Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Sesame Street

Ask the dust

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Pig-Pen, Part 1

Over the last few days, I’ve watched A Charlie Brown Christmas repeatedly with my daughter. I don’t think I’d seen it in its entirety for at least twenty years, and I was relieved to find that it held up even better than I had hoped. It’s odder and more prickly, in its way, than the Peanuts specials I remember best—I especially like Lucy’s explanation that Christmas is “run by a big eastern syndicate”—and it benefits in particular from being deeply rooted in the original strips. My favorite line, for instance, comes straight from a strip first published on November 27, 1959. In the special, Frieda complains that Pig-Pen’s dust is taking the curl out of her hair, prompting Charlie Brown to respond:

Don’t think of it as dust. Think of it as maybe the soil of some great past civilization. Maybe the soil of ancient Babylon. It staggers the imagination. He may be carrying soil that was trod upon by Solomon, or even Nebuchadnezzar.

This is a great line, obviously, but my favorite part comes at the end: “Or even Nebuchadnezzar. The idea that Charlie Brown would be especially impressed by the thought of Nebuchadnezzar is delightful, and it’s the kind of thing that would have occurred only to a singular man working alone at his desk.

Recently, I’ve become preoccupied with the problem of how to preserve this kind of idiosyncratic voice in the face of all the larger pressures that threaten to eliminate it. In part, it’s because I’ve been watching a lot of children’s entertainment, which is when those tensions start to feel especially stark. It isn’t unreasonable to suppose that someone who devotes his or her life to writing stories for kids might be fundamentally odd in a way that feels more comfortable with children than adults: when you think of Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, Charles Schulz, and Maurice Sendak, among others, you’re left with a sense of aliens trying to navigate their way through the grownup world. But if you’re in charge of the company—or the big eastern syndicate—that packages and distributes that content, you’re working under very different incentives. You’re wary of giving offense or warping tiny minds in a way that would arouse the ire of their parents; you know that the risks of any artistic experiment far outweigh the potential benefits; and you’re painfully aware that you’re likely to offend somebody, no matter what you do. Hence the insipid caution of so many books, movies, and television shows aimed at kids six and younger. Occasionally, individual and corporate goals will align, as in the early days of Sesame Street, but more often, the companies that worry most about what kids want to see are the most likely to come up with something that doesn’t interest anyone.

Pig Pen, Part 2

And the solution, oddly enough, seems to be to ignore the kids altogether. Disney and his early cohort of animators didn’t use focus groups to figure out what children wanted to watch: they were trying to amuse themselves. Similarly, Chuck Jones and the rest of the team at Warner Bros. were making the cartoons that they wanted to see. A Charlie Brown Christmas was all but made by hand, and many of its elements—the jazz score, the lack of a laugh track, the gospel message from Linus—were included in in the face of indifference or active opposition. Instead of writing down to kids or aiming at a target audience, these artists devoted themselves to art forms, like the animated cartoon or comic strip, to which children are naturally drawn. They thought as cartoonists or animators or puppeteers until they began to intuitively make good choices based on what the medium itself could accomplish. And once they learned to think in those terms, they didn’t need to worry about what the kids would like: anything that fully realizes the possibilities of an animated short or a four-panel strip will engage younger minds, no matter what stories you tell. The real enemies of art, here as elsewhere, aren’t the network notes themselves, but notes coming from people who have no stake or interest in the kinds of stories being told. An animator allowed to think as an animator can’t help but come up with something that will fascinate a four-year-old. It’s when those tricks of the craft are diluted by views imposed from the outside that you end up with something condescending and dull.

In the end, every medium has its own logic, and in some cases, that logic naturally approximates that of a child. (I’m not saying this to minimize the difficulty or sophistication of the efforts involved—only to say that their power is derived from a fundamental affinity to how we see the world at a younger age.) Usually, these are the media that are the most accessible to creative children in the first place: it isn’t hard to get started with cartooning or puppetry, and kids are often interested in them because the materials are readily available. You could even say that this is why they’ve retained the emotional charge of something remembered from childhood: the artists who make their mark with puppets or cartoon characters are drawing on skills that they began to develop at an early age, while novelists, by contrast, are building on something that they acquired later on. There’s plenty of good juvenile fiction out there, but its logic is more adolescent, in every sense of the word. And the best artists of them all, like Schulz, are the ones who make the spectrum of feeling from childhood to adulthood feel like a seamless whole. Charlie Brown and Linus don’t talk like any real six-year-olds would, but if they’re uncannily convincing as children, even to readers of the same age, it’s because Schulz understands how kids talk among themselves, and how their conversations can seem as urgent or complicated as anything adults can say. That honesty clings to them like dust. And as Pig-Pen says: “Sort of makes you want to treat me with more respect, doesn’t it?”

