To Play Well With Others: A Letter of Gratitude to Jim Henson
"Who knows? You could make millions of people happy."
This is awkward—I doubt that you can hear me. But I'm willing to risk embarrassment, and that's partly your fault.
You see, you're the one who encouraged me to dream big, take risks, silence fears of failure, and pour my life into ideas that had no guarantee of making it past the front door.
You introduced me to a frog who left his swampland home and headed for Hollywood with nothing but a banjo and a dream. You created a wild-eyed daredevil who liked to blast himself out of cannons, and who exclaimed from the basket of a high-flying hot air balloon, "I'd like to try this without the balloon!"
So even though you're not here, I want you to hear this.
* * *
I was born in 1970, just a few months after you launched Sesame Street, a television show full of children and child-like characters who became my community. My childhood in Portland, Oregon, was a happy one, and my family was caring and supportive of creativity, like yours had been in Leland, Mississippi, in the late 1930s. But my neighbourhood was populated with quiet adults who kept to themselves. Watching your brilliant, puppet-populated program on my family's black and white television, my life became so much more colourful.
I felt right at home on the steps of those row houses where inquisitive children and Muppets engaged in thoughtful conversations, often advised by a kind-hearted couple named Gordon and Susan (the first African Americans I'd ever "met") and the lovely Maria from Puerto Rico.
The insatiably curious Big Bird encouraged me to ask questions. When Ernie antagonized Bert, I learned a little about how to play well with others. Cookie Monster's appetites made me laugh in recognition, even if his recklessness was something of a caution.
I learned a lot, actually, watching Sesame Street—precisely because I wasn't there to learn. I was there to play.
And isn't that the nature of play?
From you, Jim, I learned that play isn't contrived to "produce" a "result." It's more unpredictable than school. At play, I came to appreciate the importance of every letter from A to Z, and numbers were fun with a friendly vampire called Count. These sketches never felt like a lecture or a quiz, because no scene was so serious that it couldn't take a hilarious turn . . . but nothing was so silly that it didn't have something to teach me.
You also showed me that play is more engaging than mere entertainment. It does not ask me to sit still and pay attention, but rather to lean forward and participate. It won't tolerate idleness. It's personal. Big Bird and Grover looked right through the glass and made eye contact with me. I was invited to answer questions, solve problems, and sing along with what became my childhood soundtrack.
Kermit the Frog sang "Bein' Green," acknowledging the loneliness—and the privilege—of being unusual. I found comfort in that. And thanks to Ernie's song to his Rubber Ducky, bath time became an occasion for play instead of dread.
You loved to play, and you played so well—not by yourself or for yourself, but with and for others. People want to be part of a world like that. As your play became your work, so the rest of us learned that work was better as play. You loved what you were doing. That love was contagious. Your creative partner Frank Oz remembers, "He worked harder than anyone else in the company. But he would never complain about how tired he was or how he was shouldering so much. Never . . . He loved his work."
Thank you for that, Jim.
* * *
As I watched Sesame Street, my suspension of disbelief grew stronger.
And when our faulty television blacked out, I learned to beat that TV like a drum, my little fist striking the set just right of centre—a sort of CPR to bring Ernie and Bert back to life.
Then I'd wrestle the TV's rabbit-ear antenna until the two ping-pong-ball eyes of that intrepid news reporter, Kermit the Frog, came into focus so that I could watch him interview characters from my favourite fairy-tale story-books. Even as Muppets taught me to read, they were teaching me to play with the conventions of storytelling.
In between episodes, I found myself caught in a fantastic contradiction. I believed in the Muppets, but I was also enthralled with the magic that brought them to life. People had made them with paint and paper, scissors and glue!
I can make monsters like those! I thought. So I scattered art supplies across my bedroom, eager to participate. I went to work—cutting, colouring, and pasting yarn and cotton balls to the brown-paper lunch bags my mother brought home from the grocery store, until inanimate objects came to life.
That's the first step toward any kind of art—imitation of those who inspire you.
You knew that. You loved Edgar Bergen and Walt Disney. You wanted to bring characters to life on television too. Your beloved grandmother, who you called "Dear," she encouraged you just as my parents threw all kinds of fuel on my own creative aspirations.
You found your materials everywhere. In 1955, you cut up an old green coat that belonged to your mother and created the first Kermit. When you gave it a voice, a personality, and a place on your first program, Sam and friends, you were on your way, answering a call.
