My relationship with The Muppets has been, for much of my life, something like a genuine yet marginal appreciation. I grew up on films like Muppet Treasure Island and A Muppet Christmas Carol, renting these on VHS over and over with my sisters, or 'pirating' them by recording the films when they aired on the Disney Channel. I recall enjoying re-runs of the Muppet Babies cartoon as well.
More recently, I found the 2011 revamp film The Muppets to be surprisingly good; funny, fitting to the times, and extremely well-written, especially considering how poorly a revamp could have gone. It was the first Muppet-related thing I had watched in probably ten years or more.
It was not until the past year that a significant interest and rekindled passion for The Muppets grew from out of the most unlikely place: listening to The Nerdist podcast. The host, Chris Hardwick, is an avid fan of The Muppets. He has praised the Muppet crew multiple times, citing them as a huge inspiration to his own comedic upbringing. He even had Brian Henson on as a guest, as well as The Muppet performers themselves. I was intrigued by the way that Hardwick heralded them as such an icon of comedy in general; I had always viewed them as primarily a 'kids show.'
It was this interest that led me to Brian Jay Jones' recent biography of Jim Henson. My appreciation for The Muppets, as well as for Henson himself, has been transformed into full-blown fandom. At the time of writing this, I have revisited all three Muppet films that Jim had a direct hand in (The Muppet Movie, The Great Muppet Caper, and The Muppets Take Manhattan), re-watched Labyrinth, have gotten through much of the first season of The Muppet Show, and plan to get my hands on every bit of Henson material I can find.
As this biography describes (and in great detail), Henson was one of the most innovative creative minds of the century. After hearing story after story of the ideas that Jim wanted to try out (probably less than half of which ever actually get made, primarily from lack of time or interest from investors), it is clear that he was almost too far ahead of his time for anyone else to understand his brilliance.
Initially, Henson had no particular interest in puppetry itself, but rather he was determined to work in television by any means possible. He had been fascinated with television from a very young age, and viewed TV not as a mindless entertainment device to be distracted by, but an incredible tool through which wonderful content and art could be made. Mind you, Henson was a kid in the 1950’s when home televisions had just come out—he was alive at the birth of the television show.
Jones’ biography begins with a slow start, going into (to be honest) way too much detail about the far, far reaching history of the Henson family; I didn’t need to know about Henson’s great-great grandfather in the Civil War. This section is mercifully short. One other mild criticism: the book suffers at times from being a little too overly-cloying and cutesy in places, and downright corny in others. This mainly has to do with Jones’ writing style, not with the content itself.
Once the narrative reaches Jim’s college years, things become much more interesting. What follows is a step-by-step history of Jim’s initial work in puppetry (like explosion-hardy commercials for Wilkins Coffee, and the Sam & Friends show), leading right into the progress of The Muppets as a company and a brand, including his befriending and hiring of a 19-year-old Frank Oz. He and Oz would remain friends and collaborators for the remainder of Jim’s life.
This chunk that makes up the bulk of the book is delightful and exciting, as Jones details precisely the facts and fun stories that a Henson fan would want to know. He recounts The Muppets’ short and rocky experience on Saturday Night Live, the development of The Muppet Show (and Jim’s fight to convince producers that his characters could hold their own on an all-Muppet show), and the production of each of the Muppet films, as well as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal (plus a few other interesting projects that Jim was never able to complete).
Kermit is as much a central presence as Jim, despite the fact that he began life as a milky-blue lizard, not the bright green frog we know and love today. As Jim’s life went on, the more he and Kermit were inseparable entities in peoples’ minds.
The book winds down with Jim’s decision to begin the process of selling his characters to Disney; a deal Michael Eisner was thrilled with, although the legal battle regarding rights and ownership would continue until after Henson’s death.
The chapter detailing Henson’s death is absolutely heartbreaking, not only for the fact that his family (and the world) lost such a kind, wonderful man, but also because by this point in the book you can’t help but have fallen in love with Jim Henson. Although he was driven, demanding, and precise in his work, he was also endlessly patient, generous, and truly a lover of people. It is clear in his quotes throughout the book that his utmost desire was not only to entertain, but also to make people happy, and to make the world just a little bit better for everyone.
I would highly recommend this biography to any fan of Jim Henson, The Muppets, or even to any creative person interested in the life of a truly innovative person. In the end, Jim just loved to make good stuff, and I found his process and passion extremely inspiring.