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Thursday, September 26, 2013

Biographile: The Making of the Muppets: A Q&A with Brian Jay Jones, Take One

by Patrick Sauer

“I’ve got a dream too, but it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with. I found a whole bunch of friends who have the same dream, and that kind of makes us like a family.” ~Kermit the Frog to Doc Hopper in "The Muppet Movie"

You know them, you love them: Kermit, Cookie Monster, Fozzie, Gonzo, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Elmo, and Miss Piggy. These iconic names are carved in the bedrock of pop culture, forming a Mount Rushmore of felt. These are the Muppets, and the creative genius behind them -- and a whole lot of lesser known projects -- is, of course, beloved puppeteer Jim Henson.

Surprisingly, for such a tower of the television age, Henson lacked a proper biography. Henson was a nose-to-the-Blarney-Stone workaholic, who died way too young at fifty-three, so he never got around to writing a memoir. He did, however, leave a treasure trove of material, so Brian Jay Jones spent five years digging through the files, watching every Henson clip he could unearth, and interviewing at least 100 people for his comprehensive, impeccably-researched biography, Jim Henson.

Like all Gen-Xers, Jones, forty-six, grew up with the Muppets, watching as Kermit grew from a local D.C. television tadpole into the biggest frog in the world. His book lays out Henson’s amazing career, which started when he was a teenager, and continually built upon what had come before, until his imagination took him somewhere completely different. Jim Henson stands as the definitive testament to the man and his creative process, but it’s also plain old silly fun, chock full of amazing Muppet trivia for those of us who always wanted to sit in the box with Statler and Waldorf.

(Fine. Here’s a freebie. The Swedish Chef was originally an angry German who first destroyed a salad in front of a live Hamburg audience.)
In the first of a two-part interview, Jones spoke with Biographile about researching and writing up the wonderful life of Jim Henson.

Biographile: Prior to writing books, you worked in Washington D.C. for a long time. Did the years in government help you as a biographer?

Brian Jay Jones: I worked on Capitol Hill for Senator Pete Domenici, from my home state of New Mexico. As a Congressional staffer, I wrote speeches and did policy analysis. One of the most important skills is being able to compress a lot of information into a brief summation, and to keep it interesting. It ended up being great training for writing biographies.

BIOG: Why did you transition into book writing?

BJJ: My first book, Washington Irving: An American Original came about because I was interested in him as a subject, and there was no definitive work about his life. I’d always wanted to write a book, but I knew it wasn’t going to be a novel, because I can’t plot things out. As a friend put it, I’m a good ‘explainer.’ I spent seven years on Washington Irving and just loved the process.

BIOG: Was there a different approach in writing the Henson biography versus Irving’s?

BJJ: Irving died 154 years ago, so the biggest difference was in the beginning. I was able to collect all the materials in one place. I had all the books about Irving, and all of his letters, papers, etc. With Henson, I was constantly researching while writing, and had to fill in a lot of information. There was so much more to go through with all of his personal papers, other books, and the magazine and newspaper articles. It was a lot more seat-of-the-pantsy, but I also had the luxury of emailing people if I needed to plug a hole, or get a quick answer to something.

BIOG: Did you ever run into the problem of Henson’s friends and associates remembering things differently? Of having to reconcile the natural happenstance of stories being embellished or misremembered and the like?

BJJ: Fortunately for me, Jim saved everything. Letters, contracts, correspondences, notes on scratch paper, everything, so I always used him as the line judge. The tie didn’t go to the runner, it went to Jim. There were times though when people’s memories were fuzzy. Here's an example: There was an early test screening of The Dark Crystal where the audience was confused because the film had no actual language in it. There were varying accounts as to when and where the screening took place. Some said it was in Los Angeles, others said maybe London, so eventually I just kept digging through Jim’s private notes.

BIOG: In terms of Henson’s personal papers, what was the research process like?

BJJ: Karen Falk, the archivist for the Jim Henson Company, has spent twenty years getting everything in order. She’s got everything in there. Basically, I would come up from my home in Maryland to Long Island City, Queens and spend a week at a time going through the material. I assumed it was going to be the size of the warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Arc, but it was actually a 15 x 15 room where Karen would set me up with whatever I needed that week, say all the boxes pertaining to 1965-67. I methodically went through every box in there.

BIOG: When were you first aware of Jim Henson?

BJJ: I’m definitely Jim Henson 1.0. I was two when Sesame Street debuted, nine when The Muppet Show premiered, and I saw the original movie in the theater. I was a fan, but it’s not like my walls were covered in Muppet memorabilia. However, I was the weird kid who stayed through the credits after the movie and was fascinated by the people who did this for a living. At thirteen, I knew that Frank Oz performed Fozzie Bear, so the Muppets have always been part of my life.

BIOG: What spurred you on to tell Henson’s story?

BJJ: One day, I was reading Jim’s Wikipedia page, which is actually legit because Muppet fans are good about stuff like that. But I noticed that there was no official Henson biography, and Jim was way too busy to sit down and write a book. There wasn’t a ton written about Jim because he wasn’t the kind of guy to go out there and spill his guts. He died at fifty-three, never entering the later stages of his life, when he might have been more reflective. His friends were at that age, but I recognized there’s a ticking clock as some of the people in his life, like his wife Jane, passed away over the course of the five years it took me to write the book. The time was right for a Jim Henson biography.

