How Jim Henson Worked


Josh: Josh Clark

Chuck: Charles W. "Chuck" Bryant

Vo: Voiceover Speaker

Vo: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know from HowStuffWorks.com.

[MUSIC]

Josh: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark, with Charles W. "Chuck" Bryant.

Chuck: Howdy.

Josh: And Jeri, for the last time this year.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: She has just informed us and she is all smiles.

Chuck: She is.

Josh: Not very nice, Jeri.

Chuck: How did you like that presentation earlier?

Josh: The sensitivity training?

Chuck: Uh-huh.

Josh: It was great.

Chuck: Yes, people, because we work for a corporation we have things like sensitivity training. And in those trainings, you get shown video examples of various forms of harassment, and they are the best, most fun things to watch ever.

Josh: They're pretty overt.

Chuck: Yeah, I could watch those all day long.

Josh: I was wondering how much that production company made from that.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: They do, what, five little vignettes. I'm sure they paid the actors, like, literal peanuts.

Chuck: Yeah, they were bad actors. [LAUGHS]

Josh: They're like, "There is the peanut bucket over there, you can pay yourself."

Chuck: Yeah. The one, though, that really got me was the-actually they were all really funny, but the one with the old guy in the factory loading boxes, like a shipping warehouse.

Josh: Yeah, right.

Chuck: And they were giving the old man a hard time about everything.

Josh: Because he was old?

Chuck: Yeah, because he's old and they were giving him a hard time because he was out of work for a while and they had to cover for him, the old man, and he had the back brace on, did you notice that? And he just-the look on his face, he just kept getting a little more pouty the whole time.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: I was like, "Dude."

Josh: That's good acting.

Chuck: "Stick up for yourself. Tell these young kids what to do."

Josh: The back brace prevents him from it.

Chuck: Anyway, I had just had to bring that up because I just think that stuff is so funny. And what's funny is people really do some of that stuff that you're like, "What?"

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: There are some creeps out there. That was a really weird setup for Jim Henson, because he is the least harassy guy, he was probably ever.

Josh: Yeah, he certainly comes across that way.

Chuck: He is a genuinely good dude, it's not one of these stories you hear about maybe some of your favorite children's books writers or cartoonists or something maybe that were kind of bad people.

Josh: No, apparently not at all.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: He was not only-so, there is a lot of quotes in this article, John-no. I thought John Strickland wrote it, it turns out that's not the case, I'm surprised, because he is friends with or down with at least one of Jim Henson's kids, who I believe lives here in Atlanta.

Chuck: Oh, wow.

Josh: But in this article, it's one of those things where everybody who compliments Jim Henson, who worked with him, they go to the trouble of complimenting him in a way that's not just like, "Oh, he was such a great guy." They all back up just a little bit because they're cognizant that that doesn't get it across, and they want you understand that they're talking about more than just a great guy like, "Oh, he's dead and I'm not going to speak ill of the dead, and he was a great guy and that's a really thoughtless, polite, inoffensive thing to say."

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: So Frank Oz said something like, "He was a great guy, but at the same time, you know, he was a human, but he was still a really great guy."

Chuck: Right.

Josh: So what you're thinking of as a great guy, get rid of that and actually replace it with a genuine, human, great guy.

Chuck: Yeah, because as a filmmaker, he is a puppeteer obviously, but he was a filmmaker first and foremost, which a lot of people kind of forget about, that's a tough-

Josh: Did you watch any of these?

Chuck: Oh, yeah.

Josh: Man.

Chuck: That's a tough, tough job, super stressful. And you and I have seen, it can make good guys and good ladies be real jerks. Under stressful situations, it's a tough thing. There is a lot of money on the line each day and-

Josh: It's like, "Everybody relax, it's just millions of dollars."

Chuck: Yeah. But Frank Oz, I think that's the point he was making. Even when he would get frustrated and stressed like that, he was still a good guy behind it all.

Josh: Yeah. And I read a-I guess it was a book review of a biography about him that showed that it was all-somebody said it was all just play to him. Work was play. Even though he worked really hard, he was able to commit himself like that to his work, because to him he was having the time of his life, all the time. And apparently there was no line between work and play, which now that we've seen that sensitivity training, could have got him in a lot of big-a lot of trouble. But he just enjoyed the life that he had, from what I understand. He loved cars; he had a Lotus that was the same color as Kermit the Frog. He had a Rolls Royce early on, from his work. Let's talk about the guy.

Chuck: Yeah, I mean if you haven't-I just need to go ahead and say, if you haven't listened to the episode on the Muppets, this is what I consider just a more in-depth part two, on the man himself, but that's one of our favorite all-time episodes, and from feedback, one of the great all-time fan episodes.

Josh: Yeah, it was a great episode.

Chuck: Yeah, it was just a lot of fun, and so I hope this augments that one, I hope we do it justice.

