by Jeff Ayers
Brian Jay Jones (Washington Irving: An American Original) has written a defining biography on the life of the Muppets creator Jim Henson. Jones answered a few questions about working on this stellar book.
You went from writing about Washington Irving to Jim Henson. How did that come about?
It seems odd, I know, but in a sense, it doesn’t take a great leap, as the two of them really aren’t that far apart, culturally speaking. I often joke that my particular niche as a biographer seems to be “enigmatic American pop culture icons.” Both Washington Irving and Jim Henson were—are—incredibly famous and beloved. But people know more about their work than they do about the men themselves.
Irving, for example, was one of the most famous men of his day—people would hang his picture on their walls like he was Elvis or the Pope, anything he wrote sold spectacularly, and he cultivated a public reputation as an erudite gentleman. But when he wasn’t busy being that very public Washington Irving, he was an incredibly private guy, and he worked hard to protect that privacy. As a result, we know his characters—Rip Van Winkle, Ichabod Crane—almost cozily, but we don’t know him.
Jim Henson is the same way. Like Irving’s creations, Jim’s characters—Kermit the Frog, Big Bird, Ernie and Bert—are also part of our American DNA. We love the Muppets, we love Jim’s films, and we even embrace his public personality: the smiling, bearded, genial genius. But really, we’ve never known anything about the private Jim Henson. He’s always managed to stay crouched just out of sight, performing Kermit and having fun being brilliant. Like Irving, he’s a beloved enigma.
So, when you look at it that way, both of them occupy the same space in pop culture, though at different times. To top it off, both are incredibly good guys—and when you’re a biographer, you have to make a big decision about who you want to intimately live your life with for the five years you’re working on a book. You couldn’t ask for better company than Washington Irving or Jim Henson.
Wasn’t Henson’s family reluctant at first to have the book written?
The Hensons are an incredibly tight-knit family, and—like Jim—they’re very private people. I don’t know that I’d say they were reluctant, necessarily, but—again, like Jim—they like to have a good feeling about the people they let into their world. It took two years of us all slowly getting to know each other before they finally said yes. But once they let you in, you’re in all the way—and I was given almost unlimited access not only to them and their private archives, but also to friends and colleagues, who also enthusiastically welcomed me into their lives. It was like being a made man.
One of the really wonderful things about Jim Henson is that people who knew him love to talk about him. I rarely had a problem getting people to talk to me—and when they did, they usually talked at length. The Muppet performers—people like Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, and Fran Brill—absolutely light up when they talk about working with him. It’s a privilege to touch that world, even for a moment.
How did you conduct your research?
Most of my research was conducted the old fashioned way: sitting in an archive eight hours a day for weeks at time, sorting through archival boxes and reading documents. I would go through every folder and take out every piece of paper, read it, then the turn it over, because you never know what you might find on the back or in the margins where people think no one will ever be looking. I was also fortunate to have the assistance of Karen Falk, archivist at the Jim Henson Company, who can find pretty much anything quickly, no matter how insignificant it might seem.
I also conducted hundreds of hours of interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, all of whom were great about letting me follow up with emails or phone calls to clarify things or ask “just one more” question. At the end of the day, I’m still a black-binder-and-paper guy—I keep everything in binders, sorted chronologically. I also had the good fortune of being able to watch episodes of The Muppet Show and tell my wife, “I’m working! Really!”
You did an amazing job transforming an icon into a real person. How did you tackle the writing so Jim Henson was a man and not an image?
I think partly it’s due to Jim Henson himself. Jim was really good at what he did—and knew it—but he was also relatively modest and never pretended to have all the answers. And he never took himself too seriously. Muppet writer Jerry Juhl once said that one of Jim’s greatest talents was “the ability not to take most things more seriously than they deserved,” which means that “most things are pretty funny.” Throughout his life, Jim constantly insisted that everyone to take a moment to step back and look at things and remember not to take everything too seriously—not even him. He always reminds you he’s just a man. It takes an extraordinary human being to do that.
See a review of Jim Henson: The Biography (Ballantine) in the 9/15/2013 issue of Library Journal.