Big Think Interview With Brian Henson
Question:\r\nWhere did the idea for "Stuffed and Unstrung" come from?\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
\r\n\r\n 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.”
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.”
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.\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
Question:\r\nWhat’s the biggest challenge when it comes to puppet improvisation?\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
Question:\r\nDo you get nervous before shows?\r\n\r\n
\r\n\r\n 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.
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.
Question:\r\nDoes the show's raunchiness contrast with the other puppet shows you've\r\nproduced?\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
“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.\r\n\r\n
Question:\r\nWhat would your dad say if he saw the show?\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
\r\n\r\n 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.
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.
Question:\r\nWhat’s that sketch about?\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
Question:\r\nWhat did you aspire to be when you were young?\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
\r\n\r\n 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.
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.
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.\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
Question:\r\nHow does your leadership style compare to your dad’s?\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
Question:\r\nHow is one of your puppets created?\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
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.”\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
Question:\r\nHave you ever based a puppet on someone you know?\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
Question:\r\nWhat is the most difficult emotion to get across with a puppet?\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
\r\n\r\n 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.
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.
Question:\r\nWith the world going digital, what is the future of puppets?\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
\r\n\r\n 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.
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.
\r\n\r\n 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.
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.
Question:\r\nWho is your favorite Muppet?\r\n\r\n
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.\r\n\r\n
Question:\r\nDo you think Miss Piggy and Kermit’s marriage lasted?\r\n\r\n
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\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n
A conversation with the chairman of the Jim Henson Company
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A socially minded franchise model makes money while improving society.
- A social enterprise in California makes their franchises affordable with low interest loans and guaranteed salaries.
- The loans are backed by charitable foundations.
- If scaled up, the model could support tens of thousands of entrepreneurs who are currently financially incapable of entering franchise agreements.
The underdog challenging McDonald’s & Wall Street | Hard Reset by Freethink www.youtube.com
Social responsibility is becoming a major focus of many businesses. While turning a profit is always the ultimate goal — nobody can eat good intentions, after all — having a positive impact on society is becoming an equally important goal.
A restaurant chain in California, already focused on providing healthy food at a competitive cost, is testing a new way to create more entrepreneurs. Specifically, it is working with charitable foundations to provide business opportunities to those who normally would not have access.
When a company wants to expand without paying all of the upfront costs itself or taking on the entire risk of operating in a new market, it can enter into a franchise agreement with an entrepreneur. In exchange for a share of the profits (as well as some fees and adherence to certain quality standards), the entrepreneur — now a franchisee — can open their own branch of a larger brand. The entrepreneur enjoys the benefits of owning a business, while the brand owner can cash in on intellectual property.
This model is wildly successful. There is a reason you can find fast food joints like McDonald's everywhere from Times Square to Prague (next to the Museum of Communism, no less). According to the International Franchise Association, there were more than 733,000 franchised business establishments in the United States in 2018, accounting for nearly 3 percent of GDP.
The franchise model — in which a local agent keeps some earnings while handing over a portion to a central authority — isn't new. Indeed, variations have been around since the Middle Ages, though it only took off after WWII. Franchising is now a recognized system in many countries and is used in all manner of industries, including restaurants, pet supply stores, automotive repair shops, hotels, and even senior care.
The Catch-22: you have to spend money to make money
The biggest problem with franchising is the high cost of becoming a franchisee.
While the costs vary, opening a restaurant as a franchisee can easily cost $500,000. A franchise car repair shop can require $250,000, and opening a hotel under a franchise's banner can set a person back millions. In some cases, the franchiser also will set a minimum net worth requirement or insist that the money that pays their fees not be borrowed. Even if a person can find a way around that, most new businesses do not turn a profit for quite some time after opening. These limitations essentially rule out all but the wealthy from becoming a franchisee.
As a result, there are some social enterprises that are looking to make franchising more accessible to the less affluent.
As a business that hopes to rapidly expand, they looked to franchising. However, the idea of seeking out a bunch of rich people to support a business like theirs struck CEO Sam Polk as out of step with its vision. So, the company came up with a better idea.
Their Social Equity Franchise Program helps tenured Everytable employees open their own franchise locations through free training and assistance in securing low interest loans to finance the store. To help the entrepreneurs survive the difficult early years, participants in the program are assured an income of $40,000 in their first three years of operations. Repayments on the loans do not begin until after the business is turning a profit.
