I finished The Jim Henson Hour the other day, and came across one of the final episodes, a mini-documentary titled Secrets of the Muppets.
It’s not likely you’ve seen this show. It’s not even that likely you’ve even heard of it. It aired in 1989, billed as a true successor show to The Muppet Show a decade later, and lasted just one season. Twelve episodes were produced, but only nine actually made it to air in the United States as scheduled. And due to rights issues stemming from the sale of the Muppets to Disney, much of this series will probably never be officially released.
But the show is great. The Jim Henson Company was always amazing at its craft, and still is, and The Jim Henson Hour exemplifies a company always making strides at utilizing technology and ingenuity to bring fantasy worlds and creatures to life. That level of ambition probably doomed the project, but I have no doubt that this show alone helped pave the way for future television and movies in incredible ways.
But the way it ended has left me honestly pretty heartbroken. It’s a feeling that left me tearing up in ways that maybe only other creators can really connect with, but I want to express it anyway.
For a while now I’ve been doing various reflections of the past ten years with my 2010s Retrospectives series, but now it’s time to take a trip a bit further back, all the way to the beginning of the nineties.
The Jim Henson Hour
(You can probably watch the DefunctTV episode on The Jim Henson Hour if you want a more detailed look; I haven’t seen it because I wanted to finish the series first, but I can attest that the entire channel is always excellent.)
This show had the first-ever real-time animated CGI character in a live-action TV show (the first CGI characters at all were a year earlier but still). It had extensive computer effects that looked good enough that they genuinely kept you in the illusion, at least ten years before any other show could claim the same thing (more like twenty, honestly). The muppet characters were more complex than ever, and were featured in segments and musical numbers that are technically impressive even today.
Typically, each hour-long episode is divided into two parts with wraparounds hosted by Jim Henson himself, as well as a white lion puppet named Lion. Henson gives off a cheerful fatherly vibe while introducing the stories or themes of each episode’s content. It’s the first time he was in front of the camera for one of these shows, and while he doesn’t do Walt Disney or James Cameron levels of presenting himself with charisma, he’s got a real special charm to him.
The first part of most episodes is MuppeTelevision, a very Muppets-esque variety show where Kermit and his friends are in charge of a TV station and decide which programs to put on for the best ratings. Everything constantly goes wrong, naturally. Each episode has a theme, but the themes tend to be very loose and mostly a setup for running gags and brick jokes. It’s usually hilarious and reminds me a lot of Mr. Show with its very odd vaguely-themed pacing. The actual TV program sketches we see are hit-or-miss, sometimes gut-busting and other times too bizarre to handle (The Barbie parody ones are just unsettling), but the parts with Kermit and the gang are great.
And that’s interesting, because this show is like the Street Fighter III of Muppet shows; it’s got an almost entirely new cast, with Kermit and Gonzo the only returnees from the original series. This is mostly due to many of the original performers being too busy to participate, especially Frank Oz, but all of the original characters do make cameos here and there. The new characters are very memorable and interesting, especially Digit and Vicki, who provide some of the best jokes. The show is always under threat of cancellation thanks to very low ratings, and I really hope that that was gallows humor by the production staff, because that really did happen…
To think that most of this show was shot on bluescreen or used other neat filming tricks, stuff impossible just ten years earlier, is crazy to me.
The Other Stuff
The second half of each episode is typically a half-hour TV movie. The main option tends to be the British series The Storyteller, where John Hurt in heavy makeup tells old European folktales with crazy Jim Henson Company stylings. They are all super, super good.
Some of the movies were American productions, such as the all-greenscreen, amazing art direction Song of the Cloud Forest, or the absolute laugh riot Dog City, a noir detective parody starring gangster dog puppets.
And sometimes, the full episodes were full-hour TV movies. Two of those were British productions Monster Maker or Living with Dinosaurs, which combined great technical feats and sappy family drama. But the third was, well, the title of this blog post.
Secrets of the Muppets
The tenth episode (of twelve) is a mini-documentary piece where Jim Henson spends the entire hour of his television program talking about the use of puppeteering and special effects to bring his television shows and movies to life. It showcases behind-the-scenes footage from pretty much every Jim Henson Company production ever made, leaving out only Sesame Street (which isn’t technically a Jim Henson production). Everything from The Muppet Show to The Storyteller, Dark Crystal to Muppet Babies, Fraggle Rock to Labyrinth is featured in some form or fashion.
Jim Henson, as well as an adorable dog character named Jo Jo, visit the sets of ongoing productions, the workshops in both New York and Britain, and talk about the techniques used to make the characters and worlds come alive.
You can watch the full episode here; it’s cute and funny and very worth a watch:
(Though I recommend watching the entire The Jim Henson Hour series, too, because this episode has great making-of segments for a lot of the show.)
MuppeTelevision is featured here, too, with Kermit and the gang having a collective existential crisis as the dreaded “P-Word” comes up and they try to grapple with the fact that they are being controlled via performers and camera tricks. It’s hilarious!
