Wednesday, September 21, 2011

What Tadpole is This?

Recycling puppets was a common occurence in the Henson Company.  Usually, the production team would plan for multiple uses of puppets and would build simple base puppets known as Whatnots or Anything Muppets to dress up and decorate to fit the scene.  Other times, a simple puppet was created that would only appear in background scenes or be used to say a singular line when the script called for large crowds.  But occassionally, a puppet would only be made for a specific purpose, like a starring role with a distinctive personality and voice, and reusing the now recognizable puppet in other formats would be impossible.  Such was the case with Robin the Frog.

A small frog with a big heart.

Looking at him, it is clear that the puppet has a very simple design.  He could easily pass for a generic frog when needed.  But he was made with a purpose.  Robin was originally created for a one-hour special production of The Frog Prince.  Although Kermit was already a recognizable frog, his personality did not fit with the intended character, so he was regulated to a narrator and supporting role.  Prince Robin was supposed to be timid and insecure and very young.  The change into a frog was frightening and new for him.  Kermit would be there to give him support.  The special was a hit for the Muppets, which at the time were mostly known for Sesame Street.  It would be a few years until The Muppet Show so Robin and the other puppets used in the special were kept in storage.

When The Muppet Show debuted, Henson and his crew used his vast array of pre-existing puppets that were not Sesame Street celebrities to round out the cast and crowd.  Many new characters were created but most of the puppets had been used before.  This little frog had a memorable starring role, so they could not create a completely new character for him.  Instead, they kept his name, personality, and voice and "revealed" that he was Kermit's nephew.

Cartoon characters don't have offspring, but their unseen siblings are surprisingly fertile.

Robin had an odd journey establishing himself on the show.  Because The Muppet Show was geared as the adult alternative to Sesame Street, there were no sketches made for young characters.  Robin couldn't be pawned off on Sesame Street either, because the character was too soft-spoken and lacked the energy attributed to kids shows.  Robin did not have a quirky persona, and was not the type who would regularly make quips or tell jokes.  He was a bright-eyed observer who viewed the world around him with a solemn dignity.  As a result, Robin was given all of the solemn, dignified skteches.  In an ironic twist, the youngest character on the show was also the most mature.

Robin's signature "hit" was his cover of a song based on an A.A. Milne poem called "Halfway Down."


Milne, known for his "Winnie-the-Pooh" stories, had a knack for relating the experiences of childhood into profound wisdoms.  He wrote this poem through the eyes of his young son Christopher Robin, noting what a strange place the middle of the staircase is.  This idea seemed perfect coming out of the mouth of the young froglet who also had trouble discovering where he fit.


He does not belong with the rest of the Muppet crew and he recognizes it.  He is too small to keep up with the gang.  Fortunately, he had another refugee from The Frog Prince join him in his journey to the new show.  And this creature also felt out of place due to his size.  Sweetums the Ogre played a villain in the original fairy tale, but his kind nature broke through and allowed him to form a bond with this kindred spirit.


But despite this connection, Sweetums was undoubtedly a humorous character.  Robin still could not help but feel out of place.  In another one of the show's few tender moments, sguest star Bernadette Peters comes to the aid of the depressed pollywog and shows him how significant "Just One Person" can be.


And Robin was significant.  With his innocence and sympathy and selfless instincts, he became a character that many people could idolize.  The Muppets are known for being swacky.  Robin is there to ground them, to remind us that humor is just buut one of the joys we can offer each other.  It was no question that he would portray the similarly motivated Tiny Tim in The Muppet's Christmas Carol.  Only Robin could bring the dignity required of the role that most of the other Muppets sorely lack.

The patient and mild Tiny Tim.  Such a little, little child.

What started as a generic puppet without any notable qualities has evolved into a complex creature with a deeper set of emotions thought to be incapable in mere felt and plastic.  He may feel out of place, but it is his self-awareness that distinguishes him.  He is too good for the world he was made for.  He is not a human, but he is not a Muppet.

He is somewhere else instead.

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