Aug 22 2013 9:00am

Kermit the Frog: Greatest Muppet Diva of Them All

Kermit Muppet Show Diva

Miss Piggy, when viewed in the midst of the Muppet gang would commonly be labeled either the Leading Lady or, more often, the Diva. And this is because our cultural definition of Diva tends to lean toward “woman with outrageous performing chops who is sometimes unreasonably demanding and self-aware of her talent.” It’s a label that is both complimentary and also often backhanded; sure, you’re amazing, but could you tone it down a notch?

Which is why it’s so amusing the true muppet diva is easily Piggy’s leading man.

Now, the meta-conceit of the Muppets can make analyzing them something of a chore, so for argument’s sake, I’m qualifying what happens backstage on The Muppet Show and in “interviews” and the like to be actual-Kermit, not just him playing himself on screen. If that’s the case, then Kermit’s role with the muppets is as something of a ring master: He’s the director/producer, the leading man, and the emcee all rolled into one. It’s a pretty big job for one person to handle alone, but he won’t delegate it because this company belongs to him. All of his buddies are a part of it, and he loves them dearly, but it’s never in doubt who’s calling the shots. He wants it how he wants it, and no one challenges his authority because they know he’s the only one among them with the right skills for the job.

Despite the fact that Kermit is the man in charge, his difficulties in dealing with a bunch of chickens, pigs, and whatevers frequently work him into a state that is unbecoming of a manager or a leading man. He flails and huffs and screams and then stares at his compatriots in astonishment—why is he the only sane one here? The only one who doesn’t have to be constantly reigned in and monitored? Which is a bit silly of him as these are his friends and coworkers and it’s not as though he doesn’t know how they operate by now.

Kermit is undoubtedly high-strung. He’s the man who talks with the guest stars. He has final say on the sketch order each night. He demands a certain level performance caliber and is unapologetically dismissive of anyone who doesn’t reach that peak—remember the Gargling Gershwin act from the Mark Hamill episode? Remember how quickly Kermit was willing to trade that poor gargoyle out as soon as Luke Skywalker showed up? Remember how he ousted him and Luke’s “cousin” Mark Hamill, even though their skills were far more suited to a variety show like theirs? It was all a matter of popularity, and Kermit had no problem calling it, even if it was a cold business move. It’s realistic for sure, but not in keeping with how the public generally thinks of Kermit: cuddly, a bit nervous, optimistic, and true.

The recent dueling banjo video with Steve Martin shows a similar side to our favorite frog, when he goes so far as to upbraid the legendary comedian for missing a note in their duet. When Martin tries to shift the blame, Kermit’s not having any of it. He’s a consummate performer, so there’s no way he missed his mark. It had to be someone else.

What I’m saying is that… Kermit is kind of a jerk. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t love him—for my part, it’s kind of the reason he’s a favorite of mine—but he gets too much credit as “Mr. Nice Guy” when he doesn’t really deserve it. Kermit is genuine, and he’s hard-working, and he’s sometimes kind, but he’s also a showbiz guy who’s running his own circus. He doesn’t have time to coddle you and indulge your feelings. Unless he’s playing Bob Cratchit, in which case, that’s in-character and totally legitimate. In fact, that might be why he tends to get the sweetheart label over and over; Kermit always “plays” nice guys in muppet productions. That doesn’t mean he actually is one, though.

Diva is not a solely female title, nor is it relegated to the realm of performance. It’s about who has the reigns and lets everybody know it. It’s about who you answer to when things go wrong, and who you rally around as a central point, the spoke of the wheel. Kermit is solely in control of the muppet legacy. Or to put it another way: it’s his gig and they’re all just acting in it.

Kermit Piggy Muppet Show

Piggy, on the other hand, is basically being labeled according to her dreams rather than her reality. She’s trying her hardest to be the diva, but she rarely succeeds. She constantly asks to be put out in the important numbers, has to give Kermit a hard time about the sketch roster, tries to get into bits with big name stars, but Kermit is usually there telling her no.

Piggy’s not allowed to do whatever she wants unless she fights for it (often literally). She wheedles and canoodles and threatens, and thinks she’s the best of the best—but no one is willing to give her that credit. In fact, Kermit often belittles her abilities; like the time when he asked her not to sing while Lena Horne was on the show because he thought she’d be outshone. Piggy took this in the opposite manner it was intended, thinking that Kermit meant Lena would look bad next her. It’s a form of denial that Piggy’s engages in often because if she didn’t, she wouldn’t have the confidence to keep pushing for more.

And that’s categorically not being a diva. That’s trying for the title, being one deep down in her heart, but never getting to the place where she’s appreciated for it.

You can’t help but wonder if that’s the reason why some of the roughness of Kermit and Piggy’s relationship was addressed in Jason Segel’s The Muppets. It can be a little hard to stomach how dismissive Kermit is of Piggy, even if a lot of it has to do with her overbearing romanticism. So the events of the film actually forced Kermit not just to simply acknowledge Piggy’s importance to the Muppet gang, but also to apologize for his treatment of her—something Kermit rarely did (at least not remorsefully) at any other point in their history.

Can anyone else really assume the mantle of puppety diva for the gang over Kermit? Gonzo has a lot of the pizzazz and self-importance, but he’s not focused and decidedly too weird to be commercial enough. Fozzie’s more than willing to play second fiddle to Kermit most days. Rowlf’s the piano man, way too chill for that sort of thing. Sam Eagle’s just a control freak. Even Link Hogthrob doesn’t fit the bill.

Kermit Muppet Show

Kermit the Frog is the only one capable of corralling the muppet crew. He’s a master showman, a lovable lead, a talented musician and actor. But like anyone in his position, he has to be a little bit manic, a little bit mean. That’s how you achieve perfection. That’s how you run a comedy variety show and a series of successful spin-off films and come out as one of the most beloved ensembles in entertainment.

Kermit’s the diva and that’s all right. Because without him the muppets would have never put on a show in the first place. Give him his spotlight and let him have his way—you’ll love what you get in return.

Emily Asher-Perrin thinks that Kermit's furious lip curl is just about the best expression in the wide world. She has written essays for the newly released Doctor Who and Race and Queers Dig Time Lords. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

Kit Case
1. wiredog
"What do you do?"
"I garrrrrgle Gerrrrshwin."
3. SWS
Grammar police: Kings reign. Divas need to be reined in. Thank you.
Christopher Bennett
4. ChristopherLBennett
I don't think the Dueling Banjos video counts as the real, offstage Kermit, since it seemed that the gag was that they were taking the "dueling" part literally, pretending to be hostile to each other.

I think calling Kermit a diva is a bit strong, but I agree that he does have an edge. He can be tough and decisive as a leader needs to be, he has a clear creative vision and the drive to make it happen, and he knows when to put his flipper down and let people know in no uncertain terms that he's not taking any more of their guff, which is the only way he can keep all these show-business types (both Muppet and human, probably) reined in. I think that, essentially, Kermit is Jim Henson -- a nice guy, but driven and tough enough to achieve his creative vision despite all the obstacles the industry puts in his path.

And that's why I think the recent movie The Muppets got Kermit so completely wrong. The writers of that movie were so invested in Kermit's nice-guy image that they made him a passive sad sack who spent the whole movie giving up at the first sign of difficulty and needing other characters to convince him to keep trying. That's the exact opposite of who Kermit is. The film robbed Kermit of his backbone (or, err, radius and ulna, I guess) so that its new character Walter could play the hero.
6. BlackGold
I remember hearing that people considered Kermit the frog as Jim Henson's alter-ego. They were doing similar jobs: wrangling artists and trying to create a successful show. Also they had some similar personality traits. But Kermit got to be the bigger diva than Henson, snarkier and saying things that soft-spoken Henson kept inside.
7. Patricia Mathews
We don't have a name for a male diva, any more than we have one for a primadonna, but the original languages do. Kermit is a divus. The male superstar with the ego and the tantrums is a primo uomo (spelling? No tengo Italiano.)
Christopher Bennett
8. ChristopherLBennett
@7: Actually, Wikipedia says: "The male form divo exists in Italian and is usually reserved for the most prominent leading tenors, like Enrico Caruso and Beniamino Gigli."
Ron Hogan
9. RonHogan
Kermit's role as the "Muppet News Flash" correspondent on Sesame Street also provides examples of the kind of cutting, dismissive behavior Emily's pointing to here.

Here's how it came together in my head, after reading this article: The Muppet Show is the Mercury Theater, and Kermit the Frog is young Orson Welles.
Alan Brown
10. AlanBrown
I don't agree that Kermit is a diva. Kermit is a leader. Divas demand that things happen. Leaders make things happen, and they have to care about how they get done, and have to work to create the desired results. Divas just know what they want, and expect others to get it done. Kermit is demanding because he needs to be. It is not easy being in charge--especially when you are short and green.

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