My family connection with the Muppets, as I’ve mentioned, goes deep. My aunt has been a professional puppeteer, and she knew Jim Henson personally. She and two of my cousins are puppeteers in The Muppet Movie, because let’s be real—crowd scenes take a lot of puppeteers. I have a picture from the set somewhere, I think. And even with that personal connection, the Muppets connect with me on a personal wavelength. I love their style. The sense of humour lands with me. I love the songs. Picking out my favourite Muppet character is a challenge. But it all starts with Jim.
According to Carrol Spinney, Jim didn’t ever treat the puppets themselves with any kind of reverence. He’d just toss Kermit down when he was done with him. Carrol apologized to Kermit once when he saw Jim do that, and Jim was taken aback. But I think the characters, he treated with respect. He knew how we felt about them. He knew how many of us grew up on them—and The Muppet Show and I are almost the same age. The first episode debuted in September of 1976, three months before I was born. My father and Mr. Hooper died at about the same time.
And Jim Henson’s death was the first celebrity death to really hit me. Before then, I responded to the occasional death with, “Oh, too bad.” Or just, “Oh.” But Jim, I grieved. Possibly I would’ve grieved Will Lee, if I hadn’t been in the emotional state I was in anyway. Jim—and I always think of him as Jim—died when I was in seventh grade, and I was old enough and stable enough to be deeply affected by it. And while there have been Muppet movies since then, and while I have really enjoyed some of them—it’s almost time for our annual viewing of A Muppet Christmas Carol, for example—it was never quite the same.
But beyond the Muppets there was Jim the Innovator. His only Oscar nomination was for Live Action Short in 1965, for “Time Piece.” I haven’t in fact seen it, but it’s supposed to be a fascinating piece of experimental filmmaking. And what the Creature Shop can’t do with puppetry can’t be done, I think. Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal are both breathtaking displays of craft. Strange, really, that it’s the more experimental Dark Crystal that was the more financially successful film in its initial release, though its cult is now considerably smaller.
It’s popular every now and again to do “adult” versions of the Muppets, but they are in many ways unnecessary if you pay attention to what the Muppets were always like. The recent TV show took a lot of heat for showing things like the characters’ dating lives, but come on. That’s always been there. “I Hope That Something Better Comes Along,” a rare Kermit and Rowlf moment (because they were both performed by Jim, you see), implies in its lyrics that both characters enjoy sex. Janis has the deepest life outside the show, I think, leading to the classic “I told him, I don’t pose naked for anyone, even if it is ar-tis-tic!” Sure, Kermit could host Sesame Street News, but he’s also the one who asked if he and Piggy would have bouncing baby figs when they married.
The reality is, the Muppets were deeper characters than many others in theoretically adult movies. They had rich inner lives. In the first seasons, The Muppet Show had trouble getting guests. By the end, Jim’s funeral was crowded with celebrities. (He didn’t seek medical attention soon enough because his Christian Science upbringing made him hesitant even though he didn’t believe in it anymore.) It’s fascinating to watch the children on Sesame Street interact with the puppets, not the puppeteers, but if you watch the adults, they instinctively do that, too. Jim, who used the Link Hogthrob voice for Important Fatherly Tasks like carving the Thanksgiving turkey, made the Muppets real to us.
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