10 Surreal and Experimental Works by ‘Muppets’ Maestro Jim Henson

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With a recent fan campaign asking The Academy to let The Muppets host the Oscars after that whole messy Brett Ratner debacle, and a new film on the way next week (the first one in twelve years!), we’d like to think that Jim Henson is watching and smiling. Before the puppeteer created his Muppets universe and the iconic characters of Sesame Street, the beloved artist was tripping everyone out with his experimental films and surreal commercials. Henson’s lesser-known works are tiny avant-garde masterpieces that are infused with the same humor, character, and vision as his enduring legacy. Past the break, dig into Henson’s mind-bending movies. Feel free to share your favorites below.

Wilkins Coffee Commercials

While Henson was making a place for himself in the puppet world throughout the ’60s with the creation of a successful live-action TV series, Sam and Friends — a pivotal work that started to transform the way we saw puppets (as expressive beings versus wooden objects) — he made a slew of commercials. The most famous of the bunch is for coffee company Wilkins, for which Henson developed an early Kermit puppet named Wilkins. His grumpy friend is amusingly dubbed Wontkins — who refuses to try the “rich … rich … double rich” cup of joe. In “retaliation,” Wilkins beats, shoots, drowns, stabs, and worse to get the puppet to submit to a taste. It’s darkly hilarious and was such a hit that coffee companies everywhere wanted a version of their own.

Time Piece

Jim Henson wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the nine-minute, live-action Time Piece — which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1966. The Museum of Modern Art was the first to screen the philosophical short in 1965, which presents ideas about the urgency of keeping time. Henson runs around as though being chased, while donning various personae (the Abe Lincoln getup is the best). Strange and symbolic images are edited at a frantic pace, including a painted elephant and a gorilla on a pogo stick.

The Cube

Based on all the Muppet-y stuff, it’s probably hard to imagine that Jim Henson might have had a career in the sci-fi circuit … until you watch The Cube . The 1969 series united with Muppets writing pal Jerry Juhl for a teleplay about a man trapped in a sterile, white cube. He can’t recall how he got there, but when he wakes up in handcuffs and is confronted by a group of mysterious characters — that enter the cube, but will not help him escape — he realizes something’s very wrong. At one point, a folk-rock band shows up and the convo seems friendly until they start singing, “You’ll never get out, you’ll never get out, you’ll never get out till your dead … ” which spookily skips like a broken record at the end of their performance.

The Paperwork Explosion

Paperwork Explosion posits that machines should do the work and people should think, but Henson presents the idea encased in some kind of totalitarian technological disaster. Luckily IBM is there to keep those wily machines in line and help control the paperwork. Muppets collaborator Frank Oz makes an appearance in this 1967 commercial.

Ripples

An architect’s coffee cup is a gateway to the rippling effect of memories, time, and space. Henson made the 16mm film Ripples with jazz-electronic maestro Raymond Scott for a contest at Montreal’s Expo 67. Sesame Street teammate Jon Stone plays the existential architect.

The Organized Mind

“I’ve learned to walk around inside my own head … ” Henson revealed to a Tonight Show audience in 1974. We can imagine the looks on people’s faces while the artist performed this psychedelic doozy, The Organized Mind, as a character named Limbo. Henson performed the “mouth” and “eyes” of the short film live, against his pre-recorded voice-over and the music of Raymond Scott (“Limbo, The Organized Mind”). Henson composed these types of minimalist pieces by using white string attached to a dark frame. His gloved hands manipulated the material to animate the face. [via WFMU]

Youth ’68: Everything’s Changing … or Maybe It Isn’t

A documentary about the radical ’60s, Youth ’68 explored drug culture and everything wild for NBC’s Experiments in Television series. Henson co-wrote with colleague Jerry Juhl, and Jon Stone directed Grace Slick, Mama Cass, and other figures who reflected the era.

Idea Man

Henson sounds like the original Bob Ross, talking about little ideas instead of happy, little trees in Idea Man. The surreal short is another great example of Henson’s minimalist sensibility, this time inspired by artistic frustration (“That idea won’t work!”) and looking like the inside of the creator’s mind.

La Choy Chow Mein Commercial

La Choy Chow Mein’s bellowing, fire-breathing dragon rescues a “sad bride” who can’t even boil water. The 1967 commercial features a Sesame Street-sized puppet and soap actress Kelly Wood. Housewives everywhere must have had a serious bizarro moment when they saw this.

Cyclia

Jim Henson’s “Red Book” (1965-1988) is a hand-written account of the artist’s ideas, in which he also journaled his daily activities with a single line of text. Cyclia was Henson’s nightclub project that he envisioned as a venue for multimedia experiences involving projected 16mm animations and real-life scenes — including 1965 concert footage of audiences at the Shea Stadium Beatles concert. We’d like to think that this would have been the kind of place fellow nightclub owner David Lynch would visit.