Jim Henson passed away when I was a child. And by child I mean I was actually not even born yet, though he did pass away in the same year I was born. Needless to say, I didn’t have a cultural memory of Jim Henson as a person. I had/have memories of his work (of course I do) but I have no memory of Henson the man. Some of my friends that are older than me seemed all to think that his death was sudden and tragic and I did my best to empathize with that feeling. At the time, I had not really lost a cultural icon that felt similar. Most of the celebrities that passed away while I was in high school or college were sudden, sure, but not shocking or surprising. Hell, some of them were memetic like Billy Mays’ sudden passing. It wasn’t until adulthood that I started to lose figures that truly meant something to me culturally, while Monkey Punch’s death comes to mind, really the big one is probably Stan Lee.
But Stan Lee was old. Every time I saw his name in the headlines that weren’t attached to a Marvel movie cameo, I assumed it was Uncle Stan’s time to go. It didn’t hit me until I saw Into the Spiderverse and his cameo featured him selling the costume of his favorite character to young Miles Morales saying that the costume always fits, eventually; dear reader, I cried then. Stan Lee helped give form to some of my favorite characters, concepts and ideas. Stan Lee was my childhood and his death, though somewhat expected, was trying. I couldn’t imagine losing him at the height of his power and suddenly. Which brings us back to Henson.
It was actually an episode of Epic Rap Battles of History that pitted the two (Stan Lee and Jim Henson) together that made me really think about his passing. A lot of Lee’s verses to Henson are about his sudden death and the impact it left on young minds everywhere (at the time of the episode’s release, Stan Lee was still alive) and while I could continue to accept that logic for the sake of the rap battle, I still didn’t give much thought to the death of Jim Henson.
I mostly knew of Henson’s work from The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and of course Sesame Street and the Muppets but my relationship with those works mostly fled me as I entered my teen years. Shockingly, the show I most recall of his from my childhood was Fraggle Rock, a show I was convinced I made up in a 90s based fever dream only to be reminded that many children watched that show during its television reign. I remembered the show for its heart, desire to teach children to not be little trash goblins and its fun view of the world which by the 1990s felt already nearly too absurdist to be real. But I rarely thought of the man behind the puppets. I did for some of Henson’s contemporaries like Frank Oz and his work in bringing Yoda to life but I had no memory or attachment to Henson. He was just the guy whose name appeared in the credits of some of the shows I watched as a kid. He was a man, he was an important man but during my childhood, he was mostly a name or a vague myth.
But one day, while scrolling through my Youtube feed, I came across a mini-series done by a channel I already have an immense amount of respect: DefunctLand. DefunctLand mostly covered the history of theme parks, amusement parks and more but also covers the shows we (mostly millennials) loved as children and didn’t realize ended terribly or due to awful reasons. The very popular Youtube channel decided to do an entire mini-series on Jim Henson’s life, work and impact which would, inevitably, end with his death. The series was well-researched and well-thought and I found myself loving Henson’s work in a way I didn’t know was possible. Seeing how much time he spent caring for the puppets and those he chose to work with and their immense talent, I was able to gain a whole new respect for this man not just as a myth but as a genius. I got to re-learn my love of his puppetry and his insistence that this was not just for children, and even more so, learn about some of his failures. Getting to hear about his successes, his influences, his family and history; I’m not giving the mini-series justice so literally just watch it. But there was a looming sort of dread as the series progressed: the series would end and that would mean Henson would die. I found myself on sort of pins and needles as episodes ticked down. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t emotionally ready. I spent weeks learning about this cultural monolith and I would have to bury him as so many did already decades ago.
The last episode of the mini-series was Henson’s funeral and his death. The editing of the episode was heartfelt and the video snippets from the funeral which was a televised event made me feel like I was there. The fact that so many of the puppets he made and pioneered were there and their actors were present doing their best to be there despite their grief was moving. Big Bird was there and the actor inside this almost impossible looking suit was clearly straining to sing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” through sadness and tears just broke me because I had never given thought to Big Bird crying, yet alone, the actor inside that costume crying. The service was moving and having it intercut with some of the final moments of Henson’s private and public life made for an experience that left me crying on my sofa.
I felt those feelings of those who were kids and watched their hero die. I felt those emotions, the sadness, the loss of potential, all of it. I lamented what work we could have seen from him. I missed him. I felt for him as a person for the first time. I felt for his family on a personal level since I also lost my father young. I wondered about how he would feel about a whole generation of people loving his work the way we do. I wondered about all of those things. How he changed our media landscape, taught children to empathize, encouraged us all to be kind and did so with such humor.
I knew of Jim Henson as a ghost, a legend, I never had to grieve him as a man.
The mini-series DefunctLand did was marvelous, heartfelt and spectacular. I learned a lot, cried a lot and appreciated felt puppets more than I thought was possible. I never thought I would have to mourn the loss of someone I knew really knew or never met, but it is possible.