The more you study Jim Henson, the more fascinating he becomes. He was not only a self-taught pop genius (the sort that I admittedly have an enormous soft spot for), spreading magic everywhere he went, he was also by all accounts a bit of a saint. A more irreverent/hippie Fred Rogers, if you will, with vision to spare, and the sort of connection to his inner child that some of us would kill for – the kind that gave him an enormous advantage in connecting with people of all ages. Of course, puppetry was only the tip of the iceberg; his gifts were technical as well as narrative, both filmic and comic, even financial. Henson’s operating philosophy was perhaps a tad optimistic for our tastes, but the basis was refreshingly gracious – and even spiritual, in the religious sense of that word. An entertainer by vocation, he clearly understood a thing or two about reaching people, not to mention creativity in general, yet he never took himself (or others) too seriously. His brand of absurdity came from a place of compassion rather than cynicism. See for yourself:
All of this stuff is about mankind trying to see himself in perspective. That’s what literature is about, that’s what art is. It’s trying to figure out what you are and what you’re doing here. This is the kind of thing that puppetry does very well. It goes way back to when men first carved little wooden dolls of themselves and drew stick figures on cave walls. It’s why kids like teddy bears and little girls like dolls. It’s all one thing. Puppetry is part of the real raw essential elements of all that stuff.
When I hear the art of puppetry discussed, I often feel frustrated in that it’s one of those pure things that somehow becomes much less interesting when it is overdiscussed or analyzed. I feel it does what it does and even is a bit weakened if you know what it is doing. At its best, it is talking to a deeper part of you, and if you know that it’s doing that, or you become aware of it, you lessen the ability to go straight in. Fairy tales certainly are in this category, as is a lot of fantasy – maybe everything is.
I don’t know exactly where ideas come from, but when I’m working well ideas just appear. I’ve heard other people say similar things – so it’s one of the ways I know there’s help and guidance out there. It’s just a matter of our figuring out how to receive the ideas or information that are waiting to be heard.
Creatively, I find I work best if I can work with someone – talking things over as ideas come up. I do this best with people I’m very comfortable with – there has to be an absolutely pressure-free situation for this to work well. Jerry Juhl and I have always been able to work this way. It’s important to be able to say virtually anything – which may be totally silly or stupid or obscene – in a no-risk situation.
The most sophisticated people I know – inside they’re all children. We never really lose a certain sense we had when we were kids.
Perhaps Henson’s great collaborator, Frank Oz, summed up the self-effacing Muppet ethos best:
“Whenever characters become self-important or sentimental in the Muppets, then there’s always another character there to blow them up immediately.”