The 2010 Muppet Madness Tournament was a new experience for the Muppet fan community, and it made the question, “Who’s your favorite Muppet?” even more difficult than usual. In its original home at the MuppetCast website, there was a comments section at the bottom of the webpage with the tournament, in which fans argued about the Muppetiness (or lack thereof) of Skeeter, and the unfairness of Ernie and Bert running together. I recall mentioning in a discussion in that comment section that I tended to prefer characters performed by Jim Henson specifically to the other Muppet characters at the time. Naturally, I was quickly told by other fans not to discount the great characters by Frank, Jerry, Richard, Dave, and all of the other masterful Muppeteers, because the other performers have created brilliant characters as well. I knew this to be true of course, and I loved the work of the other Muppeteers, but at the time, I was fascinated with Jim’s characters specifically, and I had to think for a while about why that was the case. I eventually found that each of Jim’s characters displays a very real part of Jim, and I was learning about him more and more whenever I watched a performance of his. Perhaps part of the magic of the Muppets is that one can make a personal connection with a Muppeteer just by getting to know the character he/she performs.
That tournament was four and a half years ago now, so I had been listening to the MuppetCast for about two years, and I would start Eleven Point Collar about two years later, but I still had a lot to learn about Jim at the time. I had read about him a good bit, but much of what I knew about him I knew from watching his work. His messages about loving and respecting one another, getting along harmoniously, and having a positive outlook on life clearly shine through every one of his productions. His lighter side is revealed through his Muppet work, his darker side through Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, and Witches, and his deep, philosophical side through The Cube, Time Piece, and essentially everything he did. His performances, however, were especially revealing about him, since many have noted that each of his characters are a part of who he is. Ernie exemplifies Jim’s relationship with Frank Oz, and Rowlf, Dr. Teeth, and Cantus all express Jim’s passion for different kinds of music. Kermit is very much Jim in puppet form, though Jim rightly noted that “Kermit is a little snarkier.” Jim also rightly noted, “Puppetry is putting a mirror up to ourselves.”
Another definition of puppetry could be finding a very real part of oneself that is interesting, and expressing it through one’s hands. This may explain why some Muppets are designed to look like Muppeteers, and some are named after or modeled after their friends and loved ones. Whenever Frank Oz performed Miss Piggy, he had to find his feminine side, and he had to get hurt. Finding this very real part of himself is essential to playing the character well, just as it is essential that each Muppet performer finds his/her character within himself/herself. However, in what way is this different from method acting? How do the Muppets have the ability to make an audience feel they have a sort of relationship with the performers?
In a live chat on Facebook promoting Muppets Most Wanted, Ty Burrell said that he first met the Muppets when he was six or seven, which made everyone else at the panel surprised and confused until he clarified, “I met you on TV.” (Ricky Gervais replied, “You’re one of those fans, are you?”) Somehow, it seems crazy when one claims to have met people through watching them on television, but not nearly as crazy when the people are Muppets. Perhaps this is because the performers put so much of themselves into their roles that, whenever viewers see Muppets, they are seeing the artistic expression of a person’s soul. However, I would like to have a better understanding of this phenomenon (do doo do do do).
All that I really know is that I feel that I know Jim Henson very well for someone who never met the man. When I watch videos of him that I have never seen before, I sometimes find I know what he is thinking and doing before he says it. I have a sense for the type of things he would like, and the type of reply he would give to them. I cannot help but wonder why this is, and that is why I ask that Muppet Hub’s readers reply with any thoughts, ideas, or comments regarding this topic. What do you think – are Muppet fans friends with Jim?