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Jim Henson Interview

The Muppet's Jim Henson talks about the life of a puppeteer, his inspiration, and his work.

By Geeks StaffPublished 7 years ago 17 min read
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Jim Henson's lovable gang of Muppets (a combination of the words “marionette” and “puppet”) has made him the most celebrated and successful merchant of fantasy since Disney. In it's prime on television, The Muppet Show was the highest rated syndicated show in the US, and attracted 235 million viewers in 102 countries. The series ran from 1976 to 1981, totaling at 120 episodes. Success didn't stop with TV, either. There wasn't a piece of merchandise on the market that didn't have its Muppet equivalent: dolls, books, clothes, household appliances, calendars, records, linen, art objects, even jewelry. As if all this weren't enough, Henson and his team launched into feature filmmaking with The Muppet Movie in 1979 and nine spinoffs.

Following his success with The Muppet Show, Henson joined Sesame Street where he helped to develop characters and created the puppets used to portray them. Henson also performed the characters of Kermit, Ernie, and game-show host Guy Smiley on the popular children’s television show. Fred Robbins of HiLIFE magazine interviewed Henson about his work, his inspiration, and the life of a puppeteer in the 1980s at the Carlton Towers Hotel in London.

Photo via Flavor Wire

HiLIFE: I'm curious to know how you arrived at the concept of the muppets. The combination of marionettes and puppets. That's what the word means, doesn't it?

Jim Henson: Yeah, I called it that originally, when I first started. And that was about 22, 23 years ago. I think our whole style grew over a long period of time and the fact that I started on local television in Washington and had many years doing local shows. And during that time, the kind of characters that we do now all kind of came about. It was an evolution process.

Do you remember when you first got interested in doing puppets?

I got interested when I started on television. I never was interested when I was a kid. I don't think I ever remember going to see a puppet show. But about the time I was finishing high school, I wanted to work in television. Television was new then. I think they were just starting color television at that point. And I just loved it. I was very much in love with that whole form. And I wanted to work there. And I heard of a station that was looking for puppeteers so I made some puppets and I went down and auditioned. And got a job. And it was kind of that easy. Because then I was on the air regularly for the next eight years, in Washington. And during that time our style sort of came about.

What brought about the current style? Did you watch other great puppets? Were you influenced by the Baird puppets, for example?

Oh yeah. I think I learned a lot from Burr Tilstrom and Bill Baird. Sherry Lewis started about the same time I did, I think. We were kind of about that same time together. But certainly between Burr and Bill, they were major influences.

In what sense did they influence you? Can you attribute any of the characters you've developed or that evolved to those early influences?

No, not specifically characters so much as a way of using television. Bill Baird was starting to use lip sync in the same way I did wherein the puppet moves its mouth every time it says something. And we kind of took that and expanded on that. And he was beginning to use, I think he used some rubber heads in those days. So he was beginning to play with new materials and so forth. And we started working in fabric and foam rubber and we use a lot of that now. Which is one of the things that gives the characters a lot of their life and motion within the face and so forth.

How long did it take to develop the cast of characters on the current muppet show? They were all parts of other shows originally?

Oh, not all of them. I would say maybe half of them were old characters. Then as I look at a picture there—Fozzie was created for the shows, Miss Piggy was around but had never been a real personality before. Scooter we built for the show. Gonzo we found. He was back in a back box. We had made him for some little dinky thing many years ago and he ended up a great personality, too.

Photo via TV Week

How about Kermit?

Well, Kermit is the oldest one I'm still using. He's been around for 22 years now.

Where did you use him before?

Well, I used him...he was first created for the show I did in Washington, D.C. and then all through my whole career, he's been my main character. He's been on Sesame Street and before that we did several specials with him and so forth.

What was the raisone d'etre of Kermit? Why Kermit?

That's funny. Other people have asked me that. And I'm not sure I know. Because it goes back so long. As I say, it was 22 years ago. And when I first made him, he was made out of an old coat of my mother's, sort of a spring coat. And at that point his color was slightly more turquoise. But he had the same eyes, which were made out of a ping-pong ball. And they still are. He's always been the same basic kind of personality.

You don't know why you settled on a frog? Did you like frogs?

No, not particularly. I don't really know. It's one of those things. So often when a good idea comes along, you really don't know exactly where it came from or how it got there, but it's just suddenly there, and you look back and you say "Yeah, that was a good idea,” but you really don't know why.

Anyway, it came time to create the character. Did you instantly say, "It's got to be a frog." Or did you think through various animals and try some of them out perhaps?

Well, I suppose, you see, we're always doing new characters and we're creating probably a dozen new puppets every month or so. So there are always new things that we're doing for various and sundry reasons. And out of all those things, which are usually used maybe only once on the show, then we'll see something. And that one character there is kind of neat, and we'll use him again. And then if it works out really well, like Miss Piggy, she was a background character that suddenly started becoming very funny.

