Jim Henson’s Lasting Legacy

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While putting together my first post for this blog, I found an excuse to revisit my childhood through YouTube. Watching old videos of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show brought back some great memories for me, so I was especially interested in a recent tweet by the cultural treasure hunters at Open Culture that linked to some early Jim Henson work. Remembering Henson’s lasting legacy seemed to me to be a fitting way to commemorate what would have been his 77th birthday today.

Regarding the Open Culture link, Mike Springer offers a thorough background in his article, but the nutshell is that between 1957 and 1961, Henson was commissioned to make 179 eight-second commercial spots for Wilkins Coffee, a regional brand in the Washington D.C.-Baltimore area. Before I say anymore, you should at least watch a few of the spots:

Obviously, the overtly sadistic nature of these commercials is what makes them interesting cultural artifacts to watch today. Reminiscent of the classic Looney Tunes and Three Stooges shorts of his generation’s childhood, Henson’s coffee commercials are reflective of a different time when slapstick violence was just another comic device employed with reckless abandon.

What I find fascinating, though, is that through these commercials, we see Henson experimenting with what would become the key for creating successful children’s programming. Henson was keenly aware of what his audience would find funny, whether they were children or adults. The point of these commercials was to sell Wilkins Coffee to adults, yet the chosen vehicles for that message were puppets: something directly associated with children’s entertainment. While the merits of using violence to sell coffee can be debated today, the end result at the time was an eight-second spot that appealed to everyone, from the 8-year-old kid who knew to drink Wilkins when the time came to the 8-year-old kid trapped in an adult, coffee-drinking body who couldn’t help but laugh. In short, these commercials are some of the earliest examples of his template for entertaining everyone.

It was a template that he modified successfully when it came to Sesame Street and The Muppet Show. Henson knew what it took to keep his shows entertaining and educational for kids, but he was also very interested in making sure that parents enjoyed it, too. By spoofing classic movies like Casablanca, sci-fi classics like Star Trek and Star Wars, and by injecting countless other cultural references into his shows that were aimed at the parents, Henson revolutionized children’s programming by making it for everyone—not just for kids.

Henson didn’t live long enough to witness the lasting impact of his visionary ideas (he died in 1990), but his body of work, starting with these commercials, set the stage for a cartoon like The Simpsons to find fans across the age spectrum and become one of the greatest series in television history. And his template for all-inclusive children’s programming continues to be employed by the most successful children’s shows of this generation, including complex yet entertaining shows like Adventure Time, and Yo Gabba Gabba!, which has been very successful at getting kids and their parents singing together by featuring some of mom and pop’s favorite bands: 

Christian Williams is Editor in Chief of Utne Reader, and he also paints and makes music. View and listen to his work at www.christianwwilliams.com.

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