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December 11, 2015 at 9:18 am

Bert’s nose and the limits of memory

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Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street?

A few days ago, I was leafing through a Sesame Street coloring book with my daughter when I was hit by a startling realization: I couldn’t remember the color of Bert’s nose. I’ve watched Bert and Ernie for what has to be hundreds of hours—much of it in the last six months—and I know more about them than I do about most characters in novels. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember what color Bert’s nose was, and I was on the point of looking up a picture in The Sesame Street Dictionary when it finally came to me. As I continued to page through the coloring book, though, I found that I had trouble recalling a lot of little details. Big Bird’s legs, for instance, are orange cylinders segmented by thin contour lines, but what color are those lines? What about Elmo’s nose? Or the stripes on Bert and Ernie’s shirts? In the end, I repeatedly found myself going online to check. And while the last thing I want is to set down rules for what crayons my daughter can and can’t use when coloring her favorite characters, as a writer, and particularly one for whom observation and accuracy of description have always been important, I was secretly chagrined.

They aren’t isolated cases, either. My memory, like everyone else’s, has areas of greater and lesser precision: I have an encyclopedic recall of movie release dates, but have trouble putting a name to a face until I’ve met a person a couple of times. Like most of us, I remember images as chunks of information, and when I try to drill down to recall particular details, I feel like Watson in his exchange with Holmes in “A Scandal in Bohemia”:

For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
“How often?”
“Well, some hundreds of times.”
“Then how many are there?”
“How many? I don’t know.”
“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

And I find it somewhat peculiar—and I’m not alone here—that I was able to remember and locate this quote without any effort, while I still couldn’t tell you the number of steps that lead to the front porch of my own house.

Illustration by Sidney Paget for "A Scandal in Bohemia"

Of course, none of this is particularly surprising, if we’ve thought at all about how our own memories work. A mental image is really more of an impression that disappears like a mirage as soon as we try to get any closer, and it’s particularly true of the objects we take most for granted. When we think of our own pasts, it’s the exceptional moments that we remember, while the details of everyday routine seem to evaporate without a trace: I recall all kinds of things about my trip to Peru, but I can barely remember what my average day was like before my daughter was born. This kind of selective amnesia is so common that it doesn’t even seem worth mentioning. But it raises a legitimate question of whether this represents a handicap for a writer, or even disqualifies us from doing interesting work. In a letter to the novelist James Jones, the editor Maxwell Perkins once wrote:

I remember reading somewhere what I thought was a very true statement to the effect that anybody could find out if he was a writer. If he were a writer, when he tried to write out of some particular day, he found that he could recall exactly how the light fell and how the temperature felt, and all the quality of it. Most people cannot do it. If they can do it, they may never be successful in a pecuniary sense, but that ability is at the bottom of writing, I am sure.

For those of us who probably wouldn’t notice if someone quietly switched our toothbrushes, as Faye Wong does to Tony Leung in Chungking Express, this may seem disheartening. But I’d like to believe that memory and observation can be cultivated, like any writing skill, or that we can at least learn how to compensate for our own weaknesses. Some writers, like Nabokov or Updike, were born as monsters of noticing, but for the rest of us, some combination of good notes, close attention to the techniques of the writers we admire, and the directed observation required to solve particular narrative problems can go a long way toward making up the difference. (I emphasize specific problems because it’s more useful, in the long run, to figure out how to describe something within the context of a story than to work on self-contained writing exercises.) Revision, too, can work wonders: a full page of description distilled to a short paragraph, leaving only its essentials, can feel wonderfully packed and evocative. Our memories are selective for a reason: if we remembered everything, we’d have trouble knowing what was important. It’s better, perhaps, to muddle through as best as we can, turning on that novelistic degree of perception only when it counts—or, more accurately, when our intuition tells us that it counts. And when it really matters, we can always go back and verify that Bert’s nose, in fact, is orange.

