“Dear Mr. Dionne:
What the f*ck are you talking about?
–Response to the 1960s equivalent of an Internet troll (quoted in Jim Henson: The Biography)
Well, last night I received my first insulting comment on this blog–and, to be honest, I was a little disappointed; it was a pretty pathetic effort. In the ’60s, when trolls actually had to put pen to paper and make an effort to insult someone, people like Jim Henson got classy insults referencing ancient Roman emperors. Now that people’s attention spans are limited to 140 characters, all the creativity has gone out of gratuitous insults. Sad!
However, in a way I’m glad it happened, because now this seems like an opportune moment to examine how Jim Henson related to bullies, both in his life and in his work.
Jim was famously averse to conflict. In Jim Henson: The Biography, Brian Jay Jones tells a story about how Jim would create an excuse to fly to London rather than get involved in a dispute within his legal department in New York. From that anecdote, I think a person could get the impression that Jim was prone to be passive in his dealings with others. But I think that impression would be false, or at least incomplete.
In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think that–interestingly enough–Jim was similar to Wembley Fraggle in his approach to interpersonal conflict. On Fraggle Rock, when there’s a disagreement or dispute among his friends, Wembley becomes paralyzed with indecision, not wanting to upset or disappoint any of his friends by choosing one side over the other. On the other hand, deep down inside, Wembley has the ability to stand up for himself–and it comes out when the situation is truly dire, as it did in the matter of the mean genie. Moreover, Wembley will never stand silently by while someone else is being bullied. Whether it’s the miniscule Cotterpin Doozer, the gigantic Junior Gorg,* or anyone in between, if Wembley sees somebody being victimized, he will immediately rush to his/her defense. It’s interesting to examine a previously unconsidered link between Jim Henson and Wembley because Steve Whitmire–Wembley himself–recently told a story on his blog about how Jim once stood up to some Disney lawyers on his (Steve’s) behalf.
In spite of his aversion to conflict, Jim was also known for his determination. He was capable of standing up for himself if he felt he was being mistreated. The early days of the original Disney deal were something of a love fest, but eventually the honeymoon period was over, and Jim found himself “in combat with [Disney’s] business affairs people,” as he put it. Frustrated, Jim wrote the following in a letter to Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg:
“The tone of the negotiations does not seem to me to be the way two parties should be relating to each other if they intend to go into a long term relationship. […] The kind of deal I like is one in which both parties try to arrive at a fair settlement and everyone walks away satisfied. […] My impression is that Disney is standing firm on all issues, assuming that my company is committed to this deal and thus we will eventually cave in. This is not a wise assumption.”–(quoted in Jim Henson: The Biography, my emphasis)
Oooooooh. Here’s a guy who’s willing to go toe-to-toe with two of the most powerful and influential men in show business. Cross Jim Henson at your own peril.
Another way that Jim dealt with bullies was through his work. His sketches, especially those variety-show staples that predate The Muppet Show, often featured a situation in which one character would throw its weight around by harassing another–usually smaller–character. Like in the story of David and Goliath, however, the bullying character usually–if not always–gets its comeuppance from the smaller character. Here are some examples:
Jim used this theme in a couple of sketches that he performed in Hamburg, Germany at the US Department of Agriculture’s US Food Fair in 1961. One was a sketch about an army drill team being put through their paces by a nasty drill sergeant barking out unintelligible orders; at the end, the drill team turns around and blows the sergeant away. In another sketch, a group of characters–denoted only by the puppeteers’ gloved hands–listens calmly to some soothing (read: “boring”) elevator music. Another character comes along and spices things up with some band music. The other characters attack the dissenter, beat up on him (her? it?), and destroy his radio equipment…however, things don’t end well for them. Neither of these sketches have any dialogue, which is lucky, because the following footage has no audio:
(The drill team footage starts at 00:59; the other sketch starts at 02:39.)
In “Java,” a creature that appears to be a living dryer hose does a dance number, while a smaller creature wants to join in, sort of like a younger sibling tagging alongside an older sibling, like I did when I was a little kid. Unfortunately, the larger creature is less tolerant than my older siblings were of me…to its detriment:
“You are so awful that it is truly beautiful. You’ve probably worked all your life to be perfectly awful–year after year–to be just as bad as possible, and now all of your toil and self-sacrifice has paid off! […] In fact, you are the perfect example of beautiful awfulness!” Generally speaking, my policy is not to feed internet trolls, but sometimes I’m tempted to try this on some of the trolls plaguing Steve Whitmire’s blog.
The Muppet Movie:
But perhaps the most triumphant example of standing up to bullies in all of Jim Henson’s work is the climactic “showdown” scene of The Muppet Movie. Threatened with a sadistic choice by Doc Hopper–either sell his soul to a small corporation or be gunned down where he stands–Kermit appeals to Hopper’s humanity and sense of decency:
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. But Hopper gets what’s coming to him anyway in what–to me–is the greatest and most Muppet-y moment of all time:
Not even the lousy video quality and strange, floating window-blind reflection can ruin this moment!
So…to all those who want to come onto my own blog to try to tear me down, this is your last warning: You cannot hurt me. There is nothing you can say to me that I haven’t heard before.
In the past, I have endured verbal abuse that would make the Access Hollywood bus tape sound like a scene from Downton Abbey. You think you can hurt my feelings by calling me a “moron”? Please. My classmates came up with more creative insults than that in the fourth grade.
I’m a grown woman, and I’ve put up with more than my fair share of bullying nonsense in my life. I’m not going to put up with yours. I’m not going to indulge your pettiness and cruelty. I’m not going to give you a platform from which you can attempt to build yourself up by tearing others down.
You have no power over me.
*Yes, I’m aware that, in the episode I referenced, Junior Gorg had temporarily been rendered Fraggle-sized, but the point I am trying to make is that Wembley will stick up for a victim of bullying regardless of the victim’s size, color, species, etc.