Jim Henson: The Biography, by Brian Jay Jones

Nine stars

Embarking on my third biography penned by Brian Jay Jones, I had high hopes as I sought to learn much about Jim Henson. A man who was as complex as he was innovative, Jones depicts Henson as a man worth the attention of the curious reader. Born in Mississippi, James ‘Jim’ Henson and his family were not long dwellers of the South. Moving to the Washington, D.C. area not long after Jim’s birth in 1936, this allowed Jim’s father to work in government. While young Jim was always able to use his imagination, he had a passion for entertaining and engaging with others. When it came time to make his way to post-secondary, Henson was sure that he wanted to get into the new medium of televising, eager to use some of his artistic flair to create sets that could dazzle the home viewer. However, somewhere along the way, puppeteering caught his attention and he became enthralled with the art. The entire realm came naturally to Henson, as Jones describes throughout the early chapters of the book, and characters appeared to come together at the oddest times. At a period when much of the television was local, Henson was out to score a spot on DC networks to show off his trade. He was successful in landing a spot with a children’s television show in the last 1950s, bringing education and enjoyment to youngsters, while making a name for himself. His colourful characters caught the attention of many, so much so that some of these puppets soon won spots as guests on highly popular programs, offering a national spotlight to the young Henson and whetting his appetite for more. Henson was happy, but his ambitions could not be ignored.

As Jones discusses at some length, while Henson was happy with his work, he fought a constant uphill battle about his place in television. Having dubbed his own type of puppets as ‘Muppets’, Henson sought to ensure that they were not labelled as “children’s entertainment”, but rather something that everyone could enjoy. Muppets may be highly entertaining to those who could suspend reality to a degree, but this did not mean that they were only for children. Henson sought to hone his skills and show the world that Muppets could be highly useful in entertaining the adult mind, with humour and banter that would appeal to the older audience. Henson continued to create new and exciting Muppet characters, names that would one day become synonymous with the Jim Henson name. While networks were slow to jump onto the bandwagon, Henson never stopped expanding his ideas or connections in the world of puppetry. When the Children’s Television Workshop approached him in the late 1960s about a new and innovative children’s program, Henson was highly interested, as this might be an ideal platform to help bring some of his Muppets to life, even though it was back in the realm of children’s entertainment. What came of these discussions soon developed into the juggernaut Sesame Street, allowing Henson to always look ahead to new and exciting projects. Jones depicts not only the development of Sesame Street in this biography, but some of the early successes and struggles that Henson and his fellow members faced. Very interesting to the curious reader, particularly if this was one of their staple shows as a child.

Jim Henson was nothing if not a workaholic. His ideas were almost infinite and he was happy to pursue every lead to see if it led to a pot of gold. This would put a definite strain on Henson and his young family, but Jim could not let that deter him. Seeking a prime time platform for his Muppets, Henson began trying to come up wth a variety show of sorts that would feature a great deal of Muppet-based skits aimed at a larger family audience. He stumbled, as executives were not yet sold on the idea, eventually turning to some funding in the United Kingdom to get things off the ground. When The Muppet Show debuted in the mid-1970s, it soon had a massive following and Henson knew he had a winner. He continued to produce and write for the series, wooing big name stars to come for their respective guest appearances. This spawned new Muppets and greater interest in all things that Henson had to offer. The show’s success eventually turned into a major market, with movies, animated shows, and merchandise that would keep Henson financially stable for years to come. Jones illustrates some of the major projects that Henson tried to fit between taping his television shows, always looking past what had been done and where he could go next. His success was balanced out with tight deadlines and, at times, some highly difficult negotiations. Into the 1980s, Henson’s ideas continued, though so did the interest for outside groups to make a bid to own his legacy. Jones explores some of the decisions that Henson had to make as he grew older, wanting to ensure his Muppets were not lost in an era of network restructuring, turning to Disney to protect all that he held dear. The negotiations were tough, but Henson held firm and negotiated with Disney to ensure a safe place. In the last portion of the book, Jones explores a rapid illness that took hold of Henson, which led to a spiral in his health and dead in May 1990. As septic shock was attributed as the cause, the world mourned the loss of this man. Jones spends the last chapter exploring the outpouring of grief and joy in equal measure for a man who touched the lives of so many, myself included.

I have always found it refreshing to explore people and events that shaped my life, even if I do not know much about them. In each of the biographies I have read by Brian Jay Jones, I took much away fro the experience, particularly when I could ‘peek behind the curtain’ to see the inner workings of things. This Jim Henson biography was the first written of the three I have read, which offered me a unique perspective into the writing style Jones has. While it is hard to compare the three, as they all offer insightful explorations into their subjects, Jones definitely offered a massive exploration into the life and times of Jim Henson. There was so much detail on which the reader can feast, as well as a strong narrative that ties things together wonderfully. The story flowed so well and the pace between chapters kept the reader wanting to know a little more. Jim Henson was surely a man of many pursuits, forcing Jones to look under many a (Fraggle) rock to get the true story of this man, but it was done with such ease. I learned so much and just wish I had to time to check out each of the areas covered in this book to learn more. The balance of personal and professional life is masterful, tying things together nicely while always making Henson out to look like a reasonable man.. Jones does so well that the reader will surely be shunned at some parts and enthralled by others, but never lose their intrigue into what drove the man throughout. Anyone who has even a passing interest in all things Sesame Street, Muppet Show, or even Jim Henson will take something away from this book. It surely helped me relive my oft-forgotten childhood years and the warmth that I can now pass along to Neo, who missed out on some wonderful and truly intriguing television.

Kudos, Mr. Jones, for helping me bring my childhood back to life, as well as shedding much light on the life of Jim Henson. He will be missed and television is nowhere nearly as exciting without him. The Henson footprint lives on and you do well to help in that regard.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons