Big Bird, biography, Book Review, Brian Jay Jones, C is for Cookie, Children's Entertainment, Christopher Hitchens, Cookie Monster, Ernie and Bert, Film, Fozzy Bear, Fraggle Rock, Frank Oz, Gonzo, Honest Trailers, I'm Going to Go Back There Someday, imagination, Jim Henson, Jim Henson: The Biography, Kermit the Frog, Labyrinth, LSD, Mark Twain: American Radical, Miss Piggy, Muppets, puppetry, Robot Chicken, Rubber Ducky, Sam and Friends, Sesame Street, The Dark Crystal, The Muppet Movie, The Muppet Show
Jim Henson had me in tears after only three pages. The biography begins with a brief narrative describing the filming of a scene in Sesame Street when Kermit the Frog, played ever always by Jim Henson, sings the ABCs with a little girl named Joey who constantly interrupts the song by saying Cookie Monster instead of a letter. If that sounds unbearably cute I’ve provided a link at the bottom of this review and you can watch it for yourself. For my part I didn’t watch it until after I finished the biography and I was still rendered a puddle.
Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones does everything a biography should do, and here I fall back upon Christopher Hitchens’s list he provides in his essay Mark Twain: American Radical:
- That a biography shall cause us to wish we had known its subject in person, and inspire in us a desire to improve on such vicarious acquaintance as we possess.
- That the elements of biography make a distinction between the essential and the inessential, winnowing the quotidian and burnishing those moments of glory and elevation that place a human life in the first rank.
- That a biographer furnish something by way of context, so that the place of the subject within history and society is illuminated, and his progress through life made intelligible by reference to his times.
- That the private person be allowed to appear in all his idiosyncrasy, and not as a mere reflection of the correspondence or reminiscences of others, or as a subjective projection of the mind of the biographer.
- That a biographer have some conception of his subject, which he wishes to advance or defend against prevailing or even erroneous interpretations. (40-41, Appears here in selections).
All of these requirements are satisfied by reading to the end of Jim Henson, for after I had finished reading the book it was impossible for me to idealize the man who made the Muppets and by extension most of my childhood. That’s not to say that Jim Henson was a monster, for anyone who reads the book is sure to discover Henson the man was just benevolent as the creations he made in life, however the man himself was not the faultless Kermit who sang Rainbow Connection. But he almost was.
I picked up Jim Henson: The Biography despite the fact that I really shouldn’t have. Whenever my family makes it pilgrimage to Half Price Books in Dallas my sister and father leave the store with three, four, maybe even five books. My mother and I on the other hand tend to leave with entire baskets. Carts really, and I do mean shopping carts full of books. My mother is more practical, and I might even go so far as to say shrewd in her book buying, because she makes sure that almost every book in her stack(s) is from the bargain section at the back of the store and so most of her purchases amount to $1-2 American. As such she could buy 40 books and wind up paying only 40-80 dollars. As for myself, I am not so clever, and I have never been shrewd. I already had a stack that amounted to over $100, yet while I was looking for my little sister I was passing through the biographies and I looked up and there it was. I plucked it off the shelf, read two lines, and placed it on the ever growing stack.
I began reading the book and it’s difficult to process what this meant for me. My parents tell me, because I have no memory of it, that when I was an infant my favorite television show was Fraggle Rock. This would eventually be replaced with Sesame Street and Barney, though I only admit to the first one. Most of the early memory’s I have of my childhood is singing along to the Sesame Street sing-along cassette tape my mother bought for us, and the songs “C is for Cookie” and “Rubber Ducky” are still fixed in my mind to the point to this day I’ll find myself, usually while washing dishes or walking my friend’s dog, humming “Rubber ducky, you’re the one.” Jim Henson, like many before me, left a distinct impression upon my life because he created an aesthetic so unlike anything else I would experience on television. While 3-D, and 2-D animation were the standards of most animated programs, I loved Sesame Street and eventually The Muppet Movie because it was different to see puppets on the screen. Puppets weren’t like cartoons, because unlike the drawings and three-dimensional models, I realized that these were real objects operated by real people that eventually became real people themselves.