In typical Jim Henson style, the production itself is filled with fourth wall-breaking gags, such as the dog changing between real and puppet several times, and using TV editing to travel great distances instantly. And it’s extremely educational, too, talking about the bluescreen process, computer effects (circa 1989), radio-controlled puppetry, two-camera edits, and even the infamous bike scene from The Great Muppet Caper. It’s a great watch for anyone interested in the process of creating movies and TV.
But what hit me like a brick was the ending, where Jim Henson talks about the most important part of the entire production—the performers. You get one of the most surreal, yet fitting sendoffs you could ever get, when the bluescreen turns off and the camera zooms out to show the performers. The Muppet characters are absolutely freaking out about this to the point of hysterics, and you get to see the actors performing them while they do it.
The actors get to talk to their own puppets while staying in-character, and it’s a strange scene in the best way. The fourth wall may have been shattered long before, but this is the floor that has been shattered. The Muppets have to create a shared hallucination that it was all just a bad dream so that they can continue existing, which is my favorite kind of joke.
It’s a lot more tragic when you think about all the context behind this episode.
The Sad Part
The main sad part: Jim Henson died just one year after this episode was produced. After years and years of overworking himself and neglecting his personal health, he passed away right at an important time for his company’s growth.
The episode then serves as an emotional sendoff to Jim Henson, giving a coda to his countless performances and creations by pulling back the curtain in a silly way that only the Muppets series could manage.
It wasn’t the last Muppet thing he ever recorded—his final performance as Kermit was in the Muppet*Vision 3D show/ride at Disney World (one that is constantly under threat of being torn down and replaced by something trendier)—but it’s much more poignant than it was probably intended to be. After all, I hardly think that Jim Henson had accepted his show would be canceled after one season, let alone knew that his health was failing him. I think this mini-documentary was supposed to just be a fun look at his company’s creations.
There were two more episodes of the show after Secrets of the Muppets, but if you recall something else from the beginning of the article, you may already know the other very sad part…
This episode never made it to air at the time of its creation. Only nine aired on NBC, and the other three aired variously over the years in various countries. Secrets of the Muppets was actually never aired in the United States until it ran on Nickelodeon in 1992. That’s two years after his death.
This final swan song, a farewell to one of the most influential creators in film and television history, didn’t even make it to air until after he passed.
Something about seeing him puppeting Kermit while staying in-character, surrounded by other talented performers doing the same, set upon me some pretty strong emotions.
Creators on Creating
This man lived for his craft. He worked for nearly forty years in the industry, revolutionized puppetry and made it OK for adults to enjoy. Henson created two of the most important pop culture franchises of the twentieth century—Sesame Street and the Muppets—and his company constantly innovated to help Hollywood reach new heights in effects and production design. Thirty years later and you can still plainly see the direct effects of his efforts throughout pop culture to this day.
I think I know why I feel so attached to a man who died before I was even born. Besides the fact that he just made really good stuff, I think it’s his creative spirit. The constant energy he brought to creating great work and innovating to pave the way for everyone else. Being a workaholic because that’s just what he enjoyed the most.
The Secrets of the Muppets episode was not intended as a melancholic farewell; it was a fun middle aged man showing off all the hard work he and his company had done over the years, in the hopes that it might inspire others and get them interested in the puppeteering and effects industries.
I like learning about the behind the scenes of stories I enjoy, and I just love passionate creators in love with their own work. But, knowing the context behind the episode and the fate of The Jim Henson Hour, it needles my heart in a way little other creative stories ever have.
Goodbye, Jim Henson (Thirty Years Later)
A creator going long before his time is infinitely sad, but at least he left us this final little farewell, even if it was unintentional. At least he gave us some of the best, most imaginative work of the past fifty years. At least his company lives on, always innovating and creating great new work both for children and adults (except for Happytime Murders). At least he got to inspire me.
One day, I want to be like Jim Henson. I mean, I don’t want to be a celebrity or anything, but I want to create work that influences industries and inspires a generation of creators. Maybe that goal is far, far too lofty to feasibly reach, but it’s exactly what I want to aim for.
If Secrets of the Muppets taught me anything, it’s that sometimes the most important things you need are just to work hard (but not TOO hard), and just to love the work you’re doing. Even if Jim Henson has been gone for thirty years, his legacy still reigns. And thirty more years from now, I suspect it will still be going strong. What a guy.
If you’ve noticed that all the episode screenshots for this article are super low-res and ugly, that’s because it’s taken from a video upload of a tape recording of an original broadcast of this episode. Yuck.
The Jim Henson Hour has never been released in full on DVD or Blu-Ray. Certain episodes, such as the full Dog City, have been released separately, but never the full series. This is likely because Disney owns the rights to the Muppets franchise, but the Jim Henson Company owns the rights to everything else, so the splits in the show are now legally separated. I assume original broadcaster NBC has some rights, too.
If anything is right and pure in this world, let us hope these companies can come together and reach an agreement to jointly release the entire series in HD picture and sound quality. It’s a tragedy that the world can’t experience these shows in their full glory for how good they are. I’d even accept a simple Disney+ upload, or anything like that, just so long as people can finally see one of Jim Henson’s most underlooked works.