When did you decide you wanted to be an author? Very early on, actually, although it took some time before I realized I was a biographer, and not a novelist. For as long as I can remember, my younger brother and I were always writing and drawing our own comic books, and for a long time – even as a college English major – I was convinced I would be writing ‘Batman’ for DC Comics. Imagine my dismay when I discovered I really had no talent for making up stories. After spending a decade working in politics, I found that I’m more interested in real life stories, and much better at research and explaining things, which are skill-sets better suited for biography.
What inspired you to write this book? Jim Henson did. Really. I always say I’m Muppets Generation 1.0, because I was two when ‘Sesame Street’ debuted in 1969, and nine when ‘The Muppet Show’ premiered in 1976. That means that Jim and his work have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. After I completed my biography of Washington Irving in 2008 and was thinking about my next subject, I discovered – to my complete surprise – that in the two decades since Jim’s death, there had never been a comprehensive biography. You should always write the book you want to read – and man, did I want to read about Jim Henson.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? Two things, actually. One was how pathologically conflict-averse Jim could be. He couldn’t fire staff, didn’t want to resolve debates with his attorneys, and wouldn’t even bicker with his wife. It just wasn’t who he was. You suspect it, because he’s such a genuinely nice guy, but I had no idea the extent of it. The second was what an incredible businessman he was. Again, you suspect it – you can’t create an organization that straddles the Atlantic Ocean without being good at business – but from the moment he starts working at age 17, Jim knows his creativity is priceless, and he never sells out. At one point, Jim was offered a large sum of money for one of his characters. Jim looked his agent in the eye and said, ‘Never sell anything I own’. Right from the beginning, he knew his work had value.
What was the best thing about writing this book? As a biographer, I love archival research – poring through records and correspondence and reading the backs of envelopes or contracts to see what someone might have written where they thought no one would ever be looking. And Jim Henson was one of these rare people who knew early on that he would be successful, so he saved everything. The best part of writing this, then, was sitting in the New York archives of The Jim Henson Company and going through Jim’s handwritten notes, drawings, storyboards, unproduced scripts, and all the other wonderful stuff he kept. Touching the leather binder that he used to carry scripts for ‘The Muppet Show’, running your finger over his own pencil drawings and scribbled character names . . . there’s really nothing like it. Your subject is alive right at the end of your fingertips.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? One of the best things was meeting the Muppet performers who worked most closely with Jim during his lifetime. Every moment I had with them was extraordinary. I had the pleasure of watching Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire perform Gonzo and Kermit for hours together on a Burbank soundstage. I interviewed Jerry Nelson – who performed the Count and Floyd and Emmet Otter – at his home in Massachusetts only a few months before he passed away. And then, of course, there’s Frank Oz, probably Jim’s closest friend and collaborator, who was incredibly generous with his time and patience, sitting for multiple interviews in New York, and telling one loving, funny, foul-mouthed story after another. A real privilege.
Who is your favourite Henson Muppet/creation? I’m a sucker for Rowlf the Dog, particularly as he was in the early 1960s, both on ‘The Jimmy Dean Show’ and in the short films Jim made for IBM. He was the first Muppet with a fully-fleshed out personality, and was Jim’s first nationally-famous character. In the early years, Rowlf was this sort of homespun wiseguy, quick with a winking comment, a gentle ribbing, or a bit of sage advice, actually quite a bit like Jim himself was in those days. Plus, I just love watching the clips of Rowlf with Jimmy Dean – Dean believes in that character completely.
Which books do you recommend? In non-fiction, I love Robert Caro’s ongoing series ‘The Years of Lyndon Johnson’. Waiting for the next volume is like waiting for ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ when you were a kid – it just can’t get here fast enough. And it’s probably because I came out of politics, but I think Caro’s ‘Master of the Senate’ is one of the finest, and most exciting, bits of biography of all time. Another favorite of mine – and a book that had a tremendous impact on me as a biographer – is Neal Gabler’s ‘Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination’, a really deeply drilled, intensely researched biography that I re-read constantly. In fiction, I read ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ about twice a year – that voice! – and as a comic book nerd, I’m always pushing Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ on anyone who’ll listen. This is how comics should be done, man!
What are your favourite gadgets? I’m a big fan of satellite radio – it’s great being able to listen to a station that’s nothing but classic blues, or 1970s album rock, or 1940s big band. I love the GPS I have in my car because I’m one of those annoying people that can get lost backing out of my driveway. And finally, if you release a movie on DVD and it doesn’t have any special features, such as commentary tracks or a ‘Making of’ documentary, well . . . I . . . will . . . fight you.
Do you collect anything? I’ve always been one of those people who, at any given time, was collecting something – whether it was comic books, music, or movies. However, my biggest weakness is, and always has been, books. I still don’t read on an e-reader; I’m a paper and glue guy. Worse, I’m a hardcover guy. It can eat up your storage in a hurry, but there’s some sort of perverse pleasure to be had in reorganizing your bookshelves regularly and finding you’ve somehow opened up a bit more space to slide in just one more book.
What is something that most people might be surprised to know about you? While I love gadgets and technology, when it comes to writing, I’m remarkably low-tech. I take notes in pencil, I outline on a white board hanging on the wall over my desk, and I keep all my notes and sources in hard copies, filed away in black binders on the bookshelf.
Which 5 people would you like to have over for dinner? Can I count the Marx Bros. as one? No? In that case, I’ll take three of them – Groucho, Harpo, and Chico – and then fill the other two spots with John Lennon and Harvey Kurtzman (the creator of MAD magazine). Because I think that’d be pretty much the most entertaining dinner party ever.
Read my review of ‘Jim Henson; The Biography’ here.