a weekly column by
vol. 3 #29,
January 19, 1998
OH, DO YOU KNOW THE MUPPET MAN?
Apple has been running a series of ads that are about as simple as you can get--a portrait of a 20th century genius, with only one word beside it: Imagine. Albert Einstein was one. And so was Jim Henson. Kind of an odd juxtaposition, that--the man who made the atomic bomb possible, and the man who made Big Bird possible.
But genius is genius. Certainly Einstein did his imagining on a larger scale, redefining physics and geopolitics and our understanding of space and time forever. Henson's stage was smaller. And yet he also redefined what was possible, in puppetry, in children's entertainment, in television, and in movies.
He changed puppetry forever by using the television screen as his puppet stage, bringing the audience closer to the puppets than it had ever been, watching tv monitors the while to see what his audience was seeing. Because hand puppets are so flexible, and we could see them up close, the muppeteers could exploit all the exquisite nuances of facial expression to make them seem real. Not that Henson didn't use all the other available technologies of puppetry, and create some new ones, you understand. Kermit and company were combination hand puppets and rod puppets, often operated by two or more people. When Kermit rode a bicycle in The Muppet Movie, he was a radio-controlled marionette. Big Bird and Sweetums and Thog and all the big monsters were men inside of costumes, staring at miniature TV monitors while using their hands and feet and sometimes radio controls to control the unwieldy bodies. Henson used light and dark and color and music and movement to conceal the puppeteers and strings and rods, and make the puppets seem real.
And oh, were they real. They were believable, quirky, lovable, irritating, funny people--not puppets, not frogs and pigs and birds. Kermit the frog, alternately understanding and cheeky, sputtering while adapting to disaster, was the center of calm in the midst of chaos, mediator between the volatile personalities around him--Miss Piggy (seething cauldron of passions beneath pretentious gentility), Animal (shaggy crazed drummer, all id), Scooter the Gofer (eternal conniving ambitious adolescent), Fozzy Bear (outstandingly untalented and affection-starved comedian), Statler and Waldorf (the eternally carping critics). On Sesame Street, Big Bird is every five year old, always trying hard to understand, always making mistakes, always trying to make amends.
The reality of these characters came from a combination of wonderful writing and acting. Henson's long time partner in writing, Jerry Juhl, shared his gift of whimsy. The takeoffs they created on favorite fairy tales, their Cinderella and Frog Prince, did what great children's literature does--offered simple entertainment to children, and complex understandings and funny lines only the grownups would get. All of the performers are good, but if you asked me who were the greatest comedy duos of the twentieth century, I'd namet Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Which is to say Kermit and Miss Piggy, Kermit and Fozzy, Ernie and Bert, Dr. Teeth and Animal. The two of them played off each other brilliantly, each a master of comic timing, vocal inflection, and body movement. (Kermit once did a tap dance routine that was utterly believable despite the fact that you only saw him from the waist up.)
What made Henson's work family entertainment was not just the puppetry, but its moral vision. The people on The Muppet Show were family, with all the petty sniping that can involve, but with all the kindliness as well. In The Muppet Movie, Kermit and his friends stand against the armed and dangerous agents of corporate greed, armed with nothing but their certainty of what is right (and a two-story tall Animal). The five heroes of Fraggle Rock have plenty of faults that get them into trouble--cowardice, overweening pride, jealousy -- but they always get each other back out, and learn a lesson in the bargain. Every episode of Fraggle Rock had a moral and two songs.
Music was integral to the muppets. The muppeteers couldn't necessarily sing worth a damn, and they weren't necessarily on pitch, but they were musical down to their bones. My all-time favorite rock group is Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. Some of my most fondly remembered musical moments are muppet performances: Ernie and Bert, singing "Imagination"; Gonzo the Great with assorted mooses and ducks celebrating the "Jamboree" inside his head; the muppet ensemble in African masks, singing a song based on an African legend with Harry Belafonte; Sgt. Floyd Pepper singing "New York State of Mind"; all the muppet performers, as hunted woodland animals hiding from drunken hunters, singing "For What It's Worth."
The Muppet Show was an international hit, but it ended after only five years because Henson wanted to see if his muppets could work in a movie. They did, brilliantly. The Muppet Movie was as perfect a movie as I've ever seen, a blend of charm and snarkiness, with a script that played games with the boundaries between illusion and reality.
Henson was the apostle of "why not...?" and "what if we...?", always exploring the outer boundaries of the possible. But by this time, he might also have begun to tire of cuteness. Certainly his Storyteller series, which combined human and puppet characters to retell classic fairy tales, was darker in tone, deeper in its vision. And less successful in drawing an audience.
Toward the end of his career he wasn't, I think, trying to play to the audience but to his own imagination. In his strange and beautiful film The Dark Crystal he did never-before-done things with astonishingly lifelike radio-controlled puppets. He also created an entire planet from scratch, its astronomy, its legends, its flora and fauna and creatures not wholly one or the other, aided by the artist Brian Froude. It was an expensive movie to make, and it paid for itself, but didn't make much of a profit. Undeterred, Henson went on to his last big project, Labyrinth, a movie with elements of Alice in Wonderland, "Hansel and Gretel," "Snow White," and nearly every other classic children's story. Added into the mix of Goblin King, stolen child, and the young girl's quest to retrieve him, Henson threw in set designs that could have come from M.C. Escher's dreams, and the heroine's drugged nightmare played out as a David Bowie music video. It was a strange and wonderful movie, but it had no audience. Too scary for children, too unclassifiable and puzzling for many adults, it bombed. One wonders where Henson's imagination would have taken him next.
We'll never know, at least not in this life, because when he got sick, he thought he had the flu and ignored it. By the time he realized it was worse than that, there was nothing the doctors could do to save him. So many people mourned his passing, because it wasn't just Jim Henson who died--it was Ernie, Kermit, Dr. Teeth, Rowlf, Traveling Matt, the Swedish chef, Link Hogthrob, grumpy old Waldorf. Henson's funeral was like his life--filled with puppets and music and people who loved him. He had told his family to hire a dixieland band for the occasion, and to please not to be too sad, because death was going to be another adventure, just one more thing he hadn't tried yet.
The Apple people had it right. Jim Henson. Imagine.
NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
I'll write columns here whenever I really want to share an idea with you and can find time to write them . If you want to be notified when a new one is up, send me an e-mail and include "My Word's Worth" in the subject line.