Friday , July 19 2024

GalaxyCon Columbus: Steve Whitmire on Weldon the I.T. Guy and Kermit the Frog

Wandering through the exhibit hall at GalaxyCon Columbus, I paused when I noticed Steve Whitmire heading toward the photo op curtains. As he was carrying his Kermit the Frog puppet with him, he suddenly stopped to greet a child passing by with a parent. He bent over slightly with Kermit to say something and entertain the pair before he disappeared behind the curtains.

Whitmire, who joined The Muppets as a puppeteer when he was 19 years old, spoke with fans at his panel during this popular comic con in Ohio. Early on, he knew that he loved puppets and he even used them when he read his reports at the front of class in school.

He said, “I would always do it with puppets. I was kind of the nerdy kid. Everybody wanted to be on my team because they knew we were going to get a good grade. It didn’t matter what we did! We were going to do something that people loved.”

On Creating Weldon the I.T. Guy

Whitmire enjoys GalaxyCon for many reasons. He often hosts a livestream of CAVE-iN Outer Space in front of an audience featuring Weldon the I.T. Guy, a puppet internet troll. With livestreams at these comic cons, Whitmire can usually recruit one of the other convention guests to join the fun. This month, the special guest at CAVE-iN was Richard Dreyfuss (JAWS).

Refining Weldon as a character took some time to figure out. Whitmire spent three weeks planning and building the puppet first, which included putting the eyes on and sewing the body together. He felt that he really knew it inside and out through the process. “I started doing the voice in my head and then it started coming out while I was doing the construction.” 

Photo of Steve Whitmire holding a microphone
Courtesy of Steve Whitmire

When he finished building Weldon, Whitmire tested him out on YouTube. “How does he treat people when they call in? Is he mean to them because he’s a troll? I soon discovered that wasn’t working. Nobody ever wanted to talk to him!”

He changed his strategy. “[Weldon] started asking people to call in and tell him their most miserable life experiences, and he could empathize… He would always be their best friend about it but the misery part was still there.”

“I used to do a character called Rizzo the Rat with The Muppets. Rizzo could be very sarcastic and kind of snarky. Weldon is sort of like that times 10, but he’s also goofy and silly. He’s not really offensive.”

On Comedic Influences

During the Q&A, I asked Whitmire if any of the great comedians influenced his humor and storytelling. He saw Johnny Carson and Red Skelton in the room when Jim Henson was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. Still, Whitmire acknowledged that primary comedic influences were The Muppets puppeteers that he watched as a kid in the 70s.

Whitmire loved seeing the comic actors who guest starred on The Muppets, too. He fondly recalled the time he spent with Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Dom DeLuise on set. Another wonderful legend was Don Rickles, well known for “riffing on everybody in the room.”

Rickles “would always back off if he was challenged, but he would be on the border of pretty edgy with people about the humor he did. I don’t know that I copied him, but I thought about him when I was coming up with Weldon.” 

Headshot photo of Steve Whitmire
Courtesy of Steve Whitmire

On Engaging with Fans

Whitmire has connected with fans in different ways over the years. One way was through daytime and late night talk shows. “It’s all improvised. We’re just ad libbing. We have no script. At those points, you’re really relying on—you really have to be the character and answer properly.”

The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was another memorable occasion one year. Usually, guests on the parade floats don’t have microphones, but Whitmire received one to use for entertaining the parade attendees along the route. “I had cameras so I could see the crowd. I’m laying in a thing with monitors … my back like this for hours. Kermit would look at a guy in a red shirt and say, ‘Hey, love that shirt!’ And they would go crazy.”

Of course, there’s the exhibit hall at GalaxyCon, where Whitmire chats with fans of all ages. “They know these characters, and they identify with the Muppets in some way because they watched it with their parents or grandparents. It’s very gratifying.”

Fans often bring interesting items for Whitmire to assess. “I get a lot of young people who show up at the table. They built their own puppets, and they come in with a Kermit. I’ll put the Kermit on and play with them. I love being able to encourage that in people.”

Visit the GalaxyCon Columbus website for more information. Follow Steve Whitmire on Facebook for his latest news.

About Pat Cuadros

Pat Cuadros is Pop Culture Editor for Blogcritics Magazine. She frequently covers TV, film and theater. Her portfolio includes interviews with Ndaba Mandela and actors Juliette Binoche, Fran Drescher, Derek Jacobi and Brent Spiner. She's also spoken with notable voice actors Petrea Burchard, Garry Chalk, Peter Cullen and Brian Drummond.

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