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Brian Jay Jones on Jim Henson, Sesame Street, and the Muppets

 

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.

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.

Take a character like Elmo. Richard Hunt was initially the performer behind Elmo and struggled with this character and didn’t know what to do with the voice. At one point he hands him off in frustration to Kevin Clash and says, “Just do something with this puppet.” Kevin Clash adopts that little kid voice and immediately picks up on that character. It was giving them time to figure it out.

You look at Fozzie Bear. Fozzie was supposed to be Frank Oz’s main character and they couldn’t figure out exactly how Fozzie worked. One of the things Jerry Juhl said was, “We knew he was great to heckle.” They knew Statler and Waldorf could heckle Fozzie, but that that just makes you feel sorry for him. They let the writers play around with Fozzie, they let Frank Oz play around with Fozzie. They let them play around even in the workshop with how was the Muppet put together. Fozzie for a while had ears that would wiggle and his mouth was a little more downturned; they redesigned the puppet.

Oz finally finds Fozzie in the “Good Grief, the Comedian’s a Bear” sketch. It’s an Abbott-and-Costello sketch where Fozzie and Kermit are completely misunderstanding each other. It’s ad libbed: they sent it down to the floor and it was the last sketch they did that day and they didn’t really have time to rehearse it and it just comes together brilliantly. They knew in that moment they had Fozzie.

Oz is also doing Miss Piggy, whom they don’t know what to do with. Oz lands on Miss Piggy purely though accident. There’s a moment in one of the scripts for The Muppet Show where Miss Piggy is supposed to slap Kermit and Oz decides that that’s not going to work — and unloads with the karate chop. Jerry Juhl the head writer said, “You knew you had to see it again.” They knew they’d hit it.

Miss Piggy becomes Frank Oz’s main character and Fozzie moves to the back and so you have to work with that now. That’s Jim again giving everybody the time they need to find those characters.

OR: Do you think that Henson would have Henson without Frank Oz?

Jones: Jim always says that Frank Oz is the one who makes the Muppets funny. You see Jim in the 1960’s doing a lot of interesting things that don’t necessarily utilize Oz. He’s got Oz working behind the scenes, lobbing equipment, operating the camera. Oz had this ability to execute perfectly whatever Jim told him. He would say, “I think it should look like this,” and Oz knew what that meant. The two of them got to the point where they had this non-verbal language between them. They could tell by the way one person was moving what was expected.

Once the two of them start performing together, we get Ernie and Bert, Fozzie and Kermit, Fozzie and Miss Piggy. I think Jim would have been extraordinary even beyond the Muppets, but what makes the Muppets themselves work so well is the relationship between Jim and the puppeteers and especially between Jim and Frank Oz.

OR: Why was Henson able to attract such talented people to work for him?

Jones: I think one of the reasons Jim found amazing performers and puppeteers is because there was nobody else hiring puppeteers. There was no other famous nationally known person who was hiring puppeteers, so if the Henson Company put out a call for puppeteers, you got every puppeteer on the planet who could get to New York to audition for you.

Jim always talked about how people who are great performers aren’t necessarily good Muppet performers. They don’t have the knack for it. Partly it’s that ability to watch yourself performing on a monitor and know that if you want to make the character move right on the monitor, you have to move left, which I still can’t do when I try to figure out the Muppet style of performing.

There were some people who couldn’t figure out how to act, which I know is a strange nuance. But Frank Oz talked about the difference between acting and puppeteering. He said doing something like Yoda is acting.

Take somebody like Fran Brill. Fran Brill wasn’t a puppeteer. She came in because she was a great voice actor. They put a puppet on her arm and figured out that she could do it. Part of it was because she had brought this discipline through her voice that Jim recognized. Fran Brill was a brilliant performer doing Prairie Dawn and these great foils “for the boys,” as she always said.

Then take somebody like Richard Hunt. Richard Hunt was another one who didn’t always necessarily have the greatest technical master of performance, but was considered a force of nature. You could put any puppet on his hand and he would play it to the hilt. Sometimes his mouth movement wasn’t always perfect, but you couldn’t deny that Richard Hunt was always funny.

That was always a big part of it. Jim knew that chemistry mattered and sometimes there was somebody who could have been the greatest puppeteer in the world but just wasn’t going to fit in. You had to know how to really fit in and you had to know how to work in the group and how to play off of each other and how to read each other. Jim had it down to a system. On day one, he wasn’t going to put a main character on your arm. You were going to have to continue to learn and hone that craft and start off by right-handing. Richard Hunt comes in at age 19 and his first job is to right-hand for Ernie, which is still sort of the training program they do for performers.

You start off doing those right-hand characters, then they move you to a background character before they even give you a character that has speaking parts. You spend a lot of time standing in front of a mirror, learning how to lip sync and figuring out that it’s the thumb that moves and not the top of your hand that moves. You’ve got to figure out when to open your mouth on the syllable. Even when people came in who were good, Jim’s constantly got them working, constantly got them training. Jim wanted everyone, including himself, to keep getting better, which is really a great place to be as a creative person.

OR: Do you have a favorite Henson creation?

Jones: I was a little different before writing the book and afterwards. My brother’s three years younger than me, and we were Ernie and Bert kids. Of course, I had to be Ernie. I was older, so I got to decide. My brother had to be the straight man. I was an Ernie and Bert kid. And Guy Smiley. I love Guy Smiley to this day.

After the project, the one that I really I think love the most is Rowlf. I think part of the reason is because Rowlf is the one closest to Jim, more so than even Kermit. We like to think of Jim and Kermit as intertwined and interchangeable, but I think Rowlf is the one that’s closest to Jim.

You go back and watch the performances of Rowlf the Dog in the 1960’s on Jimmy Dean and they are miraculous. They’re funny, they’re sweet, brilliantly performed. Seven minutes of Jim and Frank Oz squatting behind a low wall with their arms over their heads. They’re magical. The personality that starts to develop in Rowlf is sage and silly, like somebody that would be sitting on the porch dispensing little nuggets of wisdom with a wink.

Jim valued his own work. He never sold his characters off to anybody. He never really threw characters away. Rowlf had been done in the early ’60s as a pitchman for dog food in Canada. They liked him because he could pick things up. He’s a live-hand Muppet, he can pick things up and manipulate things — useful for commercials. Once he got done with that, Jim threw him in a trunk and didn’t really think about him again.

Jimmy Dean had seen Sam and Friends, and so knew of Jim. He was getting ready to do his show on ABC, he said, “I would love to have a dog to talk with, like a hound dog I could talk with between segments — and I want that guy. I want the guy who is doing Sam and Friends.” Jim brings out Rowlf to be that character. It’s the first job Frank Oz has: performing the right hand for Rowlf.

For people who don’t know, a live-hand Muppet like Rowlf requires two performers. The main performer, in this case Jim, has his right hand in the mouth and then his left hand slipped inside Rowlf’s left glove if you will, while the second performer, in this case Frank Oz, slides his right hand into the right glove of the character. There has to be a little bit of a magic act going on where one person’s controlling the right hand and the other person’s controlling the left hand. They have to be able to work together perfectly, or else you can have problems. There’s a great moment in one sketch when they’re trying to work with a straw hat and can’t hold on to it and drop it constantly. It won’t fit on Rowlf’s head and it’s a really great bit.

They develop Rowlf for Jimmy Dean and he’s supposed to just be on there for a few episodes of The Jimmy Dean Show. He wasn’t supposed to be a regular, but after they had a moment with Jimmy Dean and Rowlf speaking to each other and then they perform a song, people knew that they had something really special going on. Due in part to Henson’s and Oz’s performance of Rowlf, which of course is entirely convincing, as it always is. But also in the way Jimmy Dean reacted to that character. Jimmy Dean immediately believed completely in that character. That’s part of what makes that character work so well in those early days. Jimmy Dean is completely sold. Which again, is the mentality you see creeping into even Muppets on Sesame Street, when you see little kids talking with Muppets. Henson is kneeling on the floor right in front of them in plain sight, and the kids never look down. They are locked in on those Muppets. That’s the way Jimmy Dean is with Rowlf.

Eventually, Rowlf gets to the point where he’s getting more fan mail than even Jimmy Dean. Jim’s done television, but this is his first big gig and it’s teaching Henson not only about the nuances of performance, but also the nuances of writing those performances and how you make something funny. Jim is willing to go in and sit down in the writer’s room, for example, and figure out how a joke works. One of the things Jim said that he learned from the writers on the Jimmy Dean Show is to try to make the joke as much of a story as you can, knock out a lot of junk words, and try to make the last word of the joke the funniest one.

OR: Why did Rowlf play the piano?

Jones: Jim was very interested in music. Probably to his frustration, he couldn’t really play much music himself. He loved to sing, and he could sort of tinker with the piano. He really wished he could play the banjo. I think that’s one of the reasons Kermit’s a banjo player. When Jim creates Muppet Jim, when they have that country trio where the puppets look like Jim, Frank Oz, and Jerry Nelson, the Jim Henson Muppet plays the banjo.

Jim was really musical without having the ability to actually play an instrument. He loved to sing and that came out of his childhood. He and his brother and his mom and dad would stand around a pump organ that his mom would play and they would sing songs from the Pogo Song Book and the A.A. Milne Song Book. A lot the songs ended up on The Muppet Show.

I think Jim was a frustrated musician in the sense that he couldn’t play an instrument, but actually for somebody who says they couldn’t sing, sings pretty well and loved to harmonize. Frank Oz just cracked up when they would change key and Jim would yell out, “Modulate.” Frank Oz took that little bit and that’s what Marvin Suggs says. When he’s beating on the Muppaphones, when he changes key he says, “Modulate” and they all move one over. That was a Jim quote. Playing the piano as Rowlf, again it’s Jim doing the left hand and Oz doing the right hand. You’ve got to work really hard to make that look convincing — and damn if they don’t.