Jim Henson’s Biography Teaches us About Visual Thinking, and Creativity

This is the first episode of the On Books podcast where I chat about Jim Henson: The Biography with  Alexis Rondeau.

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The feeling after reading this book:

Inspired.

Opening line:

“Deer Creek winds casually, almost lazily, through the muggy lowlands in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.”

The main idea in less than 100 words:

Jim Henson created a legacy around The Muppets, Sesame Street, Fragile Rock, and Labyrinth. His life is a testament to the idea that you can use art, and creativity to change the world. The book is an snapshot of Jim’s journey from the early days of creating Kermit out of his mother’s felt coat, to philosophical understandings art vs. commerce, how to run a creative business, manage working long hours, and be an amazing father.

Why you should read Jim Henson’s biography:

The narrative of the world today is so hardcore: a Gordon Gecko,  power-charged, make the money life. And Jim Henson was not that person. He cared. This book relays just how much Jim Henson cared, how important art was to him, and how he created an empire built on softness (instead of hardness).

In addition to the in depth stories about Kermit, Big Bird, Muppet Babies, and existential indie films Jim made; his biography is also a story about working hard, managing creativity,  and simply appreciating life.

Book Notes:

jim henson quote

On September 24, 1936, Jim Henson is born

Jim on the invention of television: Jim said, “I loved the idea that what you saw was taking place somewhere else at the same time.[TV] was one of those absolutely wonderful things.” (24)

“In 1948 an estimated 350,000 TVs were in use, and 66 million radios (24) Televisions were expensive back then.”

“Jim was inspired by the 1950s show Pogo. Jim cited the show as an inspiration, ‘We use a very similar chemistry. Kermit is the Pogo’.”(28). “Pogo taught Jim: that you can entertain longer audiences while still playing to adult viewers.” (29)

I never played with puppets or had any interest in them. It was just a means to an end.” Jim (34)

“1955 – Afternoon (a new variety show) debuted on on March 7th, 1955. It marks the beginning of Jim and Jane (his future wife’s) relationship. It also marks the first time the term Muppets appears in print: “…and special features by the Muppets, who are puppeteers” (41)

“Even a five minute comedy romp, no matter how absurd, had to mean something.” (46)

Kermit was born – out of Jim’s mother’s old felt coat. For eyes, he simply glued two halves of a Ping-Pong ball – with slashed circles carefully inked in black on each.” (47)

“Those abstract characters I still feel are slightly more pure”, this is Jim referring to not calling Kermit a “frog” at first. Jim continues, “If you take a character and you call him a frog…you immediately give the audience a handle. You’re assisting the audience to understand; you’re giving them a bridge or an access. And if you don’t give them that, if you keep it more abstract, it’s almost more pure. It’s a cooler thing. It’s a different of a sort of warmth and cool.:” (48)

“At a time when most college students were making a minimum wage of seventy-five cents an hour busing tables or pumping gas, nineteen-year-old Jim Henson was being paid roughly $5,200 a year to perform on television. (The equivalent of $40k in 2013). Jim was expected, however, to use that money to design, build, and paint all his Muppets.” (54)

On Sunday, April 15th, 1956, Jim’s brother, Paul – now serving as an ensign in the U.S. Navy and undergoing his pilot training in Pensacola, Florida – was riding in a car with two other young men when the driver suddenly lost control. 23 year old Paul Henson Jr. passed away later that afternoon.” (56)

Wilkins Coffee Company Ads (Jim Henson in the 1960s)

Bernie Brillstein On Jim’s Look, “Jim was ‘a cross between Abe Lincoln and Jesus” [82]

“Part of what makes the muppets work, is that we do lots and lots and lots of takes until we get it right” [107] , Frank Oz.

“Time Piece is about time and a man running, and I understand that about Jim,” Juhl said later. “Jim was always running from time… there never would’ve been enough time, and I think he knew that really early.”

On His Career
“I used to always think in terms of having two careers going, two threads that I was working with at the same time,” Jim said later. “One was accepted by the audience and was successful, and that was the Muppets. The other [experimental films] was something I was very interested in and enjoyed. It didn’t have that commercial success, but that didn’t particularly frustrate me because i enjoyed it.”

“Visual Thinking” (Sam and Friends, 1966) – The skit was remade for an Ed Sullivan Show appearance on October 2, 1966, with Kermit as the hipster and Grump as the straight man. The sketch was performed on Ed Sullivan again on June 4, 1967, and on The Dick Cavett Show (with an updated Kermit the Frog) in 1971.

