Jim Henson passed away twenty-four years ago today. I’m embarrassed to admit that I have no distinct memory of hearing the news when it happened. To be frank, at the time, I could hardly have been bothered. I was a freshman at college, and had long outgrown the Muppets and all of Henson’s other creations.
Then, a few years ago, my daughter developed an interest in Henson’s work, first with “Sesame Street,” but then more intensely with “The Muppets” — Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the others. That spurred me to reconsider Henson’s legacy, and together she and I discovered and explored his world through books, movies, comics and the dual miracles of YouTube and BitTorrent.
That immersion made me realize how rich and nuanced Henson’s creations really were, and how remarkable was his talent for bringing to life incredibly accessible yet deeply felt characters — and crafting whole worlds around them, worlds composed of wonderfully antic, continually surprising and unceasingly joyous rules of their own. There’s no kid-oriented franchise quite like Henson’s Muppets gang (as distinct from “Sesame Street”); they speak directly to children and yet almost never feature children at all. At the same time, they reward continual exposure at all ages exactly as they are, without needing to be re-imagined with darker or more adult themes.
I also came to understand how much of a pioneer Henson was, not just in puppetry but in broadcast media. When he was first starting out television was still raw and unformed, and he took to it with an innate, preternatural understanding that few people possessed. In the middle of the Twentieth Century, puppets were strictly primitive kids’ fare, performed no differently on television than at state fairs. Henson infused puppetry with his own uncanny grasp of television’s possibilities, making it more alive and dynamic, taking advantage of the things that only broadcast media would allow like elaborate stages, clever editing and even robotics. He revolutionized the art form and turned it into legitimate entertainment for all ages and all people; by its second season, “The Muppet Show” was one of the most popular shows in the world, broadcast in over a hundred countries and seen by 235 million people weekly.
If any of what I’ve said piques your interest in rediscovering the Muppets for yourself, you could start with Disney’s recently relaunched franchise — the two movies directed by James Bobin in 2011 and earlier this year. They’re both fine, and readily available. My recommendation, though, would be to start with “The Great Muppet Caper,” which was Jim Henson’s feature film directorial debut. It’s incredibly watchable and packed to the gills with charming, razor sharp jokes that will appeal to kids and adults alike; it’s also unequivocally one of my favorite films of all time. The coffee table book “Jim Henson: The Works” is also a fantastic visual primer of Henson’s many, many projects and the extensive legacy that he left behind.
Finally, I’ll just leave you with this poignant rendering of the signature Muppet song “It Ain’t Easy Being Green,” normally sung by Henson as Kermit the Frog, but here rendered by Carol Spinney as Big Bird at Henson’s funeral. It’s sad and wonderful.