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An Oral History of Kermit in the Gulag

While ‘Muppets Most Wanted’ wasn’t the most successful Muppet film, it did generate some of the most memorable Kermit the Frog memes

After the critical and financial success of the 2011 film The Muppets, Disney ordered a sequel to be once again helmed by director James Bobin. The movie — the eighth theatrical film starring Jim Henson’s Muppets — would eventually be titled Muppets Most Wanted and it was released on March 21, 2014. Unfortunately, while reviews were generally positive and expectations were high, it didn’t quite catch on as hoped, grossing less than half as much as its predecessor

Despite this, the movie has enjoyed an interesting online afterlife, generating some of the most popular Kermit the Frog memes, which is impressive given the sheer volume of Kermit memes that exist. But before getting to how Evil Kermit and “Kermit in the Gulag” became online running gags, it makes sense to go back to the beginning of Muppets Most Wanted, which, by design, is exactly the same place where the previous film left off.

“We’re doing a sequel. We’re back by popular demand.
Come on everybody, strike up the band!”

James Bobin, director of The Muppets (2011), director and co-writer of Muppets Most Wanted (2014): The Muppets was really a film about who the Muppets were — a reminder of their greatness. Ten years ago, I used to tell my kids about the Muppets and how great they were, and they’d watch the old TV show and like it, but not love it. After that movie though, they went back and really loved the TV show. 

But in getting the Muppets back together, it meant that we had to have less assumed knowledge about who they were. Also, they were only really together to put on a show in that movie, and as great as that was, Muppets Most Wanted allowed us to show what happens when the Muppets embark on an adventure, which wasn’t dissimilar in concept to The Great Muppet Caper, a constant source of inspiration.

Joe Hennes, owner and editor-in-chief of Muppet fansite Tough Pigs: Muppets Most Wanted, in many ways, is a riff on The Great Muppet Caper in the same way that The Muppets was a riff on The Muppet Movie. Both Caper and Most Wanted take place in Europe and both are “capers” in their own way. It’s a really wonderful film, too. It’s fun and funny, and it’s just this crazy adventure with great music and great puppetry. The only real complaint I have is that it didn’t keep its original title: The Muppets Again.

“We’re doing a sequel, it’s more of the same
Let’s give it a name! How ‘bout The Muppets Again?”

Dylan “Hornswoggle” Postl, author of Life Is Short and So Am I and “Prisoner One” in Muppets Most Wanted: To this day I get bummed out that they didn’t call the movie The Muppets Again. That’s such a great title.

Bobin: We shot the movie as The Muppets Again — Nick Stoller and I found that joke very funny, and it was the sort of thing the Muppets would call their own movie. The first song in the movie — “We’re Doing a Sequel” by Bret McKenzie — picks up right where The Muppets left off and the final line of the song is, “It’s the Muppets Again!” For the longest time, that song ended and then the title of the film came up. But the title was eventually changed as a marketing decision, which is a shame.

“We’re doing a sequel, let’s give it a shot,
All we need now is a half-decent plot!”

Hennes: In Muppets Most Wanted, the Muppets have embarked on a tour across Europe. While in Germany, Kermit is conflicting a bit with the other Muppets so he goes on a walk in Plotpointburg, Germany. From there, Constantine — an evil Kermit lookalike with a mole — slaps a fake mole on Kermit’s face and leaps away. Then Kermit is spotted, immediately arrested and sent straight to the Gulag. 

Bobin: The idea of putting Kermit in the Gulag came about naturally as we were developing the story. We knew that we wanted to do some sort of identity-swap-caper-movie, and Nick and I thought it would be great to have an evil version of the world’s nicest, kindest, most decent being. And of course, comedically, we knew that having none of the Muppets — other than Animal — realize the switch was going to be funny. 

Constantine came about because the “Cold War Russian Bad Guy” was very much a trope of the sort of 1970s and 1980s caper movies we were parodying. Specifically, General Orlov from Octopussy was very much an inspiration. 

The name “Constantine” came because I wanted the Russian equivalent to “Kermit,” which is an old-timey name popular in the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century. So I did some research into old-fashioned Russian names; “Constantine” kept coming up, and I felt it was a good fit for a bad guy name. So, with Constantine being a Russian bad guy, him coming from a Gulag just made sense and it seemed like a great place to have Kermit out of his element. 

Having Kermit away from the Muppets meant that the film almost had two competing “A” plots, with Kermit’s struggle to get back to his friends and Constantine tricking the Muppets. In telling the story, that kind of thing helps with pacing, and it served as the engine of the film. 

Hennes: In the movie, the Gulag is called “Gulag 38B” — that’s the official name. They filmed the exterior Gulag scenes in Upper Heyford, England, and the interiors were done in Pinewood Studios in London. We first see the Gulag right after “We’re Doing a Sequel,” where we see Constantine escape from the Gulag in a series of shots with some really impressive puppetry.

Bobin: It was frustrating when people — in reviews and online — assumed Constantine’s prison breakout sequence was a CG frog. It actually took days and days of work by Matt [Vogel] and a team of puppeteers on bluescreen to get him to be able to “fight” the guards.

