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Friday, April 24, 2015

Profiles in Exceptionalism: Jim Henson

Muppets, markets, and rational optimism

One of my favorite books is called the Rational Optimist. In it, author Matt Ridley describes how he remains sanguine amid the fearful expectations of so many in the modern world (e.g., “The middle class is disappearing,” “I’m going to lose my job if I don’t check my email every two minutes,” “The world’s going to end because of [bad thing]”).

Ridley explains how today’s virtually instant worldwide communication facilitates unimaginable innovation, arguing progress only occurs when “ideas have sex”:

When Hero of Alexandria invented a steam engine in the first century A.D. and employed it in opening temple doors, news of his invention spread so slowly and to so few people that it may never have reached the ears of cart designers.

Ptolemaic astronomy was ingenious and precise, if not quite accurate, but it was never used for navigation because astronomers and sailors did not meet.

The secret of the modern world is its gigantic interconnectedness. Ideas are having sex with other ideas from all over the planet with ever-increasing promiscuity. The telephone had sex with the computer and spawned the Internet.

Ideas having sex birth cultural innovations, too. Facebook (the Internet and the coffee house), art therapy (artistic expression and counseling), and Twilight (cool vampires and sappy romances) are only three recent entrants into our culture among countless others.

Another was the crossing of a marionette with a puppet to create some of the most endearing and meaningful characters American pop culture has ever seen.

Jim Henson created a cultural phenomenon with the Muppets, simultaneously teaching and entertaining millions of people worldwide.

I grew up with the characters from Jim Henson’s imagination. There’s Kermit the Frog (which he voiced), Miss Piggy, Big Bird, the Fraggles, and Statler and Waldorf. Less known–but still among my favorites–are Prairie Dawn, Guy Smiley, Sweetums, and Janice.

I learned how to count to ten in Spanish from Sesame Street, and of the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus from The Storyteller.

He also first taught me about markets.

From Sesame Street, many other young minds first learned how to act decently toward others, and even about the concept of death when Mr. Hooper never returned to his shop.

Although the Muppets weren’t really alive, they represented a diversity of personalities and ideas that mirrored humanity. Kermit was the responsible, serious one. Miss Piggy was the self-centered diva. Gonzo was the weirdo. Fozzie wanted so badly to be funny. Sam the Eagle was reflexively patriotic. And Animal was just crazy.

Henson made it easier for people to understand themselves and others by watching the antics of foam creatures with googly eyes. In fact, their personalities were so familiar that you found yourself looking into their plastic eyes as you would make eye contact with another living person.

“I feel that almost everyone maintains a childlike quality throughout their adulthood,” Henson said. “One of the nice things about the puppet form is that it has the ability to communicate with this childlike side of the audience. The personalities of the Muppet characters are really quite innocent and everyone, in some way or another, seems to be able to relate to this innocence.”

I remember when Henson died in 1990 at the age of 53. My little brother had just been born. CBS quickly aired a special program in Henson’s honor in which Kermit was absent until the very end. He walks into a scene in which all the Muppets are singing about believing in one’s self, and soon reveals his new voice.

You can watch Kermit’s first appearance after Henson’s death here.

I remember noticing Kermit’s voice was different, but he was still the same serious, green frog. Henson had died, but the show went on.

In the years since, we’ve seen a lot of the Muppets on television, in merchandise, and in films and commercials. There was a new movie last year, which was optimistic and entertaining if not the finest Muppet adventure.

Jim Henson’s Creature Shop continues to create new sorts of puppets and animatronics for films such as Where The Wild Things Are. Sesame Street is still very much on the air and now has spinoffs in Israel, Germany, Latin America, and Japan.

Jim Henson’s Muppets spread American values such as tolerance, hard work, and individualism across the globe. His optimism about humanity continues to create value, open minds, and make people laugh.

“I know I drive some people crazy with what seems like ridiculous optimism,” Henson said, “but it has always worked for me.”

His positive attitude, many achievements, and lasting cultural legacy in education and entertainment made Jim Henson a truly exceptional individual.

  • Richard N. Lorenc is Chief Growth Officer of Iron Light, an award-winning strategic marketing firm specializing in helping purpose-driven brands change the world. He served at FEE from April 2013-November 2021, most recently as FEE's Executive Vice President.