She could never allow herself to be kept in the background.

No. Of course, that was Frank Oz. And the puppeteer contributes a great deal to the personality of the character. And Frank was the one who made Miss Piggy a very funny character.

Did it work for you right away, when you started doing Kermit?

Well, I had in the beginning, on my initial show in Washington, there were probably four or five main characters and Kermit was one of them. Not particularly the main one, but he was one of the lead characters.

Is he much the same now as he was then?

I suppose so. He's kind of grown and changed a little bit, as have I. But he's always been a part of my personality, really.

I wonder if you could describe Kermit's personality, how you see him.

Well, he's kind of trying to hold the thing together, and trying to hold the muppet show together. He's slightly running it. He plays pretty much as a straight man, with the various nutty characters to bounce off of. It's sort of what I do here. There's a parallel there, between me and him.

And I also find it's important, for most groups of characters, in a comic strip or a television show, it's important for there to be kind of a central character that the audience does relate through. And Kermit, I think, serves that function on this show.

Photo via Daily News

You mentioned the personality of the puppeteer being responsible for the success or the emergence of the characters. How is that done? How does the puppeteer affect the character? Can't they be as good with any other character?

Well the personality of the puppet has got to have an affinity with the personality of the puppeteer. And then when it works well, then the puppeteer slowly adds more and more things to the character of the puppet. And a character will start off very sort of two-dimensional and then the longer you do the character, the more things, the more innuendos and the kind of things about it becomes a great deal funnier.

How are the characters created? Where does the inspiration come from? Where did Miss Piggy come from, for example?

Oh, well usually they start with a drawing or a sketch. I have about six or eight puppet builders that work in our shop. Very talented people. And several designers. I do some of the design myself but a lot of it's done by some of our other people. So the puppet is usually built first and then we kind of all talk about what puppeteer this is kind of right for. And then we talk about the voice. And by the time the thing is on the air, it has gone through quite a shaping by a lot of different people. So it's not one single person that makes it happen, but it's a lot of us.

Does one puppeteer play each muppet?

Yeah, right. And we very seldom change. Once a puppet is kind of given to one particular performer, he does that puppet all the time.

Does he double? Does he do more than one?

Oh, in crowd scenes. In crowd scenes we do, when we have a person surrounded by a whole great big group of puppets, then we'll each have one on each hand.

So each one of the muppets is represented by one individual puppeteer?

Right. But there are some puppeteers that also do four or five characters, too.

People are often amazed at the size of the muppets.

Well, they range in size. Kermit is one of the smaller ones. And Kermit has a little nephew, Robin, who is only maybe 4 or 5 inches tall. But then they go up to... the hand puppets, there's a difference between the hand puppets, that all end at the waist, really. And we work standing up, with the puppet up over our head. Those characters are maybe a couple of feet tall. Then we step to the characters that are full figures, like Sweetims, who's an ogre, that Richard Hunts works by being inside; and then we get even larger and we have some things that are 12 and 15 feet tall.

How tall is, Miss Piggy?

If you could see her entire body, she's maybe four feet tall.

But she's not a hand puppet, is she?

Yeah. Sure.

Which ones are hand puppets?

Most of the main personalities are. Kermit and Foozie, Piggy, Ralph, Animal, Scooter, Dr. Teeth, all those guys. Those are all hand puppets. And then the big guys are like Thog, Sweetims.

The two old guys up in the box?

Those are hand puppets, too.

Photo via The Muppet Mindset

It's hard for the audience to have any dimension.

Well, we try to keep people guessing, yes. We try to make all of the mechanics of the show as invisible as possible, because we'd like not to have people thinking about how you do that.

How is the show photographed, since the puppets are operated over one's head?

Most of our sets are built up high in the air. And when we're working with a guest star, they're usually on a platform about three feet in the air. So our sets are quite high. And the cameras are working fairly high off the ground, too.

What a technique it must be, to have to operate something reaching up.

Yes. Well, we've done it a long time so we're used to it. But we're also watching... we always have a bunch of television sets around, monitors, and we always watch what the show looks like on the monitor. So while we're performing we can see it exactly like the audience does.

So many people love Miss Piggy, I'd like to get a definition from you as to how you see Miss Piggy?

Oh, Miss Piggy is a funny character. I think everybody has known someone like that. And Frank has put all these personality things together into one image of... I guess it's his vision of womanhood of some sort. I think Miss Piggy is more from Frank Oz than almost anybody else. She's wonderful. She's lovable and at the same time she's a terror. She's a killer.

She's standing up really for all womanhood, isn't she?

Well, yes. Herself more than anybody.

All men are chauvinists in her opinion?

Oh, probably. Probably. It's interesting because I think it's a surprise to a lot of women that it is a man that does Miss Piggy. It bothered Frank a lot at the beginning because he was saying, “I shouldn't be doing this character. It should be a woman doing it.” But at the same time, it is his reflection of what this particular female character is. I hope she's not all womanhood though.

