When reading a biography, particularly a biography of someone whose work one personally connected with, it is sometimes necessary to separate the actual subject and their work from the written account of their life. I am a Jim Henson kid. I grew up watching Sesame Street, Fraggle Rock, the Muppets (my particular favorite was Muppets Tonight, a later reincarnation of The Muppet Show), even the Muppet Babies cartoon on occasion. Later, I was completely scarred by Labyrinth and never really got into The Dark Crystal, but I still remember completely loving Ernie, doing a pretty darn good impression of Grover, and thinking Sandra Bullock doing Mahna Mahna and Prince singing Raspberry Sorbet on Muppets Tonight were the coolest things ever. And all of these pieces of my childhood not only hold up but were also groundbreaking in their use of technology and artistry, pushing the medium of television and film forward while still creating amazingly high quality content. There is no doubt about it: Jim Henson was a genius.
If I have fond memories of being a Jim Henson kid, Michel’s connection is lightyears stronger than mine. He loves everything Muppets, and if he were to ever get a job with Sesame Street, I think he’d die of happiness on the spot. So it was at his urging that I read Brian Jay Jones’s biography of Jim Henson and his remarkable career.
Here is the where the separation of the man and the book comes into play. I love Jim Henson. I didn’t love the book, which is particularly disappointing since if ever there was a life that had earned a really spectacular biography, it would be Jim Henson.
Let’s start with what I didn’t care for. I found Jones’ writing to be quite dense while staying very superficial. It seemed like Jones was trying to account for every single day of his life. At a certain point, though, I really don’t need to know that for four days between Event A and Event B, Jim went skiing with his family and then visited his dad and step-mom in Albuquerque for the next two…again. I also don’t need to know about how his apartment in New York was decorated every time he decided to renovate and redecorate with the next big name interior designer. These don’t add to the narrative much, and at times they felt like repetitive filler, which, at over 400 pages, this biography really doesn’t need. In fact, the most substantive parts were the thousands of quotes from family, friends, and co-workers, and even these, at times, felt recycled. It seems that Henson was described the same (highly positive and admiring) way by almost everyone he met, and Jones felt the need to include every instance of such a description from his research in the book. That’s nice and all, but at some point, it begins to dilute the image the reader has of the subject, turning the subject into an ideal of itself rather than allowing the reader to know the subject itself.
Additionally, this superficial density really slowed down the reading pace. While it felt like great progress was being made while I was reading, it would turn out that I had only read half of what I thought I’d read, very little of which had added to my understanding of Henson and his work. The pace picked up considerably when Jones reached the beginnings of The Muppet Show, but he still got bogged down in unimportant details. Now, I started this book right before the holidays, and I fully acknowledge that I find it hard to find time to read during the holidays. Perhaps that affected my feel for the pace, as well. Additionally, the prose is occasionally awkward, particularly transitioning in and out of quotes. This is a noticeable problem because I don’t think Jones wrote a paragraph that didn’t contain at least one or two quotes. At times, the quotes seem just thrown in there, connected to I’m not sure what, and it makes for a jarring moment in the reading.
My biggest concern, though, is that the density and the pace conspired to drain some of the joy out of the book, and, at least as everyone Jones interviewed says, Henson was a completely joyful person who found great personal and professional satisfaction in his work (or “play”, as he called it) and his family. As a reader, I wish more of that was captured more consistently in the narrative. It pops up sometimes, but I want to feel it rather than rely on assurances from those who knew Henson.
All that being said, there were things I liked quite a bit about this biography. First, as mentioned, Henson was a genius with a passion for technology and television and a goal to make people happy and make the world a better place. Jones delves deep into these aspects of Henson and is able to do so because of his exhaustive research. I can count on one hand the number of biographies I’ve read in the last 5 years that are so expertly researched. Jones makes liberal use of not just secondary sources but also an amazing array of primary sources ranging from print and television interviews with Henson and his colleagues; personal interviews with Hensons’ family, friends, and colleagues, including Henson’s wife, Jane, who only passed away in the last year; and even Henson’s personal diary. This results in a highly accurate portrayal of Jim Henson’s life, a fact his family has remarked on appreciatively. In fact, when Jones utilizes these primary sources effectively in his account is when Henson’s joyful personality comes alive on the page.
Jones clearly has great affection for his subject, but I also appreciate that he does not try to glorify Henson. He presents all side of the man behind Kermit and Ernie, including his fondness for women, his workaholic tendencies, and his separation from Jane. However, Jones does not try to convince us to see Henson as one thing or another nor does he attempt to judge positively or negatively Henson’s actions. He simply presents Henson as a complete person, allowing the audience to form their own opinions of the good, the bad, and the in-between. It is refreshing to be trusted as a reader to form my own opinions on the subject I am reading about, and Jones’ appreciation of Henson does not detract from his willingness to present Henson as objectively as possible.
Most importantly, Jones handles Henson’s sudden illness and death and the resulting outpouring of grief and love from everyone who knew him with beauty and grace, including the letters Henson wrote to his children years earlier “in the event of [his] death” and gorgeously describing the celebration of life and work that was Henson’s memorial service. A mishandling of these events could undermine the good work done in the rest of the book, but Jones navigates them with compassion and skill.
I don’t think this will be the best-written biography of Henson’s life, but I do think it will be the definitive one. You will be hard-pressed to find a more thorough and well-researched account of Jim Henson, and I expect that any future biographer will heavily utilize Jones’ research and resulting book in their account. Ultimately, though, and writing concerns aside, if you have any interest at all in the Muppets, Jim Henson, or, quite frankly, television history and technology, Jim Henson: A Biography should definitely be on your list.