Six Lines

Book Review – Jim Henson

Posted by Aaron Massey on 05 Dec 2013.

Brian Jay Jones’s biography of Jim Henson is everything a biography should be. It deeply examines a truly interesting person from early childhood straight through to death and legacy. It has the cooperation of close friends, family, and business partners. It’s well-researched and well-written. It provides an intimate, detailed understanding of what made Jim Henson who he was, warts and all.

Henson was at the forefront of the revolution in television, and I found his approach to experimentation with then-new technologies to be meaningful for anyone interested in experimenting with new technologies today. He wasn’t immediately accepted by the establishment. In fact, it took most of his career before established entertainment executives viewed his work as mainstream entertainment.

It also struck me that this biography addressed all the problems that people had about Isaccson’s Steve Jobs biography.1 I’m not interested in rehashing all those problems, so I’ll just summarize them by simply saying that many people believe Isaacson spend too much time on Steve Jobs’s personal foibles, failings, and idiosyncrasies and not enough on his business decisions or approach to technology. If you’re interested in more nuanced criticism of the Steve Jobs biography, check out John Siracusa’s Hypercritical podcast on the book. Jones doesn’t fall into that same trap. Clearly, Jim Henson had personal failings. Some of them were nearly on the same level as Steve Jobs. However, Jones doesn’t make those parts of Henson’s life the central point of the book. He strikes a better balance than Isaacson did in Steve Jobs.2

Jones’s biography of Henson also struck me as uniquely positioned to capitalize on electronic book formats. Since Henson’s career was in film and television, much of the book describes the creation of videos that could be embedded in an ebook. When Jones discusses Henson’s early work in creating commercials for Wilkins Coffee, he has to both describe how they were made and received as well as their actual content. I found myself reading the book at night and searching for videos like this example of Henson’s early work in commercials in the morning:

Although Henson was best known for his work with the Muppets, he considered himself to be a filmmaker broadly defined. He created innovative videos and effects that had nothing to do with the Muppets. Time Piece was one such creation. It’s a nine minute short film that was nominated for the Best Live Action Short Film Academy Award in 1965. It’s only nine minutes long. If you were reading this biography on an iPad, wouldn’t you want to see that? I did, and I was reading a printed hardback edition. Here it is:

Any description of that film will fall short of watching it. And Jones provides pretty good descriptions of films like this. It was made nearly 50 years ago, but parts of it are so modern it’s scary. It’s almost like a collection of Vines on YouTube. The problem is that most of Henson’s career is like that film. It’s so tied to the medium that descriptions alone feel lacking.

Henson was involved in so many different productions. Seeing them all in one place would be a powerful way to understand his career. He was involved in the first seasons of Saturday Night Live, he was Ernie on Sesame Street, he worked with George Lucas on the original Star Wars trilogy and Labyrinth, he worked on Fraggle Rock, and of course he basically was the Muppets. That short list doesn’t include the videos created as pitches for shows that he wanted to produce, but the descriptions Jones provides in the book makes you want to see them. Henson’s work may be perfectly suited for interspersed short videos. Much of what he did was designed for short skits in a variety show format. Consider this early Cookie Monster video produced for IBM:

Even the stuff that Henson did in longer pieces would make for great short videos. Henson’s famous Rainbow Connection, which was filmed as a part of the first Muppet Movie and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song in 1979, is described in detail in the book. Jones uses it to demonstrate Henson’s dedication to innovating with the movie. Henson filled a giant pool with water, put a submersible capsule in the middle of it, and was completely covered up by the tree Kermit is sitting on it the song. Jones’s description is extremely detailed, but I couldn’t read it without feeling like not seeing the clip was a bit of a let down.

Of course, much of Henson’s life was also filmed, and some of it is directly connected to critical moments. Henson died tragically young, and Jones details the events leading up to his death. One of those details was a guest performance on the Arsenio Hall show. Jones describes it as a bit of a flop. Henson was complaining of a sore throat before the performance, and it is thought that he was already feeling the effects of the illness that would eventually take his life. Jones talks about how Henson thought that Kevin Clash ended up saving the appearance with his portrayal of Clifford. Of course, at this point in the book, I was so eager for more information on how someone who was only 53 could die from pneumonia (which isn’t exactly true, as it turns out). I wanted to see that performance right then, as I was reading about it.

Unfortunately, pulling all these clips together simply isn’t possible in a paper book. It may not have been possible to do even with an ebook simply because of copyright restrictions.3 Still, Brian Jay Jones has created one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s already picked up the Good Reads Choice Award in History and Biography, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it ends up winning more awards. If you have any interest in Jim Henson, this is obviously must-read material. I would also recommend it if you are interested in creativity or innovation as a driving force in the development of and response to new technologies. Finally, if you’ve never read a biography before, this is one of the better examples of the form. It would be a great place to start.

Jim Henson Statue @ UMD

  1. Another obvious comparison between the two books is the book cover design. Both of them are strikingly good. I think Steve Jobs is better if only because of the comparison between the hardcover edition and the paperback. Still, the Henson cover is excellent. 

  2. I haven’t read any biographies of Walt Disney, though that would be another obvious comparison to make. 

  3. Then again, if music copyright restrictions could be worked out for the Wonder Years on Netflix I suppose anything is possible.