On May 16, 1990, the world lost a visionary in the world of entertainment. This week, ToughPigs is honoring the life and legacy of Jim Henson, who passed away 25 years ago.
We’ve been lucky enough to have our staff of ToughPigs writers grow over the past few years, and as we commemorate 25 years since Jim Henson’s passing, we reached out to three of our younger writers who were born after Jim’s death to reflect on his impact on their lives and what it means to grow up in a post-Jim Henson world.
Jim Henson passed away a year before I was born. But of course he was always a part of my life. For one thing, we had a signed picture of him over the TV set in the family room. After all, my father was the original Muppet fan, from back when Jim Henson guest-starred on variety shows. Dad had a massive collection of recorded episodes of The Muppet Show, Sesame Street, and even The Jim Henson Hour, so he shared as much classic material with my sister and me as possible. I was pretty much too young to tell the difference in quality between the Jim-era material we would watch together and the episodes of Muppets Tonight that aired each Friday night, but I still knew there was something special about Jim.
I remember reading Jim Henson: The Works during an art lesson and being amazed. I spent hours trying to mimic the art style of the Muppets. Really, it was that book that cemented my appreciation for Jim and inspired me to be the kind of cartoonist I became: fond of big monsters, bright colors, surreal folktales, terrible jokes, and weird ideas. I think that’s the thing about Jim. He made you want to be creative. Jim’s best works weren’t just things to be consumed; they made you want to join in. It’s not surprising that people like me picked up on his infectious drive even after he was gone.
In some ways, being born after Jim Henson had died made him like a folk hero to me, like a creative Paul Bunyan. It was possible to believe that Jim had magically created all of these worlds and ideas, since I never had any evidence to support otherwise. A friend of mine in middle school claimed that his mom knew Jim Henson, and I remember being almost angry about that (even if it probably wasn’t true). Jim was separate from our world, in my head. He wasn’t a person you could just “know.” It wasn’t like he never existed; it was like he did something more than just exist.
Unlike a lot of fans, I didn’t feel the full impact of Jim Henson until I was much older – primarily because I was a late bloomer when it came to joining this fandom. As a child, the name was always attached to the films and shows, but it never meant much to me. I think I recognized that Jim was the mind behind it all and the voice of some of the characters in certain movies and episodes, but I sort of left it at that. I was always more interested in the actual Muppet characters than who was operating them from down below. What can I say? I was a child of simple taste and had no interest in what went on behind the scenes. It wasn’t until I turned twenty that things started to change.
When I fell deeply in love with the Muppets, my eyes were opened to the world of Jim Henson. How he not only created the Muppets and their Sesame Street counterparts, but worked on plenty of other shows/films I grew up watching and had loved all my life. The more I researched the man, the more I began to realize the profound effect he had had on not only my life, but generations of lives that have come before and after my own. After I devoured every interview Jim gave, watched every behind the scenes video of him available on YouTube, and wept through the eulogies given at his memorial, I was hooked.
Jim Henson passed away a little less than two months before I was born. Though the likelihood of the two of us ever meeting if he hadn’t passed would have been pretty minimal, I’m still filled with this incredible sadness that I never got to share the earth with him at the same time. Even still, being of the generation of Muppet fans who were born after he died, the effect of Jim Henson is not at all lost on me. Not in the slightest. Jim was a dreamer, an artist, a person, a movement. He always acted from his heart, and only ever wanted to create work to make the world a better place while surrounded with the people he loved. He put so much of himself into everything that he did, so it almost feels like we knew each other once upon a time.
It’s so evident how, long after we’re all gone, Jim’s work will continue to last. How could it not? With the ideals of friendship, love, and ambition weaved into every one of his productions with hilarity and integrity – clearly the work of Jim Henson is gonna out last every single one of us. Just as it should.
On May 16th, 1990, the world lost Jim Henson. There was an outpouring of grief around the world for a man who had entertained and taught so many with his vast imagination. But as it is when anyone passes away, people remembered Jim and celebrated his life, and in time, they did their very best to move on and keep his legacy alive.
Two months, four weeks, and one day later, I entered the world. A world without Jim Henson.
I was born as one of the first children in the post-Jim era. To us, Jim’s life work was pages in a book that was already finished. His boundless imagination would have to be carried on by other people, but not him. We didn’t get to have that be part of our lives.
A little more than a year ago, I was waiting in line for The Muppet Vault when I struck up a conversation with the people behind me. They were much older than I was, talking nostalgically about the clips we were about to see, recalling their favorite moments with such enthusiasm. They asked me how old I was, and seemed to be astonished by my response.
“I’m surprised you’re here. Jim Henson wasn’t part of your life. You weren’t there.”
They didn’t mean it with any malice, but their words got under my skin. “You weren’t there.” Those who didn’t witness Jim Henson’s genius firsthand couldn’t truly appreciate it. I never got to settle on the couch for a brand-new episode of The Muppet Show. I didn’t get to go to my local movie theater to see The Muppet Movie on opening day. I never stayed up late to see Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog on a late-night talk show. How could I be nostalgic for an era I wasn’t a part of? As far as they were concerned, I was just chasing a legend, like an old tall tale that just happened to be true.
But I’m not chasing ghosts or tall tales. In fact, from the stories I’ve read and heard, I feel like I know Jim Henson as much as anyone else who got to witness these things for themselves. I’ve heard stories of Jim’s love of fast cars, dessert carts, and loving the work he did and the people he did it with. I’ve listened to Muppet performers, producers, and writers talk about with Jim and their stories make him come alive once again.
Is it possible for someone to magically live on after death? I like to think so.
The world Jim Henson left for us is a world filled with imagination, a world of people captivated by the worlds and creatures he created and moved to create whole worlds and creatures of their own. Henson’s own life work has been continued and grows ever still from the people he worked with and new people he inspired. Generations of puppeteers, artists, and writers have been inspired by the Muppets long after Jim’s passing. And the classic stuff will always be there, whether it’s on home video, YouTube, or even the rare theatrical showing. People like those at The Jim Henson Legacy, Jim’s own children and coworkers, and even the folks here at ToughPigs are constantly working to ensure through museum exhibits or screenings that children don’t just see Jim Henson as a name or a picture on the wall, but as a real man who used felt, foam, and fleece to change the world. That’s the world I’m proud to call home.
Click here to celebrate Jim Henson with fans of all ages on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Evan G., Julia Gaskill, and Matthew Soberman