Friday, November 4, 2011

Muppet Month: Henson & Oz: Never Before, Never Again

Jim Henson and friend on the set of The Muppet Movie (1979). Photo: The Jim Henson Company/Disney
To know where you're going, you have to know where you've been. At least, I assume you do. It sounds nice, anyway. Either way, the Muppets's long history of singing, dancing, and being silly has taken them from the Street to the theater to the big screen and everywhere in between. That's why I'm alternating between taking a look at the new Muppet movie and taking a look at where the Muppets came from to get here.

And what better way to do that than to take a look at the two men who were the heart and soul of the Muppets for many years? The Muppet performers- including Steve Whitmire, Eric Jacobson, and Bill Baretta- have done a great job carrying on the legacy that was started by a group of puppeteers led by the man himself, Jim Henson. I have no qualms with the modern-day performers who are keeping the Muppets alive, but Henson deserves his due as the man without whom there would not be a Kermit the Frog, a Rowlf, an Ernie, or a Dr. Teeth. But just as legendary but oftentimes not as celebrated as Henson is his long-time collaborator, Frank Oz. Performing such characters as Animal, Sam the Eagle, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Cookie Monster, Grover, and Bert, Henson and Oz often served as a comic duo when it came to Muppets: Ernie playing off Bert, Miss Piggy playing off Kermit, Grover playing off Kermit. Perhaps one of the best examples of this partnership is the Swedish Chef, performed by both Henson (the voice and face) and Oz (the hands, using his actual hands).

Much like Mel Blanc was the man who brought Bugs Bunny and so many other characters to life, Henson and Oz were the heart and soul of the Muppets for many years until Henson's untimely passing at age 53 in 1990. Oz has unofficially retired from puppeteering and has chosen not to do the new Muppet film because he found it "disrespectful" to the characters (a statement which, along with some other comments made in the press, caused a bit of controversy which I touched on a few weeks ago). Whitmire, Jacobson, and Baretta have done a great job carrying on the legacy of these two men, and I look forward to seeing how they'll bring the Muppets back in the new movie. But Henson and Oz have to be given their due, as their partnership was something irreplaceable and, much like the Muppets themselves, magical.

As part of the Jim Henson exhibit now running at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens (something which I've also covered), the Museum commissioned this short film by Matt Zoller Seitz and Ken Cancelosi showing the Henson/Oz comedy team in action. Perhaps Henson and Oz aren't a well-known comedy duo on the level of Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, or even Bert and Ernie, but looking at this film- and all of their classic Sesame Street and Muppet Show sketches- one could make the argument that they should be.


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