Written by nevalalee

July 21, 2015 at 9:26 am

Totoro and I

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My Neighbor Totoro

A few months ago, in a post about the movies I’ve watched the most often, I made the following prediction about my daughter:

Once Beatrix is old enough, she’ll start watching movies, too, and if she’s anything like most kids I know, she’ll want to watch the same videos over and over. I fully expect to see My Neighbor Totoro or the Toy Story films several hundred times over the next few years—at least if all goes according to plan.

As it turns out, I was half right. Extrapolating from recent trends, I’ll definitely end up watching Totoro a hundred times or more—but it will only take a few months. I broke it out for the first time this week, as Beatrix and I were both getting over a cold, which, combined with a chilly week in Oak Park, kept both of us mostly inside. When I hit the play button, I wasn’t sure how she’d respond. But she sat transfixed for eighty minutes. Since then, she’s watched it at least ten times all the way through, to the point where I’ve had to negotiate a limit of one viewing per day. And although I couldn’t be happier, and I can’t imagine another movie I’d be more willing to watch over and over again, I occasionally stop to wonder what I’ve awakened.

Screen time for children can be a touchy subject, but after holding out for more than two years, we’re finally allowing Beatrix to watch videos on a regular basis. Along with her daily Totoro fix, she’ll spend half an hour on her mommy’s phone in the morning, usually taking in Sesame Street or Frozen clips on YouTube. (As a parenting tip, I’d also recommend investing in an inexpensive portable DVD player, like the sturdy one I recently picked up by Sylvania. It’s better than a phone, since it allows for a degree of parental control and resists restless skipping from one video to the next, and unlike a television, it can be tucked out of sight when you’re done, which cuts down on the number of demands.) Whenever possible, I like to sit with her while we’re watching, asking her to comment on the action or to tell me what she sees. And Totoro, in particular, has awakened her imagination: she’s already pretending to gather acorns around the house, and she identifies strongly with the two little girls. For my part, I feel the same way about the father, who may be the best parent in any animated film, and whenever I find myself at a loss, I’ve started to ask myself: “What would the dad in Totoro do?”

Totoro in Toy Story 3

And while it’s possible that Beatrix would have latched onto whatever I decided to show her, I’d like to think that there’s something about Totoro that makes it the right movie at the right time. As I’ve noted before, its appeal can be hard to explain. Pixar’s brand of storytelling can be distilled into a set of rules—I’ve said elsewhere that its movies, as wonderful as they can be, feel like the work of a corporation willing itself into the mind of a child—and we’ve seen fine facsimiles in recent years from DreamWorks and Disney Animation. But Miyazaki remains indefinable. The wonder of Totoro is that Totoro himself only appears for maybe five minutes: the rest is a gentle, fundamentally realistic look at the lives of two small children, and up until the last act, whatever magic we see could easily be a daydream or fantasy. Yet it’s riveting all the way through, and its attention to detail rewards multiple viewings. Every aspect of life in the satoyama, or the Japanese countryside, is lovingly rendered, and there are tiny touches in every frame to tickle a child’s curiosity, or an adult’s. It’s a vision of the world that I want to believe, and it feels like a gift to my daughter, who I can only hope will grow up to be as brave as Mei and as kind as Satsuki.

Best of all, at a time when most children’s movies are insistently busy, it provides plenty of room for the imagination to breathe. In fact, its plot is so minimal—there are maybe six story beats, generously spaced—that I’m tempted to define the totoro as the basic unit of meaningful narrative for children. A movie like Ponyo is about 1.5 totoros; Spirited Away is 2; and Frozen or most of the recent Pixar films push it all the way up to 3. There’s nothing wrong with telling a complicated plot for kids, and one of the pleasures of the Toy Story films is how expertly they handle their dense storylines and enormous cast. But movement and color can also be used to cover up something hollow at the heart, until a film like Brave leaves you feeling as if you’ve been the victim of an elaborate confidence game. Totoro’s simplicity leaves no room for error, and even Miyazaki, who is as great a filmmaker as ever lived, was only able to do it once. (I still think that his masterpiece is Spirited Away, but its logic is more visible, a riot of invention and incident that provides a counterpoint to Totoro‘s sublime serenity.) If other films entice you with their surfaces, Totoro is an invitation to come out and play. And its spell lingers long after you’ve put away the movie itself.