The capital for all these low interest loans comes from a number of foundations such as the California Wellness Foundation (Cal Wellness). Foundations like these are required to give away a small portion of their endowments every year on causes aligned with their missions. However, most of the rest of it is simply invested in the stock market to assure the endowment continues to exist.
People like Cal Wellness CEO Judy Belk have begun to invest that money elsewhere, like in loans to provide the money needed to open an Everytable franchise. As she explained to FreeThink:
"Cal Wellness and many other foundations are saying, 'I think we can do a little better with that [money]. Why not use that capital to invest in the communities that we're supposed to serve?'"
In the end, Everytable gets a new restaurant that expands the brand, foundations get returns on their investment, and the franchisee gets an opportunity that they likely never would have had without the program.
Expanding the Everytable model
If even a small share of the $2 trillion foundations in the U.S. have are invested into this sort of social cause, tens of thousands of loans could be given to those less affluent people who are looking to start a business. While this model likely would lower returns to institutional investors like charities, they could enjoy more tangible results in the communities they exist to serve. According to a report published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, local entrepreneurship increases income and employment and decreases poverty.
At the individual level, this would help a lot of people who otherwise never would be able to seriously consider going into business for themselves. By a number of measures, business owners make more than wage workers and can also claim ownership of the assets that comprise the business. Beyond that, many small business owners enjoy the non-financial benefits of their position as well, including the independence and autonomy that often come with business ownership.
When working optimally, good business is good for society.
Fintech companies are using elements of video games to make personal finance more fun. But does it work, and what are the risks?
- Gamification is the process of incorporating elements of video games into a business, organization, or system, with the goal of boosting engagement or performance.
- Gamified personal finance apps aim to help people make better financial decisions, often by redirecting destructive financial behaviors (like playing the lottery) toward positive outcomes.
- Still, gamification has its risks, and scientists are still working to understand how gamification affects our financial behavior.
- YouTube www.youtube.com
The human brain is a pretty lazy organ. Although it's capable of remarkable ingenuity, it's also responsible for nudging us into bad behavioral patterns, such as being impulsive or avoiding difficult but important decisions. These kinds of short-sighted behaviors can hurt our finances.
However, they don't hurt the video game industry. In 2020, video games generated more than $179 billion in revenue, making the industry more valuable than sports and movies combined. A 2021 report from Limelight Network found that gamers worldwide spend an average of 8 hours and 27 minutes per week playing video games.
Good at gaming, bad at saving
It's not necessarily bad that Americans spend millions of dollars and hours on video games. But consider another set of statistics: 25 percent of Americans have no retirement savings at all, while roughly half are either living "on the edge" or "paycheck to paycheck," according to a recent report on the Financial Resilience of Americans from the FINRA Education Foundation. Meanwhile, experts predict that Social Security funds could dry up by 2035.
So, why don't people save more? After all, the benefits of compounding interest aren't exactly a secret: Investing a few hundred bucks every month would make most people millionaires by retirement if they start in their twenties. However, the recent FINRA report found that many Americans have alarmingly low levels of financial literacy, a topic that's not taught in most public schools.
Even for the financially literate, saving money is psychologically difficult
But what if we could infuse the instant gratification of video games into our long-term financial habits? In other words, what if finance looked less like an Excel spreadsheet and more like your favorite video game?
A growing number of finance applications are making that a reality. By using the same strategies video game designers have been optimizing for decades, gamifying personal finance could be one of the most efficient ways to help people save for the future while reaping instant psychological rewards. But it doesn't come without risks.
What is gamification?
In simple terms, gamification takes the motivating power of video games and applies it to other areas of life. The global research company Gartner offers a slightly more technical definition of gamification: "the use of game mechanics and experience design to digitally engage and motivate people to achieve their goals."
The odds are you have encountered gamification already. It's utilized by many popular apps, websites, and devices. For example, LinkedIn displays progress bars representing how much profile information you have filled out. The Apple Watch has a "Close Your Rings" feature that shows how many steps you need to walk to meet your daily goal.
