A conversation from The Diane Rehm Show archives with world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. In 2007, he talked to Diane about his belief in the power of music to cross borders and bridge backgrounds.
Guest Host: Susan Page
Millions of people around the world know the characters: Bert and Ernie, Miss Piggy and Big Bird. They all share the same creator: Jim Henson. But while he is best known as the man behind the Muppets, puppetry opened the door to his real love, TV. Henson grew up during the golden age of television and was fascinated with the new medium and its creative possibilities. At 17, he wrangled a job as a puppeteer on a local Washington, D.C., morning show and soon, Jim had his own program. “Sam and Friends” featured a flexible puppet made from his mother’s old felt coat. Its name? Kermit. A new biography explores the life and imagination of Jim Henson. Guest host Susan Page talks with biographer Brian Jay Jones and Henson’s colleague, Dave Goelz, on Henson’s life and legacy.
- Brian Jay Jones Award-winning biographer of "Washington "Irving: An American Original and vice president, Biographers International Organization.
- Dave Goelz Muppet performer behind The Great Gonzo, Bunsen Honeydew, and Traveling Matt who worked with Jim Henson for nearly two decades.
Photos: Jim Henson And The Muppets
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “Jim Henson: The Biography” by Brian Jay Jones. Copyright 2013 by Brian Jay Jones. Reprinted here by permission of Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Most people know Jim Henson as the man behind Kermit the Frog, Rowlf the Dog and Ernie from "Sesame Street." But the creator of the Muppets was also a savvy businessman with a complicated personal life. Brian Jay Jones joins me in the studio to talk about the artistic drive and legacy of Jim Henson. Welcome to the Diane Rehm Show.
MR. BRIAN JAY JONESGood morning. It's great to be here.
PAGEWe invite our listeners to join our conversation, maybe with their favorite Muppet story. You can call our toll free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email to email@example.com, or you can find us on Facebook on Twitter. So, maybe we should start with you just reading the anecdote with which you begin your book, which says so much about the man who was Jim Henson.
JONESSure. This is from the prologue. It's called "Blue Sky." "Jim Henson slowly folded himself into a couch inside Reeves Teletape Studio. Sliding down as he often did until he was nearly horizontal, his shaggy head against the back cushions and his long legs stretched out in front of him. As always, Jim was the calm in the middle of the chaos, sitting quietly as studio technicians and crew members whirled around him, adjusting lights and bustling about the background sets for "Sesame Street's" Muppet segments.
JONESJim Simply lounged, hands folded across his stomach, fingers laced together. Draped limply across his lap was the green fleece form of Kermit the Frog, staring lifelessly at the floor, mouth agape. Jim and Kermit were waiting. In the five years "Sesame Street" had been on the air, many of its most memorable moments involved children interacting with the Muppets. And while all of the Muppet performers were good with children, most agreed that it Kermit children believed in and trusted completely, mostly because they completely believed in and trusted Jim Henson.
JONESSo, even as Jim sat waiting then, there was, as always, a buzz of anticipation. "Sesame Street" director John Stone strolled the set, the end of a chewed pencil sticking out of his salt and pepper beard. "Blue Sky," he said loudly, a signal that a child was present on the set, a coded reminder that the normally boisterous Muppet performers and crew should watch their language. There was actually little chance of Jim, himself, swearing. Normally his epithets were nothing stronger than, "oh, for heaven's sake."
JONESBut with a cue that his young costar, a little girl named Joey, had arrived, Jim unfolded himself and rose to his full 6'1" height. Casually, Jim pulled Kermit onto his right arm, slightly parting his thumb from his fingers as he slid his hand into the frog's mouth, then smoothed the long green sleeve from Kermit's body down over his elbow. He brought the frog's face up toward his own, tilting the head slightly, and suddenly Kermit was magically alive, sizing up Jim with eyes that seemed to widen or narrow as Jim arched or clenched his fingers inside Kermit's head."
PAGEThat's such a wonderful description. By the way, "Blue Sky" is something that always applies on the Diane Rehm Show. Now that we've built up the scene for what happened, let's talk -- let's see what happened next, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, we can actually now play the clip of the interaction between Jim Henson, or Kermit, and Joey. Let's listen.
KERMIT THE FROGCan you sing the alphabet, Joey?
JOEYYes. Yes I could.
FROGLet's hear you sing the alphabet.
FROGYou're not singing the alphabet. A-B-C-D-E-F-G-H-I-J-K-L-M-N-O-P-Q-R-S...
FROGCookie Monster isn't a letter of the alphabet. It goes Q-R-S-T-U-V...
FROGYou're just teasing me. W-X-Y and Z. Now I know my ABC's, won't you...
JOEYNext time, Cookie Monster.
FROGNext time, Cookie Monster can do it with you. I'm leaving.
JOEYI love you.
FROGI love you, too.
PAGEWhat a wonderful, what a wonderful scene. And what's remarkable, when you see this on YouTube, is this little girl, even though she's standing next to Jim Henson, who is being the puppet, she is completely engaged with Kermit the Frog.
JONESYeah. She believes in that character completely. That always happened. Jim used to say that kids would look at him like, who is this strange bearded man standing next to Ernie or Kermit, and they would say, that's Ernie's helper.
