Jim Henson: The Biography
Ballantine Books, 2013, 592 pp., $35
uman beings have been making and marveling at puppets for millennia. Indeed, puppetry predates agriculture and animal husbandry. The practice of imaginatively putting the breath of life into inanimate objects and casting these constructed performers in narrative dramas began between 30,000 and 21,000 BCE, according to theater arts scholar Eileen Blumenthal. Cro-Magnon men and women carved figures out of soft stones or bones. Early societies in virtually every populated part of the globe produced replicas of people and animals and used them to act out scenarios, striving to satisfy some deep-seated aesthetic need, or a desire for diversion, at least.
Whether for ritualistic or entertainment purposes, puppet shows were not regarded as primarily children’s fare prior to the 19th century, as they came to be in much of the Western world. In most non-Western climes today puppets are still for everyone, and in an odd way puppets appeal increasingly to Western adults, as well.
This has much to do with the fact that something important changed on a more or less global scale: How we observe puppets shifted significantly around the middle of the 20th century, and no one had more to do with that transformation than Jim Henson, the principal creative force behind the Muppets. For all the history of puppetry the show was live performance art. There were actors and an audience together in real time, with the puppets as magical mediators between the two. But when puppets, like virtually everything else, appeared to viewers via the mediated images of television, puppetry changed. Puppeteers work differently in front of a camera than in front of a live audience, especially when they design and choreograph taped performances for the screen. Of course, Jim Henson was by no means the first person to put puppets on television. Howdy Doody, the kid-oriented program starring its puppet namesake, was one of the first nationally broadcast shows, dating back to 1947. But Henson, unlike his puppets-on-TV predecessors (such as Burr Tillstrom’s Kukla, Fran and Ollie or Shari Lewis’s Lambchop), went beyond merely filming puppet shows. He created performances specifically for television audiences, revolutionizing both puppetry and television in the process.
Rather than situate puppeteers behind a puppet stage, with puppets moving about before a curtain, Henson made the television screen itself his puppet theater, since those who comprise a television audience only see what they are permitted to see by those controlling the cameras. Part of Henson’s process involved positioning television monitors so that puppeteers could view each performance as it progressed. Not only could they observe and adjust their performances; they could also move their characters in the viewing area in a way conventional puppeteers could not. Puppets could approach the camera for an extreme close-up, for instance, making the look and feel of a puppet television show distinct from that of a televised puppet show.
“Most puppeteers at that time still worked with absolutely rigid faces, and generally no expression at all, because—before television—puppets were generally meant to be seen at a distance of fifteen to twenty feet”, Henson explained. “I think we were among the first to design puppets specifically for television, where you’re relating to what you do with the face seen from very close.” For The Muppet Show, sets were built on stilts so that puppeteers could stand and walk, guiding their puppets through scaled doorways and in and out of rooms as they interacted with human guest stars on moveable platforms.
Henson’s early years gave little hint of how he would modernize the ancient art of puppetry or the broadcast medium that brought him to it. The author of the first full-length biography of Henson, Brian Jay Jones, initially defines him in rather prosaic terms, as a generous friend, a loving father, a hard worker. Henson modestly reflects, “Perhaps one thing that has helped me in achieving my goals is that I sincerely believe in what I do, and get great pleasure from it.”
According to Jones, Henson inherited certain defining personality traits from his father, Paul Henson, a U.S. Department of Agriculture agronomist. He aimed not to agitate or offend others, and his son was similarly non-confrontational. From a grandmother, Jones says, Jim Henson acquired both an artistic temperament and a disinclination to discuss unpleasant circumstances. (The biographer displays similar reticence. Though he dutifully notes the lengthy legal separation of Henson and his wife Jane and refers to Henson’s multiple lovers, he only names or discusses one.) Born and raised in Leland, Mississippi, Henson also supposedly acquired his grandmother’s “genteel self-importance”, which Jones sees as typically Southern, and the source of the confidence that buttressed his creative ambition.
Jim Henson: The Biography at times reads like an assemblage of facts that never quite manages to capture the mental make-up of a relentlessly innovative man. But it does contain a few noteworthy surprises among the banal details about family vacations, the fine print of a deal for Disney to acquire Jim Henson Productions that did not occur during Henson’s lifetime, and other evidence that Jones did his homework. Most striking is the fact that Henson never set out to become a puppeteer and didn’t think of himself as a children’s entertainer.
