disney and we have been working side-by-side ever since. So after knowing someone for 26 years and being comrades in arms for the last 13 years my story was about processing yet another loss. I will never “hate” Debbie, and neither should any of you.
I want to address this comment because with the use of the words “…continue to hate…”, it illustrates our natural tendency to choose sides. Please hear me when I say,
Everyone involved in this situation (including all of you) will benefit from simply choosing to validate and support doing what is best for the Muppets.
Let me try to explain my thinking.
First, lets be clear on what I mean when I say “the Muppets”. No matter who currently owns a particular character franchise of Jim’s original creations, a familiar looking group of puppets moving around on a screen as a shadow of what they are capable of being is not my definition of the Muppets. My experience tells me that it is important to define them not as a collective corporate franchise, but as themselves, the distinctive individuals that they have always been. Creative direction begins with who they are, not with a business deal just to get them seen.
Jim said to me that once a creative direction was in place his experience was that “the money will come”. In other words, devote your mind initially to the vision, and sell it once you have something of value to sell. When it comes to the Muppets, the importance of following that criteria hasn’t changed in my opinion.
Jim was not only the arbiter of the vision, he was the guy selling it, so he was in the position to safeguard the vision as project financing deals were put into place. When I say my goal within Disney has been to ‘integrate Jim’s methodologies with the needs of a huge corporation’, I am saying (and have said ad nauseam) that ‘every Muppet endeavor should first and foremost be viewed through the eyes of the distinctive individuals, the Muppets, themselves’.
Does a given creative direction serve to allow for the Muppets to grow based upon who they are? That filter tells us whether or not what is being proposed is in-character for the individual and for the overall group dynamic.
But, even though that is what I worked to try and achieve with Debbie‘s help, executives are primarily tasked with making deals and preserving business relationships rather than pursuing creative consistency. What has tended to happen is that with money on the table, either everyone would scramble to figure out what to shoot, or a disproportionate part of the creative direction was placed in the hands of well-meaning folks (outside the Muppet team) who had limited or no experience of the characters.
Commonly the earliest stage of involvement for those of us having the most character experience was after commitments were made to business partners, meaning no input at the conceptual stages. Just as was the case with Jim’s core circle, I advocated for a very small team within The Muppets Studio made up of the most experienced people who, alongside the executives, would determine the merit of every proposed Muppet direction before creative control became something to negotiate with business partners.
On numerous projects with numerous executives over the years, I expressed the need for executive support for character integrity if projects were to succeed. In my opinion, while negotiating business partnerships, any executives overseeing The Muppets Studio should have always reserved final creative control over the brand they are charged with protecting. After all, within Disney they are the guardians of that integrity. There’s a whole manual devoted to what you can and cannot do with Mickey Mouse, but from my viewpoint no one stands up for the Muppets if it constrains a deal.
So, what I feel is not hate, it is extreme disappointment that, as the leaders of The Muppets Studio, the key executives were not braver in their convictions in standing up and protecting the Muppets over the many character issues that they were agreeing with me and the other performers on behind the scenes in our last failed project. That left someone like me to do it, or it would never have been done at all.
Bob Iger is quoted as having said, “I think it is important for people who are given leadership roles to assume that role immediately.” So during the two years prior to my dismissal with continued assurances that my being made a creative producer was just a formality, that‘s exactly what I did. I think you can imagine how it might feel to be terminated for doing what the executives asked me to do, give notes, something they should have been doing more stringently themselves, in my opinion.
Jim used to watch movies with the audio turned off in order to see how effective the visuals were at conveying the story. He taught me to squint once in a while when watching playbacks of our work in order to get a less detailed overall impression of the composition of things. This was reflected in his general view of life, too. If we step back far enough we will see more and more of the composition of the big picture.
From that larger perspective, none of this is about my job, any alternate puppeteer’s opportunity, Disney’s franchise, the executives, or you, the fans, as separate considerations. If you don’t walk away with any other thought after reading anything I’ve written, please keep this one idea in your mind:
In the big picture, it is not unsupportive of any individual or entity to choose on the side of what is best for the Muppets, themselves, to insure that they have their best chance to go on as a solid, viable ensemble made up of fully intact individuals.
Every problem has a solution. The Muppets that you love and remember are what’s at stake. For them to continue as they have over the last 13 years under Disney’s watch, slowly becoming more shallow as they are stripped of their depth is, for me, “unacceptable business conduct“, and it’s why it’s not time for me to let this go yet. For me, there is only one side to choose, the Muppets.