Wednesday, August 20, 2014

My Five Favorite Stories from the Life of Jim Henson

I received a copy of Brian Jay Jones's wonderful, if somewhat workman-like, biography of Jim Henson for my birthday last December, and I've only just finally gotten around to finishing it. It's a fine work--not terribly insightful as a whole, but filled with an immense amount of research and some pretty incisive comments about Henson as an artist, a businessman, a father, a friend (apparently, and perhaps surprisingly, especially to the ladies), and more. He was a brilliant, hilariously funny, fantastically hard-working, supremely self-confident but never arrogant, deeply peaceful and spiritual (though never religious), intensely private, amazingly (though not very conscientiously) generous, somewhat oblivious, and ultimately self-contained man: he always knew that he'd be able to make things that were wonderful and worth watching all on his own, and so inviting other people to build Muppets and television shows and movies along with him was never about his goals, but rather about getting them to do great things alongside him. What more could anyone want to know about one of the greatest and most inspiring story-tellers, entertainers, and media pioneers of the 20th century than that?

So, rater than a detailed review (which is months late for the book, anyway), here are five wonderful little bits about Henson's life and career which I gleamed from Jones's biography:

1) Designing puppets was just something Henson got into while going to the University of Maryland as a means to breaking into the local television market in Washington DC. At any point, different television offers--behind the scenes camera-work, set design, anything--could have pulled him away from the means that would make him famous. It wasn't until he traveled to Europe in 1958 as a 21-year-old, bouncing his way through museums and hostels and bars, that he realized that puppetry was a serious art, one with a deep history and one that he could build a career around.

2) Henson initially didn't take Sesame Street terribly seriously as a show, and he never did devote more than just a couple of weeks a year to shooting the Muppet skit inserts (the Muppet operation at Sesame Street was always kept somewhat separate from the rest of Henson's work), but he was ferociously defensive of his Muppet creations for the show, setting up very tight reviews of all and any merchandising involving Ernie, Bert, Cookie Monster, and all the rest, and at one point almost shutting down an important deal with Disney because he wasn't positive that the Children's Television Workshop would be sufficiently protected from The Mouse.

3) The Muppet skits in the first season of Saturday Night Live were unloved by everyone involved (except, perhaps, Henson himself), and their separation from the show on NBC was entirely mutual...yet Henson took great, snarky pleasure, once The Muppet Show became an enormous, world-wide hit, in showing up John Belushi's mean dismissal of the "mucking fuppets" by showing off his creations' huge success.

4) Of all the guests that could-have-but-didn't-happen on The Muppet Show, the most astonishing (though perhaps not surprising, given that it was the first truly global television phenomenon, watched everywhere from South America to the Soviet Union) was a Beatles reunion. Ringo Starr was in talks and McCartney was interested; Lennon and Harrison weren't responding, but with a little more effort, it just might have been one of the Greatest Events in all Pop History. Certainly better than the Liberace episode ("a surprisingly bad pianist," Henson noted in his diary).

5) Henson was determined to get Sting to play Jareth in Labyrinth; his son Brian, however, told him that Sting would be a terrible choice, and that he needed someone with more rock and roll cred: David Bowie. Whom they got. And it's a good thing--can you imagine the long-haired, jazzy, deep-thinking Sting circa 1986 doing the Magic Dance?

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