Millennials just don’t get it! How the Muppets created Generation X

The Muppets shaped "30 Rock," Jimmy Fallon, "The Office," Zadie Smith -- and gave Gen X license to change the world

Topics: Editor's Picks, muppets, Jim Henson, Muppet Show, Muppet Movie, Generation X, Baby Boomers, millennials, Tina Fey, Ricky Gervais, Kermit the frog, monty python, Jonathan Lethem, Zadie Smith,

Millennials just don't get it! How the Muppets created Generation X

Disney’s “Muppets Most Wanted” was released late last month, and despite reviews presaging disappointment, America took to their theaters to see how the latest installment of karate chops and sight gags would fare. Whether you’re a purist who can’t stand “wrong Muppet voices” or an overjoyed muppet-man, either way you care about Kermit. While most journalists are covering the Muppets from the angle of “did they live up to Jim Henson’s standard?” this isn’t that kind of article. What I want to know is – why do we care so goddamn much. We’re grown-ups. Why is this still so important to us?

In the lead-up to the Bobin-Stoller-helmed Muppet film, we’ve been seeing a good deal of googley-eyes, fleece and flocked foam. (Contrary to popular opinion, Muppets are not made of felt.) In February, the Electric Mayhem – the Muppet Show’s raucous house band – spiced up the categorically “sensible” Toyota brand playing “No Room for Boring” in a well-received Super Bowl ad. Soon after, they played a soulful rendition of “The Weight” with Jimmy Fallon to mark the end of “Late Night,” a resonant moment, for what was effectively an NBC studio swap. Lipton and Subway ads followed, incurring Twitter backlash. Last fall, Lady Gaga and the Muppets performed a well-intentioned Thanksgiving special on ABC that no one liked. The reason for this upswing in Muppets is obvious: Disney has launched a concerted publicity campaign for its new film property. But that’s not the half of it.

Lately, spontaneous references to Jim Henson and his creations have also cropped up. On “The Mindy Project”: “I will Jim Henson you into apologizing.” On “Community”: “Welcome to the Labyrinth, kid, only there ain’t no puppets or bisexual rock stars.” Comedian Mike Birbiglia has been riffing on “The Muppet Show” in his live act: telling the story of the time Statler and Waldorf heckled him on-stage. Unless this is the next phase of insidious product placement, it seems that the Muppets don’t exactly need Disney’s push. Thirty- and 40-somethings, once reminded, seem to be generating their own buzz, and this buzz was brought to us by the letter N. N, of course, is the first letter in the word “nostalgia.”



We – adults – love the Muppets. Boomers remember “The Muppet Show” as one of the rare shows they could watch with their children that didn’t make them sick. Some millennials remember “Muppet Babies” while most are coming to the franchise with fresh curiosity. But the generation that is most attached to the Muppets is surely Generation X; for adults of a certain age, the Muppets make us nostalgic for our youth in the ’70s and ’80s. Though it was a time of economic trouble, nuclear threat and increasing divorce rates, it was also a time of arcades, station wagons and playing in the streets without parental supervision.

It would be wrong to say, “Everyone in Generation X loves the Muppets,” yet it’s so right-esque that when people do not like Muppets, they feel compelled to justify it in Op-Ed pieces. But if you search “don’t like the Muppets” on Twitter, you’ll find tweets making it very clear that someone who doesn’t get the Muppets just can’t be trusted.

The Muppets are a touchstone for a generation of middle-aged Americans, and I agree I’m probably more nostalgic than a grown adult should be. (I published a book about Henson this month, after researching his business for the last three years.) But it’s not just me. It’s crazy what a lasting legacy one puppeteer – Jim Henson – has had. And how many people feel genuinely emotional about his characters, nearly 25 years after his death.

So what’s the reason for our collective nostalgia? Is it simply his ubiquity in our childhoods? Is it simply the case that whatever you put in front of a child will become meaningful to him or her? Television has become a kind of de facto baby sitter, a virtual mentor and best friend to the developing child. A college freshman might feel just as emotional about Barney, Power Rangers and the Teletubbies. While I don’t have a high opinion of the lobotomized purple dinosaur, he was certainly a “touchstone” to 20-year-olds.

