Jim Henson’s visionary work as a puppeteer changed the way the world thought about television, children’s entertainment, and the inner lives of adults and kids alike. We spoke with Brian Jay Jones, author of the bestselling biography Jim Henson, about the unlikely origins of the Muppets and how Henson’s unique creative process worked.
Octavian Report: What makes Jim Henson and his creations so special?
Brian Jay Jones: For Henson, character was always king. Character is what drove and made the success of the Muppets. It was the way the characters related to each other, it was the way they were putting the “fun” in “dysfunctional family.” They might go round and round, but you knew at the end of the day they would always come back to each other. It was the way the characters related to each other that really makes the Muppets work.
Jerry Juhl, Jim's lead writer, always said that if somebody was keeping score, it would be Chaos 98, Frog 99. Kermit is always the eye of the Muppet storm. At one point, one character says to Kermit, "These guys are all crazy," and Kermit says, "Well, what does that make me? I'm the one that hired them." Which I think is probably Jim's mentality as well. The way that Kermit operates in the Muppets world is the way Jim operated in real life as well. Henson was the eye of the hurricane. Everybody was looking to Jim for his approval and looking to Jim to see how he was going to respond. Everybody I spoke to for the book told me, almost to a person, that if you could make Jim laugh, your day, week, month, year was made. That that was the biggest seal of approval Jim could put on anything.
The way you see the Muppets looking to Kermit for stability, it's also the way that the Muppet performers look to Jim. There's a great line in The Great Muppet Caper, where everything's gone to hell and all the Muppets are walking down the street. They're all turning to Kermit saying, "What do we do now, Kermit?” Kermit turns around and lets loose: "Why are you guys always looking to me for the answers? Why can't you just figure something out?" Steve Whitmire, who now does Kermit, said that he really thought that might have been a cathartic moment for Jim played out on screen.
Character drove the situation. Frank Oz said that even with the new Muppet TV series, the one that ABC canceled after a season, they concentrated too much on setup and scenario and doing the things you expected and didn't worry enough about the how characters related to each other.
OR: It seems like Henson had something of a dark side as an artist -- can you talk about that?
Jones: I don't know if I'd call it darkness. I would maybe call it an unpredictability. Jim loved that. His commercials were like that: Wilkins and Wontkins did terrible things to each other. As Jim said, his favorite endings were either things eating each other or blowing each other up.
That's very Wile E. Coyote, that's very Monty Python: dropping the one-ton weight on somebody. It's the way you can get out of a sketch and it's very shocking and funny. I think the unpredictability is what Jim loved about that.
You have to remember that in the 1960s, Jim doesn't know exactly what he's going to do yet. Jim is doing a lot of different really exciting things, of which the Muppets are just one. Jim doesn't really know where he's going to finally go all in and Sesame Street happens to come along and pulls his focus and pulls his time and pulls his creativity. I think he was a little nervous about going all in on Sesame Street because he didn't regard himself as a children's puppeteer. He was really worried that coming into Sesame Street was going to pigeonhole him.
OR: Almost everyone, here and worldwide, is familiar with at least some of Henson’s work. How does his life, less well-known, play into his creativity?
Jones: The common mythology before people really know anything about Jim is that he must have always wanted to be a puppeteer as a kid, because he's so good at it.
That is absolutely not true. Jim always said that he never even played with puppets as a kid. What Jim really wanted to do was to get into TV -- he was part of the first generation growing up with TV, remember.
That was what sparked Jim's interest. He was a gadget guy and as a kid he was always building something with his older brother, Paul. They built radio kits and things, so Henson really wanted to get into to TV and play around with it behind the scenes. Not even necessarily on screen. When he's in high school, he sees an ad in the newspaper in Washington, DC advertising for people to come perform puppets on a kid's show. Jim, who doesn't want to be a puppeteer and doesn't know anything about puppetry, checks two books out of his library. One is by Sergey Obraztsov, the famous Russian puppeteer. It's about building and performing. Jim checked these books out of the library and teaches himself in about two weeks how to build and perform puppets. He uses those two puppets to audition with the local CBS station and gets on TV. That's really all Jim wanted those Muppets for. (Let me note that he was calling them Muppets very early on.)
It was a means to an end for him and he always thought he would be working behind the scenes: building scenery and stage directing. When he starts in college at the University of Maryland, he ends up in the home economics department because that's where they did those kinds of things. But he's so good at those puppets -- what Henson always said was that the reason he thought he ended up being so good at it is that because he had never played with them as kids and he had no interest in them, so he didn't know what the rules were for them. That made it very easy for him to break the rules and to find solutions to problems that were hidden in plain sight.
Bryan Jay Jones has written critically and commercially successful biographies of Jim Henson, George Lucas, and Washington Irving.