The Muppets take San Francisco

Pub date June 19, 2007
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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Be warned: the following is in no way a professional, measured critique of the career and oeuvre of one Jim Henson, master puppeteer, kiddie empire creator, and upcoming Yerba Buena Center for the Arts retrospective honoree. Oh, no. Below are the semicoherent ravings of a Muppet-philiac Henson fangirl. One whose first experience of the legitimate thea-tah was not The Pirates of Penzance but "Pigs in Space." One whose initial exposure to the ways of l’amour involved a pig and a frog getting it on after extensive rounds of bike riding and loaded sexual repartee. One who breaks into Muppet palsy — spastic flailings of staccato, head-wagging ecstasy — whenever she hears The Muppet Show siren song of "It’s time to play the music / It’s time to light the lights." One who, in her aggressively weird late teens, sported a sassy shag haircut dyed a deep shade of Grover blue because, perhaps, she secretly wished she were a Muppet.

And who could blame me, uh, her? After all, Muppets can do anything, and they usually have a good time doing it. These anarchic, orgiastic amalgams of felt, foam, and fun fur are investigative reporters, musicians, demolition experts, hack comics, boomerang-fish throwers, mad scientists, misunderstood performance artists, masters of the ancient art of ka-rah-tay, and so much more. Above all, they are vaudevillians with the incessant desire to entertain — just like their ingenious creator. Part Walt Disney (minus the Nazi sympathizing), part Groucho Marx — and looking like the cloned offspring of Lyle Lovett and Jesus Christ — the late Henson was nevertheless about as unassuming as they come. He is universally remembered as the nicest guy you’ve ever met (or, in my case, wish you had). But while his Muppets may have gained superstardom on Sesame Street, it may surprise some to know that cooperation didn’t always "make it happen" in Henson’s working relationships.

"We were very competitive with each other," director and longtime Henson collaborator Frank Oz (the voice of the inimitable Miss Piggy) admitted when I used a recent promotional tour for an Oz project as a chance to quiz him, quickly, about his Muppet past. "We put each other in lousy situations and tried to screw each other over." Of course, that’s not to say Henson was the Eve Harrington (as in All About Eve) of the puppet world. He valued collaboration with his fellow artists above all else; competition was a creative catalyst. "He appreciated everybody else’s work too," Oz, who calls Henson a "genius," clarifies. "There was a camaraderie, a great affection amongst all of us."

Henson’s creative fervor and Puritan work ethic helped make the Muppets a success, but so did his business acumen, something he leavened with that patented nice-guy attitude. "He really wanted everyone to be happy in a business deal," says Muppet performer (the Great Gonzo) and Marin resident Dave Goelz, who worked with Henson from the early ’70s until Henson’s sudden death from pneumonia in 1990. "The reason Jim was such a good businessman was very simple: people loved to work with him." Goelz, who will make appearances at the YBCA on June 21 and 22 to introduce "Muppets 101," fondly remembers the sense of community Henson fostered, having never experienced the tug-of-war that characterized Henson’s relationship with Oz.

The YBCA retrospective is thrillingly comprehensive, although it could be more cohesive. The three Muppet features being screened comprise what I like to call "the real original trilogy": 1979’s The Muppet Movie, 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper (viva Charles Grodin!), and 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan. Also included are assorted Muppet marginalia (Mike Douglas appearances, the infamous "Sex and Violence" Muppet Show pilot, some fantastic behind-the-scenes footage), forays into less kid-friendly puppetry (a betighted David Bowie in the Terry Jones–penned Labyrinth, the gloriously strange Dark Crystal), early commercial and experimental work, and later TV work like Fraggle Rock, the corny yet inspired (the Muppet modus operandi) ’30s gangster-movie send-up Dog City, and episodes of the gothic fairy-tale theater The Storyteller.

The Muppets aren’t lowering the stage curtain anytime soon. In addition to a planned Dark Crystal sequel, a Fraggle Rock movie is in the works. Disney bought the rights to the Muppets in 2004 (something, believe it or not, Henson was trying to make happen shortly before his death, recognizing that the juggernaut could give his franchise the protection it deserves). And the Jim Henson Co. continues to produce work in part inspired by Henson, like the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s MirrorMask. Still, no one has the gall to suggest it’s like it used to be. "Sammy Davis Jr. died on the same day," Oz notes. "There’s no other Sammy Davis Jr., and there’s no other Jim Henson."

Why exactly have the Muppets managed to endure? The answer, according to Goelz, is simple. "They are us," he says. "They describe a world that’s filled with conflict, but nonetheless they’re motivated by charity. It all came out of Jim’s philosophy. He believed that people are basically good, and he operated that way."

So it turns out I am a Muppet after all. The really good news, it seems, is that we all are. Corny? Maybe. But also pretty damn inspired.*


June 21–July 1; $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening Room

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787