Brands have used gamification to boost customer engagement for decades. For example, McDonald's launched its Monopoly game in 1987, which essentially attached lottery tickets to menu items, while M&M's gained consumer attention with Eye-Spy Pretzel, an online scavenger hunt game that went viral in 2010.
In addition to marketing, gamification is used in social media, fitness, education, crowdfunding, military recruitment, and employee training, just to name a few applications. The Chinese government has even gamified aspects of its Social Credit System, in which citizens perform or refrain from various activities to earn points that represent trustworthiness.
Finance is arguably one of the best-suited fields for gamification. One reason is that financial data can be easily measured and graphed. Perhaps more importantly, financial decisions occur in the background of almost everything we do in modern life, from deciding what we eat for lunch to where we are going to spend our lives.
Gamification doesn't just make boring stuff fun; it's also an effective way to change our behavior. Used properly, it can also disrupt our habits.
The nature of habits
It's tempting to think that we make our way through life by thoughtfully considering the information before us and making sensible choices. That's not really the case. Research suggests that about 40 percent of our daily activities are performed out of habit, a term the American Journal of Psychology defines as a "more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience."
In other words, we spend much of our lives on autopilot. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that we rely on habits: our brains require a lot of energy, especially when we're faced with tough decisions and complex problems, like financial planning. It's relatively easy to rely on learned behavioral patterns that provide a quick, reliable solution. However, those patterns don't always serve our long-term interests.
Saving money is a good example. Imagine you have $500 with which to do whatever you want. You could invest it. Or you could go on a shopping spree. Unfortunately, the brain doesn't process these two options the same way; in fact, it actually processes the investing option as something like a pain stimulus.
Why gamification works
Saving is painful. But can't people simply choose to be more financially responsible? In short: Yes, but it takes a lot of effort. After all, when it comes to changing behavior, willpower is only part of the equation.
Some psychologists think willpower is a finite resource, or that it's like an emotion whose motivational power ebbs and flows based on what's happening around us. For example, you might establish a monthly budget and stick to it for a couple weeks. But then you get stressed. The next time you're out shopping, you might find it harder to resist making an impulsive purchase in your stressed-out state.
Pixel Art Lootvlasdv via Adobe Stock
"A growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll," the American Psychological Association writes. "Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse." In the terminology of psychology, this is called ego depletion.
Gamification offers a way to outsource your willpower. That's because games offer psychological rewards that can motivate us to perform certain actions that might otherwise have seemed too boring, taxing, or emotionally draining. What's more, gamifying parts of your life is less of a change of mind and more of a change of environment.
A 2017 study published in Computers in Human Behavior noted that "enriching the environment with game design elements, as gamification does by definition, directly modifies that environment, thereby potentially affecting motivational and psychological user experiences."
The study argued that games are most motivational when they address three key psychological needs: competence, autonomy, and social relatedness. It's easy to imagine how games can tap into these categories. For competence, games can feature badges and performance graphs. For autonomy, games can offer customizable avatars. And for social relatedness, games can feature compelling storylines and multiplayer gameplay.
Gamification and the brain
Games can motivate us by satisfying our psychological needs and giving us a sense of reward. From a neurological perspective, this occurs through the release of "feel-good" neurotransmitters, namely dopamine and oxytocin.
"Two core things have to happen in the brain to influence your decision-making," Paul Zak, a neuroscientist and professor of economic sciences at Claremont Graduate University, told Big Think. "The first is you have to attend to that information. That's driven by the brain's production of dopamine. The second thing, you've got to get my lazy brain to care about the outcomes. And that caring is driven by emotional resonance. And that's associated with the brain's production of oxytocin."
Cheerful Father And Son Competing In Video Games At HomeProstock-studio via Adobe Stock
When released simultaneously, these neurotransmitters can put us into a state that Zak calls "neurologic immersion." In this state, our everyday habits have less control over our behavior, and we're better able to take deliberate action. It's an idea Zak and his colleagues developed over two decades of using brain-imaging technology to study the nature of extraordinary experiences.
As he wrote in an article published by the World Experience Organization, neurologic immersion can occur when experiences, including video games, are unexpected, emotionally charged, narrowing one's focus to the experience itself, easy to remember, and provoking actions.
