Do you remember where you were when Jim Henson died?
It’s a legitimate question for people my age, since Henson’s influence on my generation is impossible to overstate. It was twenty years ago last Sunday when the news broke that Jim Henson had died of pnuemonia, and I can say that in my case, it was one of the single most important events of my life.
Less than a month later, I was in a car, on my way to Los Angeles, ready to take my chances professionally as a writer and director. Obviously I’d spend much of my life thinking about moving to LA in an abstract sense, but it was the realization that mortality didn’t care if you were one of the most generous, good-hearted, positively influential people in the industry or not… when it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go. If Jim Henson could drop dead unexpectedly, anyone could. And more than anything, it was the idea that I would never have a professional experience that involved him that motivated me to get moving. I guess some part of me always figured that I would find a way to work with or for Jim Henson. It just seemed inevitable.
Looking back now, I mourn the hole that his passing left in the entertainment landscape of the last two decades. We needed Jim Henson, even if we didn’t totally realize it when he was alive and working. Not just for his sense of humor or his dedication to education or even for his finely attuned moral compass, a genuine rarity in this industry. No, we needed him because he was fiercely devoted to original storytelling, the creation of characters, and the way technology enabled storytellers to build new worlds and do things that seemed impossible. He was a visionary, and he was ahead of most people in the rush to embrace digital tools both for post-production and for on-screen character work. It’s not just his films that we’ve lost in the last 20 years… it’s the ripple effect that his work would have had, and that’s where I think the entire industry has suffered for having lost him.
Why was Henson such an important figure in film and television and education? And why did his death cause me to move 3000 miles?
I’ll answer the second question first. I learned to read from Henson. I was part of the first generation of “Sesame Street” kids, and because of that show, I sat my astonished parents down one afternoon when I was three and read them a newspaper. They didn’t know I could read at all, and suddenly I was reading them entire sentences and paragraphs. Because of Henson, I entered kindergarten reading at a sixth-grade level. And if that was the only thing that I had taken away from his work, that would have been more than enough. But there was a deeper lesson embedded in that show that left a very deep mark on me, and that’s what I consider more important. On “Sesame Street,” there were no racial lines, no social barriers between people. Blacks and whites and Latinos and monsters and birds and puppets all lived and worked and played together, and that became the image of how society is supposed to work that I carried around with me. My parents were both raised in Memphis in the 40s and the 50s, and my grandparents were part of a pre-integration generation that held some very tough views on race. I was exposed to that as I was growing up, and my parents, who I would never call racist, still echoed some of those views as part of the way they were raised. For me, though, and for the generation raised on “Sesame Street,” racism wasn’t even an option. It just never made sense. “Sesame Street” didn’t preach about racism. It didn’t have to. It simply taught by example. It just showed the way things could and should work, and by doing it so casually, so matter-of-fact, it became part of the fabric of my own moral code.
Henson defined independence, creatively speaking, and he built an empire with characters he created. When he moved away from the safety of the Muppets, he never did it in ways people would expect. He made beautiful experiments like “The Storyteller” or new franchise properties like “Fraggle Rock” or grim fantasies like “The Dark Crystal.” It shouldn’t be surprising that Henson and George Lucas were drawn to each other. I think Lucas could have only benefitted from an ongoing creative relationship with Henson. I’m betting Henson could have pushed him to avoid many of the mistakes he’s made regarding both his relationship with his fans and with his own work. Their one big collaboration, “Labyrinth,” isn’t perfect, but it’s got personality and charm to spare, and I would imagine that the further they delved into digital character creation, the more they could have really set their imaginations free. And, yes, Jim Henson was a puppeteer, but he was also firmly devoted to the idea of digital filmmaking. In “The Jim Henson Hour,” the last major Muppet TV show he directly supervised, he created Waldo C. Graphic, an all-CGI character, one of the first attempted on TV, and I get the feeling that was just an experiment to see how to do it. Henson wasn’t about some slavish devotion to the tools for the sake of some fetish. He wanted to be a magician. He wanted to hide the performer in a way that made you believe in the character 100%, and digital tools were part of that.
What’s interesting to me as a fan of the man and his work is the way he continues to resonate through popular culture. Last year, a script for a movie called “The Muppet Man” topped the Black List, and I’m sure part of that is simply because of the emotional impact of reading about the life of Jim Henson. In the last week, we’ve heard news that the Spierig Brothers (the filmmakers behind “Daybreakers”) have signed on to make a “Dark Crystal” sequel, and the word today is that there was a read-through over the weekend of the new Muppet movie’s script, with the actual puppets and puppeteers participating. I’ve read the script for the film, written by Nick Stoller and Jason Segal, and there is a profound sense of love towards the characters on every page. The characters are just as much a part of the landscape today as they ever were, and if Stoller’s film works, I think we’re looking at a real revival for them.
But I’d like to see filmmakers do more than just continue the things that Henson did well. I’d like to see them do more than just bring his characters back. I would love to see filmmakers embrace his example, particularly at a time when all we get are sequels and reboots and remakes and reimaginings and regurgitations. Henson always moved forward. He believed in constant creation. He had more worlds to share with us, more lessons to impart, and that’s the example I wish people would follow. Henson believed in the new, and that was clear in everything he did. He knew how attached people were to Kermit and Burt and Ernie and Gonzo and Piggy and Fozzie and all of the great characters he created, but he also felt the urge to constantly push himself and the audience.
I moved to LA because his death scared me. It made clear to me just how precious life is and how short our time can be. But I also moved to LA because his life inspired me. He made clear to me just how important this work can be, and how big an impact it can have on an audience beyond mere entertainment. As his characters sang at the end of “The Muppet Movie”:
“Life’s like a movie, write your own ending
Keep believing, keep pretending
We’ve done just what we set out to do.
Thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you.”
Jim Henson was a giant, and the last 20 years, there has not been one day where his presence was not felt in this industry. As we acknowledge this sad milestone, let’s take the opportunity to try to live up to his example whenever possible.
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