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Original Creators: Jim Henson

Each week we pay homage to a select “Original Creator”—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today’s creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Jim Henson.

Jim Henson’s greatest media breakthrough was bringing magic to television. With his now iconic puppet characters, he was able to believably mimic the range of human expression—warmth and empathy oozes from each of Henson’s creations and contagiously leaps from the screen into the viewer’s imagination. In their balance between levity and crudeness, politeness and disorder, Henson’s puppets serve as wondrous mirror into our own behaviors and the seriousness of fun and brotherhood. His signature blend of humor, heart and anarchy led us to feel their sensitivity pulsing just beneath the stitched fabric.

The breadth of media and influence of The Jim Henson Company can only be compared to the efforts of Walt Disney in terms of building visionary children’s entertainment. Jim Henson blended the magic of old Hollywood with the emerging medium of color television to communicate and share his deeply felt love for theater and vaudeville. His Muppets were a class-act tribute to the indefatigable spirit of show business tradition, and disciples of metanarratives in the pursuit of bonding with their captive audience. The puppets of Sesame Street conveyed universal values of family, innocence and optimism and heralded the importance of community, individuality and honesty. Henson’s punchy positivist humor lovingly channeled the slapstick vulnerability of Charlie Chaplin and the absurdist observationalism of Marx Brothers and their orchestrated chaos. Instead of deceiving the audience, Henson invited them into his private world.

Henson’s humble beginnings as eccentric ad man were soon outpaced by his inventive imagination and wild talent, seen here in a self-produced satirical behind-the-scenes documentary of his own award-winning Wilkin’s Coffee commercials (1962). Though outshined by his more crowd-pleasing projects, Henson authored numerous low-profile works, both ahead of their time and of startling ambition. In the sixties, he produced a series of experimental short films, and even branched out into hard fantasy with the Tolkien-like The Dark Crystal (1982), co-produced with one of the producers of Star Wars and featuring, at the time, the most advanced puppets ever created for film.

Time Piece (1966)
Jim Henson’s first credited foray into direction happens to be the Academy Award-nominated surrealist short Time Piece, a passion project Henson devoted time to in the mid-60s between ad campaigns and Muppets television appearances. This experimental film is largely comprised of live-action sequences loosely telling a visual narrative of a nameless man, played by the director, attempting to escape a mundane hospital setting through absurdist setpieces, including depictions of workplace banality and Henson as Icarus shot out of the sky. The protagonist is weighed down by the relentless pursuit of time, both through the soundtrack’s rhythmic pulsing and clocks’ permeation into the film’s environment. Many of the impressionistic flourishes of the piece—hand-patterened animation, reverse motion, pixillation and quick montage cutting—would serve as camera tests for many of the visual hallmarks of what would eventually become Sesame Street, as well as fodder for many directors who came after.

The Cube (1969)
This hour-long experimental drama for NBC allowed Henson to flex his narrative muscle, producing a dystopian black-humor parable about a man trapped inside a box which only strangers visit, expertly evoking The Twilight Zone and offering a cautionary satire about responsibility in the forthcoming television age.

Sesame Street (1969-present)
Henson brought learning books and worksheets to life with vivid animation and sensitive, full-bodied puppets fluidly interacting with people. This naturalistic approach to cognitive and affective learning helped teach generations of schoolchildren how to overcome disagreement, process loss and fight to protect friendship. Sesame Street thrives through the present day—it has won 118 Emmy awards, clocked in over 4,200 episodes and continues to be translated into countless languages and territories.

The Muppets (1975-present)
After struggling to navigate a balance away from strictly children’s programming, Henson created the commercial achievement of his career. 1975’s The Muppet Show was the culmination of all the lessons Henson internalized in his exercises in experimental cinema, bringing life to the inanimate through offbeat humor and grace, and heartily appealing to a wide audience. The Muppet Show featured the now-beloved cast of felt troublemakers, each week knee-deep in the noble pursuit of scrambling to put on a show. Henson’s ensemble featured expert sendups of vaudeville archetypes—Fozzie Bear as an underwhelming Borscht Belt yukster, Statler and Waldorf as ornery balcony loudmouths, Miss Piggy as the overdramatic diva and Kermit the Frog as the helpless ringleader of this backstage chaos.

The powerhouse success of The Muppet Show pushed Henson forward to direct four feature-length Muppets pictures, most notably the raucous trans-American road trip flick The Muppet Movie (1979), now preserved in the US Library of Congress and boasting cameos from Mel Brooks, Orson Welles, Richard Pryor and Milton Berle. The final major hurrah of the franchise was A Muppet Christmas Carol (1992), a cross-generational success which stirred both audiences and critics. The first feature-length Muppet film to be produced after Jim Henson’s sudden passing, it’s reported that Henson was involved with the conceptualizing and preproduction of the long-gestating A Muppet Christmas Carol, widely cited as the only post-Henson production that triumphantly retains his classic Muppets magic.

Fraggle Rock (1983)
Fraggle Rock was Henson’s final completed television opus, where allegorical fantasy characters coexist underground and process issues as wide-ranging as spirituality, intolerance, environmental responsibility and social conflict. As Henson himself wrote in the show’s first draft, “What the show is really about is people getting along with other people, and understanding the delicate balance of the natural world. These are topics that can be dealt with in a symbolic way, which is what puppets basically do all the time.” Perhaps inspired by the cosmopolitanism of Sesame Street, Henson deliberately pushed forth the internationalization of Fraggle Rock, with co-productions around the world dubbing translated dialogue and localizing title cards.

Jim Henson permanently affected pop culture, kickstarted educational children’s entertainment and broke ground in American experimental short-form live-action. Henson’s touch can be felt to this day, influencing the heart-filled formalism of Pixar animations and even loving parodies such as the Tony-winning Avenue Q and MTV2’s controversial Wonder Showzen. With a massive reboot of The Muppets due out in theaters this year and New York’s Museum of the Moving Image hosting the intimate Jim Henson’s Fantastic World installation and screening series this summer, this is as good a year as ever for Henson tribute and nostalgia.

If you’re in NYC, head on over to Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria to catch Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, on view through January 16, 2012.

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