"The components of the extraordinary come as a package, not in isolation from each other," Zak wrote. "It's the 'action' part that is key to finding immersion. Extraordinary experiences cause people to take an action, whether it's donating to charity, buying a product, posting on social media, or returning to enjoy an experience again."
Games can invoke these types of immersive experiences.. But how exactly are financial organizations using gamification to help people "level up" their financial futures?
Gamifying personal finance
Banks and financial companies have been using gamification for years. What started with simple concepts, like PNC Bank's "Punch the Pig" savings feature, has evolved into a diverse field of games that are helping people stick to budgets, save money, and pay off debt.
What's surprising about the gamification of personal finance is that some of the most successful apps are redirecting destructive financial behaviors, like buying lottery tickets, toward positive outcomes. One example is an app called Long Game, which uses an approach called "lottery savings."
"People actually really love the lottery," Lindsay Holden, co-founder and CEO of Long Game, told Big Think. "The lottery today is a $70-billion-dollar industry in the U.S., and the people that are buying lotto tickets are the people that least should be buying lotto tickets. And so how can we redirect that spend into something that's helping them in their lives?"
Long Game's answer is to encourage users to make automatic or one-time investments into a prize-linked savings account. As users make investments, they earn coins that can be used to play games, some of which offer cash prizes. But unlike the real lottery, the prize money comes from banks that are partnered with Long Game, meaning users can't lose their principal investment.
Blast is a savings app aimed at traditional gamers. The platform lets users connect a savings account to their video game accounts. Users then set performance goals in the video games, such as killing a certain number of enemies. Accomplishing these goals triggers a pre-selected investment into the savings accounts. In addition to earning interest, users can also win prize money by accomplishing certain missions or placing high on public leaderboards.
"Gamers tell us they feel better with the time they spend gaming when they know they are micro-saving or micro-earning in the background," Blast co-founder and CEO Walter Cruttenden said in a statement.
Young gamer playing a video game wearing headphones.sezer66 via Adobe Stock
Fortune City takes a different approach to gamified finance. The app encourages users to track their spending habits, which are represented by visually appealing graphs. As users log expenses, they're able to build buildings in their own virtual city. The expense categories match the types of buildings users can construct; for example, buying food lets users construct a restaurant. It's like "SimCity" meets certified public accountant.
The risks of gamification
Gamifying your finances might help you save money, but it doesn't come without risks. After all, receiving extrinsic rewards when we perform a behavior can affect our intrinsic motivation to repeat that behavior both positively and negatively. It's a phenomenon called the overjustification effect.
In addition, gamified finance apps can also be addictive and encourage risky financial behavior. Robinhood, for example, uses visually appealing performance metrics and lottery-like game elements to incentivize the trading of stocks and cryptocurrencies. But while investing in these assets might be a good financial decision for some people, Robinhood arguably encourages its users to be "players" in the difficult world of trading, not necessarily rational investors.
What's more, gamification doesn't seem to work for everyone.
"From social psychology and behavioural economics, we know that the most likely [result of] gamification [is that you] will motivate some people, will demotivate other people, and for a third group there'll be no effect at all," noted a 2017 study on gamification and mobile banking published in Internet Research.
But given that 14.1 million Americans are unbanked, and millions more struggle with financial literacy, it's reasonable to think that gamified finance apps could help many people work toward financial independence.
"One of the most interesting things we've found is that people want help when it comes to making difficult decisions," Zak told Big Think. "In my view, any app that helps you be a more effective saver is probably a good app. But I think we have to do a lot more work to really understand the underlying neuroscience of gamification. And so we need to continue to design games that teach you more about how to 'level up in life,' not just level up in the game."
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
Playing video games could help you make better decisions about money.
- The word is out on gaming—it's not just something that children do for fun anymore. Games are tools that can be used to teach new skills, reduce stress, and even change behaviors by triggering chemical reactions in the brain.
- These benefits and more have provided scientists and developers with a promising path forward. "Games reduce the stress of making decisions," says neuroscientist and professor Paul Zak. "App designers have now used game structures to help people learn new information, make new decisions; and one of the most exciting applications is in financial decision making."
- But simply turning something into a game isn't enough to see meaningful changes in habits. Developers of gamified apps like Long Game have found ways to combine the engaging and fun experience we expect from video games, with something that has traditionally not been very fun: saving money.