My favorite paragraph in the Jim Henson biography

If I could travel back in time and if time-traveling rules were fine with my interfering in history, the job I’d want most in the ’70s would be writing for Jim Henson. In the ’60s, I’d want to work for Jay Ward, writing Rocky and Bullwinkle. But given the subsequent societal progress (not to mention the movies and the chance to catch early Springsteen), I’d probably prefer the ’70s and Henson and the Muppets. Lacking a time-travel device, though…

The new Jim Henson: The Biography by Brian Jay Jones is terrific. I’ve been reading it in nearly every (rare) free moment this fall and finally made it to the end in the past few days. The end, Henson’s relatively young death, is of course sad. But as captured in the book, the celebration of his life at his funeral is thrilling. To the reader, the scene is the ultimate summation of the themes running throughout Henson’s life, a roll-up that must have felt similarly to his closest. Jones identifies threads early and carries them well.

A testament to the reporting and thought behind the writing, throughout the book the different pieces of Henson’s personality birth, grow, struggle, succeed, and mix over time. My favorite paragraph in the biography brings together about a dozen of them. The passage comes from the mid-’70s era in the book as Henson prepares to launch The Muppet Show. It is glorious.

Jim’s work extended beyond the office and workshop; in preparation for his performance as the Swedish Chef, Jim was even working in his car, practicing his mock Swedish during his daily drives from Bedford into New York City. Jim had installed a cassette deck in his Jaguar on which he could both play and record tapes, and each day he would listen to a cassette prepared for him by writer Marshall Brickman — who could bring Jim and Oz to tears with his ability to mock foreign languages — instructing him on how to speak mock Swedish. After listening to Brickman’s tape, Jim would then record himself — speaking into a full-sized microphone he had clipped to his dashboard — and play back his performance, trying to get it right. “I used to ride with him a lot,” said Brian Henson. “And he would drive to work trying to make a chicken sandwich in mock Swedish or make a turkey casserole in mock Swedish. It was the most ridiculous thing you had ever seen, and people at traffic lights used to stop and sort of look at him a little crazy.”


This blog is not dead, I promise

There’s so much to post! The material is all over my physical desk and virtual desktop. Just so little time. To bed at 2 and up at 7. But mostly in good spirits and endeavoring to, one day, get this blog in true roll again. Something that’s keeping my creative fires burning? Via Boing Boing and a million other sites, there’s this Jim Henson video pitching The Muppet Show to television executives. A small part of what’s now taking up my time these days is taking over the pitch process at work. I’d like to get a pitch like this one. Very much. “Freaky, long hair, dirty, cynical hippies will love our freaky, long hair, dirty cynical Muppets!”

Whoa: Make your own Muppet

A weekend New York Times story explains where the Muppets are these days, and they’re pretty much where you thought they were — coming back, but not quite where they need to be. The future plans are of course the more interesting part. Among them are the Jason Segel movie, the YouTube videos and…

At the store’s Muppet-theme boutique, customers (for $100) will pick a body shape from various styles and then accessorize it with “a huge variation of Muppet parts,” said David Niggli, the president of F. A .O. Schwarz. (Versions will be sold on its Web site, The result will be what Jim Henson referred to as a “hand rod” Muppet: one hand goes inside the head of the puppet and the other holds thin rods connected to the puppet’s hands, allowing for gestures.

After seeing the Tipping Point magic of a Build-a-Bear Workshop for the first time on Saturday, and building myself out of Legos earlier this month (jeans or khakis?), I have to say I’m about to lose $100.

The final decision on the Legos is two versions: work and home, with appropriate pants and shirts. Inspiration comes from the Lego employees who have mini-figures as business cards.

Accessories are limited in the Pick-a-Brick store, but for me they include a megaphone, a croissant and a goblet. For you, maybe the crossbow, fireman’s ax, walkie-talkie, or whip fit the bill. But you’re kind of strange.

The job listing for the custom Muppet workshop has bright red, all-caps font with lots of exclaimation points, which is perfect because you’d like to hope Animal is running HR.

Bizarro Jeremy Clarkson and Muppets

Following British Dan Neil’s trip to the United States, American Dan Neil takes a narrative trip to the continent in his lede this week.

I come from a long line of Europeans — illiterate, mud-eating Europeans from the Outer Hebrides, to be exact, whose idea of a good time was to go down to the firth and watch the plague victims wash out to sea. Even so, I’ve always had an affinity for the Continent. Between New Orleans and Amsterdam, I prefer Amsterdam. I’ll take Rousseau over Jefferson, Beck’s over Budweiser, Formula One over NASCAR, and Heidi Klum over my knee.

And, as many able correspondents to this column have pointed out, I seem to prefer European cars. I suppose that’s fair. Everybody has his or her own tastes. I simply prefer superior cars with epic racing and engineering pedigrees, while others prefer Toyotas.

Meanwhile, Dan writes in the Times Magazine this week about love. Meanwhile, the other Times publishes the winner of its collegiate Modern Love essay contest. I like the winner but don’t love it, so I’m waiting to see the runners-up. Meanwhile, Jason Segel wants to cast Charles Grodin — one of the all-time great Muppet interactors, in my opinion — in his new Muppet movie. Meanwhile, British Dan Neil uses this lede this week to defend SUV driving.

All black men are thieves. All Jews would sell their mothers for a pound. All Muslims are suicide bombers and everyone in Ireland is as thick as a slab of cheese. Yes. Right. And everyone with a Chelsea tractor is a stick-thin blonde whose head is so full of useless social engagements that she can’t actually be bothered to steer round other cars, street furniture or bus shelters.

It ain’t necessarily so. All sorts of people buy 4x4s for all sorts of reasons. And contrary to what the global warmists would have us believe, only some are stick-thin blonde women who won’t actually stop until the underside of their car is so jammed up with run-over pedestrians the wheels won’t go round any more.

