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Muppets: Triumph of the Baby Boomers

Who doesn't love the Muppets? Between Sesame Street, the Muppet Show, the films, and other series such as Fraggle Rock (the first US TV series to be shown in the Soviet Union), it's safe to say, “not many.” On Sunday, we visited the nearby Natural History Museum, which is currently hosting the traveling exhibit Jim Henson's Fantastic World, and learned about the man behind the foam and felt, Jim Henson.

Jim Henson's life and career trajectory arcs like a contrived story on the order of Zelig or Forrest Gump, because he always seems to be in the right place at the right time, when, in fact, it's not due to luck, but to hard work, creativity, and a canny sense of when to re-purpose creative ideas, whether successful, failed, or not quite ready when they're conceived. His family had a TV in the early 50s, and his way to get “on the TV” was to do a puppet show, and he got a five-minute slot on the local TV station when he was very young. He went to college to hone his art skills, and then built up a local audience with a show called “Sam and Friends,” and did a lot of commercial work, a lot of which is pretty edgy for its time. Every effort, no matter how small, was a learning experience or an opportunity to hone the craft.

It's almost too easy to connect him with the larger trends of his generation, like the wide-openness of TV in its infancy. Or the jazz-influenced artwork and dialog in the sketches for the local TV work. By 1964, he was interviewed on the Mike Douglas show, looking like a cleaned-up beatnik with a significant beard. Technological developments were also a factor in how the Muppets worked – while Henson studied in Europe to immerse himself in the deep tradition of puppeteering, the Muppets themselves were puppets for TV, built to be more expressive, and ready for their closeups. Also crucial to this expressiveness was the use of small TV monitors so that the puppeteers could observe their own performance and refine it for the way the TV camera saw it. As he built up his company, he also experimented with film in such works as Time Piece (1965) and The Cube (1969) (produced as part of NBC's Experiment In Television). (Both of these are available on iTunes.)

In short, by the early 1970s, Henson was riding the same societal and technological waves as his generational cohorts, and just by following what he wanted to do, managed get into a position where he was either entertaining or educating a large portion of the world's TV viewers.

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