Wednesday, March 19, 2014


JIM HENSON: THE BIOGRAPHY by Brian Jay Jones (NY: Ballantine, 2013).
Reviewed by Laurence Jarvik

There's a new Kermit movie at theaters nationwide these days--MUPPETS MOST WANTED.

What better time could there be to read JIM HENSON: THE BIOGRAPHY, by Brian Jay Jones (

After all, during his lifetime, Kermit was performed by Jim Henson,himself. And the author knows more about Jim Henson and the Muppets than anyone outside the Henson family.  This volume represents years of research and interviews. It is extremely valuable as cultural history and American history--but what's more, as television history...and because of the importance of Sesame Street to the development of PBS, Washington history as well.

In this work, Jones demonstrates beyond a shadow of a doubt, that without Jim Henson, there would not have been a Sesame Street phenomenon. Henson not only did the Muppets, he also made the short educational films like "1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10..." and "3". Everything exciting, innovative and memorable about that program can be credited to Henson. The live-action was just a bunch of Captain Kangaroo producers and directors doing their live kid-show stuff, which CBS did better with Bob Keeshan and Mr. Green Jeans.

And Jones reveals that Henson was a genius businessman as well as a genius muppet performer...he was a hit here in DC on WTOP and WRC as a teenager, and made money all his life from TV commercials--Kermit and Cookie Monster and others came from commercial TV...Jimmy Dean and Wilkins Coffee and Big Bird has his origins in the La Choy Dragon.

In other words so-called non-commercial PBS was airing a Jim Henson commercial aimed at kids all along. Not surprisingly, Jim Henson retained his rights to merchandise based on Muppet characters sold by non-commercial PBS. And in the end, Henson sold his empire to Disney (CTW bought back their muppets from a German company in a complicated post-mortem deal Jones explains pretty well). Everybody was making money all along...

It is all documented in the book which has scoop after scoop after scoop.He literally knows where the bodies are buried--and the Muppets had a body count with a number of sudden deaths, including an unsolved murder mystery...not to mention Henson's premature demise at age 53.

All of which is to say, Jones' story is a pleasure to read. He is a gifted writer, and the fast-paced biography reads like a novel. I could not put it down. The author has written a book that I would have liked to write..

Because Jim Henson is also Washington story. His father worked for the Department of Agriculturel. He began the Muppets on Washington television with Sam & Friends and Wilkins Coffee. He went to the University of Maryland. He lived in Hyattsville. And the Muppets made Sesame Street, which made PBS...

One of the insights in this book is that the success of Henson's Fraggle Rock helped launch HBO. It was the first original series made for Cable. And of course The Muppet Show was a hit in syndication, thanks to Britain's Lord Grade and President Nixon's syndication rules.

In any case, I can't recommend Brian Jay Jones' book highly enough. You can buy the book right now from Amazon, here: