Jim Henson passed away on May 16, 1990, following complications from from bacterial pneumonia. The visionary artist, performer, writer and director left behind a legacy of inspiring and inspired work including, but not limited to, his best-known creations, The Muppets. The beloved characters from The Muppet Show, The Muppet movies, Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, countless specials and performances, comprised the foundation of more than fifty years of childhood (and adulthood) imaginations, proving to Americans resistant to the centuries’-old artform that puppetry could entertain and fascinate “children of all ages”.
Following Henson’s New Orleans Jazz-inspired funeral, where Muppet butterflies were distributed among the mourners for a full singalong to “Just One Person”, a television special went into production. Meant to be a definitive tribute to the man who brought joy and wonder to so many, The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson aired only once in September, 1990. At the backstage of the Muppet Theater—a revamped design combining the classic and familiar vaudeville set with the high and low-tech television littered walls of the short-lived Jim Henson Hour—and absent Kermit tasks Fozzie Bear and the gang with putting together a big production number to honor Jim Henson. At first, the Muppets can’t recall that name but thanks to home movies of the artist as a young child, Kinescopes of his first Washington D.C.-based television series Sam and Friends, and clips of his Academy Award-winning short Timepiece, the gang quickly catches on. They’re aided by televised testimonials by Henson collaborators and close friends Carol Burnett, Harry Belefonte, John Denver, Ray Charles and Muppet Performers Frank Oz. Much of this leads to classic Muppet misunderstanding comedy—Gonzo brings in the tap-dancing oddity “Whoopie Cushions”; Rizzo and Scooter, finding Henson’s name on an uncashed paycheck of Gonzo’s, assume that Jim must have been an accountant, so they bring in the singing troupe of Merril, Lunch, Hungerdunger and McCormick financial wizards (including a Muppet Alexander Hamilton in their lineup).
Amidst the clips and testimonials, there are wonderful meta-moments when the Muppets themselves acknowledge the puppeteers who “always move when we do”. This, of course, weirds them out, so they immediately stop looking down. Many of the gang also interact with the testimonial guests on the monitors, one of such fourth-wall-breaking gags leads to a frustrated outburst from Carol Burnett, when observing that the Muppets and the performers were “like a family” gives an opening for the Muppets to bicker, loudly, while she is trying to talk. And when Fozzie discovers a folder filled with fan mail to Kermit from children across the world expressing their sympathy that “your best friend Jim Henson died”, the shock and heartbreak felt by the gang perfectly reflects the sorrow of the outside world.
This one-hour special perfectly encapsulates everything that made the Henson-era Muppets unique and wonderful: the mixture of slapstick and sincerity, character-driven hysteria and poignancy without schmaltz, and a perfect blend of traditional cornball with contemporary humor minus pandering to corporate need. When Kermit arrives at the end, it announces the passing of the torch from Henson to Steve Whitmire, who would assume all of Henson’s characters from then on. Whitmire’s first performance as Kermit seems a little hesitant, a tad timid, but game to keep the character’s spirit alive. Kermit delivers just six lines at the end of the special, but he leaves the audience with hope and encouragement that Jim still lives within everyone who loved him and his creations.
In the intervening twenty years, Henson’s Muppets went through a series of ups and downs, with ownership changing hands between the family, a now-defunct German corporation and, finally, to the Walt Disney Company, completing a deal that Henson had attempted to close just before his passing. For a while, it seemed that Disney’s acquisition was driven simply by the need to own something they didn’t possess already. The House of Mouse wasted more than a decade trying to shoehorn the characters into uncomfortable positions supporting studio-owned actor/singers for television specials like The Muppet Wizard of Oz (in which the characters take a complete back seat to Ashanti in a near humorless-retelling of the Baum story) and numerous Christmas specials, including the uncomfortably dark A Very Merry Muppet Christmas and the nauseatingly saccharine Muppets Letters to Santa. The scripts for these latter projects seemed alternately unfamiliar and disdainful of the characters. There was no attempt to include the trademark surreal silliness or out-and-out insanity that kept even the hoariest stories unpredictable.
So little was done with the characters that outside of the core cast of Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat, audience familiarity began to dwindle. A remote-controlled animatronic Bunsen and Beaker, for instance, unveiled at Disneyland in Anaheim, was met with more confusion than delight.
Kept alive by internet sites like MuppetCentral, the Muppets gradually made their way back into the hearts of new generations of fans via classic clips from the shows and original specials, paving the way for Disney to (almost grudgingly) releasing the first three seasons of The Muppet Show to DVD. And thanks to the star power and genuine love of Judd Apatow apprentice Jason Siegel, a new theatrical movie, The Greatest Muppet Movie Ever Made has been announced, with much trepidation and speculation as to how Siegel would manage to fit full-frontal male nudity into the mix.
With all of these tentative steps into the Muppet pool, hardcore fans still worried that Disney would spend more time trying to relaunch the characters’ merchandise than preserving their personalities. Then came the YouTube sensation of the Muppets’ performing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Utilizing both classic and new characters, the viral video recaptured the Muppets’ magical zaniness and gave fans their first sigh of relief in some time. “Bohemian Rhapsody” had Henson’s spirit on display throughout, blowing away the corporate cobwebs.
While never released officially, and seldom repeated on television, The Muppets Celebrate Jim Henson is available in full on YouTube, Dailymotion and a host of other video sites. For Muppet fans who grew up after “the Boss’s” passing, the special is a terrific introduction to his life and legacy.