Brian Henson: An Amateur Behavioral Analysis

“[Steve Whitmire]’s capable of very deep performances. The falling out between me and Steve is really about business ethics. Working with him on set was always good.”

Brian Henson, quoted in a retrospective on the Muppet Christmas Carol in The Big Issue

So … it recently came to my attention that, since completely trashing him to the Hollywood Reporter five years ago, Brian Henson has since said some things about Steve that could be interpreted as nice. Most of them aren’t as inherently contradictory as the quote above and seem to be pure, unmixed compliments. 

I found out about this because a reader used them as examples to support the case that I was being too harsh towards Brian. At my request, the reader was kind enough to provide some links to videos of Brian making these compliments, and I am very grateful.

I didn’t expect the clips to change my opinion of Brian, and they haven’t. Without an apology for the things he said in 2017, anything complimentary that Brian has to say about Steve now only shows him to be inconsistent and untrustworthy. And as the above quote shows, he doesn’t seem to have any regrets about trashing Steve back then, or scruples about taking digs at him now. 

The reason that I was so excited to see these clips is because it gives me an opportunity to make an attempt at reading Brian’s body language. Approximately six months ago, I started becoming interested in body language and behavioral analysis from watching the Behavioral Arts channel on YouTube.

Despite the clickbait-y titles that he uses on his videos, Spidey makes a point of emphasizing in all of them that body language analysis is an inexact science, that certain behaviors can mean different things in different contexts, and that body language is open to interpretation. 

I echo Spidey’s caveats and add one of my own: I do NOT claim to be an expert in body language analysis after watching these videos for six months. Spidey had to study this for decades to get to be an expert; I still have a LOT to learn. I reiterate: I do not claim ANY expertise in behavioral analysis. If an actual body language expert wants to come tell me that I am way off base, reading things into Brian’s behavior that aren’t actually there, I will defer to their expertise (after I verify their credentials, of course). 

Nevertheless, even to a relative neophyte at behavioral analysis, Brian’s body language when he talks about Steve suggests some VERY interesting things. 

I have here three video clips of Brian: one from 2018, one from 2020, and one from 2022. As you watch them, pay particular attention to Brian’s face as he mentions Steve’s name; something about his expression changes every time. 

Before I give you the actual links, I want to point something out: In each case, I’m linking closely to the relevant part of the video, but I’m also making a point of giving a little bit of context at the beginning. An important part of behavioral analysis is establishing a baseline of behavior for the individual because it’s the deviations from baseline that are significant. 

Okay, here goes: 

2022 D23 Expo — Muppet Christmas Carol Panel:

 

2018 — Evolution of Puppetry: 

 

2020 George Lucas Talk Show — Muppets Tonight Watch-Along: 

Did you see it? If not, try watching them again. I’ll give you a hint: Look particularly at his eyes. 

Okay, here’s the answer: In each of these clips, every time he says Steve’s name, Brian does a slow blink. 

A normal blink only lasts a matter of milliseconds. A slow blink can last a second or more. If it lasts long enough, it can more accurately be referred to as an eye block. As I understand it (and again, if there’s a body language expert who can correct me if I’m wrong, feel free), a slow blink is a form of eye blocking, but not all eye blocks are slow blinks. 

So what does this mean? Well, it could mean a lot of different things, and I’m going to explain what I think it means in each instance, but I think it’s fair to say that talking about Steve often seems to cause Brian stress. 

Per Behavioral Arts, slow blinks can happen for a lot of reasons. Three of the most common are

  1. Recall (e.g., closing one’s eyes when trying to remember something)
  2. Emphasis
  3. A negative thought that one doesn’t want to face

(Here’s Spidey explaining those three instances in more detail.)

Go back and watch the clip of the D23 Christmas Carol panel. You might notice that Brian does a huge slow blink when he says Steve’s name. He also does a little slow blink a few seconds before that when he talks about Rizzo; that one is relatively short, but it’s still an unusually pronounced blink, which could be a coincidence or could be significant; I’m not sure.

Now, Brian does frequently slow blink/eye block when he’s trying to remember something or thinking about something that’s in the distant past. That’s part of his baseline. Earlier in this video he’s talking about some of the different MCC crew members, and he’s closing his eyes as he’s thinking about them and recollecting the time that they were all working together. 

