I’m going to attempt this review without making any sweeping assumptions about how anyone could possibly dislike Jim Henson, or the muppets, and what that would say about a person’s soul or LACK THEROF. (Point of interest: my boyfriend is indifferent toward Jim Henson and can’t stand the muppets. Other than that he’s great and has all the outward signs of a soul, but I should dump him, right?)
With biographies, especially of a person I admire, there’s always this feeling of uncertainty whether I really want to know him better, or if the perhaps-less-than-accurate version of him that lives in my imagination is the one I should stick with. Lots of biographies will tell you details about the subject that tarnish him a little in your eyes, that make him more difficult to defend (to your super-weird boyfriend)– looking at you,
John Lennon, any member of the Beatles, every musician with a biography I’ve ever read.
This is not that book. As with Abraham Lincoln (and, I suspect, Fred Rogers, whose biography is next on my list), Jim Henson was awesome and entirely deserving of his reputation, and knowing him better will make you a better person, or at least make you want to be a better person. He was super positive, generous, encouraging, the opposite of greedy, enormously ambitious and creative, soft-spoken, rarely got angry or confrontational (which turns out to be his biggest fault), and absolutely devoted to his children.
But you’ve probably heard all of that before, yes? Here are some things about our guy that you may not know:
1. He loathed being thought of as a children’s performer, and hated when people lumped his puppets into “children’s entertainment”. When asked to create characters for Sesame Street, he didn’t agree right away for fear he’d never shake the title “children’s puppeteer”. It wasn’t really until The Muppet Show that he finally proved to the masses that puppets aren’t just for kids.
2. He honestly did not care about making loads of money, he only cared about the integrity of the work and connecting with the audience. Early in his career, when he was using muppets for paid commercials, he’d barely break even because he’d use ALL the studio time trying to get the perfect take. Later, when he moved to feature films, his budgets were astronomical because he spared no expense building elaborate characters and sets. And when his movies occasionally flopped (The Labyrinth), it wasn’t the financial loss that upset Jim Henson, it was that he’d misunderstood what people wanted to watch.
Of course, he did also make plenty of money.
3. This is fascinating from a film industry perspective– before Jim Henson, TV puppet performances looked a lot like those you’d see in real life: a stage with a space cut out for the performance. In other words, you’d basically watch a video of a regular real-life puppet show. Jim used, instead, the four edges of the TV screen, rather than the four edges of the puppet stage, to give a performance. This cut out the middle man, so to speak, and put the viewer right in the middle of the action. His puppets were the best on TV by far.
4. This led to another major impact on the genre– because their “stage” had no physical edge, the performers needed to see where they were according to the camera’s eye, so there were TV monitors everywhere, so each performer could see one at all times. At that time, not many other people were doing that. When Jim moved into film directing (starting with The Great Muppet Caper), he watched the takes on the monitors instead of through the camera’s lens, saying, “I can see it from here,” which confused veteran film workers. Of course, these days you’ll almost never see someone directing through the camera.
5. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange (which I already knew) and Kermit the Frog used to be blue (whaaa?) and not a frog. He was just a little blue guy.
Of course this story does have rather a tragic ending– poor Jim Henson died suddenly, long before his time. But even that is worth reading about– his views on life and death were peaceful and uplifting, and he left beautiful letters for his children detailing how he’d like his funeral to go. The end of this book is a bit of a cry-fest (and I made it more so by looking up clips from his puppet-tastic memorial service on YouTube, BEWARE THE HEARTBREAK), but he had an amazing life and a lovely service, and now he has a beautiful legacy. We should all be so lucky. Maybe adopting a few of Jim’s outlooks on life can help.