The Problem with Rizzo

The Problem with Rizzo


When it was announced that Steve Whitmire wouldn’t be continuing with the Muppet troupe, we knew that most of his regular characters would be recast – Kermit, Statler, Beaker, and so on. In the past few years, most of the characters that took up most of his time were already ones originated by other Muppet performers like Jim Henson or Richard Hunt, so we were assured that the legacy would continue. But there was one character that seemed to belong to Steve, and was not only his original creation, but possibly his second-most visible one.

It’s very possible that Rizzo may be retired along with Steve. And while it would be tragic to lose the Muppets’ resident rat, I can’t imagine anyone taking the reins of Steve Whitmire’s creation. So if we never see Rizzo again, I guess this there’s no better time to point out some issues I’ve had with him for years.

The Chameleon Rat

If you asked five people to describe who Rizzo is, you’ll get five different answers. You know that old story about the blind men who encounter an elephant? One feels the trunk and thinks it’s a snake, one feels the body and thinks it’s a wall, one feels the tail, one feels the ear, and so on. Well, those blind men are Muppet fans, and the elephant is a rat.

From what I see, Rizzo doesn’t have much of a personality on his own. Instead, he has a bad habit of mimicking the personality of whoever he’s closest to.

A Pattern of Mimicry

Starting in his Muppet Show days, he’s known only as one in a group of rats. It’s hard to prove that he’s aping the other rats, but the fact that they’re practically indistinguishable (when that’s not the case at all with the other rats later in Muppet history) is indicative of how he developed his personality.

In Muppet Christmas Carol, Rizzo is notably paired with Gonzo and takes on a similar weird and slightly dumb persona. While not as extreme as Gonzo, Rizzo seems to be emulating his friend. In the movie, Gonzo’s weirdness is toned down, allowing Rizzo to meet him in the middle ground.

In Muppet Treasure Island, Rizzo is still attached to Gonzo’s hip, but Gonzo is now attached to Jim Hawkins. Consequently, Rizzo’s character takes a backseat and almost fades into the background of the movie.

Even in his Muppets Tonight days as the stage manager, Rizzo finds himself mirroring whoever else is backstage with him at the time – Clifford, Kermit, Nigel, Gary Cahuenga, and others. Rizzo’s existence is dedicated to helping the chaotic show run smoothly, and he could easily be replaced by any other Muppet without much change in the script.

In The Muppets TV series, Rizzo is back by Gonzo’s side, but Pepe the King Prawn joins their trio as the “Up Late with Miss Piggy” writing staff. With Gonzo’s weirdness significantly downplayed in the series, Rizzo ends up adopting one of Pepe’s main personality traits, turning him into a horndog. Throughout the season, Rizzo’s main driving force is either flirting with Yolanda or agreeing with whatever “get laid quick” scheme Pepe has cooked up.

The one production where this mimicry argument doesn’t hold is Muppets Take Manhattan. This is the only time Rizzo gets a proper introduction. He serves as a waiter at Pete’s Luncheonette, receives solid solo spotlights, and brings in a diverse group of rat brethren that complement his personality, rather than the other way around. Despite his memorable moments in later Muppet films, this is the best example of Rizzo in the raw, completely untainted by outside influence.

The Love for Food

With his pinnacle in food service, it’s little surprise to learn that Rizzo’s one original and consistent characteristic is eating. Rizzo likes food. A bit of his greedy nature may come from this love for food, or vice versa, but almost every one of his appearances involves him eating something or wishing he had something to eat. However, unlike characters like Cookie Monster and Big Mean Carl, whose eating habits are intrinsic in their personalities, Rizzo is meant to be more three-dimensional and not a mindless devouring monster.

The Unanswered Question

So the question remains: Who is Rizzo? Is he a lonely waiter? Second banana to a hook-nosed weirdo? An opportunist with an appetite for everything? Or is he a mirror to whoever happens to be nearby? Sadly, with no more Steve Whitmire to keep the character alive, we may never know.

Without Whitmire to continue portraying Rizzo, it may never be known how the character would have evolved. Whether Rizzo’s mimicry was a conscious creative choice or a result of the circumstances, it is undeniable that his character lacked a distinct personality of his own. The loss of Rizzo, if indeed retired, would be a significant blow to the Muppets and their rich history of unique and memorable characters.