Remembering the Muppet Man [Seattle Weekly, undated]
Goodbye to Jim Henson, and Ernie and Kermit, too
Even in the 1980s, he looked and dressed like a 1968 camp counselor; a tall, shy man with an easy, apologetic smile. When you first met him, you were struck by that smile, by his undisguised Ernie-like voice, especially by the fact that tremendous success apparently had had no effect on him. Jim Henson was worth many millions, but in person he was as unassuming, and as kind, as Kermit.
And he was generous. In 1974 I was doing a radio talk show in Seattle. Henson, by phone from New York, was my guest. We'd been nattering along, taking a few calls, when a listener asked if her daughter might talk to Kermit the Frog. Not wishing to force Henson to perform, I jumped in to get rid of her. He cut me off.
"Sure, Kermit's around here somewhere," he said. "Put your daughter on." He turned from the phone and shouted, "Kermit, it's for you!" Off somewhere in the background, or so it seemed, Kermit said, "Coming! By the time that awestruck child said goodbye to her now personal frog friend, I had phone lines full of children. For the next hour Henson and I kept quiet and turned the show over to Kermit, Ernie, Rowlf the Swedish Chef, Dr. Teeth--and eventually Bert, Fozzie, and Miss Piggy, too, because Frank Oz got on an extension. And it was magic.
Henson and Oz. Because of their medium, they'll never have the name familiarity of Laurel and Hardy or Burns and Allen. But they've been one of the great comedy teams in American entertainment. And unlike their predecessors, they did it with different characters. There were a lot of Road movies, but Hope was always the same Hope, Crosby the same Crosby. Henson and Oz, however, worked together as Kermit and Piggy, Kermit and Fozzie, Bert and Ernie, Statler and Waldorf, even together as the Swedish Chef--Henson was the head, voice, and left arm, Oz the right arm. What they had in common with the other great comedy teams is that they obviously liked each other, as people and as the characters they played. It was very hard not to like Jim Henson.
He did something else for entertainment besides being half of a brilliant team. He showed smug American network executives that they didn't know what they were talking about The Muppet Show was first shopped around to ABC, NBC, and CBS, and was rejected quickly by all three. "It's just a kid's show," Henson was told. "You'll never get adults to watch puppets." The hell I won't," said Henson, and off he went to London and the arms of Lord Lew Grade and his ITC Network.
A few years later the same American executives who sent Henson away were begging him to come back and do something, anything, for them. Why? Because Henson had created the most successful syndicated television program ever, a show that families worldwide watched together and that advertisers loved. If you have anything to do with quality entertainment for families these days, in any medium, you've probably been influenced by the Muppets--and if you haven't, the person who pays your bills has.
But even when he had it made, Henson took chances. The Muppet Show was written by some old, established television comedy writers--but hidden in their midst was Chris Langham, co-author of the 15-hour paranoid-hallucination-on-stage, Illuminatus, and one of the most bizarre comedians/writers in Britain. In the fifth Muppet season, when scheduled guest star Richard Pryor didn't show up because of a personal fire, Langham stepped in at the last moment to headline a Muppet Show people still talk about for its singular moments of perversity. Henson didn't keep Langham around for the Monty Python crowd. Langham was there because the Fozzie writers needed a Gonzo.
The Muppet Show has been criticized because every character in it was a failure: Gonzo the failed daredevil, Fozzie the failed comedian, Piggy the pig-ugly beauty queen. But that's missing the point. Under Kermit's gentle direction, they kept trying, ignoring the previous week's humiliations because "it's time to put on makeup, it's time to light the lights…" Starting 35 years ago at a Washington, DC, television station, the Muppets kept trying, too--under Henson's gentle direction. He created whole worlds, half a dozen of them: the Sesame Street Muppets; the Muppet Show Muppets; the Fraggles; the monsters of Dark Crystal. The result is entertainment history.
And now it is over. I assume the Muppets will continue. Sesame Street without them would perhaps be more Luis than a body could bear. And there's that Disney deal in the works, and a Ninja Turtle film sequel or two. But it will never be the same. Kermit is gone, and Rowlf, and Ernie. My God, Ernie. For those of us who cherished Jim Henson's work, and his spirit, it's a time when we all feel a little as Bert must feel--the world has come to an end, and we are more alone than we ever wanted to be.