This experience was not novel, for Jim Henson himself marveled at television, and Brian Jones explains the young man’s fascination with the device:
To the boy who had sat spellbound in the movie theater watching exotic tales of the Far East, this was like a genie’s sorcery. “I loved the idea that what you saw was taking place somewhere else at the same time,” Jim recalled. “It was one of those absolutely wonderful things.” After watching television at a friend’s house in late 1949, Jim was convinced his family had to have a television set of their very own. Now. (24).
Jim Henson grew up in a relatively calm Christian Scientist household within the Mississippi delta. This atmosphere would eventually be replicated in the opening scene of The Muppet Movie when Kermit would sing the song Rainbow Connection. As the reader learns of Jim’s early life his character is arrived at relatively quickly. Henson was a thoughtful creative type, and while he was quiet the young man he had a passion for both cars as well as pretty girls (and as Jones goes into some explicit detail Henson preferred the cheerleader types and wasn’t exactly virginal in any sense.). It’s the influence of television however that became the interest, or really the locus of his entire creative and personal goals. He attended briefly The University of Maryland, but by the time he reached college he was already working in television studios, learning about the trappings that made up the industry as well as experimenting with puppetry and trying to find a way to blend the two.
Jim would eventually create a small host of puppets and Jones does take the time to explain out a rumor that has emerged for years about how the term “muppet” came about.
Interestingly, Jim was already using the term Muppet as early as December 1954, while working for Joe Campbell at Circle 4 Ranch.
“It was really just a term we made up,” Jim admitted later. “For a long time I would tell people it was a combination of marionettes and puppets, but, basically, it was really just a word that we coined,” he added, pointing out correctly that, “we have done very few things connected with marionettes. (41).
The reader is probably waiting for one glaring mention and so I suppose I should get to that quote. Henson, and the woman who would eventually become his first wife Jane, began to work together and after securing a deal at a local television station a group of these “Muppets” was constructed for five minute sketches to be included at the end of a local variety program. The cast was called Sam and Friends and in this group there was one member who would outlast all of his troupe:
There was another abstract Muppet in Sam’s cast who, while still only relegated to mostly small parts—and usually getting devoured at the end—already has a special place in Jim’s heart. It was a puppet Jim had built while passing several long sad days tending to his grandfather Pop, who was slowly dying of heart failure—a puppet that, even early on, Jim would always call his favorite.
It was a milky blue character a named Kermit. (46).
Reading Brian Jones’s biography there is often this efficient delivery, for when I read those two brief paragraphs I felt a small tear well up in my eye. Part of this was simple nostalgia, in fact most of it was, but it’s important to note how effectively this reveal serves in the book. Many of the characters that occupy the creative landscape of Henson’s creative world are introduced in a way that feels not only natural, but like the meeting of an old friend. Later in the book when he describes the fashioning of characters like Fozzy Bear, Dr. Teeth, Miss Piggy, Rolf the Dog, Cookie Monster, Ernie and Bert, and (still to this day my favorite) Gonzo there is never this sense of hammed-up attempt to inspire nostalgia. Each character came about through Jim Henson’s personal development, and often was the case he wasn’t directly responsible for said creation. The point is that rather than allow his writing to become a long tiresome list of when Jim Henson created what program, Jones writes a biography about the development of a creative individual who left a tremendous impact not just upon the community of puppeteers, but the culture at large. President Obama has not only expressed his admiration for the show, his wife and other first ladies have appeared on the program alongside actors, athletes, singers, writers and this enduring desire to appear alongside the Muppets speaks to how relevant they remain in the hearts and imaginations of people.
What’s fascinating is that while this nostalgia is largely what keeps the Muppets going, Jim Henson spent most of his life trying to escape the identity of being a children’s entertainer, and even after he defeated this image he found problems:
With the worldwide popularity of both The Muppet Show and now The Muppet movie, Jim had, it seemed, conclusively put to rest the puppetry prejudice that had plagued him since Sesame Street. If there were still critics clinging to the stifling misperception that puppets were purely kid’s entertainment, Jim had universally acclaimed a motion picture, an Emmy, and 235 million weekly television viewers who would likely help him argue otherwise. But the international success of the Muppets of television and movie screen had created a different kind of perception problem for Jim. True, he was no longer considered a children’s performer; instead, to the entire world, he was now “the Muppet Guy.” (303).
