Big Think Interview With Brian Henson

A conversation with the chairman of the Jim Henson Company
  • Transcript


Question: Where did the idea for "Stuffed and Unstrung" come from?

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

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

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

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

Question: What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to puppet improvisation?

Brian Henson:  Well, it’s kind of fun.  It’s, I think it’s a lot richer than what we call fleshy improv, I think it’s very funny, puppet improv and fleshy improv. First of all, you’re improvising through a puppet, so you’re not always yourself: you’re a cow or you’re a pig or you’re an old woman, you know, whatever puppet you pick, or you’re a demon, you know, whatever you pick up, that’s what you get to be in the scene.  And that adds a whole liberating energy to the show and to the comedy.  You can get a lot more outrageous and a little crazier.

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

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

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

Question: Do you get nervous before shows?

Brian Henson: It’s actually good when the performers are nervous, because it 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 because going into a show where, you know, “Oh, I’m going to be on stage for two hours, I have no lines to memorize, I have nothing really prepared,” and actually 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 have prepared and that part of it, you have memorized and you’ve rehearsed and you’re prepared, just like any show.   But the fact that most of the show you can’t be prepared for, you have no idea really what’s coming is initially very nerve wracking, by now, it’s kind of fun.  You get used to it, you look forward to the adrenaline of the stage fright before you go out.

Question: Does the show's raunchiness contrast with the other puppet shows you've produced? 

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

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

Question: What would your dad say if he saw the show?

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

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

In the show, we have recreated two sketches that my dad had, or pieces that my dad had developed.  One that he had developed with my mother, one that Frank Oz had developed with my dad.  And these are old pieces from the ‘50’s and ‘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 Grown Accustomed To Your Face,” my dad developed in 1956, when he was 20 years old, and it’s great to do that piece again now and see that it still really works as well as it ever did. 

Question: What’s that sketch about?

Brian Henson:  Oh, well, I can’t tell you; it would be telling you the end.  It’s a one-character lip-syncing because in the early days, that’s what my dad was doing.  My dad and mom were, they would take what were popular hits, and lip-sync to them with puppets and do a ridiculous story.  So it’s Rosemary Clooney—Rosemary?  Rosemary Clooney, right?  The singer?  Yes.  Clooney, doing, singing, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face,” which is, you know, really a love song, but what we see on stage is we see one puppet that’s got a ridiculous blonde wig on and she looks ridiculous, and next to her is a head that’s just a piece of fabric with a pretty face on it.  And then while she’s lip-syncing, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face,” to this little head next to her, the head eats the cloth fabric and swallows it and it’s sort of this 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 that.

Question: What did you aspire to be when you were young?

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

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

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

But, yeah, probably the time I was 17, certainly by the time I was 19, I knew that show business was where I was going to end up, and I had my sights on being a director.

Question: How does your leadership style compare to your dad’s? 

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

So in that sense, I try to emulate his approach of really get the most out of people by allowing them to experiment and certainly allowing people to make mistakes.  I think in a creative effort, in any creative effort, you need to, people need to be able to be taking risks and if it turns out to be a mistake, if it turns out not to have been the right choice, that should be applauded, you know, by everybody, and it will come up with another plan.  But if everybody’s trying to stay safe, then you never really create something new and different and surprising.

And so I try to operate like him in that sense.  My dad was a very, very gentle soul, I’m probably not quite as gentle, maybe, as him.  But I certainly try to respect people and create an environment where people can flourish.

Question: How is one of your puppets created?

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

But sometimes the characters start in the script, sometimes the characters start by a puppet designer drawing a sketch and say, “How does that look?”  Sometimes, many of the best, best puppets actually didn’t start with anything that specific, it starts with saying to puppet builders, “I need some weird looking monsters for this scene,” and you kind of describe it.  And then the puppet builders actually just fabricate it on their table, just start putting it together.  And some very good characters start that way, where it’s a puppet first and somebody comes in with 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 put a script to it.”

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

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

Question: Have you ever based a puppet on someone you know?

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

Question: What is the most difficult emotion to get across with a puppet?

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

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

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

Question: With the world going digital, what is the future of puppets?

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

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

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

Question: Who is your favorite Muppet?

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

Question: Do you think Miss Piggy and Kermit’s marriage lasted?

Brian Henson:  I think it’s still in question as to whether they really ever got married.  They’re one of those relationships, you know?  They’re going to be together and 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 hard. 

Recorded on April 8, 2010