Originally, this sequence began the film and then we went into “We’re Doing a Sequel,” but when we tested it, all the kids were terrified of Constantine so we swapped the order. Even though the Constantine bit was exactly the same, no one was scared, so that order stuck. It probably works better anyway since it allowed us to literally start the film at the end of the first film.

Hennes: The next time we return to the Gulag is when Kermit arrives, being wheeled in on a dolly wearing a mask, like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. At first, all the other prisoners think he’s Constantine, but when they find out he isn’t, they pick him up and begin to carry him away until Tina Fey’s “Nadia,” who is the warden, stops them.

Steve Whitmire, Kermit’s performer from 1990 to 2017: In that scene, I actually play one of the inmates carrying Kermit. Rather than try to remove me later with a special effect, I dressed as an inmate and manipulated Kermit above my head. Evidently, you can even spot me in a couple of shots, though I haven’t found them. My biggest memory of those scenes, though, is that I was freezing to death.

“We’re doing a sequel, let’s give it a go
With Hollywood stars and more one-liner cameos”

Hennes: In addition to being able to spot Steve Whitmire, that first scene in the Gulag reveals a number of celebrity cameos, like Ray Liotta, Jermaine Clement, Dylan Postl — better known as “Hornswoggle” from WWE — and, finally, Danny Trejo, who is playing himself, which is hilarious.

Postl: We always had to wait for Danny Trejo on set because, in between takes, he was having a blast interacting with the Muppets. The whole time he was there he just kept getting pictures of himself with Muppets. 

Kenton Hall, actor, extra in Muppets Most Wanted: Danny kept handing me his phone to take pictures of him with more and more Muppets. It was so surreal. Between that and getting to work with my celebrity crush, Tina Fey, it was just the craziest, coolest thing to be a part of.

Hennes: While in the Gulag, Kermit goes through a lot of self-doubt about ever getting out of there. He also questions if the Muppets really need him, as he sees in newspapers that they’re doing well on their European tour without him.

After a few failed escape attempts, which parodied movies like The Shawshank Redemption, Kermit eventually seems to adjust to the prison, especially after he’s put in charge of directing the “Gulag Annual Revue Show.”

Bobin: It felt like a good arc for Kermit to have his own adventure to go on, as it allowed him to show greater emotional range. Kermit’s an emotional character, and I really like him getting angry. He did that a lot in The Muppet Show and both Jim Henson and Steve Whitmire were great at that, but we didn’t really get a chance to show that side of him in The Muppets because we were just finding him again and he was more of a team builder, so I was glad to get a chance to do it in this one.

Ultimately though, wherever Kermit goes, he manages to find the spark of humanity or goodness, so, no matter how hard his situation was, we knew he’d pull through. 

Whitmire: In this movie, I had some really fantastic costars to work off of, like Tina Fey, Ray Liotta and Danny Trejo, but on a deeper level, it was interesting for Kermit as a character to get separated from the group and have to cope. It presented some interesting character stuff for him. Over time, he sort of became himself again when he was put in charge of the Revue Show. Instead of the Muppets, it was with convicts, but we once again got to see him become the leader of the group.

I think that quality in Kermit — that leadership ability — stems from Jim Henson. Jim, of course, was Kermit for 35 years and Jim was the leader within our group of performers, not unlike Kermit is within the Muppets. I always thought it was funny that, with the Muppets, they’re actually not very good at what they do. Fozzie isn’t a great comedian, Piggy isn’t a very good singer and Gonzo always tried to do stunts but wasn’t very good at them. None of them are terribly good at what they do, but Kermit is the type of leader who accepts people as they are and can pull people together so that the entire ensemble can complement each other. The same was true for Jim and the Muppeteers. I don’t know what we all would have been doing had we not been a part of Jim’s core performer team. I’m not sure what I would have done in my life without him.

Hennes: While Kermit’s in the Gulag, Constantine is controlling the Muppets along with Ricky Gervais’ “Dominic Badguy.” The two of them are committing a crime spree across Europe as the Muppets are on tour. Animal, who’s the only one who’s known Kermit was fake from the start, eventually is joined by Fozzie and Walter, who also find out the truth about Constantine. So, thanks to a newspaper report, they figure out that Kermit is in the Gulag and the three of them go to break him out.

Postl: For my one speaking scene in the movie, I got to talk to Kermit, Fozzie, Walter and Animal, which was a huge thrill for me because I am a Muppets fanatic and Animal is my favorite. Anyway, they were all trying to come up with a way to escape, and then I walk by with shovels and pickaxes for props in the Gulag talent show. So they ended up using those to dig out of the prison in the final dance number, which is when Kermit finally gets out of the Gulag and is able to reunite with the rest of the Muppets. 

