Jones discusses his biography of Muppet creator Jim Henson, described as an uncommonly intimate portrait of one of the 20th century’s most innovative creative artists.
Biographer Brian Jay Jones
Tavis: Jim Henson, the creator of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and so many other Muppets is without a doubt a beloved American icon. But Henson was much more complex and driven than devoted followers of Sesame Street might imagine. That complexity comes to the forefront in a new biography titled, appropriately enough, “Jim Henson: The Biography” written by Brian Jay Jones. Let’s take a look first at a clip of Henson describing how he actually created Kermit the Frog.
Tavis: You were saying to me during the clip that, for you, Henson was what you refer to as “creatively restless.”
Brian Jay Jones: Yeah, creative restless. The guy, throughout his entire life, was always pitching and coming up with new ideas. Even when he’s got the most famous show in the entire world, he’s still writing ideas down and coming up with ideas for movies and things that never make it off the page. Just a creatively restless guy.
Tavis: That creative restlessness was born of what?
Jones: You know, I think a lot of it was, from a very early age, his grandmother, who he called Dear always inspired him to draw and to paint and to build and to sew. So Jim, you know, knew how to do all these things from a very early age and was always encouraged by his parents and his grandparents to go out there and find the fun in things, find the fun in life.
Tavis: Henson in that clip referenced it just a wee bit. You go into it much more in this new book, “Jim Henson: The Biography.” In terms of talking about the way he redesigned these Muppets, these puppets, as it were, when they were at the time many still being made of wood, I’ll let you tell more about the way that he created – I mean, when you see Kermit’s face move or the other Muppets, he had a hand not just in the creative exploration of how the characters came to life, but in the actual design of these characters.
Jones: Yeah. I mean, his real genius in puppets on television, he figured sort of two things out. First of all, if you’re on television, the puppet needs to be expressive. You can’t have a wooden face with paint on it. You’ve got to have a mouth that moves. You got to have eyes that look focused. Jim figured out how to design and build puppets to look like that.
But the two things he did that really seemed natural now or seemed normal and he figured out was, you don’t need a puppet theater. When you had Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Burr Tillstrom would usually stick those puppets out from behind a curtain. He would just film the puppet show. Jim decided and realized early on you don’t need that because the four sides of your TV screen are your puppet theater. So that was a huge breakthrough right there, realizing you could just film the puppet in real space and real time.
But the other thing he also figured out was that, if that’s what matters, you need to know what the camera is seeing at all times. So he put a monitor on the floor so he could always watch the performance and adjust in real time, and they still perform this way to this day even on Sesame Street. If you’re watching the performers, they’re never looking up at that puppet. They’re always watching that monitor on the floor. Makes perfect sense, but nobody thought of that before.
Tavis: Wow. I was flipping channels the other night and came across for the umpteenth time this movie, “Ted” with the little talking…
Jones: The teddy bear.
Tavis: The teddy bear, yeah. The movie was a huge hit, obviously, in part because Ted was so crass. The teddy bear was so crass. And it made me think about Jim Henson and how he has become iconic the world over for Muppets that were funny, but also had something to say. He succeeded in a world where crass sells, but that’s not the route he decided to go.
Jones: Yeah. Someone once said that Jim, you know, made it big in Hollywood without ever raising his voice, that he was a guy that, you know, for him, he sort of hit that sweet spot between sort of the chaos of the Looney Tunes cartoons and almost never got a (inaudible) as the Disney worker bees. Like right there in that sweet spot, there was never anything mean-spirited about the Muppets. They were funny, they were poking at each other, they were hitting each other and, at the end of the day, they would all come back together as a family, and that was way even the Muppet performers were around Jim.
Tavis: Yeah. It’s a good picture there on the back of Henson with all of these Muppets. Give me some sense of, back to your point of creative restlessness, how he came up with all these different ideas.
Jones: Well, Jim was the ultimate collaborator. He was always really willing to give his performers the room and the time they needed to find the characters. And a lot of times, the character began with a scrap of an idea, a drawing.
Ernie and Bert was a study in sort of contrast. Jim had drawn sort of this horizontal character and this vertical character. That, to him, was already funny. He liked that. And then he and Frank Oz put these puppets on after they were built by a designer named Don Sahlin who Jim always said could capture the essence of a drawing to figure out what made it work and what didn’t.
So they put these puppets on and they would play with them in front of the mirror and figure out who was going to do what. And people always said with Ernie and Bert, it made perfect sense because Jim was Ernie and Frank was Bert and Frank was sort of buttoned up and uptight and Jim was a little more laid back and knew how to, you know, push his buttons.
But then you take a character like Miss Piggy that they had built just as a sort of background character in one of the two sort of Muppet pilots they had done that didn’t catch fire. And in the first season of the Muppet Show, that character is passed back and forth between both Frank Oz and Richard Hunt. There’s two different performers with her, her voice isn’t really set.
And Frank Oz had her one day and there was a stage direction that called for her to slap Kermit and Frank Oz decided to turn that into a karate chop and hit Kermit with that karate chop and head writer, Jerry Juhl said you immediately knew you had to see it again. He said the place just went crazy and they knew that that was the character right there. Bonnie Erickson, who designed her, described her as a truck driver who thinks she’s a fashion model.
Tavis: [Laugh] that’s funny. There are a couple of things that you’ve said now that I want to go back and get. One of them is, this is so uncommon in the world that we live today. If the pilot doesn’t catch fire, if the first half of the first season doesn’t catch fire, somebody gets canned. Infamously now, or I should say famous and not infamously, famously now this thing didn’t catch fire.
