The Creative Life of Jim Henson Explored in a Six-Part Documentary Series

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 filmsexper­i­men­tal 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jim Hen­son Cre­ates an Exper­i­men­tal Ani­ma­tion Explain­ing How We Get Ideas (1966)

Jim Henson’s Vio­lent Wilkins Cof­fee Com­mer­cials (1957–1961)

A Young Jim Hen­son Teach­es You How to Make Pup­pets with Socks, Ten­nis Balls & Oth­er House­hold Goods (1969)

Watch Twin Beaks, Sesame Street’s Par­o­dy of David Lynch’s Icon­ic TV Show (1990)

Watch The Sur­re­al 1960s Films and Com­mer­cials of Jim Hen­son

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.

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