Things I’ve Learned from Jim Henson

(What follows is an adapted version of a post I wrote on my poor old LiveJournal in 2012.  Oh, what an innocent time it seems in retrospect!)

Like most people, I knew Jim Henson primarily through the Muppets. I never even knew what he looked like until he made a cameo appearance in A Muppet Family Christmas in 1987. Nevertheless, I–along with many others of my generation–can count him as one of my first teachers because of his involvement in Sesame Street, which was part of my daily routine for as far back as I can remember until I started school. This makes me a very small part of his legacy, a thought that makes me feel simultaneously honored and humbled.

From the research that I’ve done, the impression that I get of Jim Henson is that–in a gentle, optimistic way–he expected the best from everyone around him. He led by example, inspiring those around him to give their best by always giving the best of himself. He didn’t play to the lowest common denominator. When he was working on something like Sesame Street, for which the primary audience was children, it wasn’t simplistic or banal, and when he was working on something like The Muppet Show, which was targeted more to adults, it wasn’t rude or crude or nasty. The Muppets’ material works on multiple levels; to paraphrase Anthony Minghella, it doesn’t exclude children and doesn’t insult adults, or vice versa. In a world where entertainment, and particularly puppet acts, are almost exclusively for children or exclusively for adults, the Muppets are unique because they appeal to everyone and therefore have the power to bring people together.

In my case, the Muppets are one of the bonds that connects my family. I am the fourth of five children. My three older siblings were teenagers when my younger brother and I were preschoolers. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to my older siblings sing songs from The Muppet Movie; I think I knew all the words to “The Rainbow Connection” before I ever knew that there WAS a Muppet Movie. My older siblings had all grown up watching Sesame Street and they would happily watch it with my younger brother and me when they were able. More than that, they were always enthusiastic about singing Sesame Street songs with us or joining us in recreating Sesame Street skits (well, except at bedtime–although my sister and I sometimes inadvertently acted out quasi Bert-and-Ernie sketches when I would want to talk to her at night, and she would tell me to go to sleep). And it wasn’t just a matter of them humoring the little kids: my sister and my middlemost brother once performed Sesame Street sketch for the annual high school talent show. To this day, some of my fondest family memories involve the Muppets, and most of my fondest Muppet memories involve my family.  In May 2017, we were able to bring things full circle when the five of us siblings, plus my sister’s three kids, performed a rendition of “The Rainbow Connection” at our parents’ 50th wedding anniversary party to honor the ways in which Jim Henson’s work has brought us together as a family and given us so much joy.

In all of Jim Henson’s work, but particularly with the Muppets, he fostered imagination. In a way, he gave the entire world license to make believe. 

Somebody once said, “Jim always had respect for children, and so his characters never talked down to them.” Even as a little kid watching Sesame Street, I always had a sense of this respect. As a child, I had very little patience with kids’ shows that I found condescending. Sesame Street was never condescending. This is another case of Jim Henson’s teaching by example: by showing respect for children, he taught children to have respect for themselves.

When Jim Henson died, I learned about genuine heartbreak. I was very nearly ten years old, and it was one of my first significant experiences with death.  You sometimes hear people refer to significant (usually negative and often traumatic) events in their lives as “the end of my childhood.” I wouldn’t say that Jim Henson’s death marked the end of my childhood, but I think it was the beginning of the end. When you’re a kid (or, at least, this was my experience) there’s a wide gap between what you know and what you believe. You know about mortality; you know that you, and everybody you know, and everybody you don’t know, is going to die sometime in the murky, abstract, indetermine reaches of the future, but you try not to think too much about it. You believe in the permanence of the routine fixtures in your life and you take for granted that your heroes are invulnerable. Jim Henson was (and still is) one of my heroes, so when he died, it changed my perception of the world; it narrowed that gap between what I knew and what I believed. Death became less of an abstract concept and more of an unescapable reality.

One of the things I remember most significantly about the immediate aftermath of his death is that everyone around me, all my family, was just as devastated about it as I was. I don’t specifically remember this part, but my mom has said since then that Jim Henson’s death is one of few celebrity deaths that she has ever cried about. It was as though we had lost a close family friend…from a certain point of view, we had.

About six months after Jim Henson died, there was a TV special called “The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson”. Toward the end of that special, once the Muppets understand the terrible truth, Gonzo says, “Jim died? But we were just starting to get to know him!” And that’s exactly the way that I felt when he died, that I was just starting to get to know him as the man behind (and beneath) the Muppets. Nevertheless, I’m very grateful to be old enough and lucky enough to remember him. I’m even grateful for the sorrow that I experienced at his death because it allows me to appreciate the joy of life–represented in so many ways by the Muppets–much more deeply than I would otherwise.

Jim Henson once said, “My hope is still to leave the world a little bit better for my having been here.” Even though he left the world far too soon, under bewilderingly tragic circumstances, he achieved that hope. I say that with absolute confidence because my own life has been so enriched by his having been a part of it, however indirectly. I have the love of music that I do in part because of Jim Henson. I have the love of literature/films/theatre that I do in large part because of Jim Henson.  I learned about cooperation from Jim Henson, and because of him, I always want to call it “Shirley,” which is to say that I have the sense of humor that I do in part because of Jim Henson. 

The foundation of love on which I have constructed and reconstructed my self-concept was built in part by Jim Henson. 

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