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2015 at 9:06 am

The Muppets according to Mathieu

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The Sesame Street Dictionary

Over the last few days, my daughter and I have been reading what I’m tempted to nominate as the children’s book of the century: The Sesame Street Dictionary. I picked up our current copy of the classic first edition at a thrift store for a dollar before she was even born, and it’s been waiting on our bookshelf ever since. It sat there unopened for a long time, mostly because Beatrix was more interested in eating paper books than in reading them, but I grabbed it over the weekend on an impulse, mostly out of the need to head off a looming temper tantrum—hers, not mine. Now it’s rarely out of her hands. More surprisingly, I’ve found myself browsing through it for hours on end, newly delighted by how good it is. And while it’s a book that inspires universal affection in all those who remember it, I think it’s time to properly acknowledge it as one of the masterpieces of the form, and particularly to single out the accomplishment of illustrator and designer Joe Mathieu, who singlehandedly drew and laid out every astonishing page.

What strikes me the most about the dictionary now is how endlessly right it is. For page after page, over 1,300 entries, the illustrations are accurate, charming, and unfailingly on model. This last point may seem trivial, but a moment’s reflection reveals how extraordinary it is. Try to draw Ernie or Big Bird even once, and you’re immediately hit by how subtle their proportions really are: get the eyes or the nose just a bit off, and you’re deep in the Muppet version of the uncanny valley. For one man to hit the mark so consistently across more than a thousand different situations requires not just exceptional draftsmanship, but a deep understanding of character, form, and expression. Not surprisingly, Matheiu’s work quickly became a standard reference: according to the Muppet Wiki, copies of the dictionary are handed out to all writers and editors at the Sesame Workshop as a kind of universal model sheet. It’s hard to imagine a better resource, not just for the characters themselves, but for everything in the entire world. The next time my daughter asks me to draw her anything, I’ll be turning to this book first.

The Sesame Street Dictionary

So who is Joe Mathieu, anyway? He was born in 1949, graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, and worked as a freelance artist before falling in with Random House and the Sesame Workshop. Aside from the dictionary itself, which took more than two and a half years to complete, he illustrated dozens of books and stories featuring the Muppet characters, as well his own works and those by other authors, and he’s still active today. (Interestingly, his other illustrations—including the ones for books I remember fondly from my own childhood, like Ernie’s Little Lie—tend to be looser and wilder than those in the dictionary, while still honoring each character’s underlying personality.) To some extent, he’s less visible to a wider audience because of his association with the Sesame Street brand. If The Sesame Street Dictionary, or something like it, had been released independently, without its imprimatur, we’d mention him in the same breath as Richard Scarry. As it stands, he’s a bit like Sesame Street itself: ubiquitous, beloved, and taken just a little for granted.

Of course, it’s impossible to separate Mathieu’s achievement from the larger enterprise that he served so admirably. In a nifty piece on the dictionary’s origins on the Sesame Workshop blog, Mathieu notes that he was given full access to the Muppet workshop by Jim Henson, and spent days sketching, photographing, and interacting with the physical puppets. The dictionary itself was drawn and written in alphabetical order, one page at a time, with the text, illustration, and layout all evolving in tandem, a process that took months of twelve-hour days. And much of its charm, humor, and attention to detail are rooted in the fact that it was drawn by hand, inch by inch, by one man. (Full credit must be given, of course, to writer Linda Hayward and editor Sharon Lerner, although it’s clear that many of the gags, vignettes, and ingenious connections between words on a single page are due to Mathieu himself.) It’s the kind of crazy, ambitious project that seems hard to imagine today, and it clearly couldn’t have existed without the institutional support it received. And the result is bliss between two covers—the one children’s book I’d want to own if I had to give up all the rest.

Written by nevalalee

December 9, 2014 at 10:26 am

What I learned on the Street

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Prairie Dawn

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What do you remember learning from Sesame Street?”

When you’re a parent, one of the first things you discover is how difficult—or impossible—it can be to keep a small child on point. Saying that children are easily distracted is just another way of stating that they find everything equally interesting, or of equal importance, and that they haven’t yet developed the filters that allow adults to prioritize a particular issue at the expense of everything else. (Much of being an artist consists of restoring that kind of sensory omnivorousness, in which nothing, as Sherlock Holmes says, is so important as trifles.) Whenever my daughter opens a book, I never know where her eye will go first, and a big part of the pleasure of reading to her lies in trying to follow her train of thought. In Goodnight Moon, for instance, when we get to the picture of the doll’s house, she’ll point to it and say “Okay now.” I don’t know what she means by this, but it’s clear that I’m only getting a glimpse of a secondary narrative that she’s happily working through as we read the story itself, which consists both of the words on the page and her own tiny, private associations.

