Today is the birthday of the great puppeteer and impresario Jim Henson (1936-1990). As I’ve often said, Henson is someone who ought to be included amongst the ranks of the New Vaudevillians; he is of their generation, he shares their sensibility; and above all he was a crucial player in television variety for decades.
Henson got his start while still in high school, creating puppets for local (Maryland) television in the early to mid 1950s. As a college student he had his first show, Sam and Friends, which included the prototypes of many of his later characters. While inspired by Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and similar precursors, Henson had countless ideas of his own, and wound up revolutionizing the art of puppetry and developing lots of new techniques to adopt it to the intimate medium of television (and later, film). For millennia puppetry had been practiced exclusively in the theatre. In television, where the camera might be feet or even inches away from the subject, greater subtlety was required. Henson began making his puppets (which he branded Muppets) out of fabric and foam rubber, so the faces could be much more expressive. He used rods so that the arms could be manipulated with a much more life-like force and directness than was possible with marionette strings. Lastly, he pioneered an idea that is obvious to us, but wasn’t to most people in the early days of tv. The “proscenium” in television is the “frame”. Anything outside the frame, i.e. a puppeteer, is completely hidden. Therefore there is no need for an old-fashioned puppet stage. All the puppeteers need to do is keep out of the shot, enabling much more freedom of motion.
Henson’s career was also helped along by the fact that he had a terrific sense of humor and a whimsical visual imagination. His early years were spent making experimental films and television commercials, but he rapidly grew into a sort of legend in show business and starting in the mid 50s he was already getting booked on national television variety shows, such as The Tonight Show, and Jack Paar’s, Steve Allen’s and Ed Sullivan’s primetime programs. This was the first leg of his variety career.
The second leg came in 1969 when he was hired by Children’s Television Workshop to bring his Muppets to Sesame Street, at which point he and they became household words. As we’ve written elsewhere, children’s television was also a haven for vaudeville during its dormant years, the simplicity and the broadness of the comedy being particularly suited to kids. So much of what Henson brought to Sesame Street owes something to vaudeville. Bert and Ernie in particular is the old two man vaudeville act, very strongly reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. The melancholy side of Kermit (“It Isn’t Easy Being Green”) had the sentimentality we associate with Tin Pan Alley. And the ritual of the recurring characters (Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch), always to be found in the same places, having the same preoccupations, doing the same things reminds me of old time radio shows like Jack Benny’s and Fred Allen’s.
His third brush with variety was less successful. It’s often forgotten (because the evidence is generally expunged from compilation videos) that the Muppets were a regular feature of the first season of Saturday Night Live (1975). It wasn’t a successful marriage however – – most of the cast members and writers hated the Muppets and they ran them out of Dodge. While the characters Henson had contributed were certainly weird enough for SNL (a bunch of aliens on another planet), his own sensibility was gentler and less edgy than that of most of the others on the show. So the Muppets got handed their hats. Ironically, they probably would have fit right in a few years later during the 80s. But by then the Muppets were an empire unto themselves and had no need of it.
When Henson launched the vaudeville-inspired Muppet Show in 1976, the tv variety shows he had cut his teeth in two decades earlier were no more. His new show was to be a re-creation of the form, a post-modern tribute. Much like the contemporaneous Gong Show, it was simultaneously nostalgic and modern. It was as much ABOUT entertainment as it was entertainment itself. Indeed, the Muppet Show was less a variety show than a show about a variety show. Such acts as it presented (aside from the weekly guest host) were fictional parodies. But all the vaudeville archetypes were represented: The emcee (Kermit), the diva (Miss Piggy), the hack comic (Fozzy Bear), the eccentric nut act (Gonzo), the accompanist (Rowlf the Dog) and even the stage manager (Scooter), and hecklers (Statler and Waldorf). Did this show inspire me to do what I do nowadays (and in the very way that I do it?) Yes!
Then in 1979, came the delights of The Muppet Movie (and the diminishing returns of that franchise until the excellent recent film) and all of Henson’s work in the sci fi field, etc. A strep infection took him away from us prematurely at the age of 64. It’s pretty safe to say everyone over the age of 23 misses him a great deal!
To find out more about vaudeville past and present, including tv variety, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc