Thursday, November 17, 2011

Being Green :: The Jim Henson Generation

Of course, I haven't seen the new Muppet movie yet. But I come from that generation sometimes referred to alternatively as "The MTV Generation" or "Generation X" and a few other less salubrious titles. But really, we're the Jim Henson Generation.

And don't you ever forget it.

My generation was the first that never knew a time when it wasn't perfectly acceptable for a bunch of monsters to teach your kids how to share and get along with people who don't look just like them. I learned my numbers and letters from my sister, but she was backstopped by Kermit the Frog and company.

She didn't have to teach me it was okay to be green. Jim took care of that one.

Since Sesame Street first aired in 1969, by the time I was old enough to sing the song, it was already a cultural institution. I remember when no one believed Big Bird had a woolly mammoth buddy named Mr. Snuffleupagus. I remember when Grover was the monster at the end of the book and Elmo was just another red monster in the chorus of many. Ernie was my favorite, followed close by Grover and Oscar the Grouch.

Alas that mom refused to buy me a trash can to hang out in.

But it wasn't Sesame Street that makes me think of myself as living in a world that Jim Henson created. It was the Muppet Show, which ran from 1975-1981 and then lived on in reruns through most of my life.

As much as anything else, picking apart that show taught me how to write comedy.
‎"One thing that happens with comedy writers is that they are all really good at coming up with beginnings... really good set ups, but they can't figure out how to pay them off. What my father figured out was, if you can't get out, you just either blow something up, or eat something, or just throw penguins in the air."                                                                                               - Brian Henson
And the writing on the Muppet Show was nothing short of brilliant. At times, it was entry-level Monty Python and at the same time hearkened back to the vaudeville impresarios of yesteryear. They channeled Groucho Marx and Jack Benny and Bob Hope without pausing to see if you got the last joke before moving on to the next. Sometimes there wasn't a joke, just an absurd situation devolving into chaos.

On some level, we knew that the show was trying to appeal to our parents. Going back and watching the shows now as an adult, I find new appreciation for just how much Jim was pitching over our heads to hit the adults on the sofa behind us.

The Muppets introduced me to Peter Ustinov and Zero Mostel, as well as the madcap brilliance of Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. Henson and his writers delighted in wordplay and snappy patter. It's quite possible that they're responsible for my fondness for puns, but don't hold that against them. The Muppet Show was the first time I saw John Cleese. They also taught me a new way to think about comedy and led me, by way of Spike Milligan to the Goon Show and on to Monty Python and the rest is history.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the chance to watch the Muppet Movie again on the big screen. The Seattle International Film Festival has been having an entire month of Muppet-related shows and events.

Sitting in the darkness of the SIFF cinema, surrounded by children and their parents, I was astounded by how well it held up. Leaving aside the six year old behind me who whispered to his mom "Why are people laughing at the waiter? He hasn't said anything yet!"

How do you explain Steve Martin to a six year old?

Wherever I went, I was always the "different" kid. The outsider, and not in a cool way. But it didn't matter because I lived in a world where it's getting easier to be green.  And we have Jim to thank for that. When I grew up, I wanted to be Jim Henson.  I still do.  In the meantime, I'm having fun being someone that he inspired.


SIFF's celebration of Jim Henson "Muppets, Music, and Magic: Jim Henson's Legacy" continues through the end of November! Click here for show times and ticket information.

(Note: I am unaffiliated with the Seattle International Film Festival, et al. This is genuine enthusiasm, not a bizarre scheme to boost ticket sales.)

1 comment:

  1. Nothing to say, really, just a big dopey grin. I'm so glad I know you, Scott. You're such a loon! And now I know why.


Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).