Josh: So that's actually one of the reasons why we can do this episode, because we already did a Muppets episode, and this is a-

Chuck: And they tweeted about us, too, remember? The Henson Company did.

Josh: Yeah, they did.

Chuck: Which was huge.

Josh: They approved. It got their actual approval.

Chuck: That's right.

Josh: Man, that was something. The Muppets episode is its own thing, it's about Muppets; this is about Jim Henson and it's appropriate that we're doing this because he was more than just the Muppets, even though everybody pegs him with the Muppets, and that is a huge thing-he was more than that. And like you said, he was a filmmaker, but originally he started out as a puppeteer, but kind of a reluctant one.

Chuck: Yeah. He was born in 1936, September 24th, James Maury Henson, M-A-U-R-Y, in Mississippi, and his grandmother, maternal grandmother, was a painter and a quilter and a needle worker and apparently was a big inspiration to him just to seek out the creative in life, which is pretty great.

Josh: Yeah. And one of the things he got into, well, he was originally kind of a fan of ventriloquism a little bit. But he said later on in life that he was never obsessed with puppets or anything like that, like you would have expected him to be. And as he went to college, I think in Maryland, he got into-he started out as a studio artist, that's what he was studying.

Chuck: Yeah, he loved television above all else. From the time he was a little kid, he was just transfixed by the tube.

Josh: He almost kind of made himself destined to be on television, by being obsessed with it.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: But he kind of stumbled into puppetry in college, and he started out as a studio art major, and ended up graduating with a home ec degree, because home ec was the only degree that offered puppet-making courses.

Chuck: Yeah, he majored-or he took a puppetry course at first, and then a bunch of textiles and crafts courses, which is a great way to start building and making your own puppets.

Josh: Right. But he graduated with a home ec degree, but by the time he graduated he was already extremely successful. The Rolls Royce that I mentioned, he bought in time to drive to his college graduation because he had already created successful shows in his town.

Chuck: Yeah, I think he was a-in high school he was on the local TV station doing little guest spots, and then in 1955 the show Sam and Friends debuted, and that, he also did work on the side making money with; I think he did some of the really cool concert posters of the day, the really colorful silk screen posters. And Sam and Friends did really well, but he still wasn't quite sure, like, "I still don't know if I want to-I'm a filmmaker, I did these short films," really sort of weird, abstract short films, live action.

Josh: Experimental.

Chuck: Totally experimental.

Josh: Did you see the Time Piece?

Chuck: Oh yeah.

Josh: That one was pretty cool.

Chuck: It was great, in its way.

Josh: And did you see The Cube?

Chuck: I watched parts of The Cube.

Josh: That was-did you see the end?

Chuck: No.

Josh: Oh, you've got to see the end. I skipped the middle because I was like, "Okay, I get where you're going with this."

Chuck: Yeah, well, we should just set it up real quick. The Cube was a show on NBC; it was a one-hour show.

Josh: In 1969.

Chuck: The name of the show NBC did was called Experiment in Television.

Josh: Appropriately enough.

Chuck: It was a different thing each week, and he had one week's installment called The Cube, which was a guy just stuck in a white room, but other people could come in and out of the room but he could not, right?

Josh: Yes.

Chuck: Okay.

Josh: And he starts to go kind of crazy. And it has the look and feel of a color TV ad, lots of overacting and Carol Burnett-esque characters and stuff like that, but the sentiment behind it and the-everything behind it is really neat. And it really gives you a good-an eye-opening example of what Jim Henson was capable of, but also what he was into. Because when you think of him, you think of Muppets and Sesame Street in particular.

Chuck: Sure. And these are weird, abstract art films, not unlike you watch a Jim Morrison art film from film school, and it's kind of the same style; that was what was going on back then. And he actually got nominated for an Academy Award for Time Piece, he did not win.

Josh: I think Jim Henson had Jim Morrison beat by a mile as far as experimental films went.

Chuck: Yeah, I'll agree with you there. So like I said, he wasn't quite convinced that puppetry was his future because he was a filmmaker and he was like, "Puppets are still kind of kid stuff." But post-college he did the old tour of Europe, and in Europe puppeteering is a whole different business, it was a lot more serious, and a lot more, I guess-

Josh: It was treated as art.

Chuck: Yeah, exactly. And he said, "You know what, I am going to give this a shot." He came back to the U.S., married Jane, and even though he and Jane separated, they never divorced.

Josh: Oh really, I thought they did.

Chuck: No, they never fulfilled the divorce, they just stayed separated.

Josh: Okay.

Chuck: And then he started making TV commercials and formed his own company in 1963 with-I don't know if he formed it with Frank Oz, but he hired Frank Oz and Jerry Juhl, who ended up being obviously legendary puppeteers and filmmakers.

Josh: And lifelong collaborators of his.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Yeah, but he started out making basically a puppet-based commercial ad agency in New York, in 1963.