Where do the story ideas come from?

Well, we have three writers. Jerry Jewel is our head writer. Jerry has been with me for many years, too. But we all sit around and kick around ideas. Ideas come from almost anybody. But the writers basically put it all down.

This year with the guests, it seems to be more cohesive, as well. The guests are involved in more of a storyline, too.

Sometimes, yeah. And we've had some fun shows with a lot of great guests this year. And we're still in the middle of all that stuff now.

The names of your guests range from A to Z, from the world of entertainment.

Well, once we shot Nureyev, Elton John and Judy Collins in three consecutive shows. It was fascinating to me, jumping style so completely from show to show. Which I love. I think that works very well for the show.

What are some of the highlight shows, some of the personalities that stand out in your mind?

One of the funniest shows we've done was one with Dom DeLuise, which I loved. It's hard to list them without being partial. Edgar Bergen was on the show. And he's one of those people who is such a favorite of ours. We all grew up with Edgar Bergen. That was a wonderful show. Gee, I don't know. All kinds of people. I can't name them because I'd leave out somebody good if I started naming them.

Big stars love doing the show?

I think they do. We have a nice word of mouth going around. We love having the people over here and we all have a good time working together. It's such a nice group of people that are here, that do the show. My group, as well as the group here. We all work together very well. And it's a lovely, friendly feeling.

Where do the ideas for the new characters come from? Are they based on real life characters, really?

I don't believe we've ever done a character that's based on a person. We usually start with a character type, a personality type. And we'll design a character to be sort of an aggressive whatever it is, or maybe a sinister character or a sly, sneaky thing. But we usually work with a type of personality first and then we try to do a lot of sketches until we get a sketch that looks like maybe that could be that type of person.

When do you feel it's necessary to introduce new characters?

Oh, as I say, we're sort of building new characters all the time. And we try to keep... I try to keep our shop experimenting, coming up with new ways of building puppets, new ways of creating a personality. So that's a constant thing.

You, of course, do the show in England, which is quite extraordinary, being so popular in America. Why is the show done in England?

Well, originally the whole idea of the show was brought to us by Lew Grade, who runs the Independent Television over here. So he financed it and distributes it around the world.

Image via Geek Tyrant

The original idea was yours, wasn't it?

Well, the original concept of the show was mine. But he came to us with the thought of "let me do this and let's syndicate it." Which was a good idea. And that has worked very well for us.

How much of the impact of the muppets have you been able to sample on your trips back to the States?

Well, let's see. Certainly some of the products are selling fine. The ratings vary from city to city. In some cities the show is doing very well. Others... I think it's doing fine almost everywhere. It's enormous here in England and a few other countries. France it's a big hit. Iceland, someone told me its doing marvelously well. Yugoslavia. So it's very strange to have it doing that kind of thing all over the place. In the States it's beginning to find its audience rather nicely.

What do you envision as the future of the muppets as far as TV is concerned?

I think the muppet show will go on for a little while. It's hard to know how long. Sesame Street could also go for a number of years.

Characters like Little Orphan Annie will never age?

No. I don't think Kermit will ever get old.

How about Miss Piggy. Will she ever get married?

I doubt it. I doubt it. I think she's stuck in that role forever.

You have five children yourself. How does it bounce off your own children? Do they offer suggestions? Do they say “Oh, Daddy, she shouldn't do that or he shouldn't do this”?

Well, they're around a lot and they come to the studio during tapings and that sort of thing. They have good opinions and judgments on the stuff. They certainly enjoy it all, too.

Do you bounce things off them as a regular audience or are they more sophisticated now because they're daddy's doing it?

Not as regular audience, but I discuss the stuff with them. Oh yes, I do discuss things with them. And they have very good judgment on everything. My two oldest girls do some work in our shop, in building and costuming. They've built some of the characters this summer. On the Elton John show we did “Crocodile Rock" and the idea of the set for that one came from one of my daughters, who suggested it.

I wonder if you can delineate the satisfaction that you must enjoy in providing such great pleasure to adults and children alike. To work with adorable things that don't give you a hard time, can't talk back—is that part of it? It's a world of magic.

Yes it is. And it's a world of fantasy. I have a great time. I enjoy working and I enjoy doing what I do very much. I can't think of anything I would rather be doing. I wish everyone in the world could do what they want to do as much as I can.

Is there or was there or will there be an attempt to have any political overtone, meaning from any of the characters on the muppets, as Sesame Street was so instructive, so educational? Will there be any subtleties along that line?

Well, I think there are always things that are part of the show. The personalities of the people behind the show always get into the show. I don't think we'll ever turn the show into a message sort of thing. The show is intended to be pure fun and entertainment. But I think just the kind of feelings one has ends up on the screen.

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The biggest bunch of geeks gathered in one 12,000 sqft warehouse in Northern New Jersey who spend their whole day just being geeks.

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