Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Tribute to Jim Henson

In order to honor the memory of Jim Henson, who will have passed away 23 years ago in a couple of days, here are some highlights chronicling the development of his career. Jim was a major part of my childhood and his work has met great appeal to people of all ages. It is truly a shame that he died so young, at only 53, at such a preventable death. If he were with us still today, who knows what the man would have done. So without further ado, here are ten video clips showcasing the diversity of the world's greatest puppeteer.

Sam and Friends (1955-1961) - Visual Thinking 

Jim Henson's early work was could be quite surreal and have unconventional humor. Initially, Henson was interested in perusing a career in television, not puppetry. He made many short live-action films, most notably Time Piece (1965), which was nominated for an Academy Award. However, Jim turned to using his muppets after his early show, Sam and Friends, attained cult status and a following in Washington D.C. Sam and Friends aired late at night, and was the first program of its kind to be aimed at a more adult audience. The show followed a sketch comedy routine centering around the bald puppet Sam and his various acquaintances, such as Harry the Hipster, Chicken Liver, and an early version of Kermit the Frog (who actually started out as a lizard). The show's spoofing of various aspects of pop culture and song homages later would turn up again in the The Muppet Show

Red Diamond Coffee Commercials (1966)

Early on in his career, Henson garnered much attention and came to wider public awareness through several commercials he produced for advertising agencies. Some of his best remembered commercials, were made for Wilkins Coffee and Red Diamond Coffee. These commercials were notable for their over the top slapstick violence, where one muppet would threaten the other to drink the coffee... or else. Jim did this intentionally to poke fun at the way in which products were sold, as he explains below.
"Till then, [advertising] agencies believed that the hard sell was the only way to get their message over on television. We took a very different approach. We tried to sell things by making people laugh."

The La Choy Dragon (1966)

Outside of his coffee commercials, Jim Henson best known ad creation was probably the La Choy Dragon. These noodle advertisements were some of the earliest instances in which Henson was joined by Frank Oz, who would prove to be invaluable to the rest of his career. The dragon himself, was notable for his dim witted, loud, brass, and egocentric personality. He would proclaim the virtues of La Choy noodles, cooked in 'dragon fire', which usually resulted in him burning down his surroundings. In one commercial, he even gets in a spat with Rowlf the Dog. Above is the first La Choy advert, notable for starring Beverly Owen (of The Munsters).  

As a Guest on The Ed Sullivan Show (1967) - Prototype Cookie Monster

Jim Henson and his creations made many appearances on different variety shows. Once, for the Ed Sullivan Show, Henson presented a sketch featuring a greenish monster devouring an 'indestructible machine.' This muppet's huge appetite reflected in the Cookie Monster's personality several years later. The sketch also took influence from Henson's earlier short, Robot (1963), which mocked the supposed superiority and efficiency of technology. With his success on variety shows, Henson would move on to create Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, but not before creating a certain little known pilot...     

Wizard of Id Test Pilot (1968)

The Wizard of Id, by Brant Parker and John Hart, is still widely circulated in American newspapers and remains a frequently read comic strip. However, many are unaware that there were plans to bring the strip to the TV format in the late '60s. Jim Henson and his co-worker Don Shalin (who created Rowlf the Dog originally for Purina commercials) thus met with Hart to create a pilot for his strip. Although the pilot was well received, the show never came into being. This was because, by the time it garnered public attention, Henson was already too engrossed with other projects. Never the less, the pilot does offer a unique glimpse at what could have been. 

The Muppet Show (1976- 1981)- Jabberwocky

The Muppet Show is indisputably Jim Henson's and Frank Oz's most famous creation. It was created after Henson became worried that he would become typecast as a childern's entertainer and his dissatisfaction working with Saturday Night Live. Thus, he pulled several characters from earlier in his career (like Kermit and Rowlf), and added several other memorable characters (such as Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and Fozzie Bear), in order to create a colorful cast running a rather disorganized theater. The theater acted as a great vehicle, allowing for numerous variety skits and guest star appearances. To say The Muppet Show was a success is an understatement. It spawned numerous films, spinoffs, and its stars still make appearances to this very day (now under ownership of Disney). 

Frank Oz on The Dark Crystal (1982)

Henson and his crew were always up to a challenge. Once they had success with various muppet films, Henson and Frank Oz decided to try something completely different, something with more realistic puppets and a fantastical setting. The Dark Crystal, although not a hit, has attained cult status and is recognized for its groundbreaking special effects. The film was successful enough to also spawn another fantasy by Henson that was designed by Brian Froud, The Labyrinth (1986), which is far more lighthearted than The Dark Crystal. In the video above, Frank Oz explains how the characters in The Dark Crystal came to life, and gives his insights on the creation of the eccentric old astrologist Aughra.  

Fraggle Rock (1983-1988)- Traveling Matt Sunbathing

 Fraggle Rock centers around a race of small human-like creatures, the Fraggles, and their relationship and parallels with human society. Henson used humor to construct an allegory about cultural misunderstanding and the interconnection between people with each other and the environment. Like his other TV series, Fraggle Rock also featured several unique segments. The prominent segment focused on the Fraggles themselves and the inhabitants of their world, another focused on the relationship between an older man and his pet muppet dog, and the last, and perhaps funniest, segment followed the misadventures of Traveling Matt (as shown in the clip above). Matt is a Fraggle who explores 'outer space' (the human world) and reports back his findings about the 'silly creatures' that live there. From an anthropological prospective, Matt's behavior can be seen as a farce of ethnocentrism and cultural misinterpretation. For instance, in one episode, Matt is horrified to see a group of girls eating food that appears to make their tongues well up and explode. (In actuality, they are just blowing gum bubbles.)   

Dog City TV Movie (1988)- The Docks

Although filmed a year earlier, Dog City did not premiere until 1989 as part of the short lived, but Emmy award winning program, The Jim Henson Hour (which showcased a variety of Henson's work, in a similar way to Walt Disney Presents). Dog City, appropriately narrated by Rowlf the Dog, was a spoof and homage to the film noir crime dramas of the 1930s-40s. It was about Ace Yu, a German Shepard raised by a Pekinese family, who inherits a restaurant after the mysterious death of his uncle. Yu then clashes with the gang leader Bugsy Them, an egoistical bulldog, and must save his girlfriend Colleen Barker. The special was successful enough to inspire a similarly themed spinoff series of the same name, which ran from 1992-1995 on Fox. 

The Storyteller (1987-1990)- Behind the Scenes

One of the last projects Henson was involved in before his death, The Storyteller returned to the realistic, fantastical style found in The Dark Crystal and The Labyrinth. The Storyteller was a TV series inspired by Lisa Henson's (Jim Henson's daughter) classes about folklore at Harvard University. The series always started with an older man, portrayed by John Hurt, retelling a legend or fairytale to his curious dog. The first nine episodes focused on European stories, whereas the last four switched over to Greek mythology. Jim Henson certainly went out with a bang. The Storyteller not only won numerous awards, but featured great acting and boasted some of the most complex animatronic puppets to ever grace the screen.