We all have our nostalgia. But, at least for me, my love of Henson’s work goes beyond that. I don’t think we love the Muppets simply because they came from our childhood. We love the Muppets because they gave us a worldview – a profoundly idealistic, yet profoundly realistic worldview – that many of us carry into our adulthoods. It is only rarely that we take the time to consider where we picked up such ideas.

Not all Generation Xers are intent on “making the world a better place,” but a good deal are. And even with the Howard Roarks of Xers, the Donald Trumps of our cohort, there is one abiding similarity: Big Bird. For those born from the mid-’60s to the mid-’80s, the first show you probably watched was “Sesame Street.” I would guess you don’t remember watching it as a 2-year-old, but at that age, you were constantly learning about the world, and like a sponge, you took it all in.

Debuting in 1969, ”Sesame Street” was an experiment, to find out if public television could level class discrepancies and change the world. Airing free-of-charge in every home in the country and making learning fun, it undoubtably did. More than a simple lesson on the alphabet, for those of us raised by Big Bird, you couldn’t help feeling a sense of idealism about the future. It’s a message that’s hard to put into words, but you feel it if you watch Jimmy Fallon and the Roots sing “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street” – as over a million viewers have. Just the opening bars of that song are enough to make me feel like a kid again.

Across the world, “Sesame Street” was broadcast as local co-productions, so Americans who grew up with Big Bird might share a strikingly similar worldview to Kuwaiti children who grew up with Nu’man, the camel who is Bird’s equivalent in the Arabic show. In the United States,”Sesame Street’s” airing on public television made it quite a “moment” for a generation of children. But it was not the only way a child could have been exposed to Jim Henson’s worldview.

From the ’60s on, Jim Henson’s work would reach nearly every child, whether it was “The Muppet Show,” “Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas,” “Fraggle Rock,” “The Storyteller,” the Muppet movies, “John Denver and the Muppets,” “Labyrinth,” “The Dark Crystal,” “The Jim Henson Hour,” or “Muppet Babies.” Unlike Sesame Street, Henson’s later work did not have a “curriculum” created by Harvard psychologists at the Children’s Television Workshop. All the same, each show and movie had purpose.

Henson told his staff that with “Fraggle Rock,” he wanted to make a show that would help “stop war in the world” by teaching conflict resolution. “Muppet Babies” was made to encourage imagination. According to the show’s head writer, “[Henson] wanted children to believe anything is possible. That’s the only thing that’s going to save this planet — the power of imagination.” Though “The Muppet Show” did not have any overt “teaching objectives,” it had the implicit message that all kinds of weirdos and goofballs can work together in peace, give or take a few explosions. Underneath the screwball humor, “The Muppet Show” had a message of brotherhood.

What are the values contained in Henson’s works? This is subjective territory, but here’s what the Muppets taught me to value:

Education: ”Sesame Street” was overtly educational. Henson signed on to “Sesame Street” at below his usual compensation request, and spent hours in his basement making stop motion films for the fledgling nonprofit, because he believed in their mission.

Inclusion: Henson wanted to reach viewers of all ages all around the world, without restrictions. He actively sought out women and black puppeteers. This was reflected in the diverse cast of the Muppet Show: Pigs, bears, chickens and whatevers. While comedy often ensued from different types of Muppets meeting, warmth and camaraderie did too.

Global citizenship: ”Fraggle Rock” explicitly dramatized cultural differences and cross-cultural understanding, Henson also participated in “Free to Be … A Family,” a co-production with the USSR and produced “Big Bird Goes to China.” He made commercials for the “Better World Society” where Kermit asked: “What if everyone in the world lived in one house? We do.”

Collaboration: Remember this song from “Sesame Street”? “Cooperation/makes it happen/cooperation/working together.” Most Muppets are performed by two people at once – a main puppeteer and a “right hander” performing — dancing  — in sync. Collaboration was involved in every step of the Muppets’ creation.

Environmentalism: Henson took pleasure in the revitalizing effects of nature – the reflection of the moon on the water, or looking at a tall tree. In the 1980s, Kermit made PSAs for the National Wildlife Foundation, and Henson talked with Jerry Garcia about using Animal as a spokesperson for the Dead’s campaign to help the rain forests. Henson also made a special,”Song of the Cloud Forest,” where the protagonist was an endangered tropical frog.

Creativity: Every frame of every Muppet performance includes art and creativity: set design, puppet building, performance, cinematography. Known for going over budget, Henson’s shows are like showing children the Mona Lisa at age 2: They teach you what art is. Henson himself loved to sing, and the musicians in Muppet performances were top-notch: Paul Williams, Joe Raposo, Jeff Moss and many more. Henson’s manager called him “artsy-craftsy” and Henson called himself an “artist.”

Technological Innovation: Henson loved to solve problems creatively. One rig for Kermit sitting on a stool was filmed with Henson crouching behind a mirror placed between the stool’s legs. He was the first puppeteer to watch monitors of his own performance. He pioneered the use of radio-controlled puppeteering. He made puppets ride bicycles. He surrounded himself with people who could think creatively and try new things, because as Frank Oz said, “He loved breaking boundaries.”

These values were Jim Henson’s values. And because they show up – both subtly and overtly – in his works, they were taught to 50 million Americans growing up in the ’70s and ’80s. Thirty years later, these are my core values. And they seem to be what drives many – if not deep down, all — of my generation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.

2.

The so-called Generation X term has always seemed like a placeholder. Before that, Strauss and Howe called it “the 13th Generation” of Americans, and X really isn’t much better. “They’re named for not being something,” wrote Todd Essig in Forbes. Strauss and Howe, boomers themselves, defined the 13th Gen in opposition to themselves. They cited Beck’s song “I’m a Loser Baby” as indicative of the cohort. Whereas boomers had the optimistic glee of Dennis the Menace, Gen X was shown after-school specials about all the evils in the world, and they seemed to have “absorbed the negative message.” They were distrustful of authority and didn’t like labels. Columnists called them a “nowhere generation” and a “tired generation.” They could just as easily have called them Generation Question Mark.

Theorists disagree on the exact dates, but they tend to define Generation X as those born from 1961 to 1981, sometimes up to 1984. At its widest, this cohort includes Barack Obama (52) and Mark Zuckerberg (29). Sandwiched on either side by baby boomers and millennials, Gen X is about 60 percent as big as either one – about 46 million people are Xers, according to Time. Once characterized as bafflingly disaffected and cynical, now that they are a generation of parents, those labels no longer seem to fit.

There hasn’t been much in the news about Generation X since the ’90s, because in sheer numbers, they are dwarfed by boomers and their millennial children. Quietly, X has matured to middle age without much fanfare. But, in 2011, University of Michigan professor Jon D. Miller published the “Generation X Report,” based on the original 1987 LSAY study of 5,900 schoolchildren from all 50 states. Miller’s group interviewed these former schoolchildren and released a picture of Generation X that is completely the opposite of the stereotype.

According to the report, the Generation X cohort is “active, balanced, happy.” Highly educated and family-oriented, they have a high rate of volunteerism. Others have noted the large number of entrepreneurs in this generation. In middle age, Generation X are pragmatic realists, still distrustful of authority, but finding they are the authority.

Strauss and Howe actually predicted this. According to their book, “The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy,” four generational archetypes are constantly cycling through American history. Generation X, they explain, is the “nomad” archetype:

A Nomad generation grows up as underprotected children during an Awakening, comes of age as the alienated young adults of a post-Awakening world, mellows into pragmatic midlife leaders during a Crisis, and ages into tough post-Crisis elders. (“The Fourth Turning”).

According to Strauss and Howe, the “awakening” of our age was the chaotic consciousness shift in the 1960s, and our “crisis” began in 2008 with the subprime mortgage crisis. Have Generation X become “pragmatic midlife leaders” of our economic crisis? Author Jeff Gordiner writes in his book, “X Saves the World,” that “GenXers are doing the quiet work of keeping America from sucking.” While I can’t say that armies of artisanal food trucks and Etsy shops will save America, entrepreneurial Xers may be leading the vanguard of a new kind of successful economy.

If the things we can say about Generation X now are that they are highly educated, diverse and independent-minded, perhaps “X” is the wrong label for these people. Strangely, in their discussion of Generation X in “The Fourth Turning,” Strauss and Howe never once mention “Sesame Street.” But they probably should.

