Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending…
It was 2009. I was just turning 30 and, as I watched those final moments to “The Muppet Movie,” tears were streaming down my face.
It had been years since I’d seen the Muppets’ first cinematic foray; decades, even. I don’t even know what made me decide to revisit it on the cusp of turning 30. I think that, at the behest of some coworkers, I’d recently rented “The Muppet Show” on DVD and rediscovered the fondness I’d had for Jim Henson’s creations. I remembered laughing at them as a child and I wanted to revisit a movie that I’d enjoyed as a kid to see if it held up.
My life wasn’t where I wanted it to be at that point. I’d initially dreamed of being a best-selling author or screenwriter, and then I fell in love with a career in journalism. I worked for several years as a reporter at a weekly community paper; to this day, it was the best job I’ve ever had. I wrote stories that I enjoyed, found a voice as a columnist and took my first steps into film criticism. But I ultimately had to step aside from that career to pursue one in a field that wasn’t collapsing and could afford to pay me a living wage. As I turned 30, I was working at a well-paying but ultimately disheartening job in marketing for the U.S. Army. It was an environment much removed from the loose, casual and exciting news office, a political and ego-driven field where people were prone to make irrational demands and scream at their subordinates. I went from writing about matters of the community and art to writing about powertrains and vehicle engineering.
I wasn’t depressed, but I was resigned that my days of writing something I was passionate about would forever be relegated to the dream dumpster. I viewed 30 as a point of no return, and I was frustrated that I had a job I didn’t enjoy. I was single and watching my friends and family get married and have kids. I had no money, and the prior year’s election had disenchanted me with politics, Christianity and the belief in human decency.
And so, one lonely Friday night, I popped in James Frawley’s 1979 film; coincidentally, it was also turning 30 that year. And as the first banjo strains of “The Rainbow Connection” played, it was as if something inside of me woke up. Yes, I laughed at the felt anarchy of The Muppets, but I was shocked by the emotional pull that the film’s sincerity had on me. As Kermit sat in his swamp singing, “I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it, it’s something that I’m supposed to be…”, I felt old dreams and passions stirring. As he pursued his path to “make millions of people happy,” I remembered the joy I used to take in creativity and the belief I had that entertainment could be a force for good in our world. As they hit that aforementioned final line of the “Rainbow Connection” reprise, I felt a surge of hope and optimism. Thirty wasn’t the end; my life wasn’t finished yet and my passions didn’t have to die. I could pursue whatever path I wanted and still chase my dreams. Thirty years after the film was released, Jim Henson still had lessons to teach me.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Henson — who would have turned 80 years old today — has been my tutor through so much of my life. He’s in the lineup of men I’ve never met — including C.S. Lewis, John Piper and Walt Disney — who’ve kept me sane.
Like many people, Jim Henson taught me how to read. I can’t overstate the importance of “Sesame Street” in my life, a playful and creative show where learning was exciting and fun, where my parents laughed at just as many jokes as I did. If you haven’t picked up Michael Davis’ book “Street Gang,” I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s the story of how crucial “Sesame Street” was to our culture, how it became a vital learning tool for many young kids, particularly in the inner-city. I grew up in the suburbs, but it was just as important in my life. I learned how to count, read and speak Spanish (and a bit of French) from the show. And it wouldn’t have had the impact it did were it not for Jim Henson’s muppet creations and the wit, originality and humor they brought to the program. It took the usually stuffy PBS educational format and stood it on its head, turning it into something colorful, vibrant, funny and memorable. My own kids still watch the show, and I get a rush of nostalgia any time I see Big Bird, Cookie Monster or Ernie; it’s like revisiting old friends.
But that’s not the only education Henson and his “Sesame Street” collaborators gave. They taught me how to be a person. They taught me about the power of friendship, the importance of sharing and that success came through cooperation. They taught me that no matter what someone looked like, where they came from, or how they acted, they shouldn’t be treated differently. They taught me not just that everyone is different, but that those differences make us beautiful. They make up this whole crazy, funny, flawed and exciting world. I was well into my twenties or thirties before I heard “tolerance” or “diversity” preached about in church or from family. But I already knew it was a good thing. “Sesame Street” and its Muppet inhabitants taught me that as a kid. Indeed some have argued that my generation shouldn’t have been called Generation X but Generation Henson.