BIOG: I was surprised that there were only a handful of books about his legacy, and nothing like what you’ve accomplished. Did it cross your mind that this will go down as the definitive record of one of the great creative artists of the 20th-century?

BJJ: No, that’ll make you crazy. I can’t imagine a director thinking that a film will win the Oscar while it’s being made. Basically, I wanted to write a book that I’d enjoy, and one that my wife, who doesn’t read much non-fiction, would like as well.

BIOG: When you got into his life story, was it a challenge to craft a narrative around a guy who didn’t really have much of a dark side, or was that what you expected?

BJJ: I didn’t know anything about the guy going into it, but one cool thing about Jim Henson is he’s pretty much what you think he’s going to be. He wasn’t flawless, he was pathologically afraid of confrontation, and he wasn't always the most faithful husband. But day-to-day, he just wasn’t a negative guy, he was an eternal optimist and he loved to have fun.
One thing I want to point out about the book is that it is not an authorized biography. There’s been a few rumblings that I didn’t dig up dirt on Jim because the family wouldn’t approve. That’s not the case. The family cooperated with me on the book, but had no editorial control over it. I’m sure there’s things they aren’t completely comfortable with, but as far as pulling punches, that didn’t happen. Like I said, Jim is exactly who you think he’d be.

BIOG: Let’s talk about the infidelity and adultery for a second. Beyond cheating on Jane, his life and business partner from the earliest days, there was also the refusal to be a man about it, to own up and deal with the fallout. He was rather adolescent in his conflict avoidance, no?

BJJ: There is some of that, you want to ask Jim, "why don’t just say something to Jane?" I think a bigger part of it though was they had completely different personalities and communication styles. Jim was conflict averse, Jane wore her heart on her sleeve. He hated firing people, it was who he was. The other thing is that with Jim, work always came first, and Jane knew that from day one. It may not be the healthiest way to start a marriage, but work was his life.

BIOG: I didn’t get much anger from Jane about his affairs, do you think part of that is because so much time has passed?

BJJ: He died in 1990, so I’m sure that plays a part. Keep in mind though, he and Jane never got divorced, only separated. They remained close friends and confidants throughout his life.

BIOG: I don’t mean this in a negative sense, but it seemed to me that Jim Henson was kind of a loner. Was he a bit detached?

BJJ: He certainly wasn’t social outside of work, but that's because work pretty much was his social life. All of his friends were people he created the shows with, those were the people he was always around. He loved working, because they had so much fun. He would never take a night off and invite friends or neighbors over to play cards. He was often in his own head, that’s for sure. But at the same time, he had such a forceful personality that he made people feel special. Everyone wanted to be around Jim, and some employees felt slighted when he spent more time in London, then New York. One cinematographer in particular had a major meltdown simply because Jim wasn’t there.

BIOG: I think we all tend to consider creative people as working on one project at-a-time, or starting one while another wraps up, so it’s astounding how many projects Henson would be personally involved in at the same time...

BJJ: That was one of the big surprises to me. Henson was like the duck on the water, looking calm and collected on the surface while his feet are going crazy underneath. He worked constantly, always pitching, writing, creating new characters, building worlds, coming up with stories. He never stopped. And puppeteering is hard physical labor. Holding my arm straight up to change a light bulb gets tiring after five minutes, Henson and the other puppeteers would do it for hours on end.

BIOG: In the book, Frank Oz says of Jim, "he was never precious with the puppets." His lack of sentimentality was unexpected...

BJJ: It wasn’t just with the characters either. Only Jim would end the most popular television show on the planet because it was time to make a movie. He always had his designs on whatever came next and didn’t get overly attached to anything he’d created. There’s the great story in the book where Jim would throw Muppets aside on Sesame Street and Carol Spinney, who played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, would pick them up off the ground and cradle them like babies.

BIOG: From an early age, Jim was an astute businessman using TV commercials to fund more cutting-edge projects, which is another thing you don’t always find in creative types...

BJJ: The best example of his business acumen comes early on, when he told his agent Bernie Brillstein, "don’t sell anything I own." Having ownership of the Muppets was vital to his career. Jim never got snookered and when he did lose the Muppets briefly in the 1970s, he went to England and got them back.

BIOG: One of Henson’s innate abilities that served him well was being able to solve problems quickly...

BJJ: The original Kermit was made from stuff in the house, an old turquoise felt coat, two halves of a Ping-Pong ball, and black ink. The great irony is that in the beginning of his career, Jim didn’t want to be a puppeteer. He saw himself as a set and stage designer in the theater world, which means creating new worlds and then tearing them down. When it came to television, he figures out ways to make it work for the viewer at home. It seems obvious now, but Jim was the one who realized puppets didn't need a stage, the four walls of a TV set worked as a framing box.

(Coming tomorrow: Part two of our chat with Brian Jay Jones. In a word, MUPPETS!)

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