I’m the kind of person who likes comedy, fantasy, animation, puppetry, and of course, explosions. So in general, biographies don’t excite me. But I absolutely could not pass up Jim Henson: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones. I grew up on Jim Henson’s creations. Though I was only two years old when he died, my entire childhood was filled with the Muppets. From Sesame Street and Muppet Babies to The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, I was immersed in puppets. Even now that I’m an adult, I still love the Muppets. So of course, the book was worth the time.
Jim Henson: The Biography is slightly long, but don’t let the page count intimidate you. Although it started off slow, I couldn’t put it down after Henson picked up his first puppet. Jones really knows how to keep the narrative going. It’s not simply “Jim did this, Jim did that”, it’s like you’re right there with everyone as time goes on. People are referred to by their first names, and no one is left out- including Henson’s mistress. Everyone makes mistakes, after all, and no biography would be complete without covering the undesirables.
I really hand it to Jones. He went all out tracking down dates and interviewing people who worked alongside the Sesame Street and Muppet crews, even for the lowlights of Henson’s career. Such a large amount of information is presented on obscure pieces like “The Cube” (think Franz Kafka) and “Time Piece”, that you forget they aren’t as popular as the Muppets. In all, the book matches Henson’s belief that he wasn’t just a “children’s performer”, but an entertainer for all.
The best part of Jim Henson: The Biography is that Jones was granted access to Jim Henson’s personal diary, and shares some of the real gems. One of my favorites is Henson’s response to an angry letter about one of his experimental shows. Short and succinct, it reads, “What the [beep] are you talking about? Yours truly, Jim Henson”
There are plenty of fascinating tidbits about how certain Muppet scenes were performed. Remember the famous “Rainbow Connection” opening to the Muppet Movie? Henson was submerged in a diving bell for the performance. Or in the case of the Swedish Chef, Henson handled the voice and mouth while Frank Oz worked the hands, often times ad-libbing actions to see how Henson would react.
Henson also created a lot of filming techniques which later became standard, such as framing a performance for a television audience, and rigging a television monitor beside a movie camera instead of using the eyepiece. Jones also details how the Muppet technique got started, from the hand-stitched puppets of Sam and Friends to the elaborate creatures produced by The Creature Shop.
Jim Henson: The Biography is a satisfying read, whether you’re a fan of Sesame Street, or Kermit and Miss Piggy. Henson once said, “My hope still is to leave the world a bit better than when I got here.” And Jones’ biography proves that he did.