September 24th, 2016 marks what would have been Jim Henson’s 80th birthday! For this momentous occasion, we at ToughPigs are dedicating a full week to celebrating Jim’s life by focusing on a few of the people he was closest to. Our “Jim and…” series will give a closer look at Jim’s working relationships with some of the most prominent Muppet performers, including Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, and more. Happy birthday, Jim!
September 26th also marks Jerry Juhl Day! After reading this article, be sure to do something silly in memory of Jerry.
The relationship between Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl is a really interesting one. It’s also one that can end up being overlooked when it comes to the creative relationships that Jim formed in his lifetime, mainly because Juhl did his work mostly behind the camera instead of in front of it.
Jim Henson first saw Jerry Juhl performing with Frank Oz and the Vagabond Puppet Theater at a puppeteer convention in Monterey California. He liked his work and hired Jerry to move to Maryland and work for The Muppets, which at the time was basically a two-person Jim and Jane operation in their basement.
Jerry Juhl was in there from the beginning, puppeteering and right-handing for Jim and Frank and originating the role of Taminella Grinderfall from The Tales of Tinkerdee. You can see Jerry’s puppet work in the excellent 1968 documentary The Muppets On Puppets. But even very early on he felt that his talents lay elsewhere.
According to Jerry, he moved into the writing-side of things because “I did it for self protection… Frank Oz joined us around 1963. He was, and he is, a magnificent puppeteer… absolutely A-1! I never rated much better than B-2… so I figured I’d better save my job by doing something else and besides, my arm was sore!”
And write he did. And write and write and write. Prolifically and almost completely for the Muppets for his entire career. Jim Henson was great at pinpointing the best way to utilize talented people around him, and he kept Juhl close. First, as a writer for various early Muppet TV Specials, then for Sesame Street (where he created Super Grover!) and then as the head writer for The Muppet Show, starting with season two.
If you think about the iconic nature of the Muppet characters, a lot of their core traits allow us to immediately identify them. These attributes almost completely come from Juhl’s time heading up his Muppet Show writing staff. According to this excellent article from the Henson Archive’s Jim’s Red Book blog Juhl wrote about comedy, “When comedy is written well, the writer first writes characters who have attitudes, passions, obsessions, derangements, faults, nobility, and, in short, humanity. These things should be funny in and of themselves. Then, when everything else is done, he tries to find some jokes to sprinkle in – like raisins in the cake.” This was always apparent in Juhl’s work with the Muppets. For many of us, we often think of the characters first and the jokes second. Although one has to admit, Juhl was a pretty great joke writer, especially of puns. That fork in the road in The Muppet Movie is iconic.
Regarding Kermit, Juhl once said, “Kermit is the eye in the middle of the hurricane. And, you know, he’s always in control. Sometimes just barely, but he’s always in control. And the interesting thing about it, of course, is that he created the hurricane.”
I think this is an astute interpretation of Kermit that I haven’t heard from a lot of other people, including Jim himself. If you think about the plots and various comedic patterns that Juhl and his team of writers put Kermit into on The Muppet Show and into the first two Muppet movies, this is dead-on.
In fact, it might be the story of Kermit, driving across the country and creating the hurricane itself that can be considered Juhl’s masterpiece. The Muppet Movie is indestructibly good. It’s both manic and contemplative, quiet and cacophonous. I think that has as much to do with the rhythm and balance that Juhl strikes in his screenplay he co-wrote with fellow Muppet writer Jack Burns as it does with Henson and Co.’s incredible performances or Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher’s songs.
Jerry continued to write for the Muppets past Jim’s death, right up until his own. He is responsible for carrying on the Muppety feel that’s evident in Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. Those films would not have had quite as much Muppet anarchy in them without Juhl’s writer’s voice
There was something that was definitely missing with the Muppets after Jerry was gone: A manic nature. A sharpness that gave way to gentleness. A vibe slightly hard to place that feels like our collective childhoods. During Jim Henson’s memorial service, Jerry Juhl said that Jim Henson was “a man effortlessly balanced between the sacred and the silly.” This could be said about Jerry Juhl as well. Maybe his deep understanding of Henson’s personality is what allowed Juhl to give the Muppets such a clear voice. It’s difficult to retroactively figure out what made the pairing work so well. It’s an intangible je ne sais quois that happened because of a bond between performer and writer: Jim and Jerry.
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by Louie Pearlman