Big Think Interview With Brian Henson

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Question:\r\nWhere did the idea for "Stuffed and Unstrung" come from?

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Brian Henson: “Stuffed and Unstrung” started as a workshop, actually,\r\nclasses within our company.  We\r\nfound that our puppeteers were not ad libbing as well as traditionally, Jim\r\nHenson Company puppeteers have. \r\nWe’re sort of famous for going off script a little bit and ad\r\nlibbing.  And we kind of lost a lot\r\nof that and puppeteers were sticking to the script and we thought everything\r\nneeded to get a lot funnier, so we thought we would go to a good improv comedy\r\ninstructor. Patrick Bistrow is who we decided to invite over to talk about\r\ntraining out puppeteers in improv comedy, to get them off of script and get\r\nthem thinking about character development and sharpening up their comedy.

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And that\r\nstarted about four years ago now and it was just a workshop.  The puppeteers really responded to\r\nit.  Patrick Bistrow really responded\r\nto it, it’s great fun to do improve comedy with puppets.  And Patrick thought we should try to\r\nput an audience in front of one of the workshops, basically in front of the\r\nclass and see how the performers rose to having an audience there, because he said,\r\n“You know, it’s a really interesting test, because sometimes it gets even\r\nfunnier.”  And so I thought, well,\r\nif we’re inviting an audience, let’s do it right.  So I put in a proper studio audience at our studios in Los\r\nAngeles and it was just a little showcase and it was just for fun.  But there was a producer from the Aspen\r\nComedy Festival who happened to be there, as a friend of a friend, and she\r\nsaid, “I’d like to book you into the Aspen Comedy Festival,” and we said,\r\n“Well, there isn’t really a show to book in, this is just a little showcase and\r\nit’s really our workshop.”  And she\r\nsaid, “No, it’s great, I love it, just do exactly what you did.”

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So we took a\r\nshow to the Aspen Comedy Festival, called “Puppet Up” at that point, and in\r\nAspen we just did three shows, and in Aspen, there was a producer from the\r\nEdinborough Fringe Festival, who said, “Please come to Edinborough,” so we sent\r\na troupe to Edinborough, and then in Edinborough, there was a producer from the\r\nMelbourne Comedy Festival, so we went to Melbourne.  So it’s one of these shows that kind of organically\r\ndeveloped and it started developing momentum way before I even thought there\r\nwas a show here. 

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And then after\r\nthe success at Melbourne Comedy Festival, then we regrouped back in LA and we\r\nwent back into workshopping and decided to develop a proper show and that’s\r\nwhen we started working on “Stuffed and Unstrung,” which is a much bigger and\r\nsharper version of “Puppet Up.” \r\nAnd we wanted to premiere it in New York, because New York is sort of\r\nthe home of the Jim Henson Company and it’s sort of the tone and flavor,\r\nalways, of the puppet work that we’ve done traditionally.  And that’s what brought us here and now\r\nwe’re here.

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Question:\r\nWhat’s the biggest challenge when it comes to puppet improvisation?

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Brian Henson:  Well, it’s kind\r\nof fun.  It’s, I think it’s a lot\r\nricher than what we call fleshy improv, I think it’s very funny, puppet improv\r\nand fleshy improv. First of all, you’re improvising through a puppet, so you’re\r\nnot always yourself: you’re a cow or you’re a pig or you’re an old woman, you\r\nknow, whatever puppet you pick, or you’re a demon, you know, whatever you pick\r\nup, that’s what you get to be in the scene.  And that adds a whole liberating energy to the show and to\r\nthe comedy.  You can get a lot more\r\noutrageous and a little crazier.

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In many ways, I\r\nthink it’s easier in some ways, or it’s more entertaining or more guaranteed to\r\nbe entertaining than traditional improvising.  Again, because you’re not just you in your body.  A puppet that starts to improvise badly\r\nis almost funnier than the puppet that’s improvising well.  So the show gets better when the\r\nimprovising is really good, but also the show can also sometimes get better\r\nwhen the improvising sort of goes a little wrong and that’s sort of a blessing\r\nto improvising with puppets.

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The challenge\r\nis, well, there’s a huge challenge, which is when you’re improvising, you’re\r\nmeant to sort of clear your mind completely, just be open and funny, and\r\npaying, you know, paying attention. \r\nAnd with puppets, especially in our company, we sort of demand a very\r\nhigh standard of puppetry, so it’s a real technical skill.  So while you’re trying to improvise,\r\nyou’re also trying to puppeteer, you’re doing everything that you need to do to\r\nperform a puppet in our style, for a camera.

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So that’s the\r\nchallenge, you have a big technical aspect of what you’re doing whilst you’re\r\ncreatively trying to improvise. \r\nAnd I’d say that that is a challenge, but it also is, again, it’s\r\nhelpful.  It’s helpful to have the\r\ndiscipline of, okay, I’m doing, I’m doing something that’s quite precise over\r\nhere, working the puppet, and I’m doing something that’s very imprecise and\r\ncreative and unleashed over here, which is the comedy side.  And it’s kind of nice to allow your brain\r\nto be doing those two things at once.

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Question:\r\nDo you get nervous before shows?

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Brian Henson: It’s actually good when the performers are nervous, because\r\nit kind of sharpens up your brain and a little bit of adrenaline is good.  Initially it’s really tough.  I think initially it’s terrifying\r\nbecause going into a show where, you know, “Oh, I’m going to be on stage for\r\ntwo hours, I have no lines to memorize, I have nothing really prepared,” and\r\nactually I say that, the show is not all improvising.  The show is probably 60 percent improvising and 40 percent not.  So there’s quite a bit of it that we do\r\nhave prepared and that part of it, you have memorized and you’ve rehearsed and\r\nyou’re prepared, just like any show.   But the fact that most of the show you can’t be\r\nprepared for, you have no idea really what’s coming is initially very nerve\r\nwracking, by now, it’s kind of fun. \r\nYou get used to it, you look forward to the adrenaline of the stage\r\nfright before you go out.

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Question:\r\nDoes the show's raunchiness contrast with the other puppet shows you've\r\nproduced? 

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Brian Henson: This is certainly the raunchiest, if you use that word,\r\nraunchy. The roots of Jim Henson, though, was adult comedy.  The first show that my dad and my mom\r\ndid together was for, was a comedy series, a short form that went in the middle\r\nof late-night news, and then through all of their career, it was always the “Ed\r\nSullivan Show,” it was a variety act, my dad was on the “Jimmy Dean Show” for a\r\nfew years.  It was actually what my\r\ndad did and with the Muppets, the years with the Muppets, it was really all\r\ntargeted to adults.  It was in a\r\ntime when everything had to be safe for the whole family.  But he was targeting adults.

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“Sesame Street”\r\nwas really the first kid’s show that my dad did.  He did a couple of TV specials that were targeted for kids\r\nbefore “Sesame Street,” but really, it was, it’s kind of going back to our\r\nroots, when we start to get adult. \r\nThis show gets very adult sometimes, and that’s because of the\r\naudience.  There’s an awful lot of\r\nscenes where we don’t know what the scene’s going to be about, we ask the\r\naudience, pick a place that the scene is happening, pick the relationship, tell\r\nus who they are, things like that. \r\nAnd if the audience is in a kind of naughty, raunchy mood, then they’re\r\ngoing to make naughty, raunchy suggestions and then we take them and we do the\r\nscene anyway, and that’s part of the fun. \r\nWe try to keep it a classy show, but it certainly is blue at times.  And it all depends on the audience,\r\nsometimes we’ve have audiences that don’t really want us to go too far in that\r\ndirection. 

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Question:\r\nWhat would your dad say if he saw the show?

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Brian Henson:  I think he\r\nwould love it.  Really, initially\r\nwhat I very quickly realized that I was loving about the show was, because it\r\nreminded me of when I was a kid and I would visit the sets where my dad was\r\nshooting with the other puppeteers. \r\nAnd one of the funnest things was watching what they did before the\r\ndirector called action and after the director called cut.  And they’d keep their hands in the\r\npuppets, they’d stay in character, and then they’d start goofing around with\r\neach other and be off of script, and it would get quite blue.  And it was a whole lot of fun, and in\r\nmany ways, what we’ve done with the show is just taken that part of my early\r\nmemories of visiting my dad, shooting with the Muppets, and taking that and\r\nmaking a show that’s really an expansion of that and presenting a show that’s\r\nall that.  And that was always my\r\nfather’s favorite part about shooting as well.  Often my dad would shoot very, very late, he was quite a\r\nworkaholic, they would do 20, 20-hour shoots and stuff like that.  And he could be on a set at 2:30 in the\r\nmorning where all the puppeteers were just laughing so hysterically at each\r\nother that they can’t actually do the scene, and they’d have to wait until,\r\nuntil they’d gotten themselves back under control to do the scene.