Could that be what’s happening here? Could he be closing his eyes because he’s trying to take himself back to working on MCC with Steve? Maybe, but I don’t think so. When he says Steve’s name, he not only closes his eyes, he squeezes them shut for a moment, which is not what he does when he’s slow blinking for recall. It’s almost like a wince.

What I think this means is that the thought of Steve is negative for Brian, and he doesn’t want to face it, so he closes his eyes. More specifically, I think Brian doesn’t want to face whatever questions the audience (or the moderator, in this case) might have for him about Steve and about Brian’s role in his dismissal. I suspect that when Brian mentions Steve’s name — not every time, but often — what’s going through his head (subconsciously) is something like, Am I opening myself up to questions that I don’t want to answer by mentioning Steve’s name? I think that’s the negative thought, or something along those lines, that causes him to squeeze his eyes shut like that. 

We move on to an event called the Evolution of Puppetry from 2018. Of all the three clips, Brian gives the biggest reaction in this one, and I think I know why. I’m not sure of the precise date that this event took place, but the video was uploaded in August 2018, so roughly a year after the Hollywood Reporter interview was published. This could very well be the first time that Brian had mentioned Steve’s name in public since the interview. Whatever emotions he may have felt about the whole situation may have been closer to the surface and affected him more strongly. Also, I think that he probably had anxiety about how the audience would react to him mentioning Steve’s name because he didn’t know what to expect.

The slow blink is still there, but this time it’s accompanied by several other unusual behaviors

  • He flashes (raises) his eyebrows.
  • He hesitates before saying Steve’s name.
  • He takes a huge, audible breath.
  • He tenses his lips. 

There’s also an audible clicking or popping sound coming from Brian’s mouth. At first, I thought it resulted from him releasing the tension in his lips, but the more I listen to it, it sounds more like he’s trying to cope with dry mouth.

These behaviors happening at the same time strongly suggest that Brian is under stress. There are a couple of behaviors that suggest some specific things about Brian’s state of mind: 

Eyebrow Flash

Behavioral Arts has a whole video devoted specifically to interpreting the eyebrow flash. To boil it down, an eyebrow flash typically means one of three things: 

  1. Emphasis
  2. Surprise
  3. Seeking acceptance or social approval; a show of innocence or good intentions

Brian frequently uses his eyebrows for emphasis as part of his baseline. But I don’t think that’s what he’s doing here because, when Brian uses his eyebrows for emphasis, his eyes typically stay open. What I think is happening is this: When he brings up Steve’s name, it reminds him of the Schism, specifically the interview he gave to the Hollywood Reporter, which is an uncomfortable topic for him, so he closes his eyes. At the same time, his eyebrows are going up as though to give a show of innocence to the audience and to ask them (subconsciously), Please don’t judge me too harshly for what I did to Steve

When I say that his facial expressions are “saying” these things, bear in mind that these facial expressions and gestures are all things that usually happen on a subconscious level. Generally speaking, a person isn’t consciously thinking, “Okay, when I say this thing, I’m going to raise my eyebrows so I look more innocent.” That’s part of what makes body language so powerful, albeit ambiguous, because your body can either reinforce what your mouth and your brain are saying or seemingly contradict it. 

Lip Compression/Tension

Lip compression, when a person presses the lips together so that they thin out, is a particular form of lip tension. Other examples of lip tension include biting the lips and retracting the lips so that, from the audience’s perspective, they seem to disappear. Because of the resolution of the video and the distance between the camera and the stage, it’s hard to tell whether Brian is compressing or retracting his lips, but it doesn’t matter because in either case, it can mean the same things: Tension in the lips means either that the person doesn’t like what they’re saying or there’s something else that they want to say but they’re holding back.

These behaviors can all be signs of stress. Therefore, they can also be signs of deception because telling lies puts people under stress. Now, to be clear, I do not necessarily think that Brian is being deceptive in this video. Nevertheless, I would like to take a moment to talk about using body language analysis for lie detection, because it is going to become relevant shortly. 

