I didn’t see the recent 40th anniversary special for Saturday Night Live, and I don’t know if the special mentioned it. But Jim Henson’s Muppets were a regular feature on Saturday Night Live’s first season in 1975.
But it wasn’t the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live that got me thinking about it, so much as this great write-up on The Dissolve, which recently made 1979’s “The Muppet Movie” its “Movie of the Week.” Particularly the idea of Kermit the Frog as a surrogate for Jim Henson, with his unfailing optimism and his ability to get other people to share his vision. Not through arm-twisting, so much as an ability to convey his child-like sense of wonder and fun, and have others want to be a part of it.
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I consider Jim Henson to be a genius.
And I’m still in awe of what Saturday Night Live did in its first seasons, with the original cast.
I was nine when the first season premiered, and I remember what a big impact it had over the next few years until the original cast left in 1980. I’d compare it to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” or the early days of “The Simpsons.” It wasn’t just brilliant, but a game changer.
Sometimes ground-breaking comedy isn’t fully recognized in its time. Only in subsequent years will the culture as a whole become aware of how influential and innovative it was. “The Honeymooners” and “Mr. Show” are prime examples.
That wasn’t the case with early “Saturday Night Live.” As with The Simpsons, it was a cultural phenomenon along with being a comedy masterpiece. You’d tune in, and experience the exhilaration of watching the rules of comedy being rewritten right before your eyes.
So, Saturday Night Live was a confluence of comedy geniuses. Jim Henson was a comedy genius. Match made in Heaven, right?
I remember, as a kid, seeing the “Land of Gorch” sequences featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets (none of the famous ones) in the first season, and being underwhelmed. The puppetry was excellent, of course. But the writing was dull. Flat.
I learned later that the writers at Saturday Night Live considered writing for the Muppets to be beneath their dignity. Michael O’Donoghue, the edgy alpha male of the writers, famously said that he didn’t “write for felt.”
Here’s what I find inspiring about it.
The writers at Saturday Night Live dismissed not only Jim Henson’s work, but his entire art form, as kids’ stuff. Silly, frivolous bullshit unworthy of grownups trying to write substantive comedy.
Those writers were certainly in a position to make such a pronouncement. Even at the time, they were acknowledged masters of their art. Their judgment counted for something.
But you know what? They were wrong.
Doesn’t mean they weren’t brilliant, or skilled, or knowledgeable about their craft. The just failed to recognize something great that was happening right in front of them.
Sometimes that strikes me as unfortunate. Imagine what could have resulted from a collaboration between Jim Henson and Saturday Night Live writers who actually gave a shit. It could have been like the early days of The Simpsons — sharp, subversive humor with the added comedic kick of being delivered via a medium traditionally associated with children’s entertainment.
But in the long run, it’s probably a good thing. The result of such a collaboration might have been wonderful in its own way, but it probably wouldn’t have been true to Henson’s vision in the way that The Muppet Show and subsequent iterations of The Muppets have been.
Henson had a warmer, sweeter comedic outlook that just didn’t gibe with writers like O’Donoghue. And despite their sneering dismissal of his work, his entire art form, Henson went on to create comedy as substantive, lasting, brilliant and culturally influential as the best that Saturday Night Live produced in its early days. Furthermore, he did it on his terms.
So what’s the lesson?
Believe in yourself. When others put you down, don’t accept it — even if those putdowns are coming from demonstrably brilliant and talented people. Because such people can still be dead wrong about you.
That’s not the most original of inspiring messages, but it’s nice to see a real-life, concrete example of it played out in real life. Michael O’Donoghue might find it a bit sappy, but I think Jim Henson would agree with it. God bless ’em both.