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And again,\r\nwe’re kind of trying to be in that place, that’s just so absurd and irreverent\r\nand hysterical and it’s something that at our company we’re kind of, we’re so\r\nirreverent about everything, we’re sort of irreverent about the establishment,\r\nwe’re irreverent about civilization, we’re irreverent about philosophy, we’re\r\nirreverent about religion.  We’re\r\nalso irreverent, we have an irreverent attitude towards puppets, as well.  So a lot of what we do is we’re kind of\r\nmaking fun of the puppets for being puppets, even while we’re doing it.  And again, that all feeds into the\r\nabsurdity of this show.

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In the show, we\r\nhave recreated two sketches that my dad had, or pieces that my dad had\r\ndeveloped.  One that he had\r\ndeveloped with my mother, one that Frank Oz had developed with my dad.  And these are old pieces from the ‘50’s\r\nand ‘60’s, and we’re going to develop more, too.  So they’ll be others of those.  So it’s sprinkled in there as a spice into the show.  It’s really great to do one piece, “I’ve\r\nGrown Accustomed To Your Face,” my dad developed in 1956, when he was 20 years\r\nold, and it’s great to do that piece again now and see that it still really\r\nworks as well as it ever did. 

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Question:\r\nWhat’s that sketch about?

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Brian Henson:  Oh, well, I\r\ncan’t tell you; it would be telling you the end.  It’s a one-character lip-syncing because in the early days,\r\nthat’s what my dad was doing.  My\r\ndad and mom were, they would take what were popular hits, and lip-sync to them\r\nwith puppets and do a ridiculous story. \r\nSo it’s Rosemary Clooney—Rosemary? \r\nRosemary Clooney, right? \r\nThe singer?  Yes.  Clooney, doing, singing, “I’ve Grown Accustomed\r\nTo Your Face,” which is, you know, really a love song, but what we see on stage\r\nis we see one puppet that’s got a ridiculous blonde wig on and she looks\r\nridiculous, and next to her is a head that’s just a piece of fabric with a\r\npretty face on it.  And then while\r\nshe’s lip-syncing, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face,” to this little head\r\nnext to her, the head eats the cloth fabric and swallows it and it’s sort of\r\nthis weird, demonic character there, who then tries to eat the singer.  But it’s a lot of fun.  So there’s a couple of pieces like\r\nthat.

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Question:\r\nWhat did you aspire to be when you were young?

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Brian Henson: When I was in high school, I was always an artist, I always\r\nwas doing film, filmmaking things and animation things and sculpture.  I always very much enjoyed arts and it\r\nwas so central in my family, my mother was also an art teacher, as well as\r\nfounding the Henson Company with my dad, there was a lot of art going on in our\r\nhousehold.

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But\r\ncurriculum-wise, I was drawn to the sciences and specifically to physics, and I\r\nreally enjoyed it and I think for a little while there, I was really thinking\r\nmy schooling would be in physics, that that was something I loved, and that,\r\nprobably though, by the time I was 17, I already knew that I was probably going\r\nto go into film.  At that point, I\r\nthought probably special effects, something like that, and indeed, the early\r\ndays when I was working with my dad, after I left school, I only went to less\r\nthan one year of college, and then I was transferring, and then I delayed my\r\ntransfer, and I did a movie, and then another movie, and then I never finished\r\ncollege.

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But initially\r\nwhen I was working with my dad, it was in special effects puppets with radio\r\ncontrol and motors and puppet effects. \r\nThe first big thing that I did with my dad was the bicycle sequence in “The\r\nGreat Muppet Caper,” where Kermit and Piggy are riding bicycles in Battersea\r\nPark in London and that was a complex marionetting and cranes driving through\r\nthe park, it was a complicated scene, and I did that with my dad.  And so I was already sort of mixing my\r\nscience physics enthusiasm with entertainment and directing and puppetry.

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But, yeah,\r\nprobably the time I was 17, certainly by the time I was 19, I knew that show\r\nbusiness was where I was going to end up, and I had my sights on being a\r\ndirector.

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Question:\r\nHow does your leadership style compare to your dad’s? 