I think there was a kind of “collective genius” about the core group that created Sesame Street. [137]

On The Purpose of Sesame Street.
The goal was to create a successful television program that would make a difference in the lives of children, in particular, poor inner-city children and help prepare them for school. [138]

On Naming Sesame Street
Sesame Street was originally supposed to be called 123 Avenue B – a title that held until mid-January 1969, when it was decided the name sounded too much like a real address. “Fun Street…? The Video Classroom…? Sesame Street!” [143]

Jim had a great deal of integrity and responsibility for the children.: Kermit was the furthest thing from a pitchman; and Jim had been very careful not to show Kermit actually endorsing any products. [152] Jim explained, “Since the advent of Sesame Street, and my own interest and concern for television… I have become a great deal more selective, and I have turned down many lucrative offers that seemed to be trying to capitalize on Sesame Street.” Rightly pointing out that “it is my income from commercial TV that makes my participation in educational TV possible.” [153]

jim-Henson-quoteOn Teaching Kids, Jim said,They don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” [154]

On Stepping Back from Sesame Street
“Every meeting is a meeting with a dozen people who all have opinions and the whole process is really not easy on a creative Person”, Jim.

I’m a lot more comfortable if I’m wearing a puppet – Jim Henson [183]

It’s hard to tell where Kermit leaves off and you begin – Dick Caveat in 1971 [183]

This progressive attitude toward puppetry was well ahead of its time; forty years later, puppeteers would routinely be visible to audiences as they performed their characters onstage in shows like The Lion King and Avenue Q. [185]

Oz on Jim’s Stubborn Dedication to an Idea
Telling Jim no – especially when he was excited by an idea or project was never an easy task. I’d say to him “This doesn’t fucking work!”, Oz said, “But if he felt strongly about something, it was tough to get him to back down.

On May 1973 – Kermit and Cookie Monster perform at the Emmy Awards

On October 11th, 1975, Jim performs “The Land of Gortch” on SNL.

Oz On SNL Not working for the Muppets
“They had their style, we had ours”, said Oz. [224]

John Belushi referred to The Muppets disparagingly as the, “Mucking Fuppets” since they were sucking up (what he considered) his valuable SNL Airtime.

On Doing LSD
“I took it”, Jim reported later. “and I waited… and nothing happened”. [227]

May 1976 – The Muppet Show team goes to London. They get picked up for 24 episodes per season, and gave Jim $125,000 to spend per episode.

On Patience and Meetings
Jim knew sketches or jokes worked – and when they didn’t, eh usually knew why-but expressing his views in the writer’s room could often be excruciating for everyone involved… And so writers’ meetings could stretch on, sometimes for hours, with bursts of enthusiastic conversation followed by long periods of silence as Jim tried to come up with just the right way to describe what he was looking for. [242]

On Long Hours
Jim said, “I don’t resent the long work time – I shouldn’t – I’m the one who set my life up this way – but I love to work. It’s the thing that I get the most satisfaction out of – and probably what I do best. Not that I don’t enjoy days off – I love vacations and loafing around. But I think much of the world has the wrong idea of working- it’s one of the good things in life – the feeling of accomplishment is more real and satisfying than finishing a good meal or looking at one’s accumulated wealth.” [257]

On Art and Money
Jim said, “We are primarily a company of creative people, whose art we are helping to bring to the world,” he explained – and while art may have been the heart of the organization, it was money and merchandising that kept the blood pumping.” [294]

Jim On Having Frank Oz Take Over Directing: Perfect vs. Right
“While Oz wanted takes to be perfect, Jim wanted takes to be right – a subtle, but important difference. “Jim had the head of a producer,” said Lazer, “which meant he understood you can only do two or three takes and move on…” [333]

Where Fraggle’s overarching theme was one of harmony and understanding, Muppet Babies, “Can be used to develop creativity, I think we can try to do something rather important with the show. There is almost no ‘teaching’ of creativity that I know of… We can…show the Muppet Babies using their individual creativity in how each one can do the same thing differently. There is no right or wrong to it” [367]

On July 13, 1984, The Muppets Take Manhattan opened in The United States. [370]

On Jim’s Decision to Work with A New Music Producer
Jim asked, “If you like one person, does that mean that you dislike someone else?”[378]

On June 27, 1986, Labyrinth is released

On selling to Disney
Jim wrote, “On a personal level, I think this move will enable me to free up my life and to focus more time on the creative and conceptual aspects of our work, and less time worrying about the business and financial side of everything.” [435]

May 16th, 1990, Jim died. He was fifty-three years old. [472]

February 2004, the Muppets were sold to Disney. [487]

Frank Oz on Jim’s Legacy
Oz thought of Jim as more than just an enthusiast, he called him, “The great appreciator.”

Bibliography:

Title: Jim Henson: The Biography
Author: Brian Jay Jones
Hardcover: 608 pages
Publisher: Ballantine Books (September 24, 2013)
Buy the book on Amazon