Hennes: At the end of the movie — after Constantine and Ricky Gervais are arrested — Tina Fey shows up to bring Kermit back to the Gulag. She knows he’s not Constantine, but she’s in love with him, so she tries to bring him back. Eventually though, she lets him go. But Kermit, being the nice frog that he is, decides to bring the Muppets’ European tour on one more stop: Gulag 38B, where they sing a new version of the song “Together Again” from 1984’s Muppets Take Manhattan

Bobin: I love ending on a song, and we really enjoyed doing “Mah Na Mah Na” for the end of the first film. “Together Again” felt like the other one in the Muppets canon that would work really well. It also has a simple chorus structure, which meant that, without much coaching, the cameo actors could be a part of it. 

Shout out, in particular, to Tom Hiddleston, who was particularly good at it. In contrast, in the first film, Alan Arkin was a bit harder to coax into singing, which you can hear in his part of “Mah Na Mah Na,” which he ended up doing in a British accent as an imitation of me. 

Postl: I remember when they first gave us a CD with the songs we would perform, and I got to that track — “Together Again, Again.” It just hit me. “Together Again” is one of my favorite Muppet songs, so to get to do a version of that was so cool!

Hall: I got to sing “Together Again” in a fake Russian accent with the Muppets. I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that.

“We’re doing a sequel, that’s what we do in Hollywood
And everybody knows the sequel’s never quite as good”

Hennes: It’s a shame, really, that the movie never really took off, and I don’t exactly know why that was. I used to hold these Muppet events for fans a few years ago, and whenever I asked the crowd who had actually seen Muppets Most Wanted, very few people raised their hands — and these were fans at a Muppets event! Regardless, the film has created some of the most recognizable Muppet memes. Like, “We’re Doing a Sequel” has become a bit of a meme.

The most well known, of course, is Evil Kermit. I always get excited when I see that one.

Hannah Jane Parkinson, The Guardian, November 30, 2016, excerpt from “Evil Kermit: The Perfect Meme for Terrible Times”: Kermit is back. The Muppet Show character continues to be a rich source for meme creators, and the latest iteration? Evil Kermit. The perfect devil-on-the-shoulder meme for these times of geopolitical global despair, when the temptation is to throw one’s hands in the air and succumb to our worst impulses.

Hennes: Also, more recently, images of Kermit in the Gulag have become something a meme too, which I think started on Twitter.

@Leftytimes on Twitter: I was just scrolling through Twitter one day and somebody posted a picture of a concentration camp and called it “right-wing architecture” and then someone replied with the Gulag picture calling it “left-wing architecture.” I just had to respond to tell them it was from the Muppets. Then they kept arguing! They tried to act like it was a normal thing, which is hilarious to me, so I just kept on engaging with them. Later that day, someone retweeted the thread and it got big after that.

Hennes: I’m not sure why this movie — when it wasn’t all that successful — has created so many memes. Perhaps it’s because these images come out of left field. We’ve never seen Kermit in jail before and we’ve never seen him talking to an evil doppelgänger before, so these images are really funny and they stand out among the countless other Kermit memes.

As for why Kermit has sort of become the “King of the Memes” in the first place, I think it has to do with Kermit’s “everyman” persona. He’s the Tom Hanks of the Muppets and that has to do with the fact that he’s kind of a blank slate. He’s just green fabric and eyes — that’s it. The same reason why he’s the everyman in these movies is the same reason why anyone can take a picture of Kermit, slap some white text on there, and we all can relate and we all know what he’s thinking. 

I also think it speaks to the continued viability of the Muppets in popular culture. While Muppets Most Wanted and a few other projects haven’t really caught on, I still believe in their relevance, and maybe these memes and The Muppet Show finally coming to Disney+ is all a part of that.

Postl: I always say that being in a Muppet movie was the second greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. The first was having a son, and I only say that because I have to. I’ve been an absolute Muppets fanatic all of my life, and it was such a dream to do this. It’s something I’ll truly never forget. 

Whitmire: Muppets Most Wanted, to me, was a real step in the right direction for the Muppets. James Bobin had done this one and the previous film, and I thought we were all really starting to gel as a group in a really nice way. It’s a shame that all sort of dissipated after the film. 

Also, in comparison to the previous film, I actually think Muppets Most Wanted was a more faithful story to the Muppets. Not that I don’t like Jason Segel and his work, but the previous film presumed a lot about the characters that weren’t true to the performers — that the Muppets had separated and that they’d had this falling out — that didn’t work for me. 

Muppets Most Wanted, though, picked up in a place where we were just doing a story and that felt great to me. That’s true to where I thought the Muppets should be at that point.

Hennes: In 2011, The Muppets was the film we needed to reintroduce the Muppets to the world, but it was a story we’d seen before: The Muppets must reunite to save the theatre. Muppets Most Wanted, on the other hand, was both a new adventure and a bit of a riff on The Great Muppet Caper, which is why many Muppet fans prefer this film over the previous one. 

Bobin: I love the film and am still very proud of it nearly 10 years on. Bret McKenzie’s songs are totally brilliant (and a little underrated in my opinion). The movie also stands the test of time, and from what I’ve read online about it, a lot of Muppet fans seem to slightly prefer it to the more commercially and critically successful first one. It was sad it didn’t have the box office success it needed to to continue Muppet movies, but I’m hopeful that one day the Muppets will be back on the big screen.