This is why I’ve started choosing picture books less for whatever they claim to be about than for the topics of conversation that they evoke. Richard Scarry, for instance, presents a miniature world on each double spread, which seems designed to simultaneously teach new words and suggest networks between ideas. (I’ll never forget how my niece pointed to a picture of a pig next to a bin of corncobs and said: “Maybe the pig wants to eat one corn.”) Scarry, like many of the greatest children’s artists, has a style that takes as much delight in incidentals as in the main line of the story, or whatever educational purpose the book allegedly has, and the more tactile the illustrations, the better. Beatrix is already curious about drawing, and the fact that she can make the connection between the pictures in the books she has and her crayons can only pay off later on. There’s been a lot of debate about whether reading a book on a tablet has the same benefits as traditional storytime, but I’m a little wary of it, if only because interposing a screen between you and the story makes its human origins less obvious.

Bert and Ernie

And when it comes time for Beatrix to watch Sesame Street, I’ll probably get her one of the Old School compilations on DVD, which collect classic scenes and sketches from the show’s early seasons. Old School comes with a disclaimer that states: “These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grownups and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.” Well, maybe: I don’t want to discount the ongoing, and highly valuable, research on how children learn, and I can’t entirely separate my feelings from nostalgia for what I watched growing up. Yet I still believe that the show’s overt educational value—the letters, the numbers, the shapes—was only part of the story, and not even the most important part. When we think of Sesame Street, we think first of the Muppets, whose physicality is a huge part of their appeal, but everything in the show’s initial period had an appealingly funky quality about it. The animations were made on a shoestring; the shorts might have been shot in somebody’s backyard; and even the set was designed to evoke the kind of grungy, everyday neighborhood that many children in the audience knew best, elevated by the magic of imagination and performance.

In short, the classic seasons of Sesame Street are as much about the process of their own making as whatever else they were designed to teach, and the lesson I took away from it most vividly was less about counting to twelve than what it might take to make a show like this myself. In its current incarnation, it probably does a better job of teaching kids the fundamentals, but watching Big Bird explore a digital background detaches us from the weird, incredibly appealing process that brings such stories to life. As David Thomson notes on Jim Henson: “He worked with the odd, the personal, the wild, and the homemade, and flourished in the last age before the computer…Henson was not just the entrepreneur and the visionary, but often the hand in the glove, the voice, and the tall man bent double, putting on the show.” Sesame Street is still wonderful, but it seems less likely to turn kids into puppeteers, which is as good a word as any for what I want Beatrix to be—if we take “puppeteer” simply as a curious character who sees a potential friend in a length of felt, or how a woman’s green coat might one day be a frog.

Written by nevalalee

November 14, 2014 at 10:31 am

Reflections in a googly eye

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Last night, my wife and I caught a performance of Stuffed and Unstrung, the decidedly R-rated improv comedy show featuring puppets from the Jim Henson workshop. The evening was fun but uneven, like all improv, and I’d say that the cast was significantly better at puppeteering than at improvisation—but I still had a blast, and I left the theater full of admiration and envy for the performers involved. I’ve always had a certain fascination with puppeteers, especially of the Henson variety, but it’s only recently that I’ve begun to understand why. As the wonderful documentary Being Elmo makes abundantly clear, not only is this a challenging art form in its own right, but it’s an emblem of what all the other arts should aspire to be—a medium where all you need for creative expression is a few dollars’ worth of fabric, some googly eyes, and the willingness to work at it for the rest of your life.

A novelist, as I’ve said before, needs to know something about everything, but that’s nothing compared to the skill set that a puppeteer has to master. A few minutes at the touring exhibition of Jim Henson’s Fantastic World is enough to fill you with awe at the range of Henson’s abilities—in addition to his more famous talents, he was also a gifted animator, illustrator, graphic designer, and experimental filmmaker—but he’s only the most illustrious exemplar of a vocation that encourages every performer to be a jack-of-all-trades. Even on the professional level, a puppeteer can be expected to write his own material, build his own puppets, sew his own costumes, design sets, handle camera and sound equipment, and draw alternately on the various skills of the actor, clown, acrobat, voiceover artist, singer, comedian, and mime. And it’s a job that continuously challenges the performer’s inventiveness: many great routines or characters begin as solutions to technical problems, only to evolve into something singularly beautiful and weird.