As an adolescent in the late 1940s Henson developed a fascination not with puppets but with television. Near the end of his senior year of high school in 1954, a local morning show issued a call for young puppeteers, and though Henson had never even seen a puppet show, he jumped at the chance to break into television. After checking out some relevant books from the library, Henson and a friend cobbled together some puppets, auditioned, and got the job, which turned out to last only a few weeks. Even so, that gig led to others, and while studying at the University of Maryland, he and a fellow student (who would later become his wife) had a regular five-minute program, Sam and Friends. Though it consisted mainly of puppets lip-syncing to records, it was a sign of things to come. (Even the word “muppet” had been coined by this time.)
Jones then traces how Henson’s skits and commercials led him to the Children’s Television Workshop, the group that created Sesame Street. Starting in the late 1960s, Henson agreed to create short “educational commercials” for the program but soon committed to producing Muppet segments as well. (He insisted on owning the characters he created, as he did throughout his career. The ones he devised specifically for Sesame Street eventually came to be owned by Sesame Workshop, as Children’s Television Workshop by then was known, even as the rest of Henson’s creations went to Disney.) Jones calls Ernie and Bert, the Odd Couple-like team of a goofball and his uptight roommate, Henson’s first “iconic” contribution to the show. Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch soon followed.
If Henson entered puppetry almost accidently, he quickly immersed himself in it. Following a trip to Europe in the late 1950s, he became an expert in puppetry’s history, studying its different styles, though always maintaining an aversion to overly intellectual approaches and a tinkerer’s willingness to experiment with new ways of doing things. Curiously, Jones has little to say about the history of puppets or which traditions especially influenced Henson. Jim Henson: The Works, a photo-filled 1993 book by Christopher Finch, offers more on the nuts and bolts of Henson’s projects. But Henson’s immersion led him to understand how puppetry works at a deeper level, which Jones, unfortunately, never addresses in the biography.
f a puppet is “born” anytime someone grants a lifeless object the appearance of life, as Eileen Blumenthal asserts in Puppetry: A World History, there could be an almost infinite variety of puppet types. Nonetheless, in the West, most puppets, allowing for some blurring and overlapping, fall into one of six groups. Most of Henson’s Muppets belong to the hand puppet family, or, more specifically, the “mitten head” type, with puppeteers’ thumbs controlling the performing objects’ lower jaws and their four fingers manipulating the malleable faces. Jones says “stylized simplicity” characterized the Muppets, and Henson believed that fairly basic puppets could be effectively expressive (though he enjoyed complex ones as well). Some mitten head Muppets required two operators, one to control the mouth and an arm and another to operate the other arm. Body puppets worn by their performers differ from costumes by not conforming to the contours of the human figure they engulf; they may have a person inside, but they have their own, different shape. Big Bird, among some other Muppets, belongs to this group. Rod puppets have appendages controlled by thin wands, which makes another famous Muppet, Kermit the Frog, a hybrid, with the face of a hand puppet and hands of a rod puppet. Though not known for shadow puppets, Henson did dabble in animated paintings relying on similar techniques involving backlit two-dimensional images. (He also featured celebrated Australian shadow puppeteer Richard Bradshaw on an episode of The Muppet Show during its first season.)
Bunraku-style dolls controlled by unconcealed handlers did not become a part of Henson’s repertoire, but the idea of visible puppeteers did intrigue him. In 1971, he and long-time collaborator Frank Oz drafted a sketch for a performance that would involve a puppet on a tall podium that would collapse and expose the puppeteers. “We loved the idea of being seen”, Oz recalled. Jones points to this “progressive attitude” as ahead of its time, at least in the United States. While puppeteers routinely appear onstage in live shows like the Lion King and Avenue Q, when Henson envisioned this kind of puppetry decades earlier it was radically unfamiliar to American audiences. (Julie Taymor, who displayed her puppetry techniques in the long-running Lion King musical, was an early recipient of a grant from the foundation Henson established for the promotion and support of puppetry.)
enson’s commitment to highly expressive puppet faces may go some way toward explaining his disinclination to employ marionettes. But another possibility arises, however improbably, in the fiction of Philip Roth. Roth’s 1995 novel Sabbath’s Theater features a puppeteer antihero. Regarding Mickey Sabbath’s disdain for marionettes, Roth writes:
Puppets can fly, levitate, twirl, but only people and marionettes are confined to running and walking. That’s why marionettes always bored him: all that walking they were always doing up and down the tiny stage, as though, in addition to being the subject of every marionette show, walking were the major theme of life. And those strings—too visible, too many, too blatantly metaphorical. And always slavishly imitating human theater. Whereas puppets . . . shoving your hand up a puppet and hiding your face behind a screen! Nothing like it in the animal kingdom!
Sabbath’s complaint hints at the very things that drew Henson to the types of puppets he favored: those freed from the confines of both a “tiny stage” and from literal realism itself. Puppets need not be particularly naturalistic to be evocative, and both Henson and Roth’s character exploited the resulting possibilities.