But even more than “Sesame Street,” it was Kermit, Fozzie, Piggy, Gonzo and the gang that first gave me a love for laughter and entertainment. I’d get up at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday mornings to watch “The Muppet Show,” and I always laughed hard, even if some of the jokes went over my head. It was the rare kids’ show I could watch with my parents; they thought it was just as funny and clever (and, indeed, my love for that show has only increased as an adult). There wasn’t a lesson to learn on “The Muppet Show.” It was just a celebration of entertainment. It was where Henson and his collaborators could indulge their love of vaudeville, push the boundaries of puppetry and just be as silly as they wanted. Go back and watch some of those old episodes and they’re crackling with a sense of fun, as if the whole thing exists just to amuse Henson, Frank Oz and the rest of the gang. If you watch the co-hosts, they’re having just as much fun. Milton Berle was a funny man; was he ever funnier than when he went toe to toe with Statler and Waldorf?
But more importantly, every Jim Henson project was a work of sincerity and optimism, devoid of cynicism. The Muppets put on a show not to get rich and famous (well, except for the Rich and Famous Contract), but because there was a joy not just in putting on a show but in doing it together. They liked each other. They liked working together, and they liked making people happy. Sure, the Muppets were fictional characters, but their personalities are rooted in the collaboration between Henson, Oz, Jerry Juhl and the rest. The Muppets of “The Muppet Show” and “Sesame Street” were characters of joy and optimism, whose diversity made them stronger, whose collaborations made them better, and who got their own joy out of bringing it to others. Sure, the fourth wall jokes were funny and the songs were catchy. But more than anything, it was that sincerity that mad them so memorable (and it’s what made the recent “Muppets” TV show so bitter).
I’m sad that Jim Henson died at 53. How much more could he have done? What other creations would we be celebrating?
And yet, few people have a legacy that lives as strongly. Today, children still learn to count and read from “Sesame Street,” even if they have to have HBO access to do so. Kermit and his pals went through a rough patch in the nineties and the aughts, but they’ve come back pretty strong lately, with a truly fantastic movie in 2011 and fun sequel a few years later. Sure, there was the rough TV show. But they’re going to get perhaps the biggest sign of fictional immortality soon when they debut their own show at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Henson was a major influence in the career of Frank Oz, a director I fear we don’t appreciate as much as we should. Adults still cherish “Labyrinth” and “The Dark Crystal,” and I love the way his work has had an impact on everything from “Star Wars” to “Little Shop of Horrors” (what I call the most gruesome Muppet movie ever made).
And he still has lessons to teach me. I continue to revisit Henson’s work and be amazed at his creativity and optimism. Brian Jay Jones’ recent biography is a must-read, and every Christmas I still not only watch “The Muppet Christmas Carol” but also pull up “A Muppet Family Christmas” on YouTube; and yes, I still get choked up during Henson’s cameo at the end. As I pursue a master’s degree and new career path, I’m inspired by Kermit’s words from the start of this post; indeed, they’re hanging on a sign in my office. And Henson’s own words about parenting, that “kids don’t remember what you try to teach them’ they remember what you are” is one I try to remember as I raise my own kids.
And he’s gaining a new line of fans. This week, I pulled up some Cookie Monster and Ernie clips on my phone and showed them to my daughter. My son’s favorite toy is a stuffed Fozzie Bear that someone got him before he was even born; for four years, he’s taken that bear everywhere. He loves the old and new Muppet movies and, just this week, asked if we could watch some old episodes of “The Muppet Show” again sometime. When he was a baby, I’d sing him “The Rainbow Connection” to get him to sleep. Sometimes, when we’re in the car, that song will come up on my iPod and we’ll sing it together. And it’s moments like that where I remember, again, how much I want to thank Jim Henson not just for the memories he gave me, but for the one I’m still making.