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Brian Henson

Brian Henson is Chairman of The Jim Henson Company and an award-winning director, producer, writer and performer. Most recently, he created "Stuffed and Unstrung," an off-Broadway puppet-based variety show geared[…]

A conversation with the chairman of the Jim Henson Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brian Henson:  Well, it’s kindrnof fun.  It’s, I think it’s a lotrnricher than what we call fleshy improv, I think it’s very funny, puppet improvrnand fleshy improv. First of all, you’re improvising through a puppet, so you’rernnot always yourself: you’re a cow or you’re a pig or you’re an old woman, yournknow, whatever puppet you pick, or you’re a demon, you know, whatever you pickrnup, that’s what you get to be in the scene.  And that adds a whole liberating energy to the show and tornthe comedy.  You can get a lot morernoutrageous and a little crazier.

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

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

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

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Question:rnDo you get nervous before shows?

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Brian Henson: It’s actually good when the performers are nervous, becausernit kind of sharpens up your brain and a little bit of adrenaline is good.  Initially it’s really tough.  I think initially it’s terrifyingrnbecause going into a show where, you know, “Oh, I’m going to be on stage forrntwo hours, I have no lines to memorize, I have nothing really prepared,” andrnactually 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 dornhave prepared and that part of it, you have memorized and you’ve rehearsed andrnyou’re prepared, just like any show.   But the fact that most of the show you can’t bernprepared for, you have no idea really what’s coming is initially very nervernwracking, by now, it’s kind of fun. rnYou get used to it, you look forward to the adrenaline of the stagernfright before you go out.

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Question:rnDoes the show's raunchiness contrast with the other puppet shows you'vernproduced? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Question:rnWhat’s that sketch about?

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

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Question:rnWhat 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 alwaysrnwas doing film, filmmaking things and animation things and sculpture.  I always very much enjoyed arts and itrnwas so central in my family, my mother was also an art teacher, as well asrnfounding the Henson Company with my dad, there was a lot of art going on in ourrnhousehold.

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Butrncurriculum-wise, I was drawn to the sciences and specifically to physics, and Irnreally enjoyed it and I think for a little while there, I was really thinkingrnmy schooling would be in physics, that that was something I loved, and that,rnprobably though, by the time I was 17, I already knew that I was probably goingrnto go into film.  At that point, Irnthought probably special effects, something like that, and indeed, the earlyrndays when I was working with my dad, after I left school, I only went to lessrnthan one year of college, and then I was transferring, and then I delayed myrntransfer, and I did a movie, and then another movie, and then I never finishedrncollege.

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But initiallyrnwhen I was working with my dad, it was in special effects puppets with radiorncontrol and motors and puppet effects. rnThe first big thing that I did with my dad was the bicycle sequence in “ThernGreat Muppet Caper,” where Kermit and Piggy are riding bicycles in BattersearnPark in London and that was a complex marionetting and cranes driving throughrnthe park, it was a complicated scene, and I did that with my dad.  And so I was already sort of mixing myrnscience physics enthusiasm with entertainment and directing and puppetry.

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But, yeah,rnprobably the time I was 17, certainly by the time I was 19, I knew that showrnbusiness was where I was going to end up, and I had my sights on being arndirector.

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

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

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So in thatrnsense, I try to emulate his approach of really get the most out of people byrnallowing them to experiment and certainly allowing people to makernmistakes.  I think in a creativerneffort, in any creative effort, you need to, people need to be able to berntaking risks and if it turns out to be a mistake, if it turns out not to havernbeen the right choice, that should be applauded, you know, by everybody, and itrnwill come up with another plan. rnBut if everybody’s trying to stay safe, then you never really creaternsomething new and different and surprising.

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And so I try tornoperate like him in that sense.  Myrndad was a very, very gentle soul, I’m probably not quite as gentle, maybe, asrnhim.  But I certainly try tornrespect people and create an environment where people can flourish.

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Question:rnHow 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 willrnbe the combination of the writing of the character, the voicing of therncharacter, the personality of the character, and what the character looksrnlike.  And characters in ourrncompany can develop from basically three different directions.  They can develop as a scriptedrncharacter first, it could be a writer that came up with the idea of arncharacter, described it in a script, and then wrote some dialogue.  And that’s where it starts from, andrnthen you add a performer, who puts a whole additional layer on top of that, andrnyou add a puppet design, and the puppet that the puppet builder has built, andrnthat adds a whole layer.  And inrnthe end, that gives you the complete character.

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But sometimesrnthe characters start in the script, sometimes the characters start by a puppetrndesigner drawing a sketch and say, “How does that look?”  Sometimes, many of the best, bestrnpuppets actually didn’t start with anything that specific, it starts withrnsaying to puppet builders, “I need some weird looking monsters for this scene,”rnand you kind of describe it.  Andrnthen the puppet builders actually just fabricate it on their table, just startrnputting it together.  And some veryrngood characters start that way, where it’s a puppet first and somebody comes inrnwith 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’srnput a script to it.”

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

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

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

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Brian Henson:  Always.  But it’s usually, by the time yournfinish it, it never is that anymore. rnWell, no, I guess sometimes we have built puppets of specificrncelebrities, occasionally.  Oftenrnthe initial idea behind a character will be somebody that somebody knows, butrnby the time you add all of the creating of the puppet to the scripting andrneverything, by the time it’s finished, even if you showed that character to thernperson that you had started with, they would have no idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Question:rnWho is your favorite Muppet?

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

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

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Brian Henson:  I think it’srnstill in question as to whether they really ever got married.  They’re one of those relationships, yournknow?  They’re going to be togetherrnand 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’srnhard. 

Recorded on April 8, 2010

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