Chuck: Yeah, and they weren't making funny commercials back then, so he was really pretty revolutionary at the time.

Josh: Right. And I mean they did pretty well for themselves, and one of the smartest moves he made, early on, was all of his contracts said that he retained the rights to any of the creations that he made for these companies. So he was creating what-some of the things that would later become famous Muppets, like the Cookie Monster was originally made for a chip maker. It was this puppet that couldn't get enough of these chips.

Chuck: Yeah, he was the wheel stealer and he stole cheese wheels.

Josh: Yeah, okay, that's what it was. And he ended up being the Cookie Monster. And the reason he ended up being the Cookie Monster was because Jim Henson retained the rights to that creation.

Chuck: He was a very savvy business guy, too.

Josh: Yeah. And he was using somebody else's dime, these advertisers' budgets, to kind of hash out and form and make his Muppets.

Chuck: Yeah. Rowlf the Dog started out in Purina commercials, and was late a sidekick on The Jimmy Dean Show in 1963.

Josh: Which I remember that from The Muppets episode, Rowlf was the first big Muppet. He's such a bit character now, that it's just mind-boggling to think he was the one that started it all; even before Kermit, before Big Bird, it was Rowlf.

Chuck: Kermit kind of stole the show, I think.

Josh: Yeah. And we'll talk a little more about Kermit and where he came from, right after this.

[MUSIC]

Josh: Hey, Chuck.

Chuck: Hey, buddy.

Josh: I have a resolution we can both make for the new year.

Chuck: Let's hear it.

Josh: We're going to maximize every minute and every dollar for our business, okay?

Chuck: That's a really good idea actually, my friend.

Josh: And I have a really easy way we're going to do it, buddy.

Chuck: What is step one?

Josh: Stamps.com is step one through infinity.

Chuck: That's a great idea, because you know what, think about how much time we spend driving around, going to the post office, finding parking-Stamps.com is just a better way to get your postage because you can just use what you have there in your house, your computer, your printer, and get that official U.S. postage for any letter or package right there, hand it to your mail carrier, bing, bang, boom.

Josh: That's right. With Stamps.com, everything you would do at the post office, you can do right from your desk. And Chuck, at a fraction of the cost of one of those expensive postage meters.

Chuck: Boo.

Josh: Yeah. Right now we also have a special offer that we're going to share with you so you can make Stamps.com your New Year's resolution. You can use our promo code STUFF and get a no-risk trial, plus a $110 bonus offer that includes a digital scale, and up to $55 in free postage.

Chuck: So don't wait, folks, go to Stamps.com before you do anything else. Click on that microphone at the top of the homepage and type in STUFF. That's Stamps.com and enter STUFF.

[MUSIC]

Chuck: All right, so it's 1969 and a very, very big thing happens to Jim Henson. He was invited to be on the pilot of a show created by the Children's Television Workshop called Sesame Street. He did not create it, as some people think he did, but he did make his mark by creating most of the iconic characters, and if you were a fan of the old Sesame Streets back then, not all, but many of those little short films, the little claymation ones or the live action ones, he directed those as well, which is pretty cool. I never knew that.

Josh: I think I knew that.

Chuck: Did you? [LAUGHS]

Josh: He was our Russ Vick. No, he was their Russ Vick.

Chuck: That's right.

Josh: Russ Vick is ours.

Chuck: That's right.

Josh: So Chuck, the whole thing that changed everything for him was Sesame Street. He wasn't a creator of Sesame Street, they just hired him on, and they actually kind of won him over, because remember one of the things that Jim Henson always struggled with his whole career was he wanted to explore places that puppets had never really gone to, and themes that they hadn't gone to, at least not in the modern age. But he was fighting against them not being taken seriously.

Chuck: Yeah. It wasn't like he wasn't anti-puppet by any means, or anti-kids, because one of the big reasons he signed on with Children's Television Workshop was their goal to educate kids, it meant a lot to him. But like you said, I think to merge those worlds successfully was a big part of his goal and struggle, for a little while.

Josh: Russ Vick, by the way, made the little interstitial things for the Stuff You Should Know television show.

Chuck: Yeah, the animations.

Josh: Which is why I reference him.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: So the Children's Television Workshop, which is now called the Sesame Workshop, from what I understand, they won him over big time. He makes all of these characters from Big Bird, and I think Kermit came before Sesame Street, and he started out-and I think we talked about this in the Muppet episode, too-he started out looking really weird.

Chuck: Yeah, like a lizard almost.

Josh: Yeah. And not cool at all, like really kind of freaky. Which is something that I-now that I know a little more about Jim Henson, I think maybe he might have even been going for.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: But one of the things that Sesame Street allowed him to do was to really kind of explore something that he'd long been obsessed with, which was television, and where it converged with puppets, which was all new territory, and Jim Henson was at the bleeding edge of it.

Chuck: Oh yeah.

Josh: Because it you think about it, when you go to a puppet show live, you're looking at what's essentially a mechanism for hiding the human, and there is just a little area that the puppet can move around in.

Chuck: A little, tiny fixed stage.

Josh: Yeah. So Jim Henson stepped back and said, "Okay, the television is that little tiny area that the puppet can stay-can move around in, but it also opens up the whole world for a puppet because you're using camera angles and there is editing and it's not in person."

Chuck: Yeah, just frame out the people.

Josh: So, and again, we talked about this in the Muppet episode; he created something called platforming up, to where the puppeteers no longer had to crouch down and to maneuver the puppets.

Chuck: Yeah, because he was a tall guy.

Josh: Yeah, tall and lanky, man, he was skinny.

Chuck: Oh, those running shots in Time Piece.

Josh: Exactly.

Chuck: Because he was in it, they were hysterical.

Josh: Yeah, and he weighs about 70 pounds somehow.

Chuck: He has big, lanky legs.

Josh: But, so yeah, the performers could stand up, which was a huge weight off, but at the same time, because you're working with cameras and stuff like that and they have the whole universe to move around in, and Jim Henson wanted them to move around as much as possible, it also put him in some weird positions.

Chuck: Yeah. If you ever-well, some people might think it's kind of ruining the thing, but I think it's really neat if you just look up on Google Images, Muppets Show behind-the-scenes pictures, and it'll show the stage sets six feet off the ground, and all the people standing beneath. I think it's awesome to look at, but some people don't like-they want to keep that illusion alive. So depending on what kind of person you are, either seek that out or don't.

Josh: And we gave that warning in the Muppets episode, too.

Chuck: Did we?

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Yeah, I think they are really cool pictures.

Josh: I agree.

Chuck: Because a lot of times they're looking at video monitors, standing there, contorted, using both hands-the way puppeteers work together, to me, is just a miracle, because they're acting as the puppets but they're still moving among one another as humans underneath, which can be really complicated. In fact we know some really, really talented puppeteers here in Atlanta.

Josh: Yeah, the Center for Puppetry Arts is, I think, the nation's largest puppeteer organization.

Chuck: Yeah. And that is where we had our TV show debut party, premiere party. Like, it was a really cool experience. Emmet Otter and the gang are right there on the display. I think that Henson and Kermit cut the ribbon for the grand opening back when it opened and ended up donating 500 puppets and Muppets to the Center for Puppetry Arts. So if you ever visit Atlanta-people always email us and say, "What should we do?"-I highly recommend going and checking out the Center for Puppetry Arts.

Josh: Yeah, because they have a museum with, like you said, Emmet Otter.

Chuck: Oh man, all sorts of cool stuff.

Josh: There's a Skeksis, like a full-size, life-size Skeksis behind glass, scary as you can imagine.

Chuck: Yeah, but I was talking about Raymond Carr, our friend, who-I hate to keep bringing up the TV show but it all kind of overlaps. He was a production designer for Stuff You Should Know on Science Channel, and he and his friends, Brandon and the gang, are amazing puppeteers and they're doing some really, really leading-edge, cool stuff here in Atlanta. These giant puppets operated-15-foot tall puppets operated by six and eight people. Have you ever seen the spaceman that they do?

Josh: No.

Chuck: Oh, man, it's unbelievable, it's really cool. I don't know how tall he is, he seems like he is 20 feet tall. And they do these at parades and stuff and it's just really, really cool stuff.

Josh: That's awesome.

Chuck: Yeah. But Henson is a huge inspiration to them, obviously.

Josh: Oh yeah. I think anybody who works even remotely in puppets has got to be inspired by Jim Henson.

Chuck: He is the man.

Josh: One of the other things that he came up with was-that was based on putting Muppets or puppets on TV was using softer materials.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Everything else was, up to that point, stiff, wood marionettes, ventriloquist dummies, that kind of stuff. He used foam and it allowed the puppets themselves to have more expressive faces, which was great for a close-up on TV.

Chuck: Yeah, absolutely.

Josh: And it also-I mean now, looking back, you just are like, "Well, yeah, of course that's what puppets do, that's what-"

Chuck: I know.

Josh: But that was Jim Henson that came up with that, and it changed everything because it took something like-I mean imagine Howdy Doody, it was like, "Yeah, that's cool, it's Howdy Doody or whatever," but whether close up for far away, he looks exactly the same. He was a wood head with a moving lower jaw, and he gave you nightmares.

Chuck: [LAUGHS]

Josh: With Kermit the Frog or something like that, the fact that he could have different expressions and react differently and his emotions could be shown on his face, that made him that much more popular, that much more approachable to people who were into him.

Chuck: Absolutely.

Josh: Which is everybody.

