Advice from the Muppet master.
Jim Henson was enamored with television from an early age, remembering the arrival of his family’s first TV set as “the biggest event of his adolescence.” He first took up puppetry in high school, making puppets for The Junior Morning Show, a children’s program on a local news channel in the Washington DC area.
Henson attended the University of Maryland and as an undergraduate developed a five-minute Muppet sketch show called Sam and Friends for another local television station with his classmate and future wife, Jane Nebel. Among other characters, the show featured an early iteration of Kermit, not quite yet a frog but a sort of unspecified lizard-like creature.
Thanks to the popularity of Sam and Friends, Henson and his puppets made appearances on a number of popular variety shows, including The Steve Allen Show, The Jack Paar Program, and The Ed Sullivan Show, on which Sullivan accidentally introduced him as “Jim Newsom.”
In 1958, Jim and Jane founded The Jim Henson Company. During this time, he and his creative partners also did a lot of work in commercials, including a hugely successful series of ads for Wilkins Coffee, featuring the slapstick puppet duo Wilkins and Wontkins (note: the names are puns, just think about it for a moment). Henson also made his own short experimental films during this time, including 1965’s Time Piece, which received an Academy Award nomination.
In 1969, the Children’s Television Workshop approached Henson about joining their upcoming program Sesame Street, and the rest, as they say, is history. In addition to Sesame Street, Henson would go on to create The Muppet Show, first broadcast in 1976, and direct the second Muppets movie spinoff, The Great Muppet Caper.
He also worked in feature film outside the Muppets franchise, co-directing The Dark Crystal and directing Labyrinth. The latter was a box office flop, something that deeply troubled Henson, although it has since become a cult classic with a devoted fanbase. Unfortunately, Henson did not live to see this resurgence, as he died from complications due to pneumonia on May 16, 1990, at the age of 53.
But just as the Muppets still live on, so does Henson’s wisdom. In his 30-plus years working in the industry, Henson gave a number of interviews featuring excellent tidbits of advice. Here are six of the best:
It’s All About The Performance
From early on in his career, Henson prioritized performance in puppetry, favoring simpler designs from flexible materials, like fabric-covered foam rubber, over more intricate but stiff puppets made from materials such as wood. This simplicity and flexibility made for puppets that were far more emotive and allowed for greater nuance in puppeteering performance. In an interview with American Cinematographer published in August 1986, Henson elaborated on his emphasis on performance in the context of the film Labyrinth, where characters like Ludo and Hoggle utilized far more complex technology than his standard Muppet fare:
“All of the technical stuff we do I think of basically as designed to get a better performance. Even when we have all of that radio controlled stuff, all it is really meant to do is to take a puppeteer’s single performance and amplify it to make that performance more dimensional. It’s always performance! You’ve got to start with a very talented performer in the first place, and all of the rest of that stuff is just icing and gravy — though not at the same time.”
Be Wary of Over-Studying
Although he had a lifelong love of television, Henson didn’t always set out to be a puppeteer –making puppets for television was originally a means to the end of working in television. One of the things that made Henson the icon he is today is how he took a different approach to puppetry. He valued flexibility, simplicity, and always thought first and foremost about making puppetry work for television, realizing that what worked best on screen was often not the same as what would work best with a live audience.
Although Henson would go on to learn a great deal about puppetry practices worldwide, especially after a highly influential trip to Europe in 1958, it can be argued that a key factor in his career-making innovation was that he did not approach the field by the usual means. This presents a valuable, albeit somewhat paradoxical lesson that Henson himself vocalized, as quoted in Brian Jay Jones’ “Jim Henson: A Biography“:
“I think if you study — if you learn too much of what others have done, you may tend to take the same direction as everybody else.”
Ideas Will Come When The Time Is Right
As many creatives frequently lament, the Muses are fickle beasts. Regarding his own creative processes, which so famously turned an old coat and two ping-pong ball halves and made the prototype of what has since become one of the most iconic puppets of all time (that is, Kermit the Frog), Henson had some honest, if mildly frustrating advice, as quoted in the book “It’s Not Easy Being Green: And Other Things to Consider“:
“I don’t know exactly where ideas come from, but when I’m working well ideas just appear. I’ve heard other people say similar things — so it’s one of the ways I know there’s help and guidance out there. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to receive the ideas or information that are waiting to be heard.”
Consider Your Audience When Developing Characters
Speaking with the Chicago Tribune in September 1975, Henson elaborated on the Muppet creation process. In doing so, he makes an interesting point about considering the audience when developing characters that can be applied to storytelling in any context:
“Usually the character comes first. Then I draw a bunch of sketches; one of those will have an essence of the character, and we’ll use that little scribble to see if we can capture it. Then we build the Muppet. We try to give each Muppet a characteristic that a young viewer can empathize with. Take Big Bird — he’s clumsy. Kids can identify with his frailty and feel better about their own inability to function with adult finesse.”
Teach, Don’t Preach
While some of Henson’s other work, such as the Wilkins Coffee commercials, featured heavy use of slapstick puppet-on-puppet violence, Henson tried to avoid Muppets poking each other in anger as much as possible. Henson wanted the Muppets to be seen as entertainment for all ages, but he knew, especially with Sesame Street, that his primary audience was young children. Much like Fred Rogers, Henson frequently commented on the added responsibility he felt towards young audiences, but he added an important caveat, as elaborated in another interview with the Chicago Tribune published in July 1979:
“I don’t want to preach, and I’m very resentful of entertainers who do. The work we do on ‘Sesame Street,’ where we are trying to educate as well as entertain, carries with it a pretty heavy responsibility. We are in the position to affect children and the way they think. But that creates a responsibility, I think, to not preach to them, to not slant them in any way.”
Everyone Has An Inner Child
Ruminating on the Muppets’ long-term success in the wake of their 30th anniversary, Henson elaborated on what he considered the key to their enduring appeal. In doing so, he pointed out a truth that all storytellers would be wise to keep in mind, as quoted in the January 21, 1986, issue of the Orlando Sentinel:
“I’ve tried to pin down the creative elements that came together with the Muppets, and the closest I can come to is a suspension of reality, a willingness to give in to the imagination. It’s the same thing that makes little girls love dolls and boys have teddy bears. There’s a sense of youth everyone has, no matter how old or jaded. You’d be surprised at some of the people who are devoted to the Muppets.”
What We Learned
The path of Jim Henson’s iconic career in film and TV puppetry involved a mix of consistent hard work and serendipity as opposed to copious pre-planning. While he always set out to work in media and storytelling, the work with puppets that would grow to be his life’s passion started out as simply taking advantage of an opportunity presented to him, with little idea of where it would lead.
The media landscape might be notoriously competitive, but it’s also constantly changing. As Henson’s story demonstrates, perhaps one of the better strategies for finding one’s niche is strategizing a little less and being as open as possible to any opportunities that might present themselves. After all, there’s no knowing where things might lead.