Jim, for example, is the one who figures out how to put puppets on TV. Before that you had Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, a filmed puppet show. You filmed the puppet theater. You built the puppet theater and then filmed it. Jim was the one who figured out -- and this seems completely obvious to us these days -- that if you're on TV, the four sides of the TV screen are the puppet theater. You don't have to build a puppet theater and film it, you can use all the space. Puppets can come at the camera, they can back into a shot, they can move in from any side of the screen. He really opened up the entire universe for the puppets to perform in
He is called a genius by one of the local TV producers because he's doing a nightly show on NBC called Sam and Friends where he's building his own Muppets (one of which is a very early version of Kermit) and they are lip-syncing to records, doing terrible things to each other -- and just killing it. That's when Jim start to build the organization that would become the Henson Company, making his money doing commercials for Wilson's Meats and then later on for Wilkins Coffee.
Jim became the world's best puppeteer almost by accident.
OR: Do you view him as an artist or an entertainer? How do these commercial origins play into the later life of the Muppets?
Jones: Jim was never embarrassed about the fact that they did commercials to pay the bills, because this allowed them to generate and create art. There's nothing wrong with making money. You have to make money to create art. Henson was never, never embarrassed about that. He was an artist who is unapologetic about doing commercials that help generate income, because that helped him do the things then that he loved even more. That was all part of doing business. It’s like Shakespeare doing things that are commercial.
I don't think he necessarily solved the problem of stopping the commercial side from compromising the art in itself. It’s just that Jim was going to do, on the artistic side, what Jim wanted to do -- even when it ended up being something like Dark Crystal (which people didn't understand) or Labyrinth (which people really didn't understand). Jim knew that you had to keep the lights on. If you want to compare art and the human body, he knew that the business side of it was the heart pumping the blood through the body -- the blood being the art. Jim was never embarrassed about that and had to explain to people from time to time that we need these kinds of things to keep art alive. Art and commerce are linked.
OR: Is there a eureka moment for Henson when he realizes what the Muppets are -- a vocation?
Jones: Jim knew the Muppets were going to be a vocation, he just didn't know they were going to take quite as much of his time as they did. When Sesame Street became hugely successful, he did know he was going to have to devote a little more time to it.
But do I think a big eureka moment happens in Sesame Street. It's before the show's even on the air. They're testing the pilot. Initially, the education theorists who helped come up with the idea for Sesame Street said, "Okay, you have to keep the Muppets and the humans separate. You have to have the Muppets as a completely separate segment of it and then you have to have the life on the street as its own completely separate segment. You can't mix them, or you'll confuse children." They put together the pilot shows where they cut away to the Muppets when it's time for Ernie and Bert to be on. What they found happened with the test audiences of their target audience -- i.e. young kids -- is that when the Muppets are on screen, the kids are engaged and interested and active and when it's just on the street, they tended to start to lose interest and tune out.
They know they've got a problem. They know they've got to figure out a way to get the Muppets onto the street. That's when Jim, who is actually on vacation at the time, comes back to them and says, "We'll put Big Bird on the street, who will be the perspective of the kid; we'll also introduce Oscar the Grouch." He's got two characters on the street: in Oscar, the human id incarnate, and Big Bird, who represents the child's perspective.
Jim gave them an existential crisis at one point without quite meaning to. His segments were so great that that's what the kids were watching. So the producers had to figure out how to graft Jim onto the live action part of Sesame Street. He himself ends up fixing the problem through Big Bird, a walk-around Muppet. Henson was very proud of the technology of Big Bird at that time. That's the moment I really love; Jim -- who's off doing other things -- saying, "Yeah, yeah, I can fix your problem for you." I think that's the one big eureka moment in Sesame Street that, again, Jim didn't even necessarily intend.
OR: How much of a role did collaboration play his work versus his own driving vision?
Jones: Jim was the ultimate collaborator. He always went with the best idea. Didn't matter who came up with it. Jim made it very safe -- the word a lot of people used -- to come up with ideas and to ad lib and play around. That's one of Henson's real strengths as a boss and as a creator.
The other big gift that Jim gave to people, which you really don't get these days, is the gift of time. Time to let builders and performers find out what made that puppet work. To find out what made that character work.
Bryan Jay Jones has written critically and commercially successful biographies of Jim Henson, George Lucas, and Washington Irving.