Michael Wermuth Jnr – Today, we look at the 1980s, when Jim Henson had so many projects, you could say that it was his busiest decade. Various articles in Jim Henson’s red book note that there were weeks or even weekends where he would travel to various parts of the world, from London to New York to Toronto, and maybe even other places. While in the past, most of the main performers (primarily Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, Richard Hunt, Steve Whitmire, Kathy Mullen, and Karen Prell) would perform in nearly every production, it would now become common to not have every performer involved in every production so that more productions could be made, with Jim Henson even being less involved (if at all) as a performer in some productions.Sesame Street would start to add more performers to allow for more Muppets to be used in street scenes, with such long-running performers as Kevin Clash, Martin Robinson, Camile Bonora, and David Rudman.
The Muppet Show ended in 1981, not because people were tired of it, but because Jim Henson was ready to end the show, wanting to end it while people still wanted more. He was also ready to start working on new things, but the Muppets didn’t disappear during this time. As soon as production on The Muppet Show ended, production began on the second Muppet film, The Great Muppet Caper, which would be followed by another movie, The Muppets Take Manhattan. In 1981, a Muppets newspaper comic strip by Guy and Brad Gilchrist debuted, running for six years. The Muppets were also the focus of a magazine, Muppet Magazine, which ran from 1983-1989. The Muppets also continued to make frequent appearances on TV shows and specials, in direct-to-video projects, in PSAs as well as new commercials, and of course in new television specials, including The Fantastic Miss Piggy Show, The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Years, and the popular A Muppet Family Christmas.
But the biggest exposure for the Muppets in the 1980s was on the animated series Muppet Babies, which ran from 1984-1992. This series featured the Muppets as babies, with each episode showcasing the Muppets imaginations. The show popularized the concept of having shows with younger versions of established characters. A number of fans seem to believe that this show was responsible for making the public once again view the Muppets as children’s entertainment. In fact around this time the classic adult versions would appear in a number of educational home videos and computer games aimed at younger audiences.
Jim Henson formed his Creature Shop in 1982, following the release of his fantasy film The Dark Crystal. In contrast to the more cartoony look of the Muppets, the puppets and animatronics from the Creature Shop were made to look much more realistic. In a 1982 interview, Jim Henson pointed out that the puppets from the Creature Shop are not Muppets (though the Creature Shop would make creatures for a couple of shows where the characters were officially Muppets, namely Ghost of Faffner Hall and Mother Goose Stories). While the Muppet Workshop would exclusively build puppets for The Jim Henson Company, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop regularly built creatures not only for the companys own projects but also supplied characters (and sometimes wardrobe and visual effects) for other company’s movies, including Dream Child and the first two Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films. As for Henson’s own productions, the Creature Shop provided characters for the films Labyrinth and The Witches, the television series The Story Teller, and various commercials.
Jim Henson’s Muppet Workshop was also busy with projects. Perhaps the most successful from this period (well, besides Muppet Babies and Sesame Street) was Fraggle Rock, taking place in the titular world of Fraggle Rock, filled with the fun-loving Fraggles, tiny but hard-working Doozers, and the giant Gorgs. The show was, as Jim Henson has been noted as saying, meant to bring peace to the world, with many of the shows conflicts being based on a difference in perspectives, plus a heavy theme of showing that we’re all somehow connected. The Muppet Workshop also created characters for a couple of specials, Tale of the Bunny Picnic and The Christmas Toy. Jim Henson also made a number of unsold pilots, such as Puppet Man. Henson also produced a six-episode anthology series, Jim Henson Presents the World of Puppetry, showcasing the talents of other puppeteers from around the world.
In 1989, Jim Henson produced one of his most ambitious projects yet, The Jim Henson Hour, a weekly series that was part-variety show, part-anthology series, combining the things he was known for with other things he wanted to do, and often working in as much cutting-edge technology as possible. The first half-hour of most shows was MuppeTelevision, a follow-up to The Muppet Show taking place in a control room, featuring such familiar characters as Kermit and Gonzo plus many new characters, including Bean Bunny (introduced in Tale of the Bunny Picnic), Clifford, Digit, and the computer-animated Waldo C. Graphic, who was designed to be performed in real-time. In fact, the show had a lot of computer animation, including the main Muppet Central control room set and the set where Jim Henson made his introductions. The second half-hour was often a previously-unaired episode of The Story Teller, but on occasion it would be a stand-alone special, such as Song of the Cloud Forest and Miss Piggy’s Hollywood, and some shows would be an hour-long special, including Monster Maker and the Emmy-winning Dog City. Unfortunately, a number of factors resulted in an early cancellation, including a bad time slot, low ratings (it was usually among the lowest-rated shows in its time slot), and bad reviews (many critics disliked Jim Henson’s introductions and especially MuppeTelevision, marking the first time the Muppets had truly failed, though The Story Teller got better reviews). This was also perhaps the first time Frank Oz’s directing career, which got him directing movies away from The Jim Henson Company, had affected a Muppet production (none of the main Muppet performers did voices on Muppet Babies, and Sesame Street’s format allowed for Oz to perform a limited schedule, especially with the shows habit of repeating material), with his familiar characters only making a handful of appearances.
Following the shows early cancellation, Jim Henson decided to sell his company, with the exception of the rights to the Sesame Street Muppets, to The Walt Disney Company. Although negotiations lasted several months, Jim Henson was already developing new projects for the company, including many theme park attractions, such as the popular Muppet Vision 3D.
Unfortunately, Jim Henson died in 1990. Next time, we’ll look at the decade after his death.