Now, the fictional Sabbath’s “specialty, his trademark”, writes Roth, “was to perform with his fingers.” Using no actual puppet at all, he nonetheless makes the most of the “guile, artifice, and the unreal” that are the puppeteer’s rawest materials. Henson never stripped down to plain fingers, but Henson’s puppets never strived for straightforward verisimilitude, and many of his characters are of indeterminate species. Blumenthal attributes the relatively recent relegation of puppetry to children’s playrooms to the ascent of scientific thinking in the 19th century, which, she claims, encouraged adult-focused artists to represent reality accurately: “Realism is one theatrical ground where puppets cannot compete on equal footing with live actors.” Introducing lifelike motion to inorganic things lends puppetry its uncanny magic. For performers like Henson (and Sabbath), puppets’ surrealism was a distinct advantage, one that made them preferable to human performers, at least for certain thematic purposes.
In Roth’s novel, Sabbath, the former puppet master of the Indecent Theater of Manhattan, practices a very different form of puppetry than did Henson (who, unlike Roth’s character, was never arrested and charged with obscenity). Yet his musings on puppetry suggest why Henson, as a character in Roth’s fictional scenario, might have invited Sabbath to join his troupe. (Roth mentions Henson and notes Sabbath’s missed chance to inhabit Big Bird’s body on the first page of Sabbath’s Theater.) Dissatisfied with human actors, Sabbath returned to working with puppets, “who never had to pretend, who never acted.” For him, the movement and voice a puppeteer generates make puppets real in a very different way from living, breathing people: “With puppets you never had to banish the actor from the role. There was nothing false or artificial about puppets, nor were they ‘metaphors’ for human beings. They were what they were….” Henson, too, believed that puppeteers required the same level of ability and training as any actor, but had no sentimentality about the puppets they used: It was the performers who created the characters, made manifest by the force of their imaginations. That’s what mattered, not the fleece, felt and foam. Through artifice, the human vanishes and something else emerges with its own distinct personality.
In addition, Sabbath, like Henson, believes puppets are not simply amusements for children. According to Sabbath, “puppets did not say, ‘I am innocent and good.’ They said the opposite. ‘I will play with you’, they said, ‘however I like.’” More crudely, Roth’s antihero likens puppets to another of his enthusiasms: prostitutes. “Nobody thinks of whores as entertainment for kiddies—like puppetry that means anything, whores are meant to delight adults.” In response to what Jones calls “the puppetry prejudice”, Henson sought to defy his reputation for “kids’ stuff” by titling an early Muppet Show episode “Sex and Violence.” It was a joke, of course. “My 14-year-old daughter Lisa saw it”, Henson recalled, “and throughout the show kept asking ‘Where’s the sex?’” Lisa, at 14, didn’t get the joke.
Henson, says Jones, shared Sabbath’s awareness of puppetry’s subversive potential—though Jones doesn’t point to convincing examples of actual subversion, unless the “Sex and Violence” title counts. Henson took political positions, such as opposition to the Vietnam War, but he preferred not to make statements about them in his art. Jones claims Henson transmuted internal strife into art, but fails to chronicle any inner struggles beyond a worry that time didn’t allow for all the work he hoped to get done. (He was right: He died in 1990 at age 53 of a bacterial infection.) Henson learned from ventriloquist Edgar Bergen that puppets could say things ordinary people couldn’t, says Jones, and when Henson performed as Kermit the Frog or Ernie he could disappear into the characters. Performing allowed him to cast off mental or psychological restraints just as puppets could slip the binds of gravity and realism. Henson found it liberating: “Frankly, I’m a lot more comfortable if I’m wearing a puppet.” He further elaborated: “Puppets are a lot like masks. Children—and adults—can perform without inhibitions, and without being seen. That sort of helps to foster true expression.”
In order to heighten the expressiveness of puppets, Henson turned to technology. In the early 1960s he unveiled some mechanical puppets (those not controlled directly by puppeteers but instead using internal mechanisms). Later, he added still more gadgetry to puppets. Puppets made with what Henson (borrowing a term from Walt Disney) called animatronics sometimes involved remote-control devices or had numerous cables connected to different facial features requiring teams of operators to control them. Never having considered himself a puppetry purist, Henson not only redefined the way puppets appeared and behaved on television, he also combined art and technology in a manner that moved his creations beyond puppetry as traditionally defined.