While there were many influences in the ’70s and ’80s telling children to follow their bliss, be themselves and make the world a better place, none of these linger in my mind as much as Jim Henson’s alter ego – a nondescript green frog with a permanent smirk. After studying Henson’s career in depth, I know that he really believed in the values he taught us. He lived them.

Maybe that’s why we are living these values in our own lives.

3.

I ran an Internet search for “Generation Henson,” and a few things came up. In 2011, when “The Muppets” debuted, author Scott Walker Perkins mused in his blog: “I come from that generation sometimes referred to alternatively as ‘The MTV Generation’ or ‘Generation X’ and a few other less salubrious titles. But really, we’re the Jim Henson Generation.” Perkins goes on to say he feels he is “living in a world that Jim Henson created,” which seems like a bit of a reach, until you consider how many of today’s creative professionals were inspired (often without their knowing) by Henson.

In 2006, an Urban Dictionary user named Brandywine defined the slang term “Sesame Street generation”:

Generation X. People born between 1962 and 1975, for whom the original “Sesame Street” children’s television program was invented. If during your childhood, the original version of “Sesame Street” was in its original run (i.e., not re-runs), and if you were of the correct age for it to be relevant to you, and to learn from it, you are a member…

“I hate the term ‘Generation X.’ I prefer to be called ‘The Sesame Street generation.’ It’s less trendy.”

With a flippancy characteristic of Urban Dictionary, Brandywine’s definition is tautological, but telling. According to “Brandywine,” the “Sesame Street” generation now only “trusts” news when it is delivered by Jon Stewart (b. 1962) or Stephen Colbert (b. 1964), who by Brandywine’s definition fall into Generation X.

Strauss and Howe wrote “divorce struck the [Gen Xers] harder than any child generation in U.S. history.” With parents on heroic journeys of self-discovery encouraged by the “Awakening” of the 1960s, Xers were often latchkey kids raised by television. It is not surprising we distrust authority. And even for those of us with married, attentive parents, Jim Henson was practically a third parent to many of us – at least he was to me.

I keep trying to put it into words – what did Henson – what did Kermit –  teach me? It’s rarely articulated well, but is very clearly felt by those in Generation X. You see it on “The Daily Show” when Jon Stewart opens up to the audience: “I still remember – boy if you want to have a good cry-fest – go on YouTube and find ‘Henson Funeral.’” Generation X is emotionally tied to Henson by profound invisible strings. I think that far more than we know, we are “living in a world created by Jim Henson,” as Perkins wrote. What kind of world is that?

Last September, on Henson’s 77th birthday, Facebook users who were fans of “Jim Henson” were asked how he inspired them. The word “hero” came up often. Many responders were artists of some kind, and Henson, they said, taught them to follow their passion, value “goofballism,” and to try to make the world a better place. When you search for Jim Henson on Twitter, you often find spontaneous retweets of Henson’s quotes:

“The most sophisticated people I know – inside they are all children.”

“Children don’t remember what you teach them. They remember who you are.”

“My hope is still to leave the world better than when I got here.”

Even if we didn’t hear these quotes as children, we heard them as the message of “Sesame Street,” “The Muppet Show” and “Fraggle Rock.” And today we see evidence of Henson’s influence all around us – in the grown-up children he inspired.

4.

While it’s not always obvious, many comedians working today have credited Henson as an influence. Jason Segel (b. 1980), who almost single-handedly returned the Muppets to the silver screen said it best:

The Muppets are sort of like the gateway to comedy when you’re a young comedian. It leads to Monty Python and to Saturday Night Live and all that, but it started for me with The Muppets. (in The Examiner)

One of the members of the State, Kevin Allison (b.1970) said something almost identical:

The State used to have a philosophy of “Just learn by doing.” We never took any courses… We just did it from instinct and from growing up watching Python and SNL and the Muppets… I mean, I say the Muppets, but I have to include Sesame Street and The Electric Company too. People underestimate the extent to which those shows you saw as a kid actually are probably the most foundational of all. (in Geeksystem)

Ricky Gervais (b. 1961), who created the “The Office,” has credited “The Muppet Show” for some of his work on “Extras”:

I have been a huge [Muppets] fan literally for 35 years … An early hero of mine, John Cleese, was on there and he acted himself and I thought that’s great … I think it must have influenced me doing stuff like Extras, where these huge icons came on and they were the butt of the joke with the locals… And I think that was the first time I’d really seen that done properly. (in Digital Spy)

Tina Fey (b. 1970), who created “30 Rock,” credited the Muppets with a good deal of her show’s format and style, even if she hadn’t consciously emulated it:

Which shows have influenced your show?