When I was six, you launched a variety show called The Muppet Show, and that changed everything. The Muppets weren't just for kids anymore. They were on TV during grownup hours! They were singing, dancing, Lawrence Welk-ing. And even though they were spoofing other shows, it was often more exciting than the source material. What had seemed a stark line between "kids' stuff" and "grownup stuff" began to blur. If grownups enjoyed watching Muppets, then the future looked more promising, less like a gradual departure from play.
And when my parents took me to the Mall 205 Cinemas in 1979 to see the next giant leap for Muppet-kind—The Muppet Movie—I sat there wide-eyed, my heart resonating like a gong that had been struck. I heard Kermit sing, "I've heard it too many times to ignore it / It's something that I'm supposed to be" . . . and it rang true.
My grandfather had seen enough to know that I was serious, so he built me a puppet stage. I had never felt more close to you, Jim, than when I invited my brother and two children from next door to come and see my very own version of The Muppet Movie, reproduced with handmade puppets.
Not much later, I was invited to put on a Nativity story puppet show for the Christmas Eve service at my church. I could play and bring people joy! I had found a sense of purpose that would never fade. There was no place I knew to compare with pure imagination. Thank you, Jim, for showing me the way.
* * *
Play was possible on Sesame Street and The Muppet Show because there was nothing to fear. Even characters who looked funnier than me, who were clumsier, less patient, or more forgetful, were welcome. Everybody had a part to play.
I looked forward to seeing Gonzo the Great, Bunsen Honeydew, Beaker, Fozzie with his "unbearable" jokes . . . even the show's balcony-dwelling hecklers, Statler and Waldorf. You had something in common with another childhood hero—Chuck Jones—whose Looney Toons were filled with similarly outrageous characterization. In the Muppet's gallery of faces and voices, you taught me to appreciate, admire, and celebrate wildly diverse personalities. I suspect that this inclined me to enjoy all kinds of people, all kinds of art.
Would I love Bob Dylan and Tom Petty as much if I had never met Floyd and Zoot? Would I love Tom Waits as much if I had not met Rowlf the Dog? The music of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem was like an on-ramp to the highways of the Rolling Stones, Pavement, and Radiohead. I suspect even my fondness for the outrageous characters and dialects of the Coen Brothers was inspired by the Muppets' idiosyncrasies.
I didn't just enjoy the voices of the Muppets—I practiced them. When Fisher-Price produced hand puppets of Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, and Animal in 1978, I carried them around the house, doing my best to master each character's tone and phrasing.
Little did I know that your inspiration would soon lead me away from puppetry entirely, to focus my attention on writing. But I wasn't leaving you behind. I was applying what you'd taught me, mapping new fantasy worlds, discovering the distinct characteristics of new characters. I needed to love them into particularity. That was how they would become real.
In a recent Newsweek report, I read, "Preschoolers who spend more time in role-play (acting out characters) have higher measures of creativity: voicing someone else's point of view helps develop their ability to analyze situations from different perspectives."
I suspect that this role-playing also heightens their capacity to accept, enjoy, and love all kinds of people. As Frederic Buechner has written, "If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces."
When I was 17, I marched into my high school principal's office and said that I wanted to cast my classmates in a musical-comedy variety show for the stage. It didn't occur to me at the time that you, Jim, were largely responsible for the idea. The principal was pleased, and I rounded up a team of dreamers for brainstorming. Sketch comedy, song and dance, stunts, and interviews—the show had it all. It even culminated when a surprise guest—the school's humble janitor—stepped to the microphone and stunned the audience with a world-class whistling solo. (And this was 23 years before Walter would do the same thing in the climax of a new Muppet movie!)
As Kermit said in The Muppet Movie, "That's the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with." The show went on to air on public access television. More importantly, it cultivated lifelong friendships between me and my schoolmates. That class graduated as a close family, and dozens of us are still in touch more than twenty years later.
I think you had something to do with that.
* * *
I'm watching my DVD of The Muppet Movie, and I feel like I'm nine years old again.
A stranger—lost and desperate—paddles a canoe through Kermit's swamp and asks him for help. Kermit, always happy to welcome a new friend, gives him directions. The stranger, a Hollywood agent named Bernie, is impressed with Kermit. He tells him to go to Hollywood. "Who knows? You could make millions of people happy."
So Kermit leaves the swamp to follow his dream of bringing happiness through play. He welcomes all kinds of crazy dreamers and dare-devils as friends and collaborators. And when they walk into Hollywood, what happens?