PAGEYou know, Kermit was one of Jim Henson's first creations, and one of the most interesting, fun facts in your book is that Kermit was not originally a frog.
JONESRight. He was sort of Kermit the Thing. And that was, that was sort of the same thing as all the character Jim was using in Sam and Friends, which he was doing in Washington D.C., while still in high school. He wanted all those characters to be, sort of, just abstract concepts and not things at that time. Kermit eventually became frogified, but when he first started, he was vaguely milky turquoise, as Jim described it, with slashed ping pong balls for eyes. And that was it.
PAGEAnd what was he made of, the original Kermit?
JONESHe was made of Jim's mother's coat. And that's part of the reason it was such a weird color. It was this, sort of, it was a turquoise color. It wasn't green.
PAGENow, one of the other interesting things about Kermit is that you write that Jim Henson saw himself as kind of the Kermit of the crew.
JONESWell, similar to Kermit on "The Muppet Show," Jim played the same role with his performers and his colleagues. He was always the calm at the middle of the storm, you know? The Muppet performers described themselves as a bunch of lunatics, but Jim was always, kind of, the calm person in the middle of everything that everyone looked to to keep things running, keep things right, which is the role Kermit played on "The Muppet Show."
PAGENow, we're talking with Brian Jay Jones about his new book, "Jim Henson: The Biography." This is an authorized biography. What does that mean?
JONESWell, it's actually not an authorized biography. The family, the Henson family were very generous with their time. They allowed complete access to their personal and business archives, but they didn't have any editorial control. They fact checked me, which was a good thing, because I had missed something, chronologically, in the first draft. But, it's not authorized in what that word usually means, which means editorial control. They didn't have that.
PAGEAnd why did you decide you wanted to do this biography?
JONESWell, I'm, you know, I always call myself Muppet Show generation, or Muppets generation 1.0. I was two when "Sesame Street" came on in 1969. I was nine when "The Muppet Show" premiered in 1976. So, I was sort of right in the right generation for that. They'd always been around, in my lifetime, at that point. But even growing up, I was always a notorious reader of credits, and so I knew there were people that did these things. And so, early on, even, I became a Jim Henson fan.
JONESAnd I had read all the books I could about him at the time and his work. So, he was one of those guys that was always sort of in my consciousness when I -- and so when I was thinking about my next project, it made perfect sense.
PAGEYou describe him as a genius. What do you mean by that?
JONESWell, one of Jim's really, almost superpowers, was this ability to see magic in the ordinary, or figure out how to use something in a completely different way that no one had seen before. And I think, maybe, one of the best examples of that is what he did for puppetry on television. He was the first one to figure out that if you're doing puppets on TV, it wasn't like Kukla Fran and Ollie where they put up the puppet theater and poked the puppets out from behind the curtain.
JONESJim figured out, well, the TV screen is my puppet stage. I don't need a curtain. I don't need anything. They can perform there. And then his next real, sort of, real innovation, that, again, makes perfect sense, but nobody had thought of it, is he figured out, well, if the TV screen in my puppet theater, I'd better be sure I know what it looks like. And he figured out, well, let's just put a monitor on the floor at my feet, and I'll watch that. So, if you watch the Muppet performers performing, they're never looking up at the puppet. They're always watching that monitor at their feet.
PAGEYou know, it's the distinctive characters of the Muppets that, I think, make them so memorable, make them survive and thrive over all this time. I've gotten a tweet from Andrew Young whose twitter handle is puppetvision, so he's obviously a fan of the art. He writes, "What's was his process for developing and figuring out the personality of a puppet character? How would he go about doing that?
JONESWell, Jim was, sort of, the ultimate collaborator, and he was always willing to improvise. So, you take a character, even like Miss Piggy, that started off as, you know, it's almost the typical Hollywood success story. It was a back row chorus girl that they didn't really think much about. When "The Muppet Show" even first came on the air, they kind of handed that character back and forth. You'll see her in the early seasons. She sounds different, because one performer, Richard Hunt, was doing her. Frank Oz was doing her.
JONESBut they kind of passed that character back and forth until finally Frank Oz got it, and the direction was to give Kermit a little hit, and Frank Oz turned it into a karate chop. And right at that minute, they knew that was the character. But that was a character, when they first envisioned her, she was, you know, kind of filling in in the back row, was sort of nameless pig. So, Jim was always willing work with everybody and find them, and told the performers they could have the time to find those characters.
JONESI think Dave can probably even talk about Gonzo in that way, how they had to find Gonzo.
PAGEWe're gonna be talking, in just a few minutes, with the man who was the character Gonzo, so we'll definitely ask him about that. Of course, a great collaborator with Frank Oz on so many of these characters. What was their relationship like?
JONESPeople said that Jim and -- the reason that Jim Henson and Frank Oz could do Ernie and Bert so well and so funny is because they were Ernie and Bert. That Frank was sort of buttoned up and uptight, and Frank talks about how it's a study in horizontal and vertical. Ernie is very horizontal and Bert is very uptight and vertical. And they said that was, that was the relationship those two had together. Ernie and Jim knew, sort of, how to push Frank and Bert's buttons and get them going, and then they would just break down in laughter the whole time.
JONESSo, it was a -- somebody called it a perfect marriage in, you know, the nicest sense of the word.
PAGEYou know, a lot of artists toil in obscurity, struggle to get along financially. That wasn't really the case with Jim Henson. He was a success early on. Talk about his first job on TV.
JONESYeah. When Jim was in high school, and then even in college, he was so good at what he did he was immediately given his own shows in the D.C. area. And then, those were so big that he got onto "The Tonight Show." He was asked to do commercials, and commercials is really where he started to make his money. He made little 10 second commercials for coffee companies all over the country, eventually.
JONESAnd that was really paying the bills for what became "Muppets Incorporated." So, Jim always had the luxury of being able to afford to fail because he had worked so hard on those commercials and they were so successful so quickly.
PAGEYou know, I was looking at some of those coffee commercials on YouTube this morning, and they're both funny, but a little bit dark.
PAGEI mean, they've got an almost violent undertone to them.
JONESYeah, and I, and, you know, I think people didn't know whether to laugh or scream, and they kind of did both, which, I think, is exactly what he thought might happen. And they go by so quickly that you're almost left with your mouth hanging open wondering what you've just seen.
PAGENow, maybe the fact that it's two puppets that are threatening mayhem on one another if you don't drink the brand of coffee he's advertising makes it a little easier to swallow.
JONESRight. Yeah, and, you know, the joke was, first of all, their names were Wilkins and Wontkins, and Jim actually performed Wontkins because Jim himself did not really like coffee. So, it was kind of a joke on him, trying to decide what it would take to get him to even drink that coffee, and the answer was always quite a lot. And that poor puppet had the Washington Monument fall on him, and he would have people squash him and shoot him and cut him in half. And, you know, pull his head off, and just anything they could do, and they got away with it. It was eight seconds and done.
PAGEBrian Jay Jones. He's an award winning biographer and Vice President of The Biographers International Organization. We're talking about his new book, "Jim Henson: The Biography." And when we come back, we'll talk with one of the men who was behind the puppet Gonzo. Stay with us.
PAGEJoining us by phone from his home in California is Dave Goelz. He's a Muppet performer who worked with Jim Henson for nearly two decades. Dave, thanks for being with us.
MR. DAVE GOELZOh thanks, Susan. Great to be here.
PAGESo tell us, how did you come to meet Jim Henson and work with him?
GOELZWell, I had a complete different career. I was an industrial designer. And at the time I discovered the Muppets for the second time, I was working for the Hewlett Packard Company in Silicon Valley. And I really had no ambition to join the Muppets. I just love their work. Through friends who had children I happened to start catching "Sesame Street," became so obsessed that I watched all five shows rerun every Saturday for a couple months.
GOELZOne day I just bolted up and thought and just said to myself, I have to have my own Ernie. And I immediately headed out to yarn shops to try to find the fabric that he might be made of. And during the time I was building that I happened to pick up a newspaper and find that Frank Oz was nearby and doing an appearance at a puppetry festival. And so I took a day of vacation time and went to see him and chatted with him a little bit, saw his shows. And was utterly inspired by what I saw.
GOELZAnd by coincidence a month later I got a business trip to Pennsylvania. So I took a week of vacation time, called Frank and hung out on "Sesame Street" for the whole week. And by that time I had made three puppets. I showed them to the head of the workshop. She said, these are really good. You should meet -- you and Jim should meet. And so subsequent to that we met and that was the beginning of our collaboration.
PAGEAnd the puppets that you made, are they characters we would recognize?
GOELZNo, they were not Muppets. They were in the Muppet style. Well, the Ernie puppet's the first one, of course, you might recognize although it wasn't very good. But then I got better and started making other characters that were monsters that were in the vein of the Muppets.
PAGENow you made the Great Gonzo but I read in the book that you were a kind of a -- you were reluctant to become a performer, to be someone who would take on the character of the puppets you had built. What were you reluctant?
GOELZActually, I wasn't reluctant. I was interested in performing from the beginning. And the first time I spoke to Jim I showed him my portfolio as in just a designer which started with things like airline interiors and tractors and wound up with puppets. I said, this -- I'm showing you this to perhaps illustrate why I might be useful to you. And during that interview, you know, he said, are you interested in building? I said, well I'm actually interested in performing. And Jim said an interesting thing at that point. He said, well we have three star puppeteers already plus Caroll Spinney who was sort of dedicated to "Sesame Street" doing Big Bird and Oscar.
GOELZAnd so we could use you in the workshop designing and building puppets immediately. And then, you know, I could work with you on performing and we could use you whenever we get a special where it requires more characters. And so with that vague promise I joined. And true to his word during the first summer of my employment, he and Frank came in after work a couple times and we worked in front of the mirror. And they taught me some of the basics of Muppet performing. And within five months we did have a special and Jim did cast me in three parts for that.
PAGEWhat were the three parts that you played?
GOELZI played an old guy named Brewster who was a crotchety old man and something else and an English muffin. I can't remember the second thing right now.
PAGEAnd what is -- you've worked with both performing and also in building these puppets. What do you think the key is to making them work as characters?
JONESWell, I think there's a great deal of truth in them. You know, they are archetypes. And I can't really describe other performers' processes for creating characters. I know that consciously what I do is I've always tried to find a flaw within myself which makes it easy. And then isolate that flaw, usually find something that the character wants that the character's blocking himself from getting. And then try to find a way to make it lovable.
