The inside story of the Muppets

"Jim Henson: A Biography" wonderfully tells the story of the man, his creations, and his care for others

Published October 24, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

“Jim Henson: The Biography,” by Brian Jay Jones, is one of the most pleasurable audiobooks I’ve spent time with this year.

It opens with a beautiful scene, in which we learn that whenever a child arrived on the set of “Sesame Street,” director Jon Stone yelled, “Blue sky!” so the ragtag band of hippie puppeteers and television crew members knew to moderate their language.

The opening is fitting, because it offers an introduction to so many of the things Jones explores at book length—the tension between the world of the child and the world of the adult which Henson spent his adult life negotiating, the constant intervention of metaphor upon the daily, and, especially, the way Henson’s crew of puppet-makers and puppeteers and technicians come to operate so instinctively as an extension of Henson’s own personality, which blended gentle authority with an occasionally near-anarchic sense of play.

It’s also an opening that makes a promise to the listener about the good stuff he or she had in mind when looking at the cover art—not the birth and the grandparents and so forth, but rather the bearded man surrounded by Muppet heroes of his own creation, such as Kermit the Frog, Ernie, Gonzo, Miss Piggy, Rowlf the Dog.

I have always wondered why biographers seldom have imagination sufficient to choose a chronologically nonlinear structure, to begin somewhere other than birth and childhood, because with most subjects of biography the beginning of the story isn’t the reason the subject of the story is interesting. We’re hungry to get to the thing that made the subject famous—the rise to rock stardom, the first run for office, in the case of Jim Henson, the first performance, in 1955, on "Afternoon," a local variety program on Washington’s WRC-TV. There’s Jim, performing with his proto-Muppets alongside Jane Nebel, the woman who would become first his artistic partner, then his business partner, then his wife, both of them fresh out of a puppetry class at University of Maryland Home Economics department which was taught not by a puppeteer, but rather by a jeweler.

That’s Chapter Two, and the rest of the book is a rocket ship to the moon. Within nine weeks of their "Afternoon" debut, Henson and Nebel are offered their own five-minute daily show, “Sam and Friends,” in “a prime piece of TV real estate: 11:25 pm,” between the local news and the “Tonight” show with Steve Allen. “Sam and Friends” began with a cast of “abstract” puppets, but very quickly Henson fell in love with one of them, a milky-blue character sewed from his mother’s old felt coat, who would first take the name Kermit, and then, later, become a frog.

By late 1956, the Muppets were making their first appearances on national television, beginning with a “Tonight” show performance in which a purple Muppet in drag revealed himself to be a purple skull whose aim was to devour Kermit the Frog before he could finish lip syncing Rosemary Clooney’s rendition of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face.”

Lucrative advertising gigs followed. First, coffee, and then agriculture, and eventually diapers. Henson began to build a business infrastructure to support the Muppets with the help of a young talent agent from William Morris named Bernie Brillstein. Henson advised Brillstein never to sell anything he owned, a strategy that allowed him to largely control his own artistic destiny, career-long, and which enabled his family to do quite well when the Muppets finally sold to Disney, after Henson’s death from a bacterial infection in 1990.

The Muppets did live shows and television specials. Henson assembled an enviable pool of talent, most notably discovering a nineteen-year-old named Frank Oz (later to be known as the voice of Yoda in the “Star Wars” movies), who would leverage his Muppet fame into a career directing films including “Little Shop of Horrors” and “What About Bob?”

In 1968, Henson collaborated with the Children’s Television Workshop to create “Sesame Street,” and “Sesame Street” led first to a disastrous run on the first season of “Saturday Night Live” (“the mucking Fuppets,” John Belushi grumbled), and then, gloriously, to the 1976 debut of “The Muppet Show,” which established Henson, once and for all, as an iconic figure in American entertainment.

This is the part of the story where the money comes in. Henson’s company becomes massive, seemingly overnight. He creates competing puppetry workshops in New York and Los Angeles. He gets into the movie making business, agreeing to make Muppet movies in exchange for big budgets with which he can chase darker dreams, in films such as “The Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth.” There are fast cars, to be sure, and the troubles that rise from chasing women.

All along, though, Jones portrays Henson as a fundamentally decent person. When Michael Eisner broaches the subject of Disney purchasing the Muppets, Henson’s first move is to draw up “The List,” an accounting of the large sums of money each of his longtime employees will be due upon the sale of the company, in reward for their roles in helping build it.

If I haven’t yet mentioned audiobook narrator Kirby Heyborne, it is because he has done the reader the favor of being pleasantly unobtrusive. His delivery is sure, steady, smoothly inflected, and never overdone.

Audiobooks should more often be as good, as pleasurable, as well-written, as well-produced, and as well-delivered as “Jim Henson: The Biography.”

By Kyle Minor

Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.

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Audiobooks Books Brian Jay Jones Henson Biography Jim Henson Listener The Listener