It's ridiculous, actually. Impossible. But a studio head, played by Orson Welles, takes a quick look at Kermit and his friends and grants them a contract to make their dreams come true. Boom. Just like that. On the spot.
Come on. Really? Everybody knows that dreams don't come true that way.
And yet . . .
I didn't think of The Muppet Movie when, a few years ago, a stranger who read an article I'd written wrote to me and asked to see more of my writing. I didn't think of Kermit, or Bernie the Agent, when I agreed to meet her for coffee and let her browse through my novel-in-progress.
But I did think of "Kermit the Frog and company" the next morning when, prompted by a phone call from the friendly stranger, the head of a division at Random House called me and told me to box up my dreams and send them in.
I thought of you, Jim, when Random House handed me a contract for two novels.
If it weren't for you, I might not have pursued those dreams for decades. I might have been reluctant to share my rough drafts with a complete stranger. I might have given up, compromised, or become a self-marketing egomaniac.
But you're a good counsellor. I took the path of play. And that has made all the difference.
* * *
Have you noticed?
One of 2011's most critically acclaimed films is a tribute to your legacy. It's bringing joy to a new generation, and grown men and women are weeping for joy. Call them sentimental, but I think it's something more.
And yet the new movie aggravates me when Kermit doesn't talk or move the way I remember. Steve Whitmire's doing an admirable impression of you, but Kermit just isn't the same.
And that's as it should be.
The fact that the life in your characters cannot be reproduced demonstrates just how much of yourself you gave to your work. You didn't strive to duplicate what Edgar Bergen or Walt Disney had done. You honoured your heroes by following the vision you were given. And just as your characters are cherished for their particularity, so you are beloved for the particularity of your heart, your voice, your hands.
It's almost as if you were the work of a loving imagination as well.
I hope that I'm learning from your example, giving myself wholly to the particular purpose I've been given.
* * *
This Christmas, a 41-year-old writer unwrapped a gift from his parents: two sturdy 12" wooden pillars. They looked like something meant to hold paper towels on a kitchen counter.
In fact, that's exactly what they were.
But he knew at once why they had been given to him.
They were display stands for a 35-year-old Kermit the Frog hand puppet, and a 34-year-old Animal hand puppet, which would now have places of prominence on his writing desk. Friends for the journey. Patron saints of play.
Oh, by the way . . . the writing desk? It's the puppet stage that my grandfather built for me, remodeled slightly to accommodate my grown-up self. Now, with your puppets in my peripheral vision, I'm moving right along.
And I'm just one of the kids who grew up on Sesame Street.
In a book called The Works, Harry Belafonte writes:
Unless you have had the experience of sitting in a village in war-ravaged Guatemala, or a humble, boxlike room in the wretched South African township of Alexandra, or in a dust-covered hovel on a Native American reservation, or in the tin shacks that house the thousands who live desperate lives in East Kingston Jamaica, or the teeming favelas of Rio de Janeiro, or in an overcrowded, below-poverty-level dwelling in a ghetto in New York, Chicago, or Detroit, among people whose lives are dominated by their bitter struggle for existence and some bit of dignity, unless you've seen from these places the looks on the faces of small children as they watched Sesame Street or the Muppets, you'll never really understand what Jim and his colleagues have done for millions of children all over the world, children who would have never smiled, nor dared to dream, had it not been for Jim Henson.
Thanks to you, I'm still dreaming. I may not know where it will lead me, or how I'll pay the bills in the coming months. Sometimes it feels like I've chosen to take a hot air balloon ride without the balloon. But I'm learning that success is not a goal to be obtained—it's a way of living in fearlessness and faith, moment to moment. When I do, it strengthens my faith that there is purpose in particularity, and power in play.
I wish I could ask you about matters of faith. Biographies tell me you grew up in Christian Science, but that you later left that church. You wrote, a couple of years before you died, "I think I'm here for a purpose. I think it's likely that we all are . . . I try to tune myself in to whatever it is that I'm supposed to be."
The Scriptures I read tell me that we all born with eternity set in our hearts—sort of like a compass that turns us toward the Kingdom of God. I think that's what inspired you to sing, "What's so amazing that keeps us star-gazing? / And what do we think we might see? / Someday we'll find it." I'm grateful that you encouraged me to "tune myself in" to that mysterious call.
It gives me hope that you're hearing me now when I say, again, thank you.
Thank you, Jim.