PAGEAnd so for example, the Great Gonzo -- and in just a moment we're going to listen to a clip of you performing as the Great Gonzo. What was the flaw in yourself that you saw in the Great Gonzo?
GOELZWell, I think the -- there are always two qualities that are fighting. And in Gonzo's case he's crazy but he's kind of free. And he's in an enviable position because he's not constrained by the normal inhibitions.
PAGEThat's a great description. Dave Goelz, thanks so much for joining us.
GOELZYeah, oh and by the way, just to correct something you said, I still do Gonzo.
PAGEOh, that's great.
PAGESo congratulations on that. And let's now listen to a clip of you as the Great Gonzo and Jim Henson performing as Kermit.
THE GREAT GONZOHi, Kermit. Are you busy?
FROGUh, yes, Gonzo but I can give you my ear for a moment.
GONZOWhat would I do with your ear?
FROGVan Gogh impressions.
FROGGonzo, do you have to take everything so literally? That's just an expression.
GONZOKermit, what I wanted to know was -- was, um, you know, I've noticed that I haven't been on, uh, on stage for the last couple of shows.
GONZOYeah, Kermit, I have a lot of fans out there who are waiting to see my latest theatrical creation.
FROGUh, Gonzo, I have seen you eat a rubber tire to music and I've seen you play a concert on your head with a mallet.
FROGAnd Gonzo, my dear friend, it doesn't work.
GONZOKermit, I don't -- you got to understand, I don't play for the masses. I'm an artist. You understand that? An artist.
FROGYeah, well then, you should've gotten my Van Gogh joke.
PAGENow would that've been carefully scripted, Brian, or would there have been some improvisation in an exchange like that?
JONESProbably a little bit of both. "The Muppet Show" was written by really a crack staff so they knew how to make jokes work. And Jim was very good about sitting in that writers room and making sure he understood that you push that funny word to the end of the line. But on the other hand, they did inspire -- or Jim did inspire and encourage a lot of play and a lot of improv and a lot of adlibbing. And Jerry Juhl who was the head writer would a lot of times stand off to the side even as they were doing the first table read and say, that's great, that's great. We're going to use that. Let's go with that instead. So they were always willing to take the on-the-fly aspect.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let some of our listeners join our conversation. You can call us at 1-800-433-8850. We do have a couple open lines. We'll go first to Susan who's calling us from Clearwater, Fla. Susan, you're on the air.
SUSANYes, this is delightful. I'm loving this. And it made me laugh because I went to the University of Maryland and took a few drama courses with Professor Pliets (sp?). And he told a story on himself. And he said how when Jim Henson went to the University of Maryland, he would say to Jim, hey you're really talented. You know, you really have a future but get rid of those damn puppets.
PAGEIt’s a good thing that's not advice that he took.
SUSANRight, right. But it was also so generous of Professor Pliets to say that. And then he ended up being one of the critics in the balcony on the upper right side I believe. He was a puppet critic on the right side.
PAGEAll right. Susan, thank you so much for giving us a call and sharing that story. Let's go now to Gary who's calling us from Ann Arbor, Mich. Gary, you're on the air. Okay. I think we've lost Gary. Talk a little about the complicated relationship that Jim Henson had with the woman who was first his business partner, his collaborator and then later his wife.
JONESYeah, Jane Henson -- he met Jane when he was a freshman in college. She was a senior in college and they were both in a puppetry course. And Jim discovered early on that she was incredibly talented and a really great puppeteer and very funny. And that to Jim -- I mean, Jim really responded to talent. And he and Jane formed -- they were business partners for a long time. They were both engaged to other people in fact very early on. And so they were just sort of profession business partners for years.
JONESBut then after Jim took a trip to Europe and sort of at Rudy Pliets' encouragement, Rudy said why are you wasting your time? And after Jim came back from Europe he discovered that he actually wasn't wasting his time because they took puppetry very seriously over there. But he came back and informed Jane that they were going to be married and that they were going to start this business. And as Jane said, it was a very business-like proposal, which was sort of the nature of their relationship. She even said early on, she knew that the business came first.
JONESJim was this driven guy, but Jane was in every sense of the word his full-on creative partner and helped him start up that company. And they were -- they never did divorce. They were married the entire time. They were separated the last seven years but it was this -- you know, it was this very complicated but creative artistic relationship.
PAGEThey had five children.
JONESFive children, uh-huh.
PAGEWhat was Jim Henson's relationship with his kids?
JONESJim was a terrific father. And he loved going on vacations with them. And he loved to -- they all learned how to ski together. He loved doing that together. He would take these exotic hot air ballooning vacations with them and they would go on -- they loved to go to ranches and just get in the car and drive. And he was just this very sort of -- you know, he loved getting down in the dirt with them. So he was always a great father. Even when he was crazy doing "The Muppet Show," he would always encourage the kids when they would come over on summer break. Yeah, come to the studio and come to the workshop and come to work with me.
JONESAnd his daughter Cheryl said, you know, that was the best way to be with him was to work with him.
PAGELet's go to Little Rock and talk to Chris. Chris, hi, you're on the air.
