Book Review

Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones

There isn’t much to the formula of a decently read biography or autobiography. For me, the main thing is to not take yourself or the person so seriously and please please please do not gloss over the dramatic or possibly not so great things they have done, if you do you won’t have a very interesting story left. We all know no one is perfect and to try to write a story about a person like they are can drag very quickly regardless of who the person was. I grew up with all things Jim Henson and up until I picked up The Biography by Brian Jay Jones there was a lot I didn’t realize about his career and his personal life.

I should have enjoyed this book more than I did and all I can say is, the author should have simply let Jim Henson be human.

The book starts at a weird point going back two generations to when Jim’s grandparents meet and get married. I didn’t really see the point in this except to give the brief passing reference to him getting most of his creative talents from his grandmother. That’s it. That is at least two to three hours worth of material that could have been cut from a twenty-one hour book. It easily could have started when Jim was seventeen and got his first gig performing on a morning show in Washington DC.

GOOD POINT: Learning about all the creations that came before the titular Muppets and other characters was actually highly entertaining. I found myself going to YouTube to find old commercials for Wilkins Coffee just to see the sketches that were created by Jim Henson. It’s really amazing how far he came.

From there we see the creation of Sam and Friends where Jim met his future wife Jane. She was his partner in business and in life and is the one big thing that he screws up royally but seems to be, not just forgiven, but enabled to commit the crap he does within his marriage. I’m going to be honest, the stuff that comes later did not bode well with me, despite the author doing his best to gloss over it.

Jim travels to Europe where he is introduced to the craze that is puppetry outside the US. This is what inspires him to continue on his path and so he returns to the United States with a determination to create an empire of Muppets. But first he marries Jane, and honestly it came off as him wanting to marry her simply to keep her from marrying anyone else. Over the years they end up having five kids, but really that doesn’t prove love either so my theory still stands.

GOOD POINT: Despite Jim’s crazy schedule over the course of their childhood, it appears that he tried to be there for all of his kids. He would plan elaborate vacations and would heavily involve them in his work, which I thought was very cool. However, this unfortunately seems suspect to me because I know other crap is glossed over. So I will believe that he was a decent father, but probably could have been slightly more present.

From here we get the start of┬áSesame Street, which at the time was a weird path to take considering for most of his career he fought against the image of the Muppets being strictly for children. It would seem creating them for an exclusively children’s education program would go against all he was trying to do. But Jim, regardless of my issues with his personal life, was a genius when it came to his Muppets and creatures.

Creating two parts of his company, The Muppets and the Creature Shop, he gave us the best of both children’s education and fun as well as dark mature fantasy. You will recognize the creature shop as the ones who worked on the Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, while the Muppet shop focused on the Muppet movies, The Muppet Show, and Fraggle Rock.

GOOD POINT: I always wondered why The Muppet Show and Fraggle Rock only lasted for the five short seasons that they did and Jim Henson actually had this occur on purpose. I like the idea that he didn’t want to overstay their welcome, but also wanted to ensure that they would make syndication. Brilliant.

Now we get to the point that Jim would have, in any other normal story, be revealed as a basic human man with flaws. He cheats on his wife. Multiple times and with multiple people. To the point that it becomes a running gag in the company. This book goes beyond measure to make the reader stay on Jim’s side of all of this. That the marriage was unhappy and that he and Jane just “weren’t on the same page anymore” so of course he had to seek solace elsewhere.

This was actually gross to me. The idolization of Jim even when describing his infidelity and affairs was disgusting. You are allowed to look up to your hero, but what is more impressive is recognizing your hero’s faults and accepting that this is what you look up to. I was disappointed in finding out Jim Henson had affairs, but I would have been much more willing to go along with the story if the author had brought a bit more reality to the circumstances surrounding those indiscretions. As it was, the story gets borderline victim blame-y by suggesting that Jane was the real problem. It was just bad.

And the feeling didn’t go away by the time the book came to his death. Again, I had no idea he had died of pneumonia, but I liked how his Christian Science up-bringing was mentioned very early on and kinda played a key role in his death. He and his family can claim all they want that it didn’t keep him from going to see doctors, but it was pretty obvious that was the case. Had he simply gone to the hospital when he first started feeling sick, he may have survived.

The book was alright, not the best biography/autobiography I’ve read, but still a good read. It was, I feel, really too long for the story being told. Too much fluff and ass kissing that really should have been edited and cut down. I don’t think I would read it again, but I am glad that I did in a way because I feel like I understand the backstory to the Muppets and their creator a lot more.

BAD POINT: I wish the story had gone a little beyond his death to speak about his kids and what they managed to do for the company. Why did we start two generations before Jim, but couldn’t manage to go at least one generation after? Some of my better memories of the Muppets are in fact due to the Henson children.

3 Out Of 5


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