The Muppet Show. But we didn’t realize it ’til somebody else pointed it out.” (in Variety)

Bret McKenzie (b. 1976), creator of “Flight of the Conchords,” explained that he didn’t sit down to copy “The Muppet Show,” but it showed up in his work nonetheless:

How much have the Muppets influenced your career?

“Like everyone my age, I grew up with the Muppets… These characters are deep in our subconscious… I think Conchords was influenced by the Muppets, because it was one of the few TV shows that used music and comedy, and did it really well. So it’s not like Jermaine and I sat down watching the Muppets, but there are definitely some similarities. I’ve been describing Conchords as Muppets meets Curb Your Enthusiasm.” (From Empire Online)

If the creators of influential shows like “The Office” and “30 Rock” were influenced by Henson, how much of the world we live in could be “A Jim Henson production”? When Joseph Gordon Levitt created his new variety show, “HITRECORD ON TV,” he described the format using “The Muppet Show.” Lady Gaga said in her Muppets Thanksgiving special that she wanted to re-create the magic of what she watched in her youth. Indeed, she seemed to be channeling Sir Elton John in 1977, when he performed on “The Muppet Show,” complete with a rhinestone-studded swim cap and a rainbow-colored peacock-plume. Our current terrain of entertainment “grew up” with the Muppets. In many ways, they were the Velvet Underground of comedy – highly influential but underappreciated.

Henson’s influence is everywhere, but it is often “subconscious,” as McKenzie has said. Gervais said it “must have” influenced “Extras.” Kevin Allison said its effects are “underestimated,” and Tina Fey said she “didn’t realize it ’til somebody else pointed it out.” Henson wanted to change the world by changing the way the next generation thought (that was the explicitly stated goal with “Fraggle Rock” and “Muppet Babies”). Perhaps the extent to which he succeeded has not yet been tolled.

It makes sense that few adults would want to explicity credit a puppeteer “for the kiddies” – as Ed Sullivan repeatedly called Henson – as an influence. Yet, like Gabriel García Márquez’s grandmother, Disney’s aunt Margaret who gave him his pencils and tablets, and Henson’s own fiercely creative grandmother “Dear,” the strongest influence can often come from the humblest of places.

In 2012, Alexander Chee wrote a Salon article titled, “Is ’30 Rock’ Just ‘The Muppet Show’ With Humans?” In it, Chee surmises such an obvious influence is not likely intentional:

Now I’m going to go out on a limb here: Like most of us, Fey watched “The Muppet Show” and “SNL,” and the Muppets on “SNL” might have gotten on her radar, perhaps in reruns. “The Muppet Show” was not ripped off by Fey, it was her bedtime story, an influence that goes back to childhood for her as it does for so many of us, with the difference being that she is their heir.

Chee told me Henson’s influence on him was strong, too. What exactly did the Muppets teach us? “I have the sense,” Chee said, “that it’s about a sensibility — a way of finding humor in things, in loving the ridiculous you find in the ordinary. And it’s also about a love of fairness and justice — karma is a big part of that show’s humor.” Frank Oz called the humor of the Muppets “affectionate anarchy” and Larry Mirkin called it “lunatic humanism.” A collaboration between Henson, his head writer Jerry Juhl and many talented collaborators, this humor seems to have a worldview all its own encrypted in its DNA.

I asked Chee whether he thought he became an artist — a writer — because of Henson. He said he didn’t know but noted that “The Muppet Show” was “one of the few shows that had working artists on it … It was one of the few shows to take as a topic the artist’s struggle, even if for laughs. When you’re a kid, that kind of modeling matters. But also, Kermit is a great role model for self-acceptance.” For an artist, self-acceptance is especially important. “Kermit,” Chee said, “made me feel less alone, and I would bet a lot of people feel this way.” Maybe Kermit didn’t teach us all to become artists, but he taught us to become what we already were, to develop whatever gift we were given.

