As I write this, “The Muppet Show” is on the television behind me with a second season episode featuring Edgar Bergen and his “partner” Charlie McCarthy. Bergen, of course, was one of Henson’s earliest influences and it must have been a great thrill for Henson to host him. The first musical number on the episode, in fact, features Kermit, Fozzie, and the rest of Henson’s creations singing “Consider Yourself One of Us”. McCarthy spends the entire song zinging the Muppets with one-liners, but somehow I doubt Henson took offense. The entire episode feels like a passing of the torch from the premier puppeteer of one generation to the man who defined it for the next.
Earlier in the same season, comedy legend Milton Berle agreed to appear on the show, but instead of dominating the episode (as I’ve noticed some of the less good-natured guests do), Berle stood on stage and allowed Statler and Waldorf all the best lines as they tore him apart. To clarify, Milton Berle let a troupe of puppets run all over him, treating them as equals, which is a long way from the “Saturday Night Live” writers refusing to write for felt.
Jim Henson did that. Henson took a group of colorful, fuzzy puppets and turned them into national treasures, and he did it without crushing anyone in his path or climbing over any backs. But, after three films and a mountain of reading, I felt no closer to figuring out how he did it. No American puppeteer before or since has had his level of success, but why? It couldn’t just be the characters — the complete Muppet cast is still out there and available, but have steadily declined in relevance since Henson’s death. I felt that the answer had to be present in his films, movies that have long outlived and outperformed their wildest expectations, but sadly even that proved elusive. Was it his skill with designing worlds? With suspending his audience’s disbelief? What made Jim Henson such a success?
So I cheated and pulled out my copies of “The Muppet Show” on DVD, looking for hidden clues. I saw the same tricks Henson used in his films, such as in the very first episode in which a puppet dog and a real dog are blended into one character, a precursor to Labyrinth’s Ambrosius. I noticed the silly punchlines of the first season, and how the show slowly morphed to focus more on the characters. Was that it? Was it Henson’s skill at reading his audience, developing one-note characters like Miss Piggy or Gonzo when he felt them connect with his fans?
I finally found the key buried deep in the special features of the Season One DVD set. A little-seen Muppet pitch reel:
A 40-share? Is that really what Henson was after? No… and yes. It dawned on me that in this short film, Henson had successfully tweaked his normal style to grab a target audience… a very specific team of network executives. And even during the pitch, he predicted that kids would love the show (they did), young people would love the show (they did), intellectuals would love they show (they did), and even long-haired hippies would love the show (they did.)
The answer hit me, so simple it’s silly – Henson found such wide success because, well, he knew how to hit with a wide audience. How many entertainers can succeed with all of those groups at once? The old adage says that you can’t please all the people all of the time, but I think Henson actually could, and I had taken that so for granted that I failed to notice how much of an accomplishment it actually was.
When I began this project, I guessed that Henson had never loved his career path. I looked at his numerous attempts to break out of the ‘kiddie entertainer’ stereotype, his aborted run on “Saturday Night Live”, his early experiments with film, and thought there might be a touch of sadness in that story. Even when he struck gold with “Sesame Street”, he seemed desperate to have an adult success, leading to “The Muppet Show” and eventually The Dark Crystal. Now I think I was wrong. Henson didn’t resent his audience, but needed a broader one, unsatisfied with only engaging with children, he wanted to engage with every person in America, and for a while he managed it, with “Sesame Street” for children, “The Muppet Show” for adults, and his films for the rest of the world. He knew how to be both funny and touching, and he constantly evolved his work and his characters to match his audience’s mood.
I’m still not sure what story his films tell about the man. Onwards and upwards, I suppose. He began with his familiar cast of Muppets, but gained only as much as he ventured, which wasn’t much. He shot for the moon with The Dark Crystal, but veered so far off course that the film is alien and uncomfortable. He then peaked with Labyrinth, the perfect combination of his talent with some of the best writers and performers he could find. Henson, still pushing to please everyone, was willing to keep trying until he got it right, although his audience sadly took too long to catch up. I can only imagine the things Henson would have done with the technology available to him today.
Actually, I can do more than imagine. At Disney Studios in Orlando, Florida, you can see one of the last projects Henson worked on before his death – Muppet Vision 3D. It’s a stage/film show aimed at families, and it features all the usual cast of characters, with one addition. Waldo C. Graphic is the first digital muppet, performed by a puppeteer with motion capture and then transformed into an animated critter capable of morphing into anything. I won’t lie, Waldo is annoying, but I have no doubt that Henson would have gotten the hang of the digital revolution as it improved. His track record makes that clear.
Since Henson’s death, the Muppets (and puppetry in general) have been on a lull in this country. Sure there are the occasional successes (Avenue Q, for example) but they survive by being post-modern and ironic, not as simply eager and endearing as the original Muppets were. The art form is waiting for another visionary to reinvent it for today’s audiences, just like Henson reinvented the wooden dummy routine that Bergen and McCarthy perfected. Whoever this person might be, Henson will certainly be one of their biggest influences. I find it sad, then, that Henson isn’t around to pass the torch. He would have been proud to do it.