Continuing my Muppet Portrait series with Dr. Teeth and Gonzo the Great!
I hope this will be a semi regular feature where I discuss some of my biggest influences. First up Jim Henson.
Like most people born after 1969 my first exposure to the work of Jim Henson was Sesame Street. Back then I didn’t know there was a person behind the puppets. They were entirely real to me. My prime watching years were 1980 to 86. It was a little different than it is today. No Murray or Abby Cadabby, only minimal Elmo. Not nearly as structured about when each segment aired. It was still the early years, I vaguely remember Mr. Hooper and a Snuffy who was imaginary. I clearly remember Gover as a waiter, Ernie stealing Bert’s nose, a song about a llama going to the dentist, Kermit as a reporter. Sesame Street made a huge impression on me and I absorbed as much as I could. It taught me about letters and numbers and words. It also taught me that being smart was important, but wanting to learn was even more important. It taught me people were all equal regardless of color: black, white, blue, green, it was all good. And no matter their quirks—if they can’t count, if all they want to do is count, if they tend to devour your worldy possessions, if they bother you while you’re trying to sleep, or if they’re perpetually crabby—your friends are your friends.
And they were my friends. I trusted them and loved spending time with them. Even after I found out there were people making them say or do the things they did, they were still living breathing beings to me.
My Muppet years started later than the Sesame years but they definitely overlapped. (In this case I’m referring to the ensemble of characters who populated the Muppet shows and movies, though it can be used to refer to all of Henson’s puppets including the Sesame gang). I don’t actually remember a time when I didn’t know of the Muppets. I think I might have been born knowing the lyrics to the Rainbow Connection. While Sesame’s focus was on education, The Muppets were all about entertainment. The Muppets were a little more sophisticated than their Sesame Street counterparts. They were a tiny bit more complex both in their design and personalities. It’s remarkable that Henson and his fellow performers could imbue bits of felt and fur with such a range of emotions. These puppets could convey pathos, joy, ennui, insecurity, mania, frustration, contentment etc. That versatility meant you never knew for sure what you’d get with them. Sometimes it was pure vaudevillian shtick. Often it was zany, chaotic, whimsy. And sometimes it was raw emotion that spoke to the core of the human experience. (Okay, that was a kind of hyperbolic.) Few things have moved me the way Gonzo singing I Want to Go Back There Someday in the Muppet Movie did. Many of the few that have, also involve Muppets. (If you want another example of the muppets moving you to tears, search for Just One Person on YouTube.)
Despite their differences Sesame Street and the Muppets have a lot in common. Such as their affinity for the absurd. But most importantly, like Sesame Street, the Muppets are about acceptance and tolerance. Everybody is welcome.
Once I learned that there was a man behind Kermit and Ernie and the Swedish Chef, I sought out to find more things he’d done. And there was a lot. Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, The Labyrinth, The Storyteller. All these worlds bursting with imagination. It came as a shock, yet felt entirely right when I learned that Henson and his team created the Yoda puppet for George Lucas, and Jim’s longtime collaborator, Frank Oz, brought him to life.
It’s a cliche to say that there will never be another Jim Henson. But it’s the truth. He was unique. My world is richer because of his creations—because of him. I was ten when he died. It was the first time I was so affected by the death of some one I never met. I’m so glad that Sesame Street and the Muppets have carried on after he was gone. Kids need them, I need them. They reflect the world the way I want it be be. Full of laughter and hope. And I’m glad that his company continues to produce incredibly creative and original projects like the TV show Farscape and the movie Mirrormask. Jim is gone, but his inspiration continues.
And I will always be a fangirl.