The wave of hatred, then, that engulfs the off-roader is nothing more than ill informed prejudice. And what makes my blood boil is that things are getting worse….

Clarkson gets to the SUV eventually.

Bizarro Dan Neil and Muppets

So, NBC fired Dan Neil from his job on the under-contract-but-yet-to-tape Top Gear. The show is an imports, famous in Britain for holding no bars, but there’s some developing weirdness on the American side.

In addition to the’s show Neil departure, The Truth About Cars post breaking the news now appears to have a different ending from its initial publication. The initial text as quoted by commenters and other blogs reads: “Neil also reveals that NBC and the BBC are aware that aping the original Top Gear’s no-holds-barred reviewing style could piss off the media company’s automotive advertisers — and devised a solution. “They’re writing around the problem, by not doing car reviews unless they really love the car.’ ” But the post now ends: “The clock is ticking on finding Neil’s replacement. Anyone heard anything?”

Weird. But I do give the blog credit for a Forgetful Jones reference and picture. The pic and bio come in enlarged form on Forgetful’s page in the Muppet Wiki. The wiki points to the late Richard Hunt as the Henson cohort behind the strings, and you’re welcome to lose 10 minutes clicking through his character list.

Some are still ultra-familiar, and others are now distant and wonderful to remember: Sully the unspeaking construction worker, Gladys the Cow the friend of Prince Charming, Don Music with the bust on the piano, Scooter, Beaker, Statler, Janice (“Look, mother, it’s my life, okay, so if I want to live on a beach and walk around naked…”), Sweetums, and Fraggle Rock’s Junior Gorg. Okay, so maybe you lose 20 minutes. Jason Segel, our hopes lie with you.

Returning to topic, this week Neil reviews the 2009 Nissan GT-R.

I know what you want from me. You think I’m just your little word slut, that I’m here just to arouse you with steamy descriptions of the new and instantly legendary Nissan GT-R. You want me to parade around in frilly verbiage, like: “The acceleration of the twin-turbo, all-wheel-drive, 480-hp GT-R is much like a 50-yard field goal in the NFL, wherein your butt is the football.” Sigh. I feel so used.

So true. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Chronicle reminds us the original Top Gear features British Dan Neil — “Long live misunderstood visionary Jeremy Clarkson! Hail to originality in all of its unglossy glory! Hurray for the ability to make fun of terrible cars without risking an advertising boycott!” — so we must check in.

In somewhat bizarro fashion, we find Clarkson referencing Top Gear’s relationship with America and driving Corvettes in Southern California.

We must have their computers, their jeans and their eating habits, yet there are more Made-in-Britain labels on the moons of Jupiter than there are in South Dakota. To the average American, “abroad” is Canada or Mexico. Any further than that and you need Nasa. Over there, a Brit is simply someone to shoot by mistake. So it’s certain that Hank J Dieselburger isn’t going to be buying a jar of Bovril any time soon.

Nor will he be watching a British-made car show. Top Gear is screened all over the world, from remote Himalayan villages to the bullet-ridden boulevards of Lebanon. It is a genuine, bona fide export success. But in the US it is watched only by half a handful of expats who diligently follow BBC America, and a few torrentists on the interweb.

This is partly because, when it comes to motoring, the English language makes more sense in Albania than it does in Alabama. Almost every word in the Americans’ automotive lexicon is different from ours, so when we talk about motorways, pavements, bonnets, boots, roofs, bumper bars, petrol, coupes, saloons, people carriers, cubic centimetres and corners, they have no idea what we’re on about.

The questions are obvious. Have Dan Neil and British Dan Neil ever met? Do they get along? Are they friends? Bizarro. Jerry, George, Kramer… this is Kevin, Gene… and Feldman.

Debate ensues in the review’s comments over whether the United States is as abnormal as Clarkson claims. One comment in particular, I can’t tell if it’s authentic or British humor.

Great articel, I must say I have seen you’re show. I understood it all, not ALL americans are the dumb creatures you por-tray them to be. PLlase consider are feelings some-time.

All the best

Brad Bass
brad bass, houston, Texas

I’m hoping British humor.

NYer Christmas Countdown, 12/8

Nov. 29, 2004; The Cartoon Issue. An ad catches my attention first. There Will be a Light by Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama is in stores now, the ad tells me in the right rail. The album’s cover is persausive enough to send me to the Web in search of clips. They are expectedly disappointing.

What’s letting James Surowiecki down is gold. The supporters of the standard are out of it, Surowiecki says. “The gold bugs are classic cranks, but their obsession is rooted in experience; we’ve all been conditioned — by history, by myth, by Mr. T — to think of gold as money.”

Jonathan Franzen adds an essay worthy of his How to be Alone compilation; this one digs into his childhood love of Peanuts. For any of us who came along in the strip’s later and friendlier decades, the story explains the glory of Charles Schultz’s less mellow birthing.

Maybe the same path holds for Seiji Ozawa, who gets the back of the hand from Alex Ross. Classic music critic Ross writes to back James Levine and his work with the Boston Symphony, formerly Ozawa’s office. I, for one, am not surprised. Any child of the ’80s knows Ozawa peaked with Placido Flamingo and has gone downhill ever since.

Most honest lede of the bunch

In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obituary:

Most Americans under 40 know Alistair Cookie, the furry host of “Monsterpiece Theater,” a feature on TV’s “Sesame Street.”

Far fewer would connect the Muppet to its inspiration, the man whose elegance, style and wit represented television’s once lofty ideals, the same ideals that created the pioneering children’s program.

Muppet Central thread: Favorite Monsterpiece Theater segments thread: Monsterpiece Theater