I’m convinced that the above video is evidence that there is magic in this world. It’s an unscripted encounter between a little girl and a bit of cloth on a hand. And yet, she completely believes that she is talking to, teasing, and kissing a being named Kermit the Frog. For those who don’t know, Kermit was created and performed by a man named Jim Henson, and Henson is someone who has influenced me my whole life, from the first time I laid eyes on Sesame Street.
Henson had worked in television since 1955 on a local show called Sam and Friends. Initially, puppets just happened to be the means to the end of working on TV. They weren’t something he considered a passion. Following an trip to Europe in 1960, however, Henson saw that in other countries, puppets were considered more than “laughable kids’ stuff”. They entertained and moved adults. They were considered works of art. Puppets on television had so much potential, and Henson was determined to bring that potential out. He found his first real chance in Sesame Street.
Sesame Street was the brainchild of other brilliant minds, including producer Joan Ganz Cooney, but Henson’s contributions gave it the power and life to last as long as it has–since 1969. At the time, the concept was revolutionary; teaching children through entertainment as clever and fast-paced as adult TV and commercials. In fact, it was Henson’s commercial work that inspired the producers to hire him. They said if they couldn’t have Henson’s puppets, they wouldn’t have any at all. Those puppets are now, of course, immortal. The likes of Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and Oscar the Grouch need no introduction. And they have indeed taught children. Multiple studies have shown that Sesame Street has been making a major difference in the education of kids all over the world.
Sesame Street not only helped teach me to read before I was 3, but taught me about the world as well. It may have been a cheery, funny, and colorful place, but it was never dishonest or oblivious. Racism, romance, breastfeeding, disabilities, and adoption all found places in the story over time. In one of its most powerful, astounding, and beautiful moments, Sesame Street even touched on the way that the death of our loved ones affects us. Actor Will Lee died in 1982, and rather than explain his disappearance as Mr. Hooper another way, the writers chose to write the character’s death as well. The power of the show’s honesty is unforgettable.
As Sesame Street became more successful, Henson was determined to push the boundaries of what puppets were capable of, and set his sights on creating an adult-oriented prime-time show starring a cast of puppets. It was an extremely difficult sell, despite the high ratings of previous Muppet specials. ABC, NBC, and CBS all passed, and in those days, there wasn’t really anyone else left to say no. However, inspired by new laws that required TV stations to give certain time commitments to syndicated shows, Henson made a deal with British financier Lord Lew Grade to produce the show independently and market it directly into syndication. That show, of course, was The Muppet Show, which went on to become a massively popular phenomenon across the world.
The Muppet Show (as well as the many movie spinoffs it has spawned) has a remarkable sense of humor, which can be sophisticated and clever without indulging in excessive moments to artificially appear “more adult”. The Muppets aren’t cute tricks or simple gags–they’re full characters, with their own complicated relationships, wants, needs, and fears. Growing up wanting to write, and to make movies, I can proudly say that the way Jim Henson treated the Muppets influenced my sense of humor and character greatly. Kermit or Fozzie or Miss Piggy can make you laugh, but you also care about how they feel as characters and you can see your own struggles in them.
Henson was a man always ready for the next challenge, so despite its massive success, he moved on from The Muppet Show after 5 seasons. His next project was The Dark Crystal, a fantasy epic designed by artist Brian Froud. It stands as perhaps the only live-action movie in which a human face is never visible, a truly staggering achievement of craft and imagination. Although no love or effort was spared in its creation, The Dark Crystal did not perform especially well at the box office and earned a very muddled critical reception. A few years later, Jim Henson directed Labyrinth, a fantasy that was a bit more down to earth, a very basic story with some human characters that was funnier and cuddlier than Dark Crystal. That didn’t stop the remarkable puppets and creatures, again designed by Brian Froud, from stealing the show. Labyrinth suffered even more than Dark Crystal both commercially and critically.
Of course, I love these movies, and they have both built major cult followings in the decades since. But honestly, what I took away most from Henson’s fantasy films is his attitude about them. He didn’t let the failure get to him, didn’t give up and slink away. He looked on them with pride, took the lessons learned from them, and moved on to more audacious challenges. That remarkable spirit, in the face of people mocking the movies as “Muppet dramas”, in the face of people telling him to go back and do what he did before–that spirit is something I wish I could capture.
In fact, in the end, it is Henson as a person, as much as a creator, that I look up to. His absolute sweetness and generosity is something that comes out whenever someone speaks about him. In the heartbreaking eulogy above, Frank Oz tells a wonderful story about The Most Thoughtful Gift In The World. In this letter, and in so many others, his encouragement has made a huge impact in a person’s life. In every movie and TV show he made, the camaraderie he built with his collaborators, fellow writers, and performers is evident. Jim Henson is someone who built an empire with his friends and was able to share his dreams with the people he loved every step of the way.
No person is perfect, and Henson is no exception. But when I hear his voice in “Rainbow Connection”, I can’t help but be inspired. Those crazy, wild dreams sometimes really do come true. Especially if you have friends as weird and wonderful as the Muppets by your side.
Tell us about your favorite experiences with the works of Jim Henson, or about someone else who influenced you, in the comments! For those who want to learn more about Jim, Brian Jay Jones’s biography is the way to go.
Featured image credit: The Muppets Studio LLC