Chuck: Yeah. Show me someone who doesn't like Muppets in any form. I get it if you don't like it anymore maybe, but your heart is cold and dead inside. [LAUGHTER] For a while, and this is something I don't think I knew, he dabbled on Saturday Night Live in season one. Lorne Michaels got him a deal to perform some sketches, and ultimately it wasn't a huge success and it wasn't the greatest marriage, but it was pretty cool that he was seeking out different avenues to get those puppets on television.

Josh: It was.

Chuck: And his big break came in 1975, he wanted to make The Muppet Show, and he had a lot of trouble in the U.S., still, even though he had his various successes on commercials and stuff, so he had to go to London, and a TV producer named Lord Lew Grade gave him deal with Grade's ATV Studios, and he said, "You know what, you can make your show," and The Muppet Show was born.

Josh: Oh yeah?

Chuck: Bada bing, bada boom.

Josh: That was it.

Chuck: That was it.

Josh: And you can really see Jim Henson's love of variety shows and just kind of, well, just the stage in The Muppet Show, because if you think about it, it's set, the whole thing is set backstage at a variety show.

Chuck: It's such a great idea when you look back it.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: We took it for granted a little bit because we were kids, but now as an adult, it's like what a perfect way to frame this world, is it's basically like 30 Rock, or 30 Rock was The Muppet Show.

Josh: Right. Or The Muppet Show started all that. I don't know if Carol Burnett was before The Muppet Show.

Chuck: Yeah, it was before.

Josh: Was it?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: So she did a lot of backstage stuff, didn't she? I wonder who started that.

Chuck: I don't know, I mean hers was more sketch.

Josh: Yeah, but some of it was backstage.

Chuck: Was it?

Josh: I believe so.

Chuck: Yeah, I don't remember that.

Josh: Unless I'm hallucinating right now.

Chuck: They need to have a good, old-fashioned variety show again.

Josh: Yeah, they don't have those anymore.

Chuck: Those were big back in the day. A host comes out, and then there is sketches and singing.

Josh: Remember our cabaret. No, it wasn't cabaret. What was it, the episode we did?

Chuck: Oh, burlesque?

Josh: Burlesque, yeah, how that started out in vaudeville. And burlesque had, that's where stand-up comedy came from. That was an interesting episode.

Chuck: Yeah. I miss those variety shows, though, like the Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton, and Carol Burnett, the Mandrell Sisters.

Josh: Although Kenny and Dolly could just sit on a couch and stare at the camera for an hour and I'd watch that.

Chuck: Yeah, just the best.

Josh: They are great entertainers.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: I love those two.

Chuck: All right, so where are we in our timeline?

Josh: Well, Chuck, The Muppet Show has just hit.

Chuck: Oh, that's right.

Josh: Things are going pretty well. They had been going pretty well already for Henson. Apparently in 1970, "Rubber Duckie" hit number 16 on the Billboard charts. And for those who don't know, Ernie is voiced by Jim Henson. So Jim Henson sang a song, "Rubber Duckie," that made it to number 16 on the Billboard charts. And that was 1970, a year after The Cube, before The Muppet Show even happened.

Chuck: Before Sesame Street even, right?

Josh: No, Sesame Street was '69, I think, the same year as The Cube.

Chuck: Wow, that's crazy to think-

Josh: That's the new touchstone for his life, The Cube.

Chuck: Yeah, PC and BC. So The Muppet Show as a huge it, it won a lot of awards, it garnered critical praise, and won the hearts of children all over the world.

Josh: But it was also for adults, too.

Chuck: Oh yeah.

Josh: I think that's why he was able to pull it off in Great Britain because they have better senses of humor.

Chuck: Yeah, and speaking of adults, he got into some more serious themes with his next great show, Fraggle Rock. In 1983-

Josh: I never saw a second of that show.

Chuck: Oh man, really?

Josh: Wasn't it on HBO?

Chuck: Yeah, it was one of the first HBO original series.

Josh: We either had Showtime or we didn't have HBO.

Chuck: Didn't have anything. It was awesome, Fraggle Rock was great. And the idea there is you had the Fraggle gang, and then you had-well, you had three different groups. You had the home of Doc, who was an inventor, and his dog Sprocket. You had the Fraggles, who shared caves underground of Fraggle Rock with their neighbors, the Doozers and the Gorgs, and these gigantic creatures that are in Gorg's Garden. And the whole point of that show was to show how different types of people can live together and work together in peace.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: It was really cool. I didn't know it at the time, when I was 12 years old, but what I was learning about was acceptance. And he won three CableACE awards, five International Emmys, and Fraggle Rock was one of the first big hits for HBO, as far as TV goes. A great, great show, lots of great songs that, I mean he had every kind of-he had reggae, rock, country, bluegrass.

Josh: Really?

Chuck: He was all over the map with music on Fraggle Rock.

