Monday, August 20, 2018

Jim Henson: Genius

Yesterday my wife and I finally made it to the Jim Henson exhibition that has been running all summer at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and will be closing in two weeks. It's got puppets, drawings, models, and videos from across his entire career, from the 50s to his untimely death in 1990. It was a great experience, drawing a huge multi-generational crowd where the parents were just as excited and emotional as their kids. I couldn't resist getting a photo with the oracular pile of offal that gives this blog its name (even though it was just a huge photo, not the actual puppet), as can be seen in the new cover photo. 

What really struck me seeing all of Henson's life work collected before me is how key a role he played in my childhood - from Sesame Street as a very small child to the Muppet Show (and movies, especially the first one), Fraggle Rock, and The Dark Crystal, he was a constant presence for the first decade of my life. By the time Labyrinth came out (in 1986) I disdained it as kid-stuff but I came to appreciate it later, as an adult (in no small part as I discovered that girls around my age with nerdy proclivities all adore it - I don't think I ever dated a girl who wouldn't include it on her list of all-time favorite movies). Thinking about it now and looking back, I see how much of an influence his sensibility had on me - his imagination and proclivity towards the surreal and fantastic, his irreverent sense of humor, his lack of condescension or cynicism, his work-ethic and meticulous sense of craft and artistry, and his DIY free spirit. This was a guy who loved TV and puppetry, and had a boundless imagination and hippie idealism, and spent his entire life working to bring those strands together and create something that hadn't been seen before but has become so ubiquitously and indispensably ingrained in our culture in the decades since that we now take it completely for granted - of course there will always be weird wise-cracking felt puppets of impossible creatures who straddle the line between entertainment for children and for adults.

There's no historical survey or detailed analysis here because Jim Henson isn't somebody I've studied in any sort of consciously comprehensive manner - I haven't read books about him and don't know that much about his life or his puppetry techniques or any of that stuff. I just know him through his work, and even that I know mostly on a sort of pre-conscious emotional level, remembered from the mists of my early childhood. But it has a strong pull on me, a deep inner resonance, that experiencing the exhibit yesterday really brought home to me. Encountering those felt puppets of Kermit and Grover and Beaker and the Fraggles and the gelflings and skeksis, I understood and realized how much of a presence and influence Jim Henson and his creations were for me, even without me ever consciously being aware of it, and that feels like a profound discovery - a key to a new, unexplored room of my inner self.

All of which is to say that if you were a kid in the 70s or 80s, and will be in Los Angeles during the next couple weeks (or this exhibition travels near to where you live), I really recommend going to see it, but prepare yourself to be overwhelmed by a wave of nostalgia and emotion.


  1. I agree and Frank Oz without Henson is missing something huge especially with the Yoda outings.

    Its like without the Muppets without Henson is like its missing a potential for more.

  2. It’s a shame I didn’t have time to see it when I was in town last week, or catch with you for that matter.