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Brian Henson:  Boy, that’s one\r\nof those questions you almost have to ask somebody else. I guess I learned a\r\ncouple of good lessons from my dad. One was when you’re creating something,\r\nwhat you want when you’re working with a team of other artists, is everybody to\r\nwork with some creative freedom, so that you really get the best out of\r\neverybody.  People would say to\r\nhim, “When you finish a movie, did it come out as good as you thought it was\r\ngoing to?”  Or, “Did it come out\r\nthe way you intended it to come out?” \r\nAnd my dad’s answer would be usually something to the affect of, A, it\r\ncame out better than he imagined, but also, he said, “No, it would be\r\nimpossible for me to imagine the way it will come out.”  He said, “Yes, I story-boarded it, I\r\nhad a plan, but then I work with an army of great artists and I want all of\r\nthem to create inside that creation.” \r\nAnd so as a director, as a leader, and myself as a director and a\r\nleader, I kind of try to make sure that we hold onto the vision and kind of\r\ncorral it, but by the time you finish whatever the project is, a TV show, a\r\nseries, a movie, a stage show, it should be a product of what all those people\r\ncan do, and therefore, it can never be what you imagined it would be in the\r\nbeginning.  And it should be\r\nsomething that only that group of people could’ve made with everybody invested. 

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So in that\r\nsense, I try to emulate his approach of really get the most out of people by\r\nallowing them to experiment and certainly allowing people to make\r\nmistakes.  I think in a creative\r\neffort, in any creative effort, you need to, people need to be able to be\r\ntaking risks and if it turns out to be a mistake, if it turns out not to have\r\nbeen the right choice, that should be applauded, you know, by everybody, and it\r\nwill come up with another plan. \r\nBut if everybody’s trying to stay safe, then you never really create\r\nsomething new and different and surprising.

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And so I try to\r\noperate like him in that sense.  My\r\ndad was a very, very gentle soul, I’m probably not quite as gentle, maybe, as\r\nhim.  But I certainly try to\r\nrespect people and create an environment where people can flourish.

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Question:\r\nHow is one of your puppets created?

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Brian Henson: Where does a character come from?  Because a character, at the end of the day, a character will\r\nbe the combination of the writing of the character, the voicing of the\r\ncharacter, the personality of the character, and what the character looks\r\nlike.  And characters in our\r\ncompany can develop from basically three different directions.  They can develop as a scripted\r\ncharacter first, it could be a writer that came up with the idea of a\r\ncharacter, described it in a script, and then wrote some dialogue.  And that’s where it starts from, and\r\nthen you add a performer, who puts a whole additional layer on top of that, and\r\nyou add a puppet design, and the puppet that the puppet builder has built, and\r\nthat adds a whole layer.  And in\r\nthe end, that gives you the complete character.

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But sometimes\r\nthe characters start in the script, sometimes the characters start by a puppet\r\ndesigner drawing a sketch and say, “How does that look?”  Sometimes, many of the best, best\r\npuppets actually didn’t start with anything that specific, it starts with\r\nsaying to puppet builders, “I need some weird looking monsters for this scene,”\r\nand you kind of describe it.  And\r\nthen the puppet builders actually just fabricate it on their table, just start\r\nputting it together.  And some very\r\ngood characters start that way, where it’s a puppet first and somebody comes in\r\nwith a puppet and says, “How do you like this?”  And we all go, “That’s great!  Okay, now let’s put a character and voice to it, and let’s\r\nput a script to it.”

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And sometimes\r\nit can be the puppeteer.  Often a\r\npuppeteer will come and say, you know, “I’ve got this crazy aunt and she always\r\ntalks like this,” and then you start working it up and working it up and then\r\nyou end up making, you know, a puppet that embodies that personality.

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So it comes\r\nfrom, I said three directions; it can be four.  It can be a character designer doing an illustration, it can\r\nbe a puppet builder fabricating a puppet on their desk, on their bench, it can\r\nbe a puppeteer coming in with a personality in their mind, or it can come from\r\nthe writer writing a character.

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Question:\r\nHave you ever based a puppet on someone you know?

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Brian Henson:  Always.  But it’s usually, by the time you\r\nfinish it, it never is that anymore. \r\nWell, no, I guess sometimes we have built puppets of specific\r\ncelebrities, occasionally.  Often\r\nthe initial idea behind a character will be somebody that somebody knows, but\r\nby the time you add all of the creating of the puppet to the scripting and\r\neverything, by the time it’s finished, even if you showed that character to the\r\nperson that you had started with, they would have no idea.

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Question:\r\nWhat is the most difficult emotion to get across with a puppet?

