Nerdstalgia: Happy Birthday, Jim Henson

Jim Henson would've been 75 today.

He's probably the first time I could place a creator behind the creations I loved; his name was on nearly all of his creations, and he hosted the series or the behind-the-scenes specials.  A lot has been said about his creativity, positivity, and lasting influence, and there's nothing I can really add to it.  I can only list off some of the esoteric reasons I admire Henson and his wonderful body of work.

1. He knew food & eating is always funny.  Seriously, people either treat eating like some sacred transcendental ritual or horrible shameful sin; however, Henson knew that being part of the food chain in any way was inherently amusing.  From booing vegetables greeting a vegetarian Muppet Show guest while the livestock cheers to having "have someone eat something" as one of the three all-purpose sketch enders, he appreciated that there's humor to be found in food.  He's probably one of the last.

2. He didn't conform to 80s group dynamics.  This is pretty much entirely about Fraggle Rock, but what little I can remember of Muppet Babies also fits this as well.  Any child who grew up in the 80s knew how the majority of ensemble casts worked - there'd be a leader, a bunch of guys who agreed with him, and one poor bastard who was the dissenting voice & was treated like crap for it.  Like animation writer Mark Evanier has said, the networks were basically condoning peer pressure and masking it as "cooperation".  None of the kids shows that Henson did with a group cast fit that bill.  The Fraggles always held the biggest risk of this, with Gobo a distinct leader figure and Boober a chronic dissenter; but every character had an equal number of good and bad traits (for instance, Gobo could be pig-headed & oblivious, while Boober's overly cautious nature was frequently a life-saver).  What I remember of Muppet Babies had a similar dynamic - there was a distinct leader in Baby Kermit, but the rest were not a homogenous mass of "cooperation" with one singled out as bad - they all had flaws & virtues.  And at a time where child psychologists with dubious credentials called the shots more than creators, only Henson could've gotten away with using actual quality characterization instead of their mandated hackwork.

3. He loved penguins before penguins were a thing.  Yep, another one of the all-purpose sketch enders - "throw penguins at it".  I will hold that there are few things in creation as wonderfully exuberant as a Muppet penguin (especially if it's one performed by Richard Hunt, with a distinct North Jersey accent).  Before penguins became fatally overexposed and forced to tap-dance out little parables more heavy-handed than even the worst PSA when not miming inappropriate pop numbers, these cheery little guys were doing hula dances and leaping into the air while cheering wildly.  My fascination with real-world penguins may very well have stemmed from their joyful Muppet cousins.

4. He didn't see TV as just a means to a financial end but as a useful & valuable medium.  Okay, maybe you have heard this one before, usually discussed in relationship to a little show called Sesame Street.  But do you know what the mission statement of Fraggle Rock was?  "I want to make a show that will promote world peace."  Heavy mission, that.  But he saw that a show that could easily be tailored to fit any culture and was largely built around themes of communication - something that is vital to addressing everyone from close friends to foreign visitors - could help towards that in baby steps.  Even the behind-the-scenes specials, where he showed how they used green screens for the Fraggle caves or how Muppets were performed, served a purpose of illustrating to kids just how much work & ingenuity went into making a TV show and that those behind the camera are worthy of respect.  TV was his medium as much as foam & fabric.

5. He consistently hired makers of beautiful music to further define his work.  Ask anyone in my family - I cannot listen to "The Rainbow Connection" without tearing up, if not out & out crying.  The song writers for Sesame Street were just as good, with them ranging from the joyous "Sing!" to the downright melancholy "Somebody Come and Play".  And Balsam & Lee on Fraggle Rock made songs that are still wonderful to listen to (I am partial to "Follow Me" & "Singing As We Go", of course) and helped to give that series & its universe a distinctive feel.  When most TV creators treat music of any kind as an afterthought unless they can attach some fly-by-night pop act to it (witness the number of generic techno theme songs & distinct lack of notable backscore that doesn't feel intrusive in kids TV), he found talented musicians, let them work their magic, and the finished works were all stronger for this freedom.

6. He was a techie and proud of it.  You ever hear the interview made while The Dark Crystal was being filmed where Jim Henson said that TV will need to move to a better-definition signal if it is ever to compete with movies on equal footing?  How about watching the behind-the-scenes special for Fraggle Rock where he giddily demonstrates how green screens and waldos work?  How about just the fact that he realized you could use a camera's dimensions as a de facto stage instead of having to have a live audience to see if your puppetry was being staged properly?  Besides his creative legacy, he was also a technical innovator, and this is frequently forgotten.

Happy Birthday, Jim Henson.  Even if Wikipedia doesn't think you're notable, there's plenty of us who always will.


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