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Tuesday, October 25, 2022

October 25, 2022: PBS People: Jim Henson

[October 29th would have been the iconic Bob Ross’ 80th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ross and four other figures who have helped make PBS the cultural and educational force it is!]

On why it’s absolutely right, but not nearly enough, to connect the groundbreaking puppeteer to PBS.

It’s important to note off the top that both Jim Henson as a professional puppeteer and artist and the Muppets as a cast of puppet characters long predate Sesame Street. Henson and his wife and longtime creative partner Jane (Nebel) Henson created the Muppets as early as 1955, and throughout the 1960s brought them and other Henson puppets and creations into TV commercials, talk show appearances, and award-winning short films among other arenas. I think I might have said before learning more about it that Sesame Street helped launch the careers of Henson and the Muppets, but it seems more accurate to say that things worked the other way around—Henson and the Muppets alike had at least begun to establish themselves in the TV and entertainment industries by the time the PBS show debuted in 1969, and it was more of a coup for the show that they were able to land Henson as a contributor and his puppets as a key presence.

In any case, land him they did, and it’s difficult to overstate the central role that Henson’s puppets played in Sesame Street’s foundational and groundbreaking success as a children’s educational entertainment. (Or even in the entirety of PBS as a network: when Henson passed away in 1990 [at the tragically young age of 53], a PBS spokesperson called him “the spark that ignited our fledgling broadcast service.”) It’s not just that individual Henson creations, puppets, and characters like Grover, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, and Big Bird became so immediately and completely synonymous with the show, although they did and have remained so for the subsequent half-century. It’s also, and I would say especially, the way that the puppet and human characters and performers interacted and gelled so effortlessly in the show’s storytelling and settings, a creative and artistic achievement that also importantly reflected and amplified the show’s central messages of inclusion and community, of this literal and figurative street where so much difference came together into one family. Sesame Street was the product of many talented creators and artists, but I think it’s fair to say that there’s no way to tell the story of the show that doesn’t foreground Henson and his creations.

But at the same time, there’s no way to tell the story of Henson that doesn’t go way beyond Sesame Street—not only because of that decade-plus of origins and evolution prior to the show, but also and especially because of how quickly and fully he and his team began to move beyond it. As early as 1975 Henson was contributing characters and sketches to Saturday Night Live, as well as pitching his own weekly television series, The Muppet Show, which began airing in the UK in 1976; in 1979, his hugely successful first theatrical film, The Muppet Movie, hit theaters; and in 1979-80 he worked with George Lucas on the character of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980; Henson also suggested his friend Frank Oz to be the puppeteer and voice for Yoda). Those were of course just a few steps and areas into which Henson, the Muppets, and other creations of his would continue moving, including countless more Muppet movies, standalone films like The Dark Crystal (1982, co-directed with Oz) and Labyrinth (1986, directed by Henson), organizations like The Jim Henson Foundation and Henson International Television, and many other projects. While someone like yesterday’s subject Fred Rogers remained closely linked to PBS throughout his career, Jim Henson intertwined with just about every layer of American pop culture and society in his tragically brief but hugely influential life.

Next PBS person tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other PBS people or shows you’d highlight?

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