Day 165: Master Of Muppets

originally published June 13, 2012

There are some topics I select because they tell an interesting story. Some topics I choose because of my fascination with pop culture minutiae. Other topics I write about because they are bacon.

Today I’m indulging my own curiosity. Ms. Wiki tuned my dial to a man whose handiwork (sub-mediocre pun intended) played an important part in my childhood. Those hands belonged to Jim Henson

Henson fell in love with television, and started out early in the puppet game, building them for a local Saturday morning kids’ show while he was still in high school. He was a good-looking kid, as evidenced by this photo that captures Jim before he opted to grow that hippie-beard:

Still, he didn’t want to be on camera. He first aimed at a career as a commercial artist, but a puppetry course turned him onto textiles. He graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park with a degree in Home Economics. As a freshman, he landed a gig with local D.C. station WRC-TV to put together a regular 5-minute broadcast of a puppet show he created called Sam And Friends.

The best part about researching this article is that I get to watch a bunch of early glimmerings of Henson’s genius. Like this one – that’s a clip from Sam And Friends in which a young Kermit learns about jazz from a sock who, judging by the voice, will grow up to become Dr. Teeth.

The lady in the photo up there is Jane Nebel. Jim met her on the set of Afternoon, a housewife-focused show on WRC to which they’d both been assigned. Jane got elbows-deep involved with Jim’s puppeteer work, and helped him out on Sam And Friends. Needless to say, a romance born in felt is a romance for the ages; Jim and Jane were married in 1959.

Like most people my age, I took for granted exactly how much Jim Henson revolutionized the puppet world. Prior to Jim, most celebri-puppets had been carved from wood, a-la Charlie McCarthy or Howdy Doody. Jim preferred foam rubber, which allowed him to squonch up their lips, or bust out an emotional nuance. He used rods underneath his puppets’ arms instead of marionette strings because it gave him a better range of emotive movement.

Like the Beatles, who travelled to Hamburg and tweaked their sound from “good” to “holy crap, this is a game-changer”, Jim went to Europe, where puppetry was practiced as an art form. Unlike the Beatles, there was no Henson-mania when Jim returned home. He did find work though, and spent most of the 1960s plying his trade in commercials.

This collection of what appears to be several hundred miniscule coffee spots for Wilkins Instant Coffee shows the kind of humor Jim would come to be known for. It’s slapstick funny, and violent in a cartoony kind of way. The gist appears to be that the amorphous blob puppet doesn’t care for Wilkins Instant Coffee, and his perpetual companion is obsessed with it, possibly to the point of becoming dangerous.

It’s a curious way to sell coffee. First off, as anyone who has become an expert on advertising history (via watching Mad Men) will tell you, little goofy sketches were not a staple of TV’s ad-scape in the 1960s, nor was presenting a character who hated the product. Also, using puppets to sell anything but kids’ stuff doesn’t make much sense on paper. But the spots struck a chord, and they helped to net Jim some steady work through the 60s.

Jane eventually left the newly-formed Muppets, Inc to raise their ever-growing brood. To replace her, Jim hired writer Jerry Juhl and puppeteer Frank Oz to replace her; she had to teach Oz the trademark Henson technique of matching the voice to mouth-movements. Frank was, of course, a key part of Star Wars, which makes the partnership of these two men the most influential partnership on my childhood this side of Fisher meeting Price.

The first Muppet to hit the big time was my personal favorite, Rowlf. He became a regular on The Jimmy Dean Show, where he’d deliver brilliant deadpan material in little sketches that could not possibly have been designed for kids. Rowlf was a huge hit, and Henson even offered Dean 40% of his company as a thank-you for the exposure. Dean knew his future lay in sausages, and he encouraged Henson to reap the rewards of his own hard work instead.

In 1969, Jim did this:

That’s from his experimental short film Time Piece, which netted him an Oscar nomination. I found a clip of it on Youtube, and highly recommend it. The clip is only 97 seconds, and it may be the only time this week you see a gorilla bouncing on a pogo stick.

Jim ended the decade with a much-earned relief from the ad game. He was approached by the Children’s Television Workshop to help develop characters for Sesame Street. Jim’s prowess was demonstrated through the memorable characters of Guy Smiley and Kermit The Frog. Also, he performed the voice and actions of Ernie, as evidenced by this photo which appears to have him working with Arrested Development’s Tobias Funke.

The Muppet segments on Sesame Street were originally separated from the live action scenes, but test audiences were a lot more positive when the two were fused together. Jim’s handiwork had become a household staple. There were not a lot of necessary voids in the puppeteer world, but Jim found his to fill.

Problem is, Jim saw Muppetry as something bigger than kids’ stuff. He and Frank landed on the first season of Saturday Night Live, which should have been a mega-vault to stardom, except that the sketches weren’t that good. The writers didn’t know how to write for puppets, and the magic just wasn’t there.

Nor was there enough magic for American networks to pick up the Muppets as a TV series. Like so many great television ideas, the idea had to get filtered through British audiences before American networks clued in to its brilliance; Henson hauled his entire company across the Atlantic and made his real mark on the world from London.

The rest is history. The Muppet Movie (which garnered Jim an Oscar nomination for best song and a top-40 Billboard hit for “The Rainbow Connection”), a bunch of sequels, that insipidly catchy Muppet Babies show and a recent reboot. The saddest part of the story is that Jim didn’t live to see the next generation get hooked on his brilliance; he passed away in 1990 from organ failure due to a streptococcal infection. He was 53.

Fifty-friggin-three. The guy who would have arguably been the best grandpa ever didn’t get to grow old. The stories of his funeral service are throat-clenchingly epic, including a chorus of “Just One Person”, started by Scooter and eventually featuring all the Muppets, mourning their creator.

When I finally group some of these articles into a People Who Are Eternally Awesome category, Jim’s article will get top billing.

(“They call this an article? More like a farticle! Ahahahaha – forget it, I can’t write dialog for these guys.)

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