CHRISHi. How's it going?
CHRISI was just going to say, I've got a five-year-old and I've been watching a lot of the old Muppet stuff with her and it's just been a lot of fun rediscovering that.
PAGEAnd did you watch it yourself when you were young?
CHRISOh, absolutely. And the best part is, now as an adult there's a lot more jokes I get.
PAGEYeah, that's true. You know, it is true that there's a lot of humor, like the Van Gogh joke that we heard in the exchange with the Great Gonzo that must go over the heads of kids.
JONESRight. I mean, that was part of what made the Muppets so attractive even on "Sesame Street" is the parents could sit down and watch "Sesame Street" with their kids, you know, put them in front of the TV. And the parents found themselves watching the entire show anyway because it's just -- it's funny on so many different levels.
PAGEAnd how did Jim Henson and the Muppets become synonymous with "Sesame Street?" How did that happen?
JONESWell, they were involved actually from day one. He was -- Jim was hard to get. When they came up with the idea for the show they knew they wanted puppets. And one of the producers kept telling Joan Ganz Cooney, this is the guy you have to get. And if you can't get him you should not have puppets on "Sesame Street." So Jim was in early on. One of the things that he did that I don't think people always know is his first contributions were very short films. And what we always called as kids the Baker Films with the counting films and the baker would fall down the stairs at the end. Those were films that Jim all did.
JONESAnd so he loved even that aspect of "Sesame Street," which let him do some really creative things that weren't even puppets. But the Muppets were on very early on. They found out that they needed to put them on the street because the kids' attention spans would drop if they went back to the real world. So they were always the hook. They were always the ones that got everybody involved and got everyone engaged. And the success of that show, I can't see that it would ever have succeeded as spectacularly as it did without Jim and the Muppets.
PAGEAnd then years later he got his own show, "The Muppet Show." How did that -- was that hard to do? How did that come about?
JONESIt was really hard to do and it was sort of a study in perseverance for Jim who just wouldn't take no for an answer. He knew for -- you know, starting in the early '60s when he was on variety shows for other people that the Muppets could do more than just three minutes or four minutes. He knew they could really hold their own. It took him a long time to convince people that but he's got pitches and proposals and rough drafts of "The Muppet Show" in his sketch books in the mid '60s. And that show went on the air in 1976.
JONESSo he really was after this for a long time but went through two pilots, two sort of failed pilots -- they didn't get picked up by anyone -- for "The Muppet Show" before he finally sort of got lightning in a bottle when Lord Gray from United Kingdom said, I'm going to back you to do this. But it took him two tries and actually three to finally get there, but it was a real stick-to-itiveness for him.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850 or you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Now let's go to my hometown, Wichita, Kan. and talk to Steve. Steve, hi.
STEVEHi. Thank you very much for having me.
PAGEYou're welcome. Please go ahead, you have a comment or a question?
STEVEYeah, absolutely. Just saw the Kevin Clash documentary and I was curious, it was really interesting to me how Henson kind of took him in his own kind of fashion from high school and kind of mentored him. And then also with Frank Oz being an expert already, did he kind of nurture new talent or seek out the best in the field? And I'll take my answer off the air.
PAGEOkay, Steve. Thanks very much.
JONESYeah, Jim early on knew that you had to -- you know, you -- puppeteering is something that takes a long time to do. And it's -- you know, it's acting at the end of your arm. And so they would always sort of hold these big open house sessions where they would bring puppeteers in to do workshops. And they would work them for days and days and days and then sort of winnow them down and then nurture them. And start them -- you didn't start off with a character that was in front of the camera right away.
JONESYou would usually start off doing characters in the background or doing what they called right-handing, which is if you have a character like Ernie that's got two fully functional hands, somebody else would perform that right hand. So you would start off that way. Kevin Class did right-handing, Fran Brill who still does Prairie Dawn on "Sesame Street" did right-handing. So he would bring them up through the ranks.
JONESSteve Whitmire started that way and he now to this day still performs Kermit the Frog. So Jim was very serious about training his puppeteers and, you know, understanding that this isn't -- this is actually hard work. And so he always made sure he had the time to do that.
PAGEDid he have characters who failed? Characters, puppets that he really invested time in and effort in, but just couldn't make them work?
JONESNo, because he was always really good about sort of refurbing them if they weren't working. If you watch the early -- the first two pilots of "The Muppet Show," he didn't put Kermit at the center of either one of those. He had a guy named Wally. It was sort of a human puppet. Didn't really work. It was this sort of hipster guy with sunglasses working at a typewriter. That one didn't work so he shelved that. Did another Muppet Show pilot, put this character named Nigel at it who looks sort of like, you know, a fish, a little mealy mouth. That one didn't work either.
JONESHe finally figured out it's time to put Kermit at the middle. So that was sort of two attempts. Nigel actually -- if you watch "The Muppet Show" now on the opening critic, he's conducting "The Muppet Show" band from down in the pit. So they still use that character but he was always willing to give them a chance to grow, like with Piggy and with something even like Elmo.
JONESThe last caller said he watched the Kevin Clash documentary -- almost started off with a different performer. It was Richard Hunt. They didn't know what to do with it and they have the story where Richard Hunt threw the Count to Kevin Clash and said, here you figure it out. And off Kevin Clash went with that character. So Jim was fine letting them do that as well. Find the character.