When talking about lie detection based on body language, there are three important things to remember: 

  1. There are no absolutes in lie detection; no one telltale sign that all human beings give that proves deception beyond a reasonable doubt. Lie detection is more about the balance of probabilities. What could be a sign of deception in one person could be a part of another’s baseline. For example, mouth blocking, i.e., placing one’s hand near or over the mouth as though to stop the words that are coming out, can be a significant sign of deception. If you watch videos of Jim Henson, you’ll notice that he often has his hand up by his mouth when he’s speaking. Does that mean he was lying in all those interviews? No, because he did it all the time and it was part of his baseline. 
  2. Potential signs of deception are only significant if they occur together in clusters. In isolation, they may indicate stress, but they don’t necessarily indicate deception.  
  3. People who are telling the truth but worry that other people won’t believe them often behave as though they were lying because the fear of not being believed causes them stress. 

With those things in mind, let’s look at the video from 2020, the George Lucas Talk Show Muppets Tonight Watch-Along. This reaction is similar to Brian’s reaction in 2018, though perhaps smaller in scope: There’s hesitation, a verbal pause (“um”), a big audible breath, lip tension, that clicking or popping sound from the mouth, plus the raised eyebrows combined with the slow blink, which are largely unremarkable by themselves but more significant when they occur together, especially within this larger cluster of stressed behaviors.

It’s also interesting to me, though I’m not sure what it would mean to an experienced behavioral analyst, that he brings up Steve voluntarily when he didn’t “have” to. In the MCC panel discussion, it would have been weird if he had talked about Rizzo without mentioning Steve; in the explanation of the Kermit swordfighting scene in MTI, it would have been weird if he hadn’t mentioned Steve. Here he’s doing it voluntarily in a context in which it isn’t obvious why. Nobody asked him about Steve; they asked him a generic question about how difficult it is for puppeteers to take on characters originated by someone else. My guess is that he doesn’t want to wait for someone else to bring up the topic and blindside him with it; he wants to bring it up himself and get it out of the way. Again, he’s eye blocking because (I believe) he doesn’t want to think about the questions that he might have to answer about Steve, and his eyebrows are going up in a show of innocence, perhaps trying to communicate to his audience something to the effect of, See folks? I’m saying complimentary things about Steve; I’m the good guy in this scenario

He does another slow blink shortly thereafter when talking about Steve taking on Kermit. There’s also some hesitancy and verbal disfluency (stammering). In this case, it seems to be that he’s slow blinking to aid himself in recall, but that raises a whole new issue. Kermit’s name seems to escape him for a moment, but isn’t it strange that he would forget, however briefly, the name of his father’s most famous creation? Wouldn’t that be a bit like forgetting his own name?

To be fair to Brian, he and the others are watching Muppets Tonight while this conversation is going on. It could very well be that he was distracted by something that was happening on screen and it broke his concentration. But there is another possible explanation for Brian’s sudden lapse, and it has to do with the cognitive load that lying puts on the brain, as described by Spidey in a Behavioral Arts video: 

Basically, when a person is being deceptive, the brain slows down because of all the information it’s trying to process in a very short amount of time, which could cause the person to be slow to recall information that they would otherwise be able to give automatically.

So, is Brian lying when he’s saying nice things about Steve? Maybe, but I don’t think so, and I’ll explain why I don’t think so in a minute. What I think is happening is that every time Brian says something nice about Steve, and especially here where he’s talking specifically about asking Steve to take on the responsibility of performing Kermit, I think he’s going back in his mind to that Hollywood Reporter interview, trying to remember what he said back then and asking himself if there are any inconsistencies with what he’s saying now. THAT’S where I think the deception comes in, if it comes in at all; I think the Hollywood Reporter article is probably untrue, or at least highly exaggerated.

When trying to figure out the Hensons’ motivations in the past, I’ve found it at least as helpful to look at what isn’t there as what is. The same holds true when trying to analyze Brian’s behavior in these videos. If you recall, in the Hollywood Reporter interview, Brian’s attitude toward Steve seemed very contemptuous: He used words such as “outrageous” and “appalling” to describe Steve’s alleged behavior and called his energy “destructive.” If those words had been honest, I would have expected to see contempt on his face when he talked about Steve in these videos, even if the words he said sounded kind and complimentary. 