It’s no surprise, then, that even the earliest surviving performances by Henson, Frank Oz and others are bursting with ingenuity—this is a medium where you need to try everything once, often under considerable constraints. These can be constraints of money, space, or even time: Henson’s big breakthrough came with his commercials for Wilkins Coffee, which had precisely ten seconds each to tell a joke and deliver a pitch. And such limited resources can lead to surprising solutions. Henson made the first version of Kermit out of one of his mother’s old coats, and there’s a long tradition of creating puppets from whatever happens to be lying around. In short, it’s the most economical form of theater there is, and as a result, it often flies under the radar, as in the former Soviet Union, where, according to the director Peter Sellars, the most subversive and experimental drama was being performed in the puppet theater.

We’re left with something close to art in its purest form, at least when it comes to the reactions it inspires. When I was a child, I don’t think I ever made a distinction between the Muppets on Sesame Street and the human performers around them: they were all just members of the same cast. Even today, it takes a special mental effort for me to picture the puppeteers standing just below camera range. (At Stuffed and Unstrung, much of the action unfolds on two video monitors to either side of the stage, so even with the performers right in front of you, it’s easy to forget that they’re there.) A bit of felt and foam rubber, in the hands of a skilled performer, turns into real person, with its own personality and emotions. The more I think about it, the more amazing this seems, even though it’s not so different from what all art hopes to do. In the end, we’re all puppeteers. It’s just the lucky ones who get to do it for real.

Written by nevalalee

June 15, 2012 at 10:13 am

Learning from the masters: Jim Henson

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Many careers in movies have been cut short too soon, but the death of Jim Henson sometimes feels like the greatest loss of all. It’s especially tragic because Henson died in 1990, just as advances in digital effects—in The Abyss, in Terminator 2, and above all in Jurassic Park—were threatening to make his life’s work seem obsolete, when in fact he was more urgently needed than ever. Despite the occasional gesture in the direction of practical effects by the likes of Guillermo Del Toro, Henson still feels like the last of the great handmade magicians. As David Thomson points out:

Jim Henson’s early death was all the harder to take in that he worked with the odd, the personal, the wild, and the homemade, and flourished in the last age before the computer. It’s therefore very important that Henson was not just the entrepreneur and the visionary, but often the hand in the glove, the voice, and the tall man bent double, putting on a show.

As you can tell from the cake topper at my wedding, I’ve always been a Henson fan (although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I appreciate the Muppets on a much deeper level than you), but his achievement was recently underlined for me by the museum exhibition Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, which I’ve seen twice. The first time was at the Smithsonian in the fall of 2008. It was a stressful time for me—I’d just parted ways with my first agent, had to scrap an entire novel, and was working on a second without a lot to show for it—but the Henson exhibition was a vivid reminder of why I’d taken these risks in the first place. Seeing it again at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry a few months ago, when I was in a much better place professionally, only served to reassure me that I’m still on the right track.

Aside from Henson’s commitment to character and storytelling, which I already knew, I was left with two big takeaways from the exhibition. The first was the breadth of Henson’s talent and experience. He wasn’t just a puppeteer, but a gifted graphic artist, animator, cartoonist, experimental filmmaker, and jack of all arts and crafts, which is exactly what a good puppeteer needs to be. Looking at his sketches, drawings, and scripts leaves you stunned by his curiosity and enthusiasm regarding every element of the creative process. Long before his death, he was already exploring computer animation, and if he had lived, it’s likely that he would have brought about the fusion of CGI with practical effects promised by Jurassic Park and sadly neglected ever since.

The second remarkable thing about Henson was his perseverance. It’s startling to realize that by the time The Muppet Show premiered in 1976, Henson had already been working hard as a puppeteer for more than twenty years. Even the ephemera of his early career—like the series of short commercials he did for Wilkins Coffee, or his turn as the La Choy Dragon—have incredible humor and charm. And it was that extended apprenticeship, the years of dedication to building characters and figuring out how to make them live, that made Sesame Street possible when the time came. Jim Henson did what few artists in any medium have ever done: he willed an entire art form into existence, or at least into the mainstream. And of his example, as David Thomson concludes, “we are in urgent need of young artists taking it up all over the world.”

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