Happy Monday! This Wednesday, Jim Henson would have turned 78. In the 3 years I’ve been working on THP, one of the highlights has always been learning and discovering more about Jim and the Muppets that I love. If you’ve been following since last year, you might remember I was SUPER excited for the release of the first grown-up biography of Jim. Author Brian Jay Jones created a fantastic portrait of a complex man who had a hand (ha) in so many of the movies, television shows, and characters we still love today. So I’m beyond thrilled to have Brian on the blog to answer a few questions as we celebrate Jim’s birthday. I hope you enjoy this Q&A and be sure to enter the awesome giveaway at the end. Psst. I know what Brian’s new book is about and he’ll be announcing it soon but oh gee, you guys are going to be all over it.
And, of course, happy Birthday, Jim.
I can’t believe it’s been just about a year since your biography on Jim released! Congrats on all the success; it makes me so happy to see people enjoying it. So this is kind of a two-part question. What was the most memorable part of putting the book together? Did you learn anything exciting about Jim from those you met at signings or event after you published the book?
Part the First: The most memorable part of putting the book together was meeting and talking with all the really extraordinary people in Jim’s life, from his family to his coworkers to his childhood friends. I got to see, do, and talk about so many fun and interesting things. I watched Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire film an OKGo music video in a studio in Burbank — with Kirk Thatcher directing, no less. I had brunch with Steve Whitmire and breakfast with Frank Oz, and I got to see the Burt sculpture that Jim gave Oz as a gift — the one Oz talked so movingly of at Jim’s Memorial Service. Lisa Henson showed me the dollhouse she and Jim built together. Jerry Nelson–that voice!–and I ate bagels in his kitchen in Truro while snow fell outside. Cheryl Henson sat me down in her apartment with Brian and Wendy Froud — at which I point all I could do was sit and listen to them laugh and tell stories and gossip like the old friends they are. I sat with Karen Falk for weeks, exploring the Henson Archives like two archaeologists. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. It was a privilege to touch that world, if only for a moment.
Part the Second: What I learned from meeting people is just how deeply loved and appreciated he and his work are, even to this day. I mean, I suspected it intuitively, sure, but until I got out there, I really had no idea the true extent of it. Muppet and Jim fans are some of the most passionate out there–and they’re really well-versed in the life and work, so you get really good questions and great conversations. And every piece of Jim’s work has its devoted fans. There are people who live and breathe Muppets, while others live and breathe The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth or Sesame Street or Emmet Otter or Muppet Babies or . . . .again, I can go on and on. It’s such a deep and wide breadth of work that appeals across age groups, gender, or culture that I get to meet these really great, diverse groups of people. And usually, when I get to the end of a talk, instead of questions, more often than not I find that people in the audience want to raise their hands and tell me what Jim means to them. I love that.
Plus, I give probably the only book talks where there are puppets in the audience, nodding knowingly and reacting as I speak. Well done, all you talented puppeteers out there.
What was one of the rumors or stories you hoped to squash in the writing and researching of the biography?
That Jim died because his Christian Science faith wouldn’t let him seek medical attention. It’s a compelling narrative, but it’s just not true. At that point in his life, Jim hadn’t been a practicing Christian Scientist for decades, and he wasn’t averse to seeing doctors. Sure, he wasn’t great about having regular checkups with a doctor, but then you can probably say that about most people–and in fact, he would have had regular medical examinations in order to be insured for his TV and film projects. So, again, Jim didn’t have a problem with doctors or with medication. He took good care of himself, and rarely got sick–so rarely, in fact, that when he did get sick, he’d make a note of it in his journal.
I think there were two things going on during Jim’s final illness. First, Jim likely didn’t think he was critically ill. He thought he had a severe case of the flu, and his symptoms were very flu-like. For the most part, he had no reason to believe there was anything serious going on–unless you’re a hypochondriac, most people just don’t believe they’re critically ill. So, I think Jim thought if he just rode it out–and after that rough weekend at his parents’ place in North Carolina, if he just went back home to New York and went to bed–he’d get over it. And really, I can relate. In 2009, while I was researching the book, I was in London when swine flu was raging and — of course — I got it. I was flat on my back for days, shivering one moment, burning up the next, really convinced that I might die . . . and I still did nothing about it. I took Advil, and went to bed and rode it out. And I got better. And I really think that’s what Jim thought would happen.
The second thing: Jim didn’t like to inconvenience or bother people. Only Jim Henson would think going to a doctor was somehow “inconveniencing” the doctor. And even when the driver of car that Arthur Novell had hired to take Jim to the hospital pulled up at the wrong entrance–he stopped up to the main entrance instead of the emergency entrance around the corner–only Jim would tell the driver not to worry about it and walk around the corner himself. That was Jim. Being sick, in his mind, didn’t just inconvenience him, it inconvenienced anyone else around him. And he hated that.
Anyway, that was the big one. Then there were two other smaller ones I want to mention—and I’m probably not going to change the mythology on either one of these anyway, but here we go: One, Muppet really is not a combination of the words “marionette” and “puppet.” That legend has been debunked before–Jim himself even says it’s not true–and I talked about it in the book as well, but that one is probably never going to go away, despite the fact that it’s sort of Flat Earth Theory. I see people tweeting it constantly, so there you go. The second one — and this one surprised me — was that Jim really disliked the term “Muppeteer.” He always called them “Muppet performers,” and thought “Muppeteer” was far too cutesy. But again, that’s one that’s probably never going to go away, either.
