“This is what makes Muppet fandom unique: it has its own artistic craft that one can practice to advance from being a Muppet fan to being a Muppeteer. Therefore, it is probably the best example of a fandom with a hierarchy in which being a casual fan is at the bottom and being a part of the official work of media is at the top.”
The PBS Idea Channel on YouTube released a video on the future of fandoms that really got me thinking. What is the future of fandom, and specifically, what is the future of Muppet fandom? The video suggests the possibility that, in the future, fandoms may be able to “control the media they celebrate.” Perhaps Muppet fandom is evidence to believe that some fandoms are starting to merge with the official works upon which they are based.
Muppet fandom is a small fandom, and I like it that way. There are fewer people who want to meet Steve Whitmire than there are who want to meet William Shatner, which means that Muppet fans have easier access to the celebrities they love. As Frank Oz put it, “When you consider you do a whole bunch of characters, and you can walk down the street and nobody will know you’re those characters, it’s a very good thing because you can go in and buy a can of beans at the supermarket and no one’s going bother you. On the other hand, when you want somebody to bother you while you’re buying a can of beans, it gets very depressing.” So, naturally, it is generally not too difficult for Muppet fans to access the performers, puppet builders, writers, and directors they admire compared to other fandoms because they do not get as much attention as they might sometimes like.
It certainly helps that the people who work on Muppet productions are very nice. Plenty of Muppet fans have mailed letters and pictures to Muppeteers and gotten responses or autographs mailed back. In fact, I’ve emailed a Muppet writer for help with a school project and gotten a friendly response. When a Muppet fan runs a fansite, they will probably have an easier time getting Muppeteers to be involved in their work than a Whovian would getting Matt Smith to help out (not to say that Matt Smith is not nice). When Steve Swanson made friends with Arthur Novell, he essentially had a mutual friend with every Muppet performer and member of the Henson family. Several Muppet fansites have landed interviews with the lead Muppeteers and their characters, and perhaps more importantly, the people who run the Henson Company and Muppets Studio know these fans by name.
So, logically, since the fans have befriended the people who control the media around which their fandom is centered, it would make sense for there to be collaborations. Well, there have been a few, but not on the level one might hope for. As most fans know, Constantine took over ToughPigs.com on April Fool’s Day, and Constantine’s performer, Matt Vogel, provided the voice of Constantine to make it more official. Tough Pigs also hosted the official panel for “Jim Henson: The Biography” at New York Comic Con in 2013. Typically though, collaborations exist in the form of Muppeteers contributing to Muppet fan projects, or Muppet fans contributing to official Muppet projects. Some Muppet fan artists have drawn artwork for official Muppet comic books, and sometimes even for Muppet movies.
That being said, the Muppets and their fandom are inseparable in a way that other media and their associated fandoms are not. The Muppets rely on performers and builders in a certain craft that they invented, and they need devoted fans so that new performers and builders in that craft will take over. While television shows that have fandoms built around them, such as Sherlock, do require viewers in order to continue, Muppet fandom requires that people practice performing Muppets so that the Muppets can continue. When viewed from this perspective, Muppet fandom is fan-driven on a higher level than other fandoms because, while Star Wars and Spider-Man need actors, writers, artists, and directors, Muppet fans need to have all of those people in addition to people who have studied and practice the art of the Muppets.
This is no surprise though since many of the most significant Muppeteers started out as Muppet fans. Kevin Clash was an obsessed fan of Sesame Street, so he practiced Henson-style puppeteering until he became a very significant Sesame Street puppeteer. John Tartaglia was a huge fan of Fraggle Rock as a kid, and now he performs that show’s lead character. Even Kermit the Frog is performed by someone who was a big Muppet fan as a child who practiced to be one of the Muppeteers, and he became the puppeteer of the face of the Muppets. This is what makes Muppet fandom unique: it has its own artistic craft that one can practice to advance from being a Muppet fan to being a Muppeteer. Therefore, it is probably the best example of a fandom with a hierarchy in which being a casual fan is at the bottom and being a part of the official work of media is at the top.
This all still begs more questions. Could Muppet fans and Muppets Studio collaborate on an official project? Since the Muppet writers know the leaders of the biggest Muppet fansites, will they start asking for input? Could fans eventually be given enough control over the Muppets that we can decide to release the fourth season of The Muppet Show? Could Muppet fans agree on a set of criteria to establish what makes one Muppet fan a bigger fan than another? Will a Muppeteer, Muppet writer, or Muppet ever run his or her own fansite? One thing I do know is that Muppet fandom is forever intertwined, and is probably slowly merging with, the fandom upon which it is based.