Josh: I mean he wrote a lot of songs, too. I think he wrote "Rubber Duckie," I'm sure he wrote a lot of the stuff on Fraggle Rock, it was just yet another thing he did, was write music.

Chuck: Yeah, a Renaissance man.

Josh: The other show that he came out with in the '80s, in the mid '80s, that I was big time into was Muppet Babies.

Chuck: I never saw one second of that.

Josh: Man, I loved that show.

Chuck: Yeah, we're just enough apart in age where certain things I saw you were too young for, and then certain things I was too old for.

Josh: You know what's weird, though, I'm just going to say this. So Umi and I are the same age. Her sister is five years younger than us, and I used to love Muppet Babies. Umi's sister used to watch Muppet Babies. So Umi was like, "Why were you watching Muppet Babies if my younger sister was watching Muppet Babies at the same time?"

Chuck: And Umi didn't watch Muppet Babies?

Josh: No, she watched Donahue or something like that. I watched Muppet Babies, and I'm not ashamed anymore to say that.

Chuck: Well, when was that 1984, I was 13. So yeah, I was just-I was starting to be a teenager, Muppet Babies didn't appeal.

Josh: Yeah, I think it was on for four or five seasons, so maybe I was watching it at the beginning of the series, and Mika was watching it-

Chuck: Oh, that makes sense.

Josh: That's what I've been telling Umi.

Chuck: In '84 you would have been, what?

Josh: Eight.

Chuck: Oh yeah, that's a perfect age for Muppet Babies.

Josh: Okay. So I think we just saw it on different ends of the series is what it was.

Chuck: Is that what it is? [LAUGHS]

Josh: But have you ever heard of Ron Funches?

Chuck: Yeah, the comedian?

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: He has a little bit about Muppet Babies that's pretty hilarious.

Chuck: Oh really?

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: He is awesome.

Josh: I love that guy. We saw him live. He is just a beautiful human being.

Chuck: Muppet Babies was cartoon, though, right?

Josh: Right.

Chuck: It was not live puppets, correct, at all?

Josh: No, it was a cartoon.

Chuck: Okay.

Josh: It was so cute.

Chuck: Were they just the regular Muppets as babies?

Josh: Yes.

Chuck: Oh, well, I'll have to watch that sometime.

Josh: Yeah, and they use their imagination. Gonzo had a thing for Indiana Jones, so he was frequently exploring caves and swinging on vines with an Indiana Jones fedora on and that kind of stuff.

Chuck: Well, see, I would probably enjoy that now.

Josh: You would.

Chuck: Yeah?

Josh: Definitely.

Chuck: All right, I'm going to go get Muppet Babies.

Josh: Chuck, he did even more TV that we'll talk about in a second, okay?

Chuck: Okay.

Josh: Okay.

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Josh: Chuck, I've got two words coming out of my mouth.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Free-

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: -snacks.

Chuck: Man, those words are great together.

Josh: Yeah, they feel great.

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Josh: Free snacks.

Chuck: You're welcome.

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Josh: Okay, and we're back, and we're still in the '80s.

Chuck: That's right. And you were talking about other TV. As we said, the man loved television and filmmaking, and so he got away from the Muppets and puppets every now and then, collaborated with Raymond Scott, who is an electronica pioneer actually, on shorts called Ripples and Wheels That Go. And he did that for the Montreal Expo in '67. And I know we're jumping around in time, but we're just trying to paint the full picture here, not going necessarily in order. And then he also did this cool thing called "The Floating Face," which was a sketch that was on The Tonight Show and The Mike Douglas Show in the '60s, which, did you see any of that?

Josh: A little bit.

Chuck: It was a little weird. It was two eyes and a mouth, and there were these invisible wires and background images, and it was definitely a little more on that surreal tip, the Henson surreal tip. Not kid-oriented necessarily. But he got into the movies with The Muppet Movie, which was a big hit.

Josh: Man, it's so good.

Chuck: It still holds up, man, it's still so great.

Josh: If you want to know more about that movie and just some of the cool facts from it, go, again, listen to the Muppet episode. As a matter of fact, pause this, go listen to the Muppet episode and then come back to this one.

Chuck: Yeah. What year was that?

Josh: It'll probably enhance your experience.

Chuck: Agreed.

Josh: Or listen to them both at the same time.

Chuck: But he followed the Muppet in 1982, he made The Dark Crystal, which was puppets, and it was based on some drawings by fantasy artist Brian Froud. And there were no humans, it was all puppets, and I don't think it holds up as well, but it still looks pretty good.

Josh: Well, yeah. I think it actually is probably better received now than it was originally. I think critics appreciated it, but it didn't do so well at the box office, but now it's become like-

Chuck: It did okay.