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Brian Henson:  Puppets are\r\ninteresting because they appear to be very, very restrictive, because they\r\nappear to be non-emotional, because they don’t have much facial features, not\r\nmuch movement in their facial features. \r\nSome puppets have a little bit more, some have almost none.  And initially that looks restrictive,\r\nbecause it looks like that’s going to be impossible for that character to\r\nemote.

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The truth is,\r\nwhat happens in the end, is it allows the audience to feel the emotion and put\r\nit together in their head.  So, for\r\ninstance, a character like Kermit the Frog, is a very, very, very simple\r\npuppet, but he’s a very emotional character and that comes in the rhythms of\r\nthe movement of the character, the way that the character’s moving, the way the\r\ncharacter’s voicing, and then the audience doing a lot of the work of really\r\nfeeling like they’re seeing something that they’re not seeing.  Often when we write puppet scripts,\r\nit’ll say, “And they all smiled great, big smiles,” well, of course, a puppet\r\nnever smiles a great, big smiles, but boy, you can write that scene, you can\r\nshoot that scene, and you can show it to people and they’ll say, “I love that\r\nscene where they all ended with great big smiles.”  It’s like, yeah, but it never really happened, you just sort\r\nof imagined it.

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And so the good\r\npuppeteer, as long as you believe that that character is emoting, the\r\npuppeteer, usually the audience gets it, and it’s a weird and wonderful\r\nconnection that happens, because I can’t even really tell you how it works, but\r\nthat it really does work.  I mean,\r\nreally, it says something about the human eye and our ability to read people\r\nand then be able to read puppets the way we read people.

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Question:\r\nWith the world going digital, what is the future of puppets?

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Brian Henson:  It’s a\r\ncompletely different thing that you’re trying to do with a puppet.  It’s, or at least usually in our\r\ncompany, usually a puppet is made of felt and its eyes are often, you know,\r\nwhite plastic and it’s stuffed with foam rubber or stuffing and that’s part of\r\nwhat it is, that’s what makes the puppet funny.  And when you’re doing the puppet, if you’re doing a puppet\r\nof a goat, well, it’s not actually a goat that’s playing the scene, what’s\r\nfunny is it’s a goat that’s made out of yellow felt and foam rubber and ping\r\npong ball eyes, and that’s part of what the entertainment is.  If you were to rip the arm off the\r\ngoat, there would be cotton wool that comes out, not blood.

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And that’s not\r\nsomething you can copy with 3D digital animation, that’s specific to\r\npuppetry.  So I don’t think, I\r\nthink there will always be a place for puppetry.  3D animation, I think people were asking the same question\r\nwhen we were doing animatronics through the ‘80’s and ‘90’s when we were doing\r\nanimatronic characters.  Well, we\r\nwere building puppet characters, but you were meant to believe if you cut them,\r\nthey would bleed, with “Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth” and more recently, “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy,” or “Where\r\nThe Wild Things Are,” those are characters that are meant to be closer to the\r\nillusion of living, breathing characters. \r\nAnd I think animatronics has been largely replaced, and certainly\r\nenhanced by 3D digital animation.

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But I think the\r\nplace for puppetry, the simplicity of what you’re doing with puppetry, well,\r\nyou can’t beat the simplicity of a puppet and a camera and there you are and\r\nyou’re done.  So I don’t think\r\npuppetry is going anywhere fast.  I\r\nthink it’s one of the oldest art forms in the world and I think it will still\r\nbe going strong.

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Question:\r\nWho is your favorite Muppet?

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Brian Henson: The Muppets were always sort of like my family growing up\r\nand I didn’t really have favorites. \r\nKermit the Frog was most similar to my dad when he was in playful mood,\r\nand of course, it was the most fun to be with my dad when he was in a playful\r\nmood.  So I would tend to say\r\nKermit was maybe my favorite character. \r\nBut truthfully, they were all so a part of my life growing up that it’s\r\nmore like saying, who’s your favorite brother or sister?  You wouldn’t really have an answer.

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Question:\r\nDo you think Miss Piggy and Kermit’s marriage lasted?

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Brian Henson:  I think it’s\r\nstill in question as to whether they really ever got married.  They’re one of those relationships, you\r\nknow?  They’re going to be together\r\nand they’re going to be pulled apart, and I don’t know.  Who could live with Miss Piggy?  It’s hard. Even for Kermit, that’s\r\nhard. 

Recorded on April 8, 2010

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A conversation with the chairman of the Jim Henson Company

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