by David Kirby
David Kirby is the Robert O. Lawton distinguished professor of English at Florida State University.
Jim Henson was such a beloved and tragic figure (he died at 53 of a strep infection) that I hesitated to open Brian Jay Jones’s book for fear that it would be yet another “pathography,” a term coined by Joyce Carol Oates to describe the account of a person who may be saintly on the surface but whose story is mainly one of dysfunction, disaster and outrageous conduct.
Not to worry: If the life of the man who created the Muppets had been any cornier or more wholesome, he would have been sued by Norman Rockwell’s lawyers for plagiarism. Henson spent his childhood as “a Mississippi Tom Sawyer,” in his own words, shooting at water moccasins with his BB gun and devoting his Saturdays to the movies, spending the entire day soaking up serials, newsreels, cartoons and cowboy films; later, he and his buddies assembled props and makeshift weapons and acted out the dramas they’d just seen. His indulgent father was a soybean expert posted to an experiment station on the Mississippi State University campus, but Henson’s real ally in mischief was his mother, Betty, who famously told Jim’s friends to say “when” as she poured them a glass of milk and, if they didn’t, kept pouring till the glass overflowed.
When Henson was ready to begin his career, all this giddy Americana would flow into the medium of television like chocolate syrup. As a child viewer, he had studied at the feet of the masters: Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ernie Kovacs. Jones mentions a particular Kovacs gag that young Jim deciphered in which objects appear to roll horizontally across a table and into someone’s lap — because the entire set was tilted, as well as the camera. And “Your Show of Shows” was particularly memorable because front man Caesar had some of the best comedy writers ever, including Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Thus “it was a smart show that didn’t mind looking silly — a kind of humor Jim could appreciate.”
Comic strips were an important part of his early show-biz training as well, especially Walt Kelly’s “Pogo.” Pogo was the ordinary character in a swamp full of eccentrics, much like Sheriff Taylor of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Or like the most famous Muppet of them all, Kermit the Frog: “Kermit is the Pogo,” Henson said, acknowledging his debt to Kelly. “You have one normal person who represents the way people ordinarily think. And . . . slightly crazier comedy characters are all around that person.”
Also the author of a much-praised biography of Washington Irving, Jones is obviously fond of slightly off-center American geniuses. And he has a nerd’s love of minutiae that goes with his passion for oddity. For instance, not content to speculate that “Muppet” might be a variation on “moppet,” Jones points out that that 17th-century word probably comes from “moppe,” a Middle English word for rag doll. Then again, this whole book is about the triumph of detail, the obsessive refining of an idea until it succeeds.
That idea was Muppets Inc., the company that showcased Henson’s army of lovable, often bizarre, sometimes slightly dangerous characters, the best-known of which were made famous by “Sesame Street”: Kermit, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch. Already deep into puppetry as a college student, the 21-year-old Henson went to Europe to study painting, but there he learned that puppet shows drew big audiences and were taken as seriously as any other art form. One of his colleagues said later that Henson “was like a sailor who had studied the compass and found that there was a fifth direction in which one could sail.”
For all that, Henson was no sentimentalist. He invented characters so convincing that children took it for granted that they were real, and even the adults who joked and sang with them on “Sesame Street” and, later, “The Muppet Show” treated them like living, breathing creatures. To Henson, though, his puppets were mere tools of the trade, easily tossed aside when they were no longer needed. His daughter Lisa recalled that she and the other children were given discarded Muppets to play with, her father’s attitude being: “None of this stuff is really precious — you can make it and then you can take it apart and make something else with it.”
If half of Jim Henson was devoted to the details of his craft, the other half spun off big ideas faster than they could be implemented. Or implemented well: Henson’s real medium was television, so movies such as “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth” did not do well by either his or Hollywood’s standards.
Henson was a genial workaholic, and his attention to his empire was so all-consuming that neither he nor anyone else noticed that he had become ill from the rare streptococcal infection that would kill him. At the time, he was in negotiations to sell his company to Disney, a process so stressful that some of his intimates say it may have compromised his immune system. When family and employees gathered to mourn him, they saw a hand-drawn card sent by the Imagineers at Disney that showed a disconsolate Kermit sitting on a log, head in hands, as Mickey Mouse sits next to him, his arm over Kermit’s shoulders.
When I read that passage to my wife, she sniffled and dabbed at her eyes. Oh, come on, I thought. Kermit, Mickey: They’re not real.
But aren’t they?