Josh: -kind of a cult classic, for sure.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And one of the reasons why it didn't do that well at the box office was because audiences didn't quite know what to make of it. They heard Frank Oz, who co-directed, Jim Henson, and puppets, and I think they went expecting The Muppet Movie. This was 1982, and they got The Dark Crystal instead, which is really dark. A lot of the-like the theme is good versus evil, and the evil in it is really, really evil. And the stuff that happens to some of the puppets, including really cute puppets, is really horrifying. And I read this awesome quote by Frank Oz, and basically he says, "Jim thought it was okay to scare kids. As a matter of fact, he thought it wasn't healthy for kids to never be scared."

Chuck: Interesting.

Josh: So he purposefully was trying to scare kids, and he wanted to take the tradition back to Grimm fairy tales, which were very, very dark and graphic.

Chuck: Oh yeah, that's a good point.

Josh: That's what he was going for with The Dark Crystal.

Chuck: Yeah, I think it was ahead of its time, for sure.

Josh: Yeah?

Chuck: If you look at some of these, some of the CGI movies today, I think that Dark Crystal was a precursor to a lot of those.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: Then he went on to make the movie the Labyrinth.

Josh: With Bowie, right?

Chuck: Yeah, David Bowie and a very-

Josh: Tom Cruise.

Chuck: -young Jennifer Connelly. No, that was Legend.

Josh: Oh, okay.

Chuck: A good movie. But this was written by Terry Jones of Monty Python fame, and then rewritten a bunch by a bunch of other people, including executive producer George Lucas. Labyrinth was okay, not bad. Again, not a huge hit for Henson, though, as far as movies go, but he was still out there exploring these cool, fantastical worlds and fantasy worlds.

Josh: And he still had a lot of cred, even in the late '80s. If you think about it, his heyday was the late '70s, early '80s with The Muppet Show, the Muppet movies, and then after that it was like, "Yeah, I'll try this with Jim Henson. Oh, I'll try this with Jim Henson." And even still, he was on a pretty great streak. And at the end of the '80s he had two TV shows on, The Jim Henson Hour and The Storyteller.

Chuck: Yeah, The Jim Henson Hour, he was always pushing the boundaries. The Storyteller, looking back now, or I'm sorry, Jim Henson Hour, looking back was really different from what you were getting at the time, because it was all over the map. You had certain shows that were four or five sketches in one, and then three of the episodes were full-on, one hour little mini movies.

Josh: Oh, really?

Chuck: Yeah, from beginning to end.

Josh: That's like Louie.

Chuck: Yeah, that's a good point actually. One of the little mini movies was called Dog City, which was great. It was narrated by Rowlf, and it was-I remember watching this, it was like a film noir gangster thing with puppet dogs. And the main character Ace Yu, was the guy who did Elmo, Kevin Clash, did the character of Ace Yu, and that was fantastic. I think Dog City went on to be a TV show in its own right, too, for a little while. But it was really good, I mean it's total gangster crime, film noir, but it's Rowlf the Dog and the gang.

Josh: Right. I love Rowlf.

Chuck: It was really cool.

Josh: The Storyteller, I hadn't seen before. I was I guess aware of, but I don't why I wasn't watching it because it would have been right there for me, because I would have been 12 in 1988. But I watched one today and it was really good. It's like human-puppet interaction, which is-and it's just seamless. One of the things from studying this that I've realized is we take for granted and expect our puppet-human interactions to be so seamless that we don't even realize that we're looking at puppets right then. And the reason why we expect that is because of Jim Henson and the people he worked with and inspired to work so hard at creating that illusion.

Chuck: Well, yeah, the illusion that these are living, breathing things. He would go, I remember Kermit as a guest on talk shows; he wouldn't go out as Jim Henson, he would go out as-I mean he did those appearances as well, but Kermit the Frog would be a guest on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Josh: Or host.

Chuck: Or guest host The Tonight Show.

Josh: And Larry King.

Chuck: Yeah. And it was all part of this goal of making these real people, or real living things, not people.

Josh: Yeah, apparently somebody who was working with Jim Henson was, I guess, a director of The Muppet Show, would be giving Jim notes on Kermit, and Jim would just respond, let Kermit respond.

Chuck: That would freak me out.

Josh: And the director said eventually you're just sitting there, you turn and you address Kermit. Like he'd just force you into interacting with the puppet, even during a notes session.

Chuck: Yeah, and probably without feeling silly or stupid or anything. It probably seemed like a totally normal thing to do.

Josh: Eventually, once he forced you to do it.

Chuck: He also pioneered the Henson Performance Control System, and won an Academy Award for that, and that was a remote control system that helped puppeteers out. So he was always pushing technical, visual, stylistic, thematic boundaries as far as he could, and they didn't always work. The movies weren't, aside from The Muppet Movie, they weren't the biggest hits. The TV show, a couple of-neither one of those lasted very long. But I think he was just intent on doing something different.

Josh: Yeah. And he did too. And he died in 1990 of a staph infection. Organ failure brought on by a staph infection, did you know that?

Chuck: Yeah, I think pneumonia had something to do with it, too, didn't it?

Josh: Not that I saw.

Chuck: Oh, really?

Josh: I saw organ failure caused by group A strep infection-I'm sorry, not staph.

Chuck: Very sad. And if you're ever in the mood for a good cry, watch the Jim Henson memorial where Big Bird sings "It's Not Easy Being Green."

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Tough stuff, people. His children, his legacy lives on through, in 1993, Jane, his wife, formed, founded the Jim Henson Legacy to preserve his contributions, share them with the public. And like I said, he donated 500 puppets to the Center of Puppetry Arts, and there is also the Jim Henson Memorial and Muppet Museum, and traveling exhibits, and his sons and daughters help run his foundations and some of them are puppeteers themselves.

Josh: And company too.

Chuck: And run the company. The company has changed hands a lot. I have sort of the boring history. When he was still alive, he was going to sell it to Disney for $150 million.

Josh: Yeah, because apparently he believed in Disney's commitment to characters, so he thought that would be a good place for the Muppets to live.

Chuck: Yeah, and Disney went, [MAKES SINISTER LAUGH] "He bought it." But he did not get that deal finished, but it turns out $150 million was chump change, because in 2000 his children sold the entire company, including the Sesame Street characters to a German media company for $680 million.

Josh: Wow.

Chuck: And then I believe that company fell on hard times and they bought it back in 2003 for $84 million. Isn't that crazy?

Josh: Wow, the Henson children are smart.

Chuck: And in between all of that, there are various exchanges of percentages of stakes with other companies and rights of certain characters. It's a little dull to go over all of that, but needless to say, they made out pretty well. And eventually Disney now does-they do own all the Muppet Studio.

Josh: They own the Muppets. Apparently the Henson Company sold the rights to the Sesame Street characters, to Sesame Street, which is pretty cool.

Chuck: Right, yes.

Josh: And the Jim Henson Creature Shop still builds the Sesame Street puppets and Muppets.

Chuck: Yeah. It says they sold the right to the Muppets, and Bear in the Big Blue House characters, which I'm not familiar with that one.

Josh: Nor am I.

Chuck: But Disney wanted the-I guess that's sort of the player to be named later that's included in the baseball trade.

Josh: Right. Man, I'm proud of the Henson kids.

Chuck: Yeah, they're great. And I hope we get tweeted about this one from them, they seem pretty great. Brian and Cheryl and the gang, they seem like they're doing right by the dad, and there is other siblings, too, and I think they're all involved, super involved. And sadly Jane passed away, I think, in 2013 at the age of 78. I would have loved to have seen what kind of work he did later in his life.

Josh: Oh yeah, the fact that he died in 1990, still had a couple of TV shows going, I mean-

Chuck: He was 53 years old.

Josh: Yeah, he had a lot of work left in him.

Chuck: The world was robbed.

Josh: If you want to know more about Jim Henson, go listen to our Muppets episode, and while you're looking that up, you can also search Jim Henson on the search bar at HowStuffWorks.com and it'll bring up this great article. And since I said search bar, it's time for listener mail.

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Chuck: I'm going to call this smart sophomore. "Hey guys, my name is Matt, and I'm a sophomore in high school."

Josh: A smart sophomore.

Chuck: A smart sophomore. "I'm a newer fan of the show and I listen while I do everything. I just wanted to say the Dark Ages were only dark in Europe. The life expectancy in the Dark Ages was actually a little longer than before, but mostly because there were smaller wars, but things were certainly brighter in the Islamic world. In fact, people in the Middle East were really enlightened during this time. Within about 100 years, they conquered a lot of new land, including Spain. Also the Arabic language grew to be the language of philosophy, medicine, and poetry, and Baghdad became the world's center of scholarship. They translated almost all of the famous Greek philosophers' work into Arabic. Muslims developed algebra to simplify inheritance laws, and they made important strides in trigonometry to help people find a way to Mecca. Architecture grew too. The Great Mosque in Spain only took roughly a year while medieval cathedrals took hundreds of years to build. So the Dark Ages weren't that dark and the Enlightenment came earlier than most think." And that is from Matt.

Josh: Thanks, Matt.

Chuck: That is enlightening stuff, my friend.

Josh: Yeah, our numerals are Arabic.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: It's true.

Chuck: We should hit on some more Middle Eastern topics.

Josh: Let's do it, man.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: In the meantime, if you want to suggest some Middle Eastern topics for us, you can tweet them to us @SYSKPodcast, you can post them on our Facebook page at Facebook.com/StuffYouShouldKnow, you can send us an email to StuffPodcast@HowStuffWorks.com, and as always, hang out at our beautiful home on the web, StuffYouShouldKnow.com.

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Vo: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com.

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