If he’d survived his sudden illness in 1990, Jim Henson might be turning 75 years old next Saturday, September 24th. He would probably still be at work.
We can only guess where his imagination would have taken him—and us—in the 21 years we missed. There’s no doubt he would have broken new ground, for Henson was a relentless innovator who was always taking puppetry into new territory.
His long career began far back in 1955, when he created Sam and Friends for a Washington D.C. television station. The programs were just five minutes long and appeared semi-regularly in the no-man’s-land between afternoon and evening programming. Yet the show won an Emmy for best local entertainment program in 1958.
When it ended in 1961, Henson struggled to find work. Through the 1960s and mid ’70s, he could only get brief appearances on other programs like The Tonight Show and Saturday Night Live. Only in 1976 did a British producer finally give Henson the green light to launch a full-scale television show. The Muppet Show was produced and aired in Great Britain before finally arriving on prime-time US television. The network continued to identify it as a children’s program, though the program won a wide following of adult viewers.
One reason for its appeal to grown-ups was the obvious skill in capturing the imagination. Henson’s talent was so great that it’s difficult to think of Kermit or Miss Piggy as nothing more than inert piles of cloth when they aren’t being operated. But Henson himself never forgot how much work went into animating his characters. He told a Post interviewer in 1976:
“I treat them with gentility, but I never forget that they are made of a fabric with polyfoam and a little wood. The soft materials are for easy handling. I don’t want to break them because they’re difficult to make, but I’m not at all sentimental about them. I’m fond of them as characters but not necessarily as puppets. My emotional attachment is to the people they’ve become.”
Henson pauses in thought. “They definitely aren’t alive,” he says, “but they do have a life of their own, much like characters in a book. They are fictional characters.” [“Muppets On His Hands,” November, 1976]
Yet fictional characters have the ability to do things we can’t. Puppets, in particular, entertain audiences by teasing human vanity, mocking pretensions, and deflating pompous celebrities—all without getting into a fight. After all, who could win an argument with a hand in a sock?
“With puppets you can deal with subjects in a way that isn’t possible with people. I think of puppetry as expressing oneself through charades.”
Early in his career, Henson chose hand puppets over marionettes and ventriloquist dummies.
“I never did have any interest in being a ventriloquist. I didn’t want to split myself in two, the way a ventriloquist must do—half himself, half the dummy on his knee.”
Yet Henson was proud to be considered a successor to the ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.
“Edgar,” says Henson, “considered our work as taking up where he left off. Edgar once said something to me that I’ll never forget. He said, ‘Kermit the Frog is Charlie McCarthy’s first cousin.'”
Jim Henson pauses in remembrance. Then he says, wistfully: “Were nicer, warmer words ever spoken?”
The Muppets continue to find work; their new movie with the plain but honest title The Muppets will open during the Christmas season this year. But the artist who brought these creatures to life and made them so entertaining has left a melancholy gap in the creative community. His absence brings to mind a comment made by Lily Tomlin about working with the Muppets.
When asked by Time magazine what it was like attempting a role opposite an inanimate object, Tomlin thought for a while and summed up her feelings. “When you break the scene, ” she quipped, “you don’t both go out for coffee. It’s sort of sad.”
Way back in his early days, Henson created Kermit the Frog. His body was made from a turquoise coat his mother had discarded and his eyes were two halves of a ping-pong ball. Over the years, his shape became more distinct and more expressive, but his personality was set back in Sam and Friends days. According to Henson:
Kermit the Frog is not really a frog… He’s called Kermit the Frog but he’s really just Kermit. He became something of a frog when he did a TV special back in 1967. I changed his body and made him a bit rounder, more froglike. As a parallel, Mickey Mouse looks nothing like a mouse but he fits into that category. I mean, if nobody ever said Mickey Mouse was a mouse, we wouldn’t know what he was, would we?
Kermit the Frog has this function—he’s an Everyman trying to get through life whole. He has a sense of sanity and there he is, surrounded by crazies. Kermit is the character through whose eyes the audience is viewing the show. He is the solid thing in the middle—flip, snarky, which is to say a bit smart-alecky in his own way, but he’s a nice guy. He operates from a point of consideration. There is a lot of warmth in Kermit.”
The words could easily have described Henson himself. Which is why, so long as Kermit remains true to his original character, Jim Henson will live on.