Were there any interesting stories that didn’t make it into the book?
As you can probably imagine, with hundreds and hundreds of hours of interviews, there are bound to be LOTS of stories and details that are fun or interesting that ultimately can’t make it into a book, or it would have been 5,000 pages long–and it’s already a pretty long book as it is. I had to cut the story of Jim and the Muppet team meeting the Queen of England during the jubilee, for instance — it was a story I thought was really funny, and there were great photos of it in the newspapers, with Sweetums looming up in the background behind this well-dressed group of royals. I liked it so much, I even opened a chapter with it. But it didn’t quite work, so it had to hit the cutting room floor in the name of space. I think it gets about three lines now. That’s what happens.
One of my biggest disappointments is that there’s just no way to devote space to every single project Jim touched — and that means someone’s favorite project is bound to get left out, and I can only say I’m sorry if that happened to a project that you love. I’ve gotten e-mails from people who love Follow That Bird, for instance, asking why it doesn’t get a mention, or why something like The Ghosts of Faffner Hall gets only a passing glance. A project’s absence or brief mention is never a reflection on the quality of the project. Rather, what I had to do early on was make a judgment call about how “Jim-centric” a particular project was in order to rank its likelihood it might make it into the final draft. If it’s any solace to those who’s favorite project didn’t make it in, one of my favorites isn’t in there, either, actually. I love the work Jim and the Muppet team did for Wilson’s Meats, and I don’t think we ended up with even a mention of it in the final. And that’s a very Jim-centric production. You win some, you lose some.
One of my biggest takeaways from the book was Jim’s ridiculous work ethic and how he was constantly moving on to something new when the original project wasn’t even finished yet. Then there was how much his employees meant to him, and how he always tried to inject fun into what he was doing. Since immersing yourself in his world, did you find yourself adopting any of Jim’s practices into how you approach your own work?
Jim didn’t understand why more people didn’t love working; he thought it was one of the great pleasures in life. Now, of course, we aren’t all lucky enough to be working with Muppets–or building a world like Dark Crystal or Fraggle Rock–every day, so he had a slightly different work day than most of us. But his point, I think, is to do your best to love what you do–and if you’re not doing what you love, try to find a way that you get to do it. It’s not always possible, but Jim was, as he once said, a ridiculous optimist. He genuinely believed hard work paid off, and that being positive about what you were doing–even if it wasn’t yet what you wanted to do for a living–would make the world a better place. He was certain that by staying positive and focused that you would eventually get to do what you love for a living. That kind of optimism is infectious.
On top of that, Jim, as Frank Oz put it, was also a great appreciator. He appreciated people, he appreciated things, and he appreciated hard work. Taken altogether, then, that’s an irresistible message about life and work. I’m very lucky that doing something I love is part of the way I make a living. That’s a great place to be–and, as Jim would want me to do, I appreciate that. But even more, Jim wanted there to be a conscious joy in work. When The Muppet Show was at the top of its game, Jim really wanted his performers to take a moment to not just appreciate, but to enjoy the fact that their work had paid off. So, Jim reinforced for me to never take anything, but especially the good things, for granted. I really work to make sure I have an awareness that I’m enjoying what I do when I’m doing it–to take a moment and say, “Wow, this is really great. I’m really lucky.” Because I really am.
With Jim’s birthday this week, it’s hard not to discuss legacy. Even in this internet age, I’m glad to see that his work is still so appreciated. Other than reading your fantastic biography, how can we ensure that his work is remembered?
As they used to say in the closing credits of every episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, “Keep circulating the tapes!” One of the things I hear from a lot of readers is that as they were reading Jim’s biography, they kept diving into YouTube to watch commercials, clips, or other bits talked about in the book. And I love that. The internet age is actually making it easier for people to see Jim’s old work — before, you had to wait for it to show up in a television retrospective, or as part of a museum exhibit; now it’s a mere Google away. So keep posting links and pointing people toward Jim’s work.
Also: please keep talking about Jim when you talk about the Muppets. I know Disney owns them now, and it’s their prerogative to do with them as they will, but–and this is going to sound really cranky–it really busts me up that they’re now marketed as “Disney’s The Muppets.” We don’t see them marketing “Disney’s The Avengers,” or “Disney’s The Amazing Spider-Man.” It says MARVEL right on the poster, for crying out loud. Now, understand, I don’t pretend to know any of the legalities here; I just wish it said somewhere “Jim Henson’s Muppets.” I don’t think that would be a disservice to the Disney brand at all. But then, what do I know?
So: Keep watching. Keep talking. Keep believing. Keep pretending.
A birthday giveaway: Brian was generous enough to offer a signed copy of the audiobook of Jim Henson: The Biography for a lucky reader. In addition, I am offering a Nook or Kindle copy of the book to a second winner. Must be a U.S. resident to enter and over the age of 13. Good luck! Details below.
Big thanks to Brian for visiting This Happy Place Blog! Can’t wait for more of your work!