Because we trust Kermit, we believed his message of self-acceptance and self-expression. Kermit sang: “I’m green/And I think it’s what I want to be.” On “Sesame Street,” we heard: “Sing a song/Sing it loud/Sing it strong/Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear/Sing, sing a song.” On “Fraggle Rock,” “Music grows in the rose … everything seems to sing/everywhere I go.” The minstrels of “Fraggle Rock” teach: “All Fraggles have a song.” You just have to find yours inside of you. Jim Henson used to say his own version of this: “Take what you got and fly with it.”

5.

A few months ago I visited the Staten Island MakerSpace, where an inspiring movement has formed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction. There I met DB Lampman, a gifted sculptor, whose work includes giant spiral-fiber caves and a body suit of a hundred tentacles. After my lecture, Lampman told me that “growing up, ‘The Muppet Show’ was an event” in her house. Henson, she said, was likely a subconscious influence on her work:

My pieces are literally and figuratively puppets that I manipulate. Also, the Muppets had a way of being silly and serious at the same time. I always aspire to make things that are serious, or have a dark edge to them but try to retain some element of fun or wackiness at the same time.

Justin Harris, the videographer for the night who also writes a Web series, noted more unexpected lessons from Henson’s work:

I didn’t know about jazz until I saw [Hoots] the owl playing it [on "Sesame Street"], which got me to seek out a new style of music. I would mimic the Count’s voice because it was so weird, introducing me to the idea of being able to do other dialects later. And some of the first examples of adaptation and parody that I got were from “The Muppet Show.”

Last summer, a Zen Pencils cartoon went viral. It was about Bill Watterson’s advice to avoid commercialization. I contacted the Australian cartoonist, Gavin Aung Than (b. 1982), and offered Jim Henson’s attitude to money as a side note (which you can read about in Longreads). Aung Than told me he “loved the Muppets and ‘Sesame Street’ as a kid,” and he said he was illustrating a Henson quote for his upcoming book.

In academia, there have been two anthologies collected of scholarship on Henson’s work. “Kermit Culture” and “The Wider Worlds of Jim Henson” contain essays on the ways the Muppets relate to Freudian desire, performativity, identity, feminism, consumerism and Shakespeare. They use words like authorship, paradigm and capitalism. It’s not surprising that many children of “Sesame Street” went on to become academics and chose Henson as an object of study.

In the literary world, Generation X authors display their ties to Henson’s work. Zadie Smith (b. 1975) quoted “Lydia the Tattoo Lady” in her breakthrough hit “White Teeth.” In the novel, where the “tellie” is almost always on, Smith’s revolutionary characters sing a song popularized on “The Muppet Show.” Jonathan Lethem’s (b. 1964) 2009 “Chronic City” contains an alternative reality version of the Muppets: the Gnuppets, who are mentioned more than 16 times, among other cultural topics. The book’s protagonist, a pot-smoking eccentric, riffs on:

Corruption of the arts by commerce generally … Chet Baker, Nothingism, the ruination Giuliani’s administration had brought to the sacred squalor of Times Square, the genius of ‘The Gnuppet Show’…

But not all of Generation X went on to become artists, writers and performers, and I would argue that many in business were equally influenced by Henson’s values.

6.

Last year, Wharton Management professor Adam Grant wrote a groundbreaking book called “Give and Take,” advocating the virtues of the “giver” personality in business leaders. Since Henson was known as the kindest and hardest-working man in his company, I naturally liked the idea. When I emailed him, Smith told me: “I’m thrilled that you’re writing a book about Jim Henson. I actually considered writing about him in my book.”

Marketing blogger Brace Rennels wrote a piece in 2012, urging that studying “Jim Henson and his thinking process” could help marketers to better utilize “visual thinking.” Henson’s name, he said, should be mentioned in the same conversation along with Steve Jobs’ influence on culture.

Brand Consultant Tara Street said the same thing on the JenX’68 blog in 2011. She said she realized when Jobs died that she had never “felt so broken up a bout a person [she] didn’t know passing away,” except for one – Henson:

I realize now, just like Jobs, he brought his own unique ideas to the living rooms of my entire generation, and similarly inspired a whole subset of yet-to-be creative professionals. Actually, Apple recognized this person, too, as a one of the kindred “crazy ones” in my favorite of their commercials.”

