You clapped, didn’t you? You know you did. Even if it was just in your head.
Jim Henson’s birthday was this week. On the 24th he would have been 76 years old. I’m not going to go off on another dead hero rant, I promise. But I do wonder what the world would be like if he were still here. Would he perhaps have gone the way of George Lucas and revolutionized his particular corner of the entertainment industry? It’s so hard to speculate, considering how far our technology has come since his death. Which is not to say that the Henson corporation hasn’t continued to do great work in Jim’s absence. But he had such a unique vision, such a singular approach to looking at the bigger issues and making them palatable to little, impressionable minds.
“What the fuck are you talking about, Vanessa? They’re just puppets.”
No they are not just puppets!
Ok, yeah, they’re puppets. But as a child of the Muppet/Sesame Street/Fraggle Rock era, I will always think of the Henson characters as more than just puppets. I don’t care if that’s just my having an overactive nostalgia gland. I love them. And I always will. And in retrospect “nostalgia gland” was a grosser-than-I-meant-it-to-be phrase.
The Fraggles are by far my favorite of the characters in the Henson universe. (And Kermit. But really, who doesn’t love Kermit? It’s Not Easy Being Green? Come on.) I’m not sure why I dig them so much. Probably because I loved them first. When I was little, I lived in Scotland and they showed Fraggle Rock on one of the BBC channels. Oddly, (and I’m not sure how many Americans are aware of this) the show was different in the UK. It’s actually got different versions all over the world. Not the whole show, but the old tinker guy who lived in the shop where Uncle Traveling Matt’s postcards would arrive was another guy. In my reality, it was a lighthouse, and he was an old, grizzled Scottish guy in a yellow slicker, and it was always raining. I was so freaked out when we moved to the States and he wasn’t the same dude. My whole five-year-old universe was shaken. Traumatic.
But weird as that experience was, that was kind of the whole point of Fraggle Rock. To bring people together and to show kids that while we’re all different, we’re all a part of the same world. I’m not being sappy. That was Henson’s goal with Fraggle Rock. I have the first season on DVD and the liner notes are a recreation of one of his notebooks, with all his ideas and original production notes for the show. I can’t even look through it without weeping. He really thought that we could bring about world peace by teaching children to be nice to each other.
Here’s the thing: it’s not a bad idea. Henson wasn’t wrong. And what a wonderful world it would be if we all had that sort of optimism. If we thought about our children like…oh, I don’t know…people. With ideas and behavior and logic that we would nurture and find interesting and ask them about instead of trying to stuff them in some stupid box labeled “this is what children are supposed to be.”
Yeah, yeah, maybe that’s a flighty artist thing to say. And maybe the woman with no kids shouldn’t tell people how to raise their spawn. But I so often see people treating their children like handbags, just dragging them around, not even really paying attention to them. Especially when I was working in the kids’ department at the Giant Evil Bookstore. It was all day, every day, with moms and dads ignoring kids who just wanted to show them something or ask them a question. Like kids do. Because they’re sponges. And being shut down, time after time, what does that do to their little spongy brains? Teaches them not to ask questions. Teaches them to keep their mouths shut. Teaches them that that old Victorian axiom is correct. The one about being seen and not heard? Oh, except for when they’re working eighteen hour shifts in the shoe factory. You know, like women.
Ahem. Sorry. I get all ranty during election cycles.
Point is, Jim Henson’s idea with every show he did was to teach kids something not only about the world but also about themselves. That interconnectedness being instilled at such a young age, as such a underlying basis for everything else, can lead to all kinds of side-effects, up to and including: environmentalism, comparative sociology, and caring about one’s fellow man.
Plus? Bonus? Puppets. Score. I love puppets. What a weird art form, performing with puppets. How fundamentally schizophrenic. It’s acting, yes, but it’s almost like doing voiceover for animation at the same time. While also operating heavy machinery. Which the actor can’t see, and is doing totally by feel and by muscle memory. That’s crazy talent. I can’t even imagine how difficult it is to get into that business. Especially now, when everything’s done by CG and puppets are kind of a dying relic of the old way of making movies. Miniatures, too. All of which makes me sad. Like how CG Yoda made me sad. So, so sad. And that’s why I didn’t see the new Muppets movie. I didn’t want to hate it. Because when I piss off my inner child I drink too much.
That was a really fucked-up thing to say. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. And knowing is half the battle.
Anyway, it’s the thirtieth anniversary of Fraggle Rock next year, so they’re coming out of retirement to do some new stuff. Including this little piece of awesome. Which is a decent enough exchange for making me feel old. And big huge happy birthday hugs to Jim Henson. Ghosty hugs, I guess. Thanks for making childhood better for three generations of human beings all over the planet. Maybe someday we really will find it.