Jim Henson on Dick Cavett

Dick Cavett and his Muppet double.

Dick Cavett and his Muppet double.

After years of making appearances on nighttime variety and talk shows, Jim Henson and Co. had one of their most prominent spotlights on the November 25, 1971 Thanksgiving Day special edition of The Dick Cavett Show, in which Cavett hosted Jim, the Muppets, and by extension, the other puppeteers, for the entire 90-minute program.


And what probably struck me more than anything else while watching this episode was just how broad an artistic universe Jim had already brought to life by this point. Most of the classic Muppet Show characters are still yet to be created but, having watched all of the various elements up to this point being gradually assembled chronologically, it’s quite remarkable to see such a showcase of practically everything.


Over the course of the show, Jim revives classic Muppet sketches from all the way back to Sam and Friendsrecreating the “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face” bit and not only bringing back Yorick but, for that one sketch, the earlier, abstract version of Kermit, as well, for authenticity–in addition to introducing us to “new”/more recent Muppet characters and even bringing clips from his experimental short film work. In many ways, it feels like watching a Jim Henson resume or a backdoor pilot for a potential Muppet variety show, something which Jim had wanted to do since the early days of the Muppets and which he’d spend the next half-decade trying to get off the ground.


It’s also fascinating to see how much broader the definition of “family entertainment” was according to Jim’s philosophy versus the far narrower, “moralistic” version we see most often today. Today, parents groups freak out when the Muppets get suggestive. Back then, within a single “family” television show, we see Sesame Street Muppets side-by-side with more (for lack of a better word) adult-oriented Muppet material and then even a brief clip from Time Piece, specifically the burlesque sequence featuring a female dancer whose bare breasts are obscured by nothing but tassels. For Jim, puppets were for all ages (which is also true, historically), and part of his life’s quest was to erase that division in peoples’ heads. Evidenced by Time Piece, this particular show probably skewed more towards adults (although they saved that bit for nearly the end, so it’s possible they expected children to be asleep by that point) and yet it manages to delight the adults, even when focusing on the Sesame Street characters, who were specifically created for an educational show for children.


Basically, “family entertainment” to Jim meant the whole family, not a show geared towards children that adults have to suffer through. In many ways, due to the sophisticated humor, even Sesame Street could be appreciated more by an adult than a child. And here we see Jim showing off basically his entire oeuvre, both in puppetry and filmmaking, drawing no distinction between the “kid” stuff and the “adult” stuff.


Dick Cavett and the Muppets' puppeteers.

Dick Cavett and the Muppets’ puppeteers.

What’s also interesting to see is just how uncomfortable Jim, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Carroll Spinney, and Don Sahlin are on live TV when in full view of the audience, each of them acting stiff and awkward to varying degrees when being interviewed by Dick–particularly Jerry, who often looks flat-out affectless–and yet each bursting into outgoing, energetic Muppety life as soon as they begin performing their Muppets. Again, Jerry might display the most dramatic dichotomy, even lip-synching along to the recording when he and the others perform the “P is My Favorite Letter” song from Sesame Street. Jim even acknowledges the awkwardness by saying, “It’s very strange to be out here…because, normally, we’re back there…” Spinney adds, “When you’re back there, you fear to do nothing…You’re hidden”.


It’s also fascinating because Jim actually seemed pretty comfortable and confident in the earlier The Muppets on Puppets, although there he was talking to a camera in a closed-set, not speaking in front of a live studio audience, being broadcast live, and I’ve seen later interviews with all of these men (other than Don), all of whom seemed far more at ease with being interviewed at the time–particularly Frank and Jerry–so, over the years, they clearly gained a lot more practice being in the limelight and speaking about their craft.


Another stray observation: I had read in Brian Jay Jones’ Jim Henson: The Biography that Big Bird’s design was actually based on Jim’s physical appearance. He was very tall and lanky, with long limbs and a wide stride, but would also hunch over a bit, seeming a bit perhaps subconsciously uncomfortable with his height and size. And this is the first time I ever saw that in action, when he walks across the stage to sit by Dick. It’s funny that I hadn’t seen it before but I guess whenever I would usually see him on camera, he would already be sitting down in an interview or standing mostly still, operating Kermit or Ernie. But I actually only remembered what Jones said about Big Bird after watching Jim here and having the immediate reaction of, “Oh, wow, he looks a bit like Big Bird”!


And now, rather than recap the entire show, because it is rather long and plotless, I’m going to just go through some of the main highlights and points of interest, of which there are many:


Thog "encircles" Dick.

Thog “encircles” Dick.

–At the beginning of the show, Dick Cavett comes out, commenting on how life can be lonely for a comedian, particularly on Thanksgiving, when you “yearn to be clasped in the bosom of a family…to have an encircled sensation of being loved and surrounded”–I’m pretty sure the Parents’ Television Council would have a collective aneurysm at this sentence alone–and then who should come up behind him but Thog, who gives him that exact “encircled sensation”! And after a genuinely sweet moment, Dick undercuts it with a line to the audience that made me actually gasp out loud: “You all know Liza Minnelli, don’t you?


–Amongst the many slightly awkward moments, my favorite might be when Dick sits down with Jim and says to him, “Your face is not as well-known as the other Muppets but it’s certainly in a class with theirs. It’s equally appealing.” And for a moment, you can tell that Jim thinks that Dick might be insulting him, until he clarifies that it was meant as a compliment! It’s funny. My first reaction was that he was being snarky, too, but actually, why should being compared to a Muppet be an insult? Jim actually did have a Muppety face, and that’s a wonderful thing. It was a little strange but animated, warm, and kind, just like his wonderful creations. I also love that Dick doesn’t say “the Muppets” but “the other Muppets,” indicating he thinks of Jim as one, as well!


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