Contempt is one of six universal emotions, meaning that people all over the world express it in the exact same way. It is easy to recognize because it is the only one of those six universal emotions that causes an asymmetrical facial expression. Contempt is expressed by a lift of the lip on one side of the mouth, causing a deeper crease of the cheek on one side of the nose. Here’s Spidey again to describe it in more detail: 

I watched these videos expecting to see contempt on Brian’s face when he talked about Steve. There was none. No contempt whatsoever. 

Which is not to say that he never shows any contempt in these videos at all. There’s a point earlier in this same video in which Brian is talking about an unnamed actress who was supposed to be the first guest star on Muppets Tonight before Michelle Pfeifer. Look at Brian’s face when he’s talking about how the actress’s agent called him to tell him that she wasn’t going to do it: That’s textbook contempt. If he meant the things that he said about Steve to the Hollywood Reporter in 2017, I would expect to see the same expression on his face when he talks about Steve now. It’s not there. 

Contempt is a feeling of moral superiority over someone else. Regardless of what Brian said about Steve in that 2017 interview, I don’t think that Brian feels morally superior to Steve. Which is weird to me because — let me play devil’s advocate here for a moment — if the things Brian said in that interview about Steve were objectively true, I think that he would have some justification for feeling morally superior. Morals and ethics aren’t exactly the same thing, but if Brian really had a problem with Steve’s “business ethics,” I would think that some facial expression of moral superiority from Brian now would be normal and expected. 

So it’s interesting now to see Brian criticize Steve’s “business ethics” in another interview with another publication (a publication which, by the way, is refreshingly balanced in its coverage). I know what “business ethics” means to me; I’m not sure what it means to Brian, a man who apparently signed off on the sale of Fraggle Rock NFTs recently even though NFTs are reportedly horrible for the environment and Fraggle Rock has always tried to promote environmental consciousness, apparently becoming particularly anvilicious about it in the reboot. So I don’t know what he means by “business ethics,” and I wish the interviewer had explored that further, but I do know that it sounds awfully similar to Disney’s allegation of “unacceptable business conduct.” My guess is that Brian didn’t recall the exact wording of the talking point that he was supposed to remember and keep repeating. 

There isn’t a video included with the Big Issue article. I have no idea if there was any video recording made of the interview. But if such a video exists, I would love to be able to watch it and analyze Brian’s body language when he talks about “business ethics.” Because, if he suddenly became stressed, as he does when he talks about Steve in these videos, that would support my theory that it was never Brian who had a problem with Steve’s “business ethics”; it was Disney all along. 

And I suspect that the problem was that Steve has ethics and Disney does not. 

3 thoughts on “Brian Henson: An Amateur Behavioral Analysis

  1. Myself, I’m glad to hear the recent Brian’s comments — thanks to your post and the wonderfully informative inputs by Anthony that i’m always looking forward to =). I’m glad that Brian does not feel obligated to continue with the tonality of his early interviews on the subject, and basically says the same good things about working with Steve as everybody else does.
    The number of incongruities with his previous statements makes me wonder if the “falling out (…) about business ethics” could really be about the dilemma of caring for dozens of people employed, whose work, livelihood and the well-being of their families largely depend on keeping good relations with people requesting to weigh in on the situation and put down the flames. Business life is hard and i would suppose that if it comes to decisions like this, the choice would never be easy.

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    • Your comment reminds me that I have heard Brian comment on numerous occasions about how frustrated he gets with the day-to-day administrative responsibilities of running the company when he’s more interested in the creative stuff. That’s something that I can certainly sympathize with, and it was also part of the impetus for his father’s disastrous decision to sell to Disney in the first place, that arguably set this entire series of events into motion.

      And in fairness to Brian, he didn’t choose this role for himself. If Jim Henson hadn’t died and the sale had gone through, someone else would be running the company now, and Brian would be free to pursue whatever he intended to do with his life before his father died. That would be a lot of responsibility for anyone, but for someone who was just sort of thrown into it …

      Ultimately, I’m not without sympathy for Brian. It’s not that I think he’s temperamentally unsuited for business in general, but I think he doesn’t have the temperament to run the business the way his father did. And that’s got to be frustrating to have to spend his entire life trying to live up to a standard that he can never possibly reach.

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