PAGEWe have one caller Gary, who said loves the Muppets but as an adult notices that except for Miss Piggy all the main characters are male.
JONESYeah, and in fact, very early on in "Sesame Street," Jim sort of got -- I don't want to say got in trouble for it but they had to -- they really made a conscious effort to bring a female puppeteer and female characters in if they could. So Fran Brill, they brought her in who's still doing to this day, gave her Prairie Dawn. And Fran Brill says it's like being the sister with all the brothers around her. On "The Muppet Show" they had female performers on there finally and they had Miss Piggy who's actually performed by a man.
JONESSo -- but Louise Gold was a female puppeteer, did female characters. Kathy Mullen who does Mokey on "Fraggle Rock." So they got them in there, but he even admitted, knew at the time they hadn't done a great job with that.
PAGEAnd why was that?
JONESPartly, you know -- Jim at one point said, you know, it's a very physical thing and so I don't know if it was the southern gentleman in him that was saying, well, this is too hard of work for that. But once you dump some of those performers in, they get -- Louise Gold who still does performing, she's nuts. I mean, she's a terrific performer. You just had to sort of throw them in the mix and they could all handle it.
PAGEWe're talking with Brian Jay Jones. He's the author of "Jim Henson: the Biography." We're going to take a short break. And when we come back we'll go back to the phone, take some of your calls and questions, hear some of your remembrances of your favorite Muppet and we'll read your emails, email@example.com. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome Back. I'm Susan Page with USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. Brian Jay Jones has written a new biography of Jim Henson called "Jim Henson: The Biography." You know, we know him with The Muppets, we know him with "Sesame Street." He also made movies that were less commercially successful, at least at the time, "The Dark Crystal" for example. Tell us about that.
JONESYeah, "The Dark Crystal" was a movie Jim wanted to actually make for a long time. He actually -- he even wanted to make it before the first Muppet movie. It was a study in world-building for Jim. He was fascinated by the art of Brian Froud and really wanted to collaborate with him. And so he'd been working on "Dark Crystal" for a long time, and was more fascinated in populating that world and coming up with the back history of the world and what the world looked like, almost more than he was with the story. And I think people even today will say the story is kind of the weak link in "The Dark Crystal." But it looks amazing.
JONESAnd Frank Oz talks about how, you know, you look up there and it doesn't really matter because everything up there is amazing. And what's really key about "Dark Crystal" is it's a movie that couldn't have been made at any other time. You couldn't have made it earlier because you just didn't have the capacity for it. And any later you probably would've started doing computer generated for that. So what's amazing "Dark Crystal" is everything you see onscreen is built. Everything is handmade in "The Dark Crystal." It was a project that Jim absolutely loved making. He loved trying to realistic puppetry. It was a really neat sort of artistic film for him.
PAGEAnd so was it a disappointment when it didn't succeed commercially the way his other projects had?
JONESYeah, it was. And he actually really struggled at the time with that because that film was owned by somebody else and he bought it back. It meant that much to him, so he bought his own property back. And he at first wanted to do it without any languages. There'd be a little bit of English language, but he kind of wanted to do this, like, almost like an opera where it was a made up language that people would just understand from watching the performances.
JONESSo it was sort of an art film that didn't do great. Now, he ended up dubbing English in because he knew that didn't work. But he kind of knew that it would find its audience, which it really finally did. You know, he was right about it. It just took about 20 years for him to get there. But as Frank Oz said, Jim was a phoenix, he rose again even after that happened, and he went back and he did another Muppet movie immediately after that.
PAGELet's go to Franconia, N.H. and talk to Katrine. Hi, Katrine.
KATRINEHi. So when I was in college my boyfriend went to NYU. This was in the late '80s. And he interned for Jim Henson. And he took me to the set one day and they were filming a cereal commercial with the Swedish Chef. So it was really cool to get to see everything, but what was most cool was that Jim Henson after one of the takes came over, and my boyfriend introduced me to him. And he was interested in what I thought about the commercial and about being at his studio. And I thought, wow, I'm just some young, silly college kid, and he actually was interested, and I didn't get that it was -- I thought that it was genuine. You know, it was really neat.
PAGEOh, well, Katrine...
KATRINEI just wanted to comment on that.
PAGEThanks so much for your call.
JONESYeah, people always say Jim had -- you know, Jim was always genuinely interested in what people had to say. And I think that was part of the reason things like "Sesame Street" worked. Jim would never talk down to children even. Like, he was genuinely interested in what people had to say. He genuinely wanted to engage and listen.
PAGELet's go to Detroit and talk to Sandra. Sandra, hi, you're on the air.
SANDRAOh, hi, Susan. Thank you. I was going to say my dad died when he was 80 years old and he just loved Miss Piggy. So I know all us adults love The Muppets too.
PAGEWhat did your dad -- what did your dad like about Miss Piggy?
SANDRAWell, he always laughed every time she was on the show. And he just got a big kick out of her I guess.
PAGEWell, Sandra, thanks so much for your call. I know a lot of us got a big kick out of Miss Piggy. Jim Henson unexpectedly really.
PAGETell us about that very sudden death.
