Today is May 16th (or, it was, if you’re reading this after the publish date), which is a date with a lot of importance to us Muppet fans. On this date in 1990, Jim Henson passed away. And while we usually take this time for some solemn remembrance, it always feels slightly inauthentic. Yes, we’re all sad that Jim left us, but I don’t think he would’ve wanted us to be so upset, even if it is just once a year. So instead, we’re choosing to take this as an opportunity to celebrate Jim’s career.
You’re undoubtedly familiar with many of Jim’s performances as Kermit the Frog, Ernie, Rowlf the Dog, Guy Smiley, Bugsy Them, and that one penguin in that thing (sorry, got a little obscure by the end). But how familiar are you with Jim as… himself?
Over the years, Jim made several on-screen cameos, and we’re gonna rank ’em! Because this is the internet, and that’s the sort of thing people like to click on. We’re going to focus on just the cameos and not his featured roles. So you won’t see Time Piece or The Jim Henson Hour on here. (And if you’re following along with the Muppet Wiki article, we’re also skipping the Wilsons Meats films, which Jim narrates and appears several times [and I’m pretty sure that breaks the rules set by the Cameo Union of America].)
How many of these Jim Henson cameos do you remember?
#9: The Muppets Take Manhattan
Of all the cameos on this list, this is by far the hardest to spot. In fact, if it wasn’t for confirmation from The Jim Henson Company, I bet there’d be a continued debate amongst the Muppet fan community about whether or not that silent, blurry bearded man in the distance is actually Jim. But Jim it is, and he opted to jump into the driver’s seat of a hansom cab and don a top hat to cart some farm animals around Central Park. And yet, he didn’t bother to change his jeans and sneakers for the role. As cool as it is to spot this Easter egg, Jim the hansom cab driver is definitely his lamest cameo.
#8: The Muppets Go Hollywood
Dressed slightly nicer this time, Jim Henson appeared as himself in The Muppets Go Hollywood, the special produced to promote The Muppet Movie. I gotta say, my expectations were high when I realized that we’re about to get a scene of Dick Van Dyke and Jim Henson, both wearing tuxedos and in the midst of a party filled with celebrities and Muppets, talking about the behind-the-scenes workings of the new film. Instead, we got Jim hunched over, briefly mentioning the number of Muppet Show celebrities they had (so far), and then immediately introducing Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher. It’s an all-too-short appearance and we don’t actually get to learn anything new about The Muppet Movie, Jim’s relationship with the Muppets, or even something silly or funny. This cameo is the epitome of a missed opportunity.
#7: Flapsole Sneakers
Flapsole Sneakers was a short film made by Jim Henson in the 1960s. The video spoofs all sorts of commercials, and features more cameos than just Jim: Frank Oz, Jerry Juhl, Jane Henson, and three of the Henson kids (Brian, Cheryl, and Lisa). Jim appears on screen clinking glasses of “Vita-Juice” with a woman, which shatter in their hands. The interesting thing about this cameo compared to the others on this list is that it’s the only one that isn’t a “Look! It’s Jim Henson! Kermit’s dad!” moment. It’s so early in his career, he’s just using himself (as well as his friends and family) as unpaid actors. Cheap and effective!
#6: The Great Muppet Caper
In Jim’s finest cameo from a feature film (sorry, Into the Night), he gets his photo taken by Gonzo as he’s shoveling food into his mouth. His date for the evening is Amy Van Gilder, a puppet builder who began with the company way back on The Muppet Show. And if you’re paying attention, Jim reaches for his wallet when Gonzo asks for $10 for the photo, thus helping Kermit raise the cash he needs to pay for Miss Piggy’s champagne and caviar. What a mensch!
#5: Song of Three
Jim Henson’s cameo in Sesame Street‘s “Numerosity” series (which he directed) is great for so many reasons. First, we learn that Jim knows how to juggle. Then we get to see him in that fantastically ugly shirt. And finally, we get to hear Jim say the words “three balls”, which amused many children far more than intended.
#4: Neat Stuff to Know and Do
The Play-Along Videos were a strange part of Henson history. They had characters like Kermit, Fozzie, and Rowlf, but the intended demographic was pretty young. So it’s more than likely that you’d rent one of these bad boys from your local video rental emporium, hoping for a long-lost episode of The Muppet Show, but then you’re telling crappy jokes with an Elmo-voiced alien kid. Still, there were a few gems in those videos, including one in “Neat Stuff to Know and Do” in which Jim Henson appears to teach us how to skip stones. It didn’t work in actually teaching me how to skip stones (not even a lesson from Jim Henson can give me any sort of coordination), but it’s still really cool to see Jim as himself, being a regular guy tossing rocks into a lake.
#3: “I’m Gonna Always Love You” Music Video
Jim Henson really jumped headfirst into the 1980s for this one. He wore slicked-back hair, a visor, and a singular sparkly glove for the Muppets Take Manhattan music video starring the Muppet Babies. He also punches through the nursery window, pops his collar, and walks off while wearing Kermit the Frog flipper slippers, thus cementing Jim Henson as not only the creative genius we all knew him to be, but also as the baddest dude of the ’80s.
#2: The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years
As we discussed a couple weeks ago, Jim has a phenomenal cameo in the Muppets’ 30th anniversary special. He’s the only human being in a ballroom filled with frogs, bears, chickens, monsters, grouches, birds, Fraggles, and other ambiguous creatures. This may also mean he’s one of the few in the room with pockets, so when it’s time to pay the bill, it’s up to Jim and that sweet Henson Company money to cover the cost. It’s a great gag, and Jim’s deadpan reaction to seeing the comically long receipt is perfect. It’s also a little bit too real, as Jim probably did pay the costs of his own anniversary special, but it’s all worth it to see everyone enjoying themselves.
#1: A Muppet Family Christmas
“Well, they certainly seem to having a good time out there, Sprocket. I like it when they have a good time.” Jim was a man who appreciated the simple, and his line here embodies that ideal. Of course, he’s saying it as he looks at about a hundred Muppets (with at least half as many puppeteers) sing Christmas carols in a crowded farmhouse, so maybe “simple” doesn’t quite cut it. But he shows that his #1 priority is still having a good time, which almost always turns out a superior product. And that’s more than true in the case of A Muppet Family Christmas, which very well may be the best Muppet production of all time. Pairing him with Sprocket is an inspired choice, since he’s the one character who’s used to seeing strange furry creatures while Doc is off ignoring him. But despite all the fun, there’s work to be done. Jim, always the workaholic, puts Sprocket to work as they team up to wash dishes. This entire brief scene sums up Jim’s methods so well, and it’s heartwarming (just try not to sigh when he pops up on screen with that smile, the zebra-striped jacket, and matching bow tie) as well as funny. It’s not just the perfect end to a brilliant Christmas special, but it’s the perfect Jim Henson cameo.
Click here to dry while Jim washes on the ToughPigs forum!
by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com