Jones: No, no. And it was really a study in stick-to-itiveness for Jim. I mean, it took him two, actually three, tries to get the Muppet Show on TV. He had been on enough variety shows throughout the 60s. The Muppets were always on Jack Paar and The Tonight Show and Steve Allen that he knew they could work. He knew they could hold their own for 30 minutes.
And finally after Sesame Street hit, he managed to convince – it was actually Michael Eisner when he was at ABC – to fund a pilot. First pilot is called The Valentine Show, doesn’t really do anything. Second one is called “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence,” which Jim thought was hilarious and that doesn’t catch fire either.
Most people, after the first and then the second, would have said, all right, you’re right. It’s not gonna work. Jim knew that was gonna work and finally he found somebody to back him. It was a lower grade from London, from ATV, that invested in Jim and said I’ll give you $125,000 an episode, which was a phenomenal amount of money in 1975 to put into “The Muppet Show.” It was, again, just Jim sort of knowing something would work and dogging that idea.
Tavis: What does a success of “The Muppet Show” when it was on say about our culture? What was it that Henson understood about our culture? Aside from his characters, why did he think these characters would play in the culture at that time?
Jones: You know, there’s even still sort of a timelessness to the Muppets even then. Like “The Muppet Show” is fascinating because it’s sort of time capsule of the 70s when you watch it now. It’s got Elton John in his crazy feathered era and, you know, it’s Alice Cooper and Steve Martin. You know, it sort of personifies the 70s and yet it’s still got that timeless feel because Jim placed in that sort of vaudeville theater.
Like he finally with “The Muppet Show” figured out where it took place and that gave it the timelessness I think it needed for people to feel like, well, geez, the Muppets have always been here. They just sort of felt like they were always there from the very beginning.
Tavis: What’s the story behind why or how Kermit turned out to be a frog? I mean, of all the things that he could have been, why is Kermit a frog?
Jones: Yeah. When it first started…
Tavis: I see you got your frog on your lapel.
Jones: Yeah, I got Kermit right here. Kermit was kind of Kermit the Thing when it started. Kermit came out in 1955. He was actually built from Jim’s mother’s coat. Jim was always building Muppets out of found objects and his mother had sort of this abandoned coat that was sort of a milky blue and he really did make the puppet’s eyes out of ping-pong balls cut in half. And that was really it.
It’s really hard for us to watch that character now and not think of him as a frog because the face is still kind of the same shape. But he’s got big padded feet, kind of floppy arms and he was just this abstract character in the Sam and Friends cast and all the characters in that cast were sort of vague and abstract.
Jim really liked that, but as the 60s progressed, eventually he took that character and put a collar on him to narrate something called “Tales of the Tinkerdee.” And when you see the footage of that, it’s black and white. He’s got sort of crenulated collar around his neck. I mean, there’s the frog right there and I think that was probably one of the moments when they knew that that was it.
And Jim later on said that, in a way, it was a little sad to lose that abstraction. He really liked that. He always called it the difference between warm and cool, that you’re really giving the audience something to hang onto at that point. And in a way, he said that they’re not working quite as hard. The relationship between the audience and the puppeteer are a little different. He really liked that abstraction.
Tavis: This whole book, “Jim Henson: The Biography,” is an answer to this question. But top line for me what you think Sesame Street and beyond, what you think his values of the culture has been and will be.
Jones: For Jim, starting in Sesame Street, Jim really wanted television to matter and Jim always wanted his projects to matter. And that’s one of the big sort of values and ethics that Jim always brought to his work that really informed Jim’s work. You know, Sesame Street was about making learning fun.
Something like Fraggle Rock was about three different species living together harmoniously whether they knew it or not. Muppet Babies was how the imagination could solve a problem through, you know, multiple different ways.
Jim wanted things to mean something. They had to mean something. He sort of famously told his Fraggle Rock team when they were coming up with the idea for that show, “I want to come up a show that will stop war.” So it had to mean something to him. So I think that that’s one of the things that really sort of makes those characters timeless and still resonate with us today is they had to mean something. They had to be about something.
Tavis: Puppetry and animation are two different things, but does this tell us anything about what Henson might say about the state of puppetry today?
Jones: You know, it’s hard to tell because at the time of Jim’s death he was trying to sell the company to the Walt Disney Company and put the Muppets and sort of place them in the hands of the Disney Company to manage, and one of the conditions of that agreement was he also wanted his own independent company.
So Jim was sort of ready to let the Muppets on their own and take his own production company and go do something we haven’t even thought about now. So it’s hard to say what he would have done with puppetry later. It’s hard to say, you know, where he would have gone with technology.
Someone once asked me, would Jim have used CGI? I think the question is not would he have used it, but what would he have done with it? Because Jim always had the ability to see a different way to use a thing. So I think that’s, you know, where Jim today, you would really see him doing some really fun and really interesting things, but he’s so hard to pin down. You can’t tell where he’s gonna go.
Tavis: Well, that’s ’cause he’s so ahead of all the rest of us [laughs].
Tavis: The book is called “Jim Henson: The Biography.” Pretty simple, pretty straightforward. Henson was not so simple and straightforward. Some complexities I think you’ll appreciate when you get a chance to read the text, “Jim Henson: The Biography,” written by Brian Jay Jones. Brian, thanks for the work, and good to have you on the program.
Jones: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
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