One of my earliest multiplex memories is of seeing my mother go batshit over Kermit the Frog. This was opening weekend of The Muppet Movie, June 1979, and the sight of a stuffed puppet blithely pedaling a two-wheeler made Mom howl as if she’d been goosed by Christ himself. Courtesy of old-fashioned trickery, and also magic.
It’s been a long 32 years since that summer of the Muppets, and since the years immediately following in which Jim Henson, entrepreneur and artist, hustler and genius, man and felt frog, proved that the best visual effects involve physical objects in actual space. With CGI dating as quickly as it develops, and 3-D actively flattening the imagination, it’s a prime time for “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World” to roll into town. Opening this weekend at the Museum of the Moving Image (and running, marathon-style, to January 2012), the installation and screening series, which was first presented at the Smithsonian, spans half a century of puppetry, television, film, music, comedy, pop culture, and marketing savvy.
The Muppet master was also an enterprising businessman, making bank in his early career as an ad man for the likes of IBM and Wilkins Coffee. His facility with commercials—pithy message-making, instamatic caricaturing, and absurdist humor—prepared him for everything that came after, and put him on the radar of the educators who hoped to sell literacy to short-attention-span preschoolers via Sesame Street. MOMI’s exhibit places a special emphasis on process, highlighting preliminary models, sketches, and storyboards to paint a portrait of the artist as both visionary and pragmatic mogul, suggesting that this gentle Southern gent negotiated art and commerce as deftly and as unapologetically as a guy named Walt Disney.
Yet unlike Disney, Henson remained an accomplished practitioner until his sudden death in 1990, directing for film and TV and always, ever, manhandling a puppet. His work also managed to at least seem subversive—defined as it was by snarky asides, boomer eclecticism, and shaggy-dog storytelling—while appeasing a wide audience, making his career a brilliantly American conflation of family and radical values. His work championed order (Bert) and disorder (Ernie), individuality (Gonzo) and community (Fraggle Rock), fearless leadership (Kermit) and total freakiness (everyone else). At the end of The Dark Crystal (1982), Henson’s boldest and most transporting work, the self-sacrificial Mystics don’t overcome the self-serving Skeksis—instead, they conjoin into one multifaceted, frightfully brilliant organism. It’s that complexity, that acceptance of contradictory impulses and mixed emotions—slapstick and sentimentality, hugs and gong-slaps, music and noise—that truly aced Henson with children and adults alike.
That duality extends to Henson’s unapologetically atypical pairings: Kermit and Piggy’s interspecies romance; the moody camaraderie between that goy frog and Fozzie’s Borscht Belt bear; and the same-sex domestic partnership of a banana-headed pigeon lover and orange-faced rubber-duckie fetishist. You can glean politics or autobiography from the subtext—the above pairings seem to signify a different facet of Henson’s relationship with collaborator Frank Oz— but Henson’s true allegiance was to the spirit of show business, a term that neatly covers both sides of his working persona. Every episode of The Muppet Show was a backstage musical—a show about the logistics of putting on a show—as was The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan (1983). Even The Great Muppet Caper (1981), an odd sequel that was, pace the title, more of a cheeky, stand-alone whodunit, begins with Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo casting themselves as characters in the story to follow.
Meta by winks, Henson treated the fourth wall like a welcome mat, letting the audience in on the joke while playfully interrogating the geometry of the viewing space. Before his focus turned to Sesame Street and eventually The Muppet Show, Henson explored the possibilities and implications of the boob tube via animation, live action, and documentary montage. For the NBC Experiments in Television series, he produced The Cube (1969), a dystopian comic nightmare about a man who can receive visitors but can’t escape—much like viewers at home—a modular box. And in the metronomic Time Piece (1966), his Oscar-nominated live-action short (which the Museum will appropriately project on a loop through September), he used free-associative quick cuts for a deliriously mod riff on Dziga Vertov’s industrial man, with the lanky Henson himself miming Icarus.
The omnibus Muppet History 101 (screening July 30 and 31) proves most revelatory, with Henson’s felt and polyurethane puppets ricocheting from chat-show cameos to Saturday Night Live, and charming every format between eight-second adverts and 90-minute features. Most successful of all might be the scarcely seen 30-second promos Henson and Oz churned out for The Muppet Show—slap-happy, off-the-cuff, expertly shilling for ecstatic nonsense. Henson, who’d presented himself as the affable face of the franchise from the outset (despite crucial collaborations from the virtuosic Oz, wife Jane Henson, and crack writer Jerry Juhl, among others), exported the brand to everything from blockbusters (The Empire Strikes Back) to Saturday-morning cartoons (Muppet Babies), and creatively peaked with The Dark Crystal and the awkward but understandably beloved Labyrinth.
Henson seemed lost in labyrinths of a different sort toward the end of his life: His planned sale of the Muppets to Disney Co. (a deal that didn’t actually go through until 2004) and his tonally uncertain and quickly cancelled final TV show, The Jim Henson Hour, both smack of capitulation and creative confusion. And none of the films produced without him, perhaps excepting the tender, minor-keyed The Muppet Christmas Carol, have exhibited that classic Muppets magic (a Jason Segel–penned reboot is slated for November). Luckily, there’s a robust record of all that passed before, in the gallery and, most importantly, on screen, where Henson’s creations are as revelatory and endearing as ever. Henson didn’t make illusions of reality; he brought synthetic objects into being. His Muppets are always puppets—they’ll tell you that straight—but also distinct characters with emotional integrity, inanimate but alive. The frog doesn’t just ride a bike—he goes somewhere.