JONESYeah, it was -- he was 53. In May he had come down with strep throat, or he had a sore throat. He probably didn't consider it strep. And he didn't do anything about it. And people -- his publicist, Arthur Neville, offered him, you know, medication. Jim didn't take it. He said, I'll be fine, I'll ride it out. And he got sick in his apartment and people said they knew it was really serious when he had to cancel a recording session for a character. They knew that that was serious. Jim never missed a session. But he ended up being hospitalized and dying from severe pneumonia, but it was complications brought on by a severe strep infection.
PAGENow, that was in 1990. There were reports I think at the time that -- the fact that he had been raised as a Christian Scientist had perhaps played a role, made him more reluctant to seek medical treatment. Is that the case?
JONESNo. That's not true at all actually. The story I often tell sometimes is when I was researching this book, I was in London, and I got swine flu when I was London. And I thought I was going to die, and I didn't do anything. And I think part of it's because that's what guys do. And Jim got sick and he just sort of thought, you know, I can ride this through, I'll take Advil. So he took Advil. Jim wasn't adverse to medication. He wasn't even practicing Christian Science at the time that he died. So there was none of that in play. He just thought that he was going to be able to ride this through and get well. You never think you're critically ill when you're sick, no matter how terrible you feel. And he was the same way.
PAGELet's talk to Sidney who's calling us from Muskegon, Mich. Hi, Sidney.
SIDNEYHello. I just wanted to mention the fond memories I had. My wife and I went and saw "The Muppet Movie," the first Muppet movie when it came out. It was so nice to see all the characters on a big screen. And we were sitting in the audience as the theater was clearing out, just kind of watching the credits. And it was such a joy to see Animal come onscreen and tell us to go home. That was just -- I don't know who played that out or how that got to become -- I don't know. Just a fond memory. Thank you.
PAGEThank you, Sidney, for your call.
JONESYeah, that movie -- that's Frank Oz doing Animal, and it's -- that movie, the first one, has no problem breaking what they call the fourth wall. They are constantly aware they're in a movie and practicing the conceits of movies in that film.
PAGEWe have a lot of people who are asking about "Fraggle Rock." Tell us about that.
JONES"Fraggle Rock" was -- first of all, what's really key about that, it's one of the first projects where Jim didn't perform a major character. He was willing to sort of frame it up. He told his team of writers that, we want to do a show that will stop war. You sort of say that tongue in cheek, but that was -- it had to have a nice purpose behind it. And so he set his writers to work, shut them away in his house in London for weeks, and they came up with the -- you know, the sort of basic structure of what "Fraggle Rock" was, where you've got three different sizes of characters all having to get along and figure out how they relate to each other. So that was the sort of driving theme of "Fraggle Rock."
JONESAnd they put "Fraggle Rock" to -- the cast of "Fraggle Rock" to work in Canada. They would film up there. But Jim didn't perform a regular character. He was content finally to sort of let that one, you know, light, fuse and stand back and let that one go. He performed two characters on that show, and he loved performing Cantus, who was the minstrel on there who, you know, would sort of dispense these enigmatic nuggets of wisdom on there. That was a very Jim sort of character.
PAGEMartin is calling us from San Antonio, Texas. Martin, hi, you're on the air.
MARTINHi. I'm a 22-year-old. I'm just leaving college, so I'm kind of in this middle generation dealing with both practical effects and digital effects. I just wanted to know what Jim would think about digital effects in The Muppets, if he would ever use them, or if it's all going to be practical.
JONESJim loved technology. Jim was a gadget nerd. He loved -- he loved CGI. He used CGI to do the opening credits of "Labyrinth." It was one of the first times that was ever used for opening credits, that owl you see flying in that, that's completely in the computer. He created that character for "The Jim Henson Hour," the Waldo character, that's computer generated character. So Jim loved technology. He would not be adverse to using computer graphics at all. I think all you have to do with Jim is stand back and say, okay, but what would he have done with it, not whether he would've used it, but what might he have done with it.
PAGEI'd like to play one more clip that we have that shows Jim Henson as Ernie, Frank Oz as Bert, surely two of the most -- characters that -- the characters that draw the most affection from viewers of The Muppets. Let's hear from Bert and Ernie.
PAGENow, Bert and Ernie's such iconic characters that after the Supreme Court decision this summer on same sex marriage, The New Yorker put a picture, a drawing of Bert and Ernie from the back watching television with the suggestion of course that they were perhaps a same sex couple themselves. Would Jim Henson have liked that?
JONESI think he would've gotten a kick out of it. I don't know if he would've checked in on it. Jim was sort of apolitical in that regard, but I think he would've gotten a kick out of it.
PAGEHere's an email we've gotten from Nathan who writes, "Lately I've been watching the first season of "Saturday Night Live." I'm 26. And every episode features Muppets voice by Jim and Frank from the Land of Gorch. I take it the SNL writers didn't love those bits, but I think they're great. Can you talk a little about the process behind those late night Muppets and what might've happened if Jim had stayed on 'Saturday Night Live.'"
