In honor of Jim Henson’s 76th birthday, please enjoy this tribute, slightly revised, originally published in 2011.
Today, September 24th, would have been Jim Henson’s 76th birthday, and that fact is making me feel awfully nostalgic. As a child of the eighties, I grew up in the Golden Age of Henson’s career, watching Sesame Street and reruns of The Muppet Show, Muppet movies, Muppet holiday specials (taped on VHS, of course), and completely, utterly obsessed with the darker fantasy work of his later career: The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and the amazing StoryTeller series. My childhood was utterly infused with Henson’s humor, and the power of his imagination was a constant influence on my own, as it was for several generations of children (and plenty of adults, as well).
Henson was a visionary in the field of entertainment, holding fast to his dream of creating “entertainment for everybody” in spite of periodic resistance and disappointments over the years. He eventually succeeded beyond all expectations, developing shows and movies that appealed to audiences of all ages and backgrounds — shows that bridged the gap between smart, well-crafted “adult” entertainment and the chaotic, fun, “anything goes” appeal of kids TV. As is often the case with truly groundbreaking work, his accomplishments have become so familiar, such an integral part of our cultural lexicon that it’s impossible to imagine what the world would have been like without him, his characters, and the massive influence they’ve had on our lives.
There’s a persistent rumor, never confirmed, that Henson named Bert and Ernie after a pair of characters from It’s a Wonderful Life. Chances are, the names are just a coincidence, but it’s still tempting to press the connection and try to briefly imagine a world in which Jim Henson had never existed. No Bert and Ernie. No Statler and Waldorf. No Oscar the Grouch, Sam the Eagle, Swedish Chef, or Rowlf the Dog. Also, no Dr. Teeth, which means no Electric Mayhem, and I don’t want to live in a world without Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. I mean, do you?
Whooooo! Zoot and Sgt. Floyd Pepper FOREVER!!!! Ahem. What else? Well, no Farscape, obviously. And no terrifying Skeksis from The Dark Crystal (so, my nightmares would have been much lamer when I was five). No Miss Piggy (tragic). No Count von Count (unthinkable). No Muppet Babies (although, if we’re being completely honest, here, I might not be too broken up about that one). Also, none of this:
And who knows what would have happened to David Bowie’s career without Labyrinth?!! (He would have been fine. But there would be a sparkly, goblin-shaped hole in my heart that nothing else could ever fill).
And finally, let’s not forget that Jim Henson is directly responsible for giving us the Yoda that we all know and love and sometimes do really bad impressions of…Henson not only consulted on the look of the character, but he was responsible for introducing Frank Oz to George Lucas, and suggesting that Oz be hired as the puppeteer and voice behind the Jedi Master.
Take a minute to think about the Yodas that might have been. We could have ended up staring at some kind of creepy proto-ALF, sleazing his way through the swamps of Dagobah, with the voice of Howie Mandel. Or Scatman Crothers. Or possibly Orson Welles. Or maybe Lucas would’ve been forced to unleash JarJar on an unsuspecting world nineteen years ahead of schedule. The severe global ramifications of that horrific possibility are simply too chilling to contemplate, but I think we can all agree that we’d be flirting with apocalypse by now. Either that, or everybody would have just ignored The Empire Strikes Back, making room for 9 to 5 to become the highest grossing film of 1980, and Dolly Parton might have become the first female president and we’d all wear sequined cowboy hats to work. I mean, really…who can say?
In any case, even if I try to stick to my absolute favorites, the sheer number of favorite Henson-inspired characters and moments (some touching, some hilarious, some just goofy and bizarre and wonderful) are far too numerous to list. To be completely serious for a moment, there’s no way of knowing what Henson might have done over the course of the last two decades if he’d had the opportunity, but when I think of all the lives he’s touched, all the people he’s inspired and entertained, and the fact that he managed to always do what he loved and left the world a better place for it, all I can think is how lucky we were to have Jim Henson in our lives.
If you have a chance this week, I hope you’ll take a minute to think about that, too, and maybe share some of your own favorite clips and characters and memories here. There’s really nothing I can write that will be a more eloquent celebration of the man and the joy he inspired than the following clip, the performance of “Just One Person” which closed Henson’s memorial service in 1990, so please, enjoy. And Happy Birthday, Mr. Henson.