Jim Henson: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones
A couple of weeks ago, I took my 15 year old to see Labyrinth playing at the movie theater. It' s one of my favorite movies and we had a great time. That put me in the mood to read the Jim Henson biography I've been meaning to read for a couple of years now, so I brought it home from work and wound up enthralled, more so than I'd expected. I'm a big Jim Henson fan.
It's a solid, thorough biography that chronicles Henson's family background and childhood, but really gets detailed when he hit college. Henson's ambition was to work in television, and in the mid-50s, of course there was no such thing as college coursework aimed at a career in TV. He wound up a home economics major because that was where a lot of the hands-on stuff was happening, and he fell into puppeteering as a way to get started in TV. Henson had no intention of being a puppeteer forever; that was just what happened.
Jones takes the reader through Sam and Friends and the early forays into advertising that really got the Muppets going. (I was unaware of the Wilkins and Wontkins coffee commercials, but they're really funny.) There's lots of wonderful stuff about the start of Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and the Muppet movies. Having grown up with the movies, I had never realized how much they had to invent for each one! In fact, Henson did a lot of inventing all the time, right from the beginning, and developed lots of things that became television standards -- or stretched the boundaries so far that they didn't quite work yet. He was forever seeing possibilities that wouldn't really be feasible for years.
All of the major Muppet players' contributions are carefully documented. It's a lot of fun to read about how Frank Oz got into everything (he's described by one co-worker as the world's greatest puppeteer -- who doesn't want to be one) and how all these people worked together.
Jim Henson did not only want to do Muppets, though. He was always coming up with new things to do, and he particularly wanted to get into doing strange, other-worldly films. He did a lot of experimental film-making, and he developed The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, both of which took tremendous work and weren't necessarily understood by everybody. In the first iteration of The Dark Crystal, Henson actually had the Skeksis speaking other languages -- it was just sounds and bits of various other things, and only the Gelflings spoke English. Viewers were supposed to understand the action pretty much on its own. This was an utter flop and they had to go back and figure out how to put English into the existing film. That film became a big hit, but there were complaints about the lack of humor.
So humor was in the next one, Labyrinth, but the script went through too many cooks and the whole thing was based on world-building rather than character. It was kind of a flop, which was a huge blow to Henson. (Personally I disagree with the criticisms; I think it's a neat story. You start off with this self-pitying girl who would rather live with her possessions and her daydreams than with her people. During her journey, she has to reject all those things -- her old toys, her dreams of being a romantic princess, her self-centeredness, all that stuff -- and put her people first. Once she learns to do that, she gets everything back, only better.)
He still had a zillion ideas and the energy to pull them off; but instead Henson's sudden death, at far too young an age, was an awful shock. Jones goes through the whole thing and it becomes clear that by the time anybody realized that he was really sick, it was already too late.
The Muppets are still around, and they've made some great stuff. I've enjoyed most of the movies. But I sure do miss Jim Henson. What a genius he was.
I spent a lot of time looking up old Muppet clips on Youtube, and happily they are mostly available there. Check out this great piece, "Visual Thinking" -- I found four versions, three of which use the same audio and animation.
As a final touch to the Muppet fun, here is a photo from just this week. My 15 year old's school was doing a spirit week, and Wednesday was Meme Day. The 17 year old suggested this brilliant idea, which involved digging our Kermit puppet out of the closet and clothing him in a doll's wizard cloak that I sewed up several years ago, and which has now been put to work (inside out) as a cloak for Death of Rats and now also Evil Kermit:
Wednesday was also Braces Off Day, so that smile is a lot less metallic now! I keep making her bare her teeth at me.