JONESYeah, when they first came up with "Saturday Night Live," Jim's agent, Bernie Brillstein, was very plugged in with Lorne Michaels and a lot of the people involved in SNL. But Lorne Michaels had two things he wanted to be sure he got on SNL, and it was Albert Brooks and Jim Henson. And so Jim was asked to come in and create this sort of cast of new characters for SNL, and he created the Land of Gorch sketch. And he really sort of fumbled -- no, I don't want to say fumbled, but he really sort of experimented trying to figure out what it was going to be. You can see in his notes he's calling it mystic sketch. He's not quite sure what it's going to be.
JONESSo he comes up with these characters and comes up with this world, but he's not writing it, and that was probably the biggest problem they had with it. Sort of the Muppet DNA and the SNL DNA didn't mix very well. They're a little more seat of the pants, improvy and SNL was a little bit different than that. So in the first season of SNL, in particular, you've got a lot of people who are performing who are also writing, and it's sort of everyone's vying for airtime, and people did not enjoy writing for The Muppets. So it was a relationship that was sort of doomed to fail eventually, although everybody felt good about it.
JONESBut what happened towards the end of that first season is Jim got "The Muppet Show." So he could go off and do "The Muppet Show" anyway.
PAGEI'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones. We'll talk to Jane. She's calling us from Springfield, Va. Hi, Jane.
JANEOkay. Yes. My first remembrance of Jim Henson was with the early Wilkins Coffee commercials. That was a local Washington, D.C. coffee company. It was located in Georgetown. Was that before the idea of The Muppets or during or after?
PAGEAll right, Jane. Thanks so much for your call.
JONESYeah, those were considered Muppets. You know, Jim was producing those commercials under his company name which was Muppets Incorporated, so those are early Muppets. They're not the first, but they're very early. And those are before even Rowlf the Dog was on "The Jimmy Dean Show." But the Wilkins Coffee commercials were how Jim started to make his name and actually started to make some -- the revenue that allowed him to build The Muppets empire after that.
PAGEAnd, Jane, did the coffee commercials make you want to drink that kind of coffee?
JANEI was a child. I was a little kid. But I remember one. I don't know whether the animal was being shot out of the -- being shot out of a cannon or was turning the cannon on someone. I was not aware that it was drink Wilkins Coffee or else. But, like I said, I knew it was a local coffee company, so -- and my parents drank Wilkins. So, you know, that interested me.
JONESYeah, the ads definitely worked. Wilkins Coffee sales went up 25 percent after those ads started to run, so they clearly made an impact.
PAGEJane, thanks for your call. Here's an email we got from Ed who's writing us from Fayetteville, N.C. He says, "My introduction to The Muppets was in the hospital in 1972 after being wounded in combat. And it was shown every day at 2:00 p.m. by the Armed Forces TV in our ward. If you can imagine 30 to 40 wounded soldiers watching with sheer delight. I was hooked at the time. Watching made me realize their skits were double-edged, one for children, but also for adults.
JONESRight. Just as Jim knew they would be. Jim knew that -- he kept telling everybody this is family entertainment. This is not kids' entertainment. "The Muppet Show" was aimed at everyone. And he was right, right away.
PAGESo what surprised you in researching this biography of Jim Henson? What did you not expect that you discovered?
JONESWell, I knew going into it that Jim worked hard. I kept telling people early on, you know, people my age especially who grew up with The Muppets, from early "Sesame Street," we always use the word magic. And we talk about Jim and The Muppets being magic. And I kept saying, well, but, you know, this is really hard work and, you know, if I have to hold a lamp over my head to hang a chandelier for three minutes, my shoulders' wrecked, so this is really hard work.
JONESBut what I didn't appreciate was the extent of how hard that work was, and just how much he was working, even as he was succeeding, Jim throughout the '60s, '70s, the entire time was constantly pitching, constantly coming up with new ideas, constantly developing projects. For everything that made it on screen, there were 5, 10, 20, 30 things that never got off the page. The guy just had an incredible work ethic. I didn't suspect -- I didn't expect the extent of it.
PAGEWe have just a little time left. Let's try to go to Denise who's calling us from Hanover, N.H. Hi, Denise.
DENISEHi. I'm just calling to say how much I adored Jim Henson. I grew up on "Sesame Street" and fell in love with the first love of my life, which was Kermit T. Frog doing the reporting -- the investigative reporting of, you know, the Big Bad Wolf with the sheep. And then I was sort of a kid right at the right age of "The Muppet Show" which I religiously watched and adored. And as I started to get the adult jokes a little bit, I just felt like the cleverest person. And when Jim Henson died, I cried. And I still, you know, the Kermit -- the Jim Henson Kermit, as much as his son I think is an excellent copy, it's not the same.
PAGEAll right, Denise. Thanks so much for your call. So after all this research, Brian, how much time did you spend on this biography?
JONESIt was five years.
PAGEFive years. What's your favorite Muppet character?
JONESI fell in love with Rowlf the Dog throughout it. First of all, it's such a great character. It's the sort of understated version of Jim. I think it's actually very close to his own personality. It's sort of this home spun, not quite wisecracking, but, you know, very laid back, you know, jazz loving, piano loving. Rowlf's the character that I just really, really fell in love with.
PAGEBrian Jay Jones, he's the author of a new biography called "Jim Henson." Thanks so much for being with us this hour on "The Diane Rehm Show."
JONESThank you. This was -- this was great.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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