It was Jim Henson…

Apple’s 1997 ad campaign, “Think Different,” placed Henson in the same reel as Einstein and Gandhi. Even Apple’s current CEO, Tim Cook, echoes Henson’s environmentalism in his bold justification for investing in environmental initiatives, even if they hurt the company’s bottom line:

We do a lot of things for reasons besides profit motive. We want to leave the world better than we found it …  If you want me to do things only for ROI reasons, you should get out of this stock. (Salon)

At last year’s South by Southwest, there was a presentation on “UX Principles From Jim Henson,” given by a team leader at GE Capitol. The people at Google, who most conspicuously embody the tech industry’s new values of collaboration and creativity, were certainly influenced by Henson. For his 75th birthday back in 2011, they announced, “We are honoring Jim’s birthday on our homepage with a special doodle.” The interactive gadget was fitting, because as Brian Henson wrote, “He loved gadgets and technology.” Henson’s influence on the changing terrain of business is perhaps subtle, and perhaps I only see it because I’m looking for it, but then again, it might be something we’ve overlooked.

7.

The Muppets taught us to think for ourselves, innovate, follow our dreams and make the world a better place. Now that Generation Henson are the dominant generation of parents, they’re returning to the Muppets as something to be shared with their own children. Austin Kleon (b. 1984), artist and author of “Newspaper Blackout” and “Steal Like an Artist,” told me:

I grew up watching “Sesame Street,” and I’m sure that stuff worked some magic on my psyche. Honestly, he might have a bigger influence on me now: I have a 10-month-old, and whenever we really hit a breaking point with him, I have a “megamix” of “Sesame Street” and Muppets musical numbers that mesmerizes him long enough that we can cook dinner or send an email or something. It’s incredible to me how the old stuff still holds up.

Blogger Mary Conner wrote in “Sharing Memories of Jim Henson With a New Generation,” that Henson was an important part of her upbringing, so when she found “Fraggle Rock” on Hulu she was excited to “relive and share” these memories:

I queued up an episode on my laptop and as we curled up on the couch together, I realized we were building new memories around Jim Henson and his Muppets. I smiled and gave my Little Man a big hug. Thank you, Mr. Henson.

It’s worth noting that these parents are more often showing their children the original shows and films they remember, not the latest season of “Sesame Street.” Viginia Heffernan (b. 1969) wrote in the New York Times in 2008 that the original season of the show was very different from today’s:

The masonry on the dingy brownstone at 123 Sesame Street, where the closeted Ernie and Bert shared a dismal basement apartment, was deteriorating. Cookie Monster was on a fast track to diabetes. Oscar’s depression was untreated. Prozacky Elmo didn’t exist.

With sarcasm characteristic of Generation X, Heffernan points out that in the current climate of politically correct, squeaky-clean television, even “Sesame Street” has changed.

Times have changed. Alexander Chee noted that very few shows today teach apology and reconciliation. “Most are now about mocking people … there’s a meanness and stupidity in so many of these shows. Dora, for example, shouts at one level.” Because he is an uncle to four kids under 12, I asked him if he’s tempted to show his nieces and nephews the old shows from his childhood. “Oh, my sister and I just do it. They love ‘The Muppet Show’ and ‘Sesame Street.’”

If Disney really knows what’s good for its bottom line, it’ll reissue every single one of the old Jim Henson shows and movies in the catalog, because more than the CGI-scrubbed reboots, what Generation Henson parents really want to see is the old stuff, the good stuff, the stuff Henson made.

What do we want our children to get from Henson’s work? The same thing we learned from it. The philosophy of a gentle dreamer. The message that was encapsulated in “The Rainbow Connection” – the one about the “The lovers, the dreamers, and me.” It’s the idea that life is about making a difference, a positive change. And we’ve all heard it, even the Howard Roarks among us, calling our names.

Elizabeth Hyde Stevens teaches "Muppets, Mickey, and Money" at Boston University. Her book "Make Art Make Money: Lessons From Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Careeer" was selected by @BrainPickings as one of the best books of 2013. The book's one driving question: How did Jim Henson actually make a living by making art?

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