What is a Muppet? Homer Simpson once offered this explanation: “It’s not quite a mop and it’s not quite a puppet, but man…” — before cracking up with amusement. “So to answer your question, I don’t know.” That episode of The Simpsons aired in the mid-1990s, a somewhat fallow period for Jim Henson’s puppet-like (though less so mop-like) creations, but the decades between now and then have shown them to be at least as culturally influential as Matt Groening’s family of Springfieldians. What gives the Muppets, who made their television debut in 1955 and have now survived their creator by nearly thirty years, their power to endure?
Insight into that question is on offer right now in a new six-part documentary series on Jim Henson’s life and work. It comes as a part of Defunctland, “a YouTube series discussing the history of extinct theme parks and themed entertainment experiences” that has recently expanded its cultural purview.
The first episode of Defunctland’s Jim Henson explores “the history of Jim’s beginnings and his first television show, Sam and Friends“; the second “the origins of Sesame Street, the Muppetland specials, and the failed Muppet pilots”; and the third the proper beginnings of The Muppet Show, whose creators didn’t know they were “about to make the most popular show in the world.” After you’ve caught up with the first three episodes of Jim Henson, the next three episodes will appear on the series’ Youtube playlist.
As you’ll know if you’ve seen the surreal early films, experimental animations, and violent coffee commercials made by Jim Henson previously featured here on Open Culture, the man behind the Muppets hardly sought to produce entertainment for children alone: one of the pilots of The Muppet Show, in fact, was titled “Sex and Violence.” Defunctland’s documentary series gets into that and all the other aspects of Henson’s life and work, two concepts hardly separable for such a famously dedicated creator. There’s much more to Henson’s legacy than a childhood full of Sesame Street — now in its 50th year on the air — would suggest. As for how rigorous a definition of “Muppet” the series will leave us with, we’ll have to wait until it concludes to find out.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.