Henson sometimes conceptualized or oversaw the creation of technologically enhanced puppets that he did not actually build himself. By the early 1960s, Henson had already started turning ideas over to other puppet builders. It was Don Sahlin, for instance, who perfected the essentially invisible seam made with what is now known called the “Henson stitch.” The first puppet Sahlin fabricated for Henson became known as Rowlf, the piano-playing dog. Rowlf eventually became a regularly recurring character on The Muppet Show, and made frequent appearances on The Jimmy Dean Show, a 1960s variety show helmed by the eponymous country singer (who’d won a Grammy for the blockbuster hit “Big Bad John”). The applause Rowlf earned working beside the human musician reinforced Henson’s belief that puppets could appeal to an adult audience.
It does nothing to discount Henson’s contributions to the art of puppetry to point out that many of his innovations relate specifically to television, his early passion. Unusually, The Muppet Show was not made for a particular television network. Instead, it relied on the then-new concept of primetime syndication, which permitted local stations to pick it up independently. During the mid-1970s, The Muppet Show was one of the costliest half-hour programs produced for syndicated television. It was picked up by a record number of U.S. television stations (162) during its first season, becoming available to almost 95 percent of American households despite the lack of network backing. The show, although as American as could be, was filmed in London, which helped it penetrate international markets in Europe and Asia. In 1983, both The Muppet Show and another Henson show, Fraggle Rock, began airing on Soviet television, the first Western television series to do so.
Henson, Jones writes, was also one of the first people to recognize that cable television, with its audience of people willing to pay for niche programming, was perfect for certain sorts of made-for-television movies. While puppets had figured in movies previously, until The Muppet Movie, Jones notes, “no one had ever filmed a full-length movie with puppets as the main characters, interacting with real people in the real world.” For the musical finale of The Muppet Movie, Henson assembled the largest cast of puppets ever to appear on film. The Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, recognized Henson’s impact in these areas when, in May 2013, it announced plans to create a permanent gallery dedicated to his work, featuring artifacts from his television shows and movies.
While The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie were both critical and popular successes, Henson knew failure as well. The Muppet skits in early episodes of the inaugural season of Saturday Night Live fell flat. (Henson believed that the poor fit between the Muppets and the show’s writers, obliged by union rules to write the sketches, was to blame.) The film The Dark Crystal was panned, though it remains notable for its ambitious, exclusive use of handmade hand-puppets for visual effects. Labyrinth’s script went through about two dozen rewrites, and the movie that ultimately emerged was dismissed by both critics and peers. Variety, for instance, declared it “a crashing bore.” Jerry Nelson, a puppeteer who worked on Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock, told Henson to “stick with television.”
All the same, his flops still exhibited notable innovations. The white owl that flies about during Labyrinth’s opening credit sequence “marked the first time a realistic, real-world animal had been created and animated in the computer.” Those two and a half minutes made Henson a pioneer of computer-generated images (CGI), Jones suggests, even if only by dint of having hired the digital production firm that actually created them.
recent appropriation of some of Henson’s creations intended as both tribute and social commentary illustrates his ongoing impact. After the Supreme Court struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013, the New Yorker ran a cover depicting two of Henson’s most famous puppets cuddling on a couch as they watch the news reported on television. Now, Ernie and Bert had long been seen in some quarters as lovers, a characterization the producers of Sesame Street rejected, not just because it was patently silly, but also to ward off accusations of promoting a liberal agenda and to avoid giving fodder to opponents of government funding of public television. In 2007, Gary E. Knell, then the chief executive of Sesame Workshop (and later the CEO of National Public Radio and then of the National Geographic Society), remarked of Ernie and Bert, “They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets. . . . [T]hey do not exist below the waist.” A couple years later, in response to a grassroots petition drive calling for Sesame Street to have the pair wed, the Sesame Workshop issued a statement echoing Knell’s: “Bert and Ernie are best friends”, the outfit behind the program explained. “They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.” If Jack Hunter, the artist who created the “Moment of Joy” magazine cover, had ever heard these earlier objections, he, like the New Yorker’s editors, must have found them unpersuasive. Jones, who most certainly knew of them, inexplicably opted to ignore the matter entirely.
Predictably, the magazine cover prompted plenty of commentary. Some thought it was wonderful, others thought it was inappropriate (or inaccurate), and still others found it offensive. Less remarked on was what Hunter placed at the center of his image: a television. Ernie and Bert, in the foreground but off to the side, are depicted as learning from watching TV. Henson devoted his life to the idea that such learning was possible, and that puppets could be teachers as well as entertainers. It still remains to be seen, or argued, how good a pedagogue television can be in any form. But there’s not much argument that Jim Henson is fixed about as permanently as can be in the pantheon of America’s cultural innovators. Perhaps one day he will rate a biography that does full justice to his importance.