Jim Henson in 52 Minutes

Published: August 12, 2010
Categories: Feature, Reviews

hensonsplacecoverHenson’s Place is a TV documentary about Jim Henson from 1984 which is now available for the FIRST TIME ON DVD, as its cover proclaims. Speaking of the cover, check out those characters owned by Disney and Sesame Workshop hanging out with Jim and the Henson Company-owned characters. How’d they pull that off?

When you put the DVD in the player, it automatically plays two trailers for other releases by Lionsgate: The Spy Next Door, with Jackie Chan, which looks pretty stupid, and an animated movie about wolves called Alpha and Omega, which looks extraordinarily terrible. This trailer alone includes two pee jokes and two butt jokes. My first thought was, Do they really think this is going to get me the slightest bit interested in these movies? But then I realized what they’re really doing: Putting these crappy new trailers on this DVD is the perfect way to make Jim Henson seem like even more of an amazing genius of all-ages entertainment in comparison. That must have been their plan.

One of the first things we see in the documentary is Big Bird climbing up the stairs of the Henson Associates townhouse to visit Jim in his office and offer him some nachos. Man, I wish Big Bird would offer me nachos. I vaguely recall seeing this documentary on PBS many years ago, and I thought there were more of these Bird and Jim Moments interspersed throughout, but I was sadly mistaken. It’s too bad… I would happily watch an entire hour of Big Bird shooting the breeze with Jim Henson, and I can only assume that most of the Tough Pigs readership feels the same way.

"Try one, Mr. Henson! They're trans fat-free!"But Henson’s Place is good anyway, and a worthy addition to a Muppet fan’s DVD pile. It would be mostly boring for kids, depsite the presence of Cookie Monster and Kermit and Elmo (DISCLAIMER: Elmo does not appear in this program) on the cover, but for grown-ups it’s a pleasant and informative viewing experience. It’sa really concise overview of the history of the Muppets, at least during Jim’s lifetime, featuring everything you would put in a PowerPoint presentation for your school report on Jim. It touches on all the important productions: Sam & Friends, Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, the Muppet movies, Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, and Labyrinth (which was currently in production at the time). And it covers all the standard narrative points of Jim’s story, from breaking into local TV to creating some of the most popular entertainment in the world. The only “major” projects that Jim did after this documentary was made were The Storyteller and The Jim Henson Hour, but those weren’t exactly big boffo blockbusters.

So this DVD would be a great place to start for a newbie, someone with a passing familiarity with the characters and a desire to know more about how they came to be. You should probably carry the DVD around with you in case anyone ever asks you, “Hey, could give me an account of the Muppets’ rise to international fame in one hour or less?” Oh, and make sure you also carry a DVD player, so you can show it. Oh, and a TV. Also a really long extension cord.

hensonsplaceamphibianThere’s only one special feature on the disc, but it’s a good one: A half-hour trip through “The Amphibian,” the 1985-86 Henson company yearbook, with an audio introduction by Michael Frith. It’s full of photos of folks whose names you see in the credits of classic Henson productions, with lots of funny captions and a few incomprehensible inside jokes. And to my surprise and delight, the DVD extra includes every page of the book, although sometimes the text is too small to read, and you can’t control the speed so you have to pause it if you want to linger on a page. I wonder if they considered making it a remote-controllable gallery instead of a video featurette. But I have no reason to complain, because this thing is really nifty. Although while watching the smiling faces and behind-the-scenes photos roll by, I found myself getting a little depressed — and I realize this is kind of pathetic, but it’s true — I got a little depressed with the realization that I’ll never be able to travel back in time and work for Henson Associates in 1986.

Other things about Henson’s Place:

Early on, the interviewer asks Jim if he’s surprised he’s made such a huge career out of puppetry, and he says, “It’s certainly not a career one would plan. You wouldn’t plan to become a puppeteer, I don’t think.”

Maybe that was true when he was first starting out, but in recent decades there have been thousands of people who deliberately strive for a career as a puppeteer… completely because of their admiration for Jim Henson. It’s like Stan Lee saying nobody would ever plan to become a comic book writer, or Mr. Potato Head saying nobody would ever plan to become a potato.

-Hey, guess who Lord Lew Grade’s favorite Muppet was. Answer below!

hensonsplaceconvincingjohn-Words that are used to describe Jim in this special: Genius, brilliant, idealist, genius, shrewd businessman, entertainment genius, visionary, remarkable, talented, genius, genius, genius. What do you suppose it’s like to have people rave about how much of a genius you are while you’re still alive? Jim seems to have accepted it with humility, but if he weren’t such a nice guy I imagine he could have become a real jerk.

-There’s a lot of talk about Big Bird during the Sesame Street parts, but Caroll Spinney never shows up. Come to think of it, none of the performers besides Frank Oz are interviewed. I guess they had to keep the documentary short… If they had gotten everyone who worked for Jim at the time to talk about him, this DVD release would have to be a 12-disc set.

-David Lazer boasts that The Muppet Show was seen in 106 countries and had 235 million viewers a week. That immediately reminded me of this classic Tough Pigs article, in which Danny Horn investigated the ever-changing claims of Muppet Show viewership.

-In one of Frank Oz’s interview clips, he breaks down Animal’s motivations to five simple words: Sex, sleep, food, drums, and pain.

hensonsplacelewgrade-There’s a section of the film about merchandising, in which Jim rationalizes licensing. “We’re living in the real world here,” he says, and it’s true. It takes money to make awesome stuff, and merchandise brings in money. But I wonder, what’s the most unnecessary Muppet product ever made? Has there ever been a piece of merchandise that made no sense, or that was a completely blatant grab for cash?

And then there’s a look at the Muppet Stuff store that used to be in New York City. Can you even imagine that there was once such a demand for Muppet merchandise that they could devote an entire store to it?

-Toward the end of the film, Jim speculates on the future of the Muppets: “I think this is something we’re waiting to see from the audience. I think if the audience wants the characters to continue to live, then they will. And if the audience gets tired of them, they’ll probably go away.”

I’m always fascinated to hear quotes like that years after they were spoken. It’s now 26 years after Jim said that, and 20 years after his passing, and to this day the Muppets have never really gone away. We’ve had some pretty precarious moments in the last 20 years, but so far the characters have continued to live, without ever ceasing… and these days, the audience demand for them even seems to be growing. So those must be some pretty great characters. Thanks for the Muppets, Jim!


Answer from above: Lew Grade’s favorite Muppet was Miss Piggy. To find out why, buy the DVD! And click here to be called a genius on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com

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