It was this perception that eventually fueled Jim Henson’s creative output into the films The Dark Crystal (brilliantly satirized by Robot Chicken) and Labyrinth (also brilliantly satirized by Robot Chicken and Honest Trailers). These films have a bit of a reputation for not only being weird, but being somewhat beyond the audience’s ability to comprehend what exactly was going on. It would a be a mistake to call them both flops, for The Dark Crystal actually had relatively commercial success, and even Labyrinth has assumed the title of “cult classic.” These films each receive a chapter dedication to themselves and Jones’s description of each time in Henson’s life attests to the importance these projects had to the man. Labyrinth in particular was Henson’s first “failure” and it’s clear the lack of success impacted him tremendously. Jones goes so far as to quote Jim Henson directly:
Jim was devastated by the response. “I was stunned and dazed for several months trying to figure out what went wrong—where I went wrong,” he said later. (390).
The end of Henson’s life was largely a series of frustrations and disappointments as he dealt not only with the failed success of these two films, but also with the failure of a television program called The Jim Henson Hour as well as the troublesome negotiations with the corporation Disney who wished to purchase his company. It’s fair to say that most of the biography is the story of Jim Henson’s struggles or else his business actions for huge swaths of the book describe him attending promotion parties, interviews with the press, the backroom business of purchasing and owning his creative projects, and nearly every chapter has at least one mention of Jim Henson’s love of either yacht sailing or skiing in Europe with celebrities.
However, the soul of this biography rests not with Henson’s personal tastes for finer things, or even the numerous affairs with women that eventually crumbled his marriage, but in fact it’s the small stories that contribute to the larger picture of Jim Henson as a man. For example a failed acid trip:
[…] the Muppet crew was, for the most part, fairly straightlaced. [Frank] Oz wasn’t a partier at all—he found large gatherings too noisy—and Jim, while he might enjoy a glass of wine or two from time to time—and maybe, said Nelson, “a little grass”—rarely ingested anything more potent than aspirin. He has, however, tried LSD exactly once—and, if asked, would probably confess that it had been something of a disappointment.
“I remember Jim sitting at his little desk in that Eames chair of his, looking at his sugar cube laced with LSD,” said Oz […] “I took it,” Jim reported later, “and I waited…and nothing happened.” Only slightly disappointed, he wished Sarah and Nelson good night and drove home. If Jim’s experiment with with drugs had been a failure, one thing was clear: Jim didn’t need chemicals to take his mind to new worlds; his mind was already there. (226-7).
This scene made me laugh, simply for the fact Jim Henson’s mind was so trippy on his own that even LSD couldn’t keep up with him. Having watched the Labyrinth only two weeks ago, I can attest to the fact however that Henson really didn’t need drugs to make his mind go places so many people would require chemicals for.
I’ve provided a lot of synopsis of the biography and a few quotes to give the impression of the book, but as always I have to address my contester who wonders ever and always why they should bother.
What good does it do me reading about Jim Henson’s life when I could just watch Sesame Street with my kids, or watch The Muppet Movie and cry like a baby to I’m Going to Go Back There Someday? Why should I bother reading about the life of an artist?
The value, dear reader, lies in the fact that reading about Henson’s life is an opportunity to see how the characters who have impacted generation after generation came to be. There is a kind of dampening effect in some biographies of creative individuals as you learn about their affairs and faulty personalities, but often that has more to do with the writing of said biographies, or else simply the people themselves. Reading Jim Henson: The Biography is an entirely different experience however, for like I said before, reading the book is like meeting old friends, and learning about their past in a way that not only makes you closer to them, it informs your love for them in the first place. The quality of the book is due both to Jones’s ability as a writer as well as the man Jim Henson himself.
Growing up Ernie and Bert were two of my favorite friends, partly because of my mother’s willingness to let me play “Rubber Ducky” over and over again in the car, and the story of their creation is one of the sweetest passages in the book:
CTW intended to have pilot episode of Sesame Street ready by June 1969, so Jim began sketching out a few new Muppets for the show early that spring, handing Don Sahlin a felt-tip drawing, little more than a doodle, of two characters. The first has surprised eyes set in a tall, banana shaped head, topped by a shock of dark hair, while the other—looking rather like Moldy Hay from Sam and Friends—had a head like a football, a large nose, and even larger ears, with shaggy dark hair covering his eyes. […] In the talented hands of Oz and Jim, those vertical and horizontal characters would quickly become, in the minds of many, one of the funniest comedy duos anywhere, providing teachable moments for millions even as they poked, prodded, teased, and taunted each other: Ernie and Bert. (143-4).
Reading Jim Henson: The Biography often left me in tears, simply for the fact that so much of life, memories, and emotions were connected to Jim Henson’s work, and reading about his life it’s a marvel to know that someone who created so much wanted only ever and always to change people’s lives. It’s not idealizing Jim Henson to say that he was a selfless dreamer who only wanted to make people happy, for almost every person he met, worked with, lived with, or was related to attests that was his living breathing personality. As his work and legacy have grown, Henson has managed to escape the identity of being just a children’s entertainer, but his life’s work did reach children the most because he understood the need to reach children’s hearts and souls.
Looking at the character of Big Bird, Jones provides a creative insight:
One of his thoughts was “to have a character that a child could live through,” a Muppet who was representative of the audience. “Big Bird, in theory, is himself a child,” said Jim, “and we wanted to make this great big silly awkward creature that would make the same kind of dumb mistakes that kids make.” (146).
The use of the word “dumb” is a little harsh for my taste, if only because of one scene in The Muppet Movie that, my wife can attest to this, I always have to silence the room and turn up the volume to watch. It’s in the middle of the song “Movin’ Right Along” and Fozzy and Kermit spot a Hitchhiker:
Kermit: Hey, Fozzie, look up ahead there.
Fozzie: What is that?
Kermit: Maybe we should give him a ride.
Fozzie: I don’t know, he’s pretty big.
Fozzie: [to Big Bird] Hey there, wanna lift?
Big Bird: Oh, no thanks. I’m on my way to New York City to try to break into public television.
Fozzie: Oh. Hm, good luck.
The Studebaker (a bear’s natural habitat according to Fozzy) drives away and Big Bird bumbles along the empty dusty highway. One some level this is pathos, but there is something to be said about Big Bird as an innocent rather than “dumb” character. In this scene it’s clear that Big Bird was just a kid from the Mid-West hoping to get into television so that he could help children learn. Likewise Fozzy and Kermit are on their way to Hollywood to make movies and make people laugh. At this point Jim Henson’s entire creative ethos and life goal’s meet in a perfect point, and while they divided and headed towards different ends of the country this small scene seems to embody everything Jim Henson tried to do in his life.
The fact that I always tear up during this scene is also a lasting tribute to the fact that I’m am emotional shlub.
Jones offers one assessment however that does a better job than I could, as he looks at the parallels between Jim and his “favorite” character Kermit:
Like Kermit, Jim had left the swamps of Mississippi for the glitter of television and film, had put together his own “clan of wackos” to work with, and had struggled to break away from the clutches of the advertising business, which didn’t want to see him leave. Kermit’s motivation in heading for Hollywood wasn’t so far removed from Jim’s own outlook, either—rather than solely seeking fame and fortune, Kermit sees it as an opportunity to entertain and “make millions of people happy.” (297).
Jim Henson: The Biography isn’t just a list of life events that made Jim Henson famous, it’s a lasting tribute to a man who wanted to change the world, and actually managed to.
I looked up the scene described in the prologue that made me weep like a punk, and to protect my ego I’ve provided a link to it below so that the reader can watch it for themselves and see if they’re so badass as they think they are.
For the record Gonzo remains my favorite Muppet, but should I ever be struck with a violent or malignant disease my “Make-A-Wish” last request would be to sing at least three or four songs with Rolf, and also Seth McFarlane if he’d be willing to join.
If the reader has any idea how to make this happen, please let me know.
I managed to find an actual interview with Brian Jay Jones that deals with him writing the book Jim Henson: The Biography. Enjoy:
****Writer’s FINAL Note****
I had to share one last video. If nothing else will demonstrate the creative power that is Jim Henson then surely the song “I’m Going to Go Back There, Someday” will help. Fair warning, I can’t even make it past the harmonica playing before I’m a puddle. Whatever the case the song reminds me why I love the Muppets: there’s art beneath a seemingly nonsensical song about friendship.