Some TV shows never even make it past the first season. Maybe a series lacked the ratings to match its artistic accomplishments, or maybe it floundered its way into the network crosshairs, but it’s time to look at one-season series outside the immediate context of ratings and renewals. One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes considers the merits of these short-lived shows. In this installment: The Jim Henson Hour, which ran for nine episodes on NBC in 1989.
Kermit The Frog watches a bank of monitors, their colored lines rising and falling by the second. The monitors chart the ratings for MuppeTelevision, the broadcast outfit under Kermit’s supervision. Thanks to modern technology, he can track the response to his programming choices in real time, broken down into several key demographics: “Men, women, youth, retirees, black, brown, yellow, green,” explains Kermit’s chipper assistant Vicki, who pauses to accept her boss’ gratitude for keeping frogs in the mix. She continues: “College graduates, blue-collar workers, and a Mr. Harry Stapleton,” the latter represented not by a graph, but a video feed of Stapleton (played by Muppet performer Jerry Nelson). The fluctuation of lines and facial features induces temporary panic in Muppet Central, the nerve center of MuppeTelevision. The ratings are all over the place: The discussion of the charts is a complete flop, the West Coast and Mr. Harry Stapleton dig the monster-yuppie drama hurtingsomething, and the comedy duo of Bean Bunny and Mr. Balloon are a hit across the board. (“You see, we hired Bean to be cute so the rest of us don’t have to bother,” Kermit explains.)
In the real world, however, conditions are straightforwardly pessimistic. It’s Sunday, May 14, 1989, and NBC is giving The Jim Henson Hour its last chance—on Mother’s Day. For one week only, the network has turned over one of its prized timeslots to the show—the first half of which, on most weeks, is made up of the Muppets-and-human-guest-stars variety show MuppeTelevision. The Jim Henson Hour is airing in the family hour colonized by The Walt Disney Company’s deathless anthology series, known as Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color and The Wonderful World Of Disney during its two-decade run on NBC. Several seasons of those programs were fronted by the late Walt Disney himself, and it was his example that the Peacock, Henson Associates, and Jim Henson hoped to follow with their new venture. Here was the man many considered to be the heir apparent to Uncle Walt, picking and choosing the TV content he deems most worthy, not unlike the job given to his amphibious alter ego on MuppeTelevision. It seemed like a can’t-miss proposition, developed under the watch of the programming executive who’d made a name for himself by dragging his network out of the ratings gutter several years prior.
Spanning the decades and spending time on each of the Big Three American broadcast networks, the Disney anthology was one of TV’s longest-running programs. The Jim Henson Hour wouldn’t be so lucky. After the May 14 broadcast failed to out-perform the dismal numbers the show was pulling in the Friday-night death slot, The Jim Henson Hour disappeared from the NBC schedule. It resurfaced briefly that summer, airing for four more Sundays before fading into obscurity, leaving behind a legacy of grand ambitions, uneven returns, and three unaired episodes—one of which never aired in the U.S.
Kermit was wise to be so concerned about those charts. This situation was the total opposite of his last regular TV gig, when The Muppet Show played in over 100 countries for as many as 235 million viewers. The Jim Henson Hour was regularly finishing in the Nielsen basement; the May 14 episode was the worst performer to date, finishing 72nd (out of 77 shows) for the week. NBC head Brandon Tartikoff soon informed Henson that NBC would be ordering no further episodes of The Jim Henson Hour, a decision that left him feeling “hurt” and “embarrassed” according to Brian Jay Jones’ Jim Henson: The Biography.
A decade prior, Muppet Show head writer Jerry Juhl commented upon his boss’ calm in circumstances of extreme stress. Using a sports metaphor, he related it to the management style of Henson’s most famous creation: “If The Muppet Show had a basketball team, the score would always be Frog 99, Chaos 98.”
Chaos had gotten the best of Jim Henson before, but this was the first time it took down Kermit The Frog. Three years earlier, the host was reeling from the biggest commercial failure of his career: The feature-length fantasy Labyrinth. The film followed a trail blazed by 1982’s The Dark Crystal, eschewing the Muppets for the wartier, grungier creations of Henson’s London-based operation, the Creature Shop. Yet for all its baby-snatching goblins and self-decapitating fire creatures, Labyrinth was a more consciously commercial effort than the impressionistic Dark Crystal; it was, after all, a collaboration between Jim Henson and George Lucas, with David Bowie in a starring role. But combined affection for Star Wars and “Starman” failed to draw moviegoers to Labyrinth, which landed with a resounding thud in the summer of 1986. (Though it would become a cult classic—as would The Dark Crystal—thanks to a burgeoning home video market.) Without The Muppets, Henson’s name held no weight at the box office in the 1980s.
But this was far from the case for the medium where he’d first broken through some 30 years before. Henson was a performer who used the television screen as an electronic puppet stage, and TV continued to treat him and the Muppets well in the ’80s. The Muppet Show ended its run in 1981, but Fraggle Rock and Muppet Babies followed shortly after, racking up acclaim, awards, ratings, and merchandising revenue. In between, there were lesser projects like the short-lived Little Muppet Monsters and the busted sitcom pilot Puppetman, and winning one-offs like The Tale Of The Bunny Picnic and A Muppet Family Christmas. The varying quality of these projects caused some within Henson’s inner circle to question the volume of his output. From Jones’ biography:
“I think Jim felt… he was responsible for [for us],” said Richard Hunt. “And he would go out of his way to keep creating new work so that these people had something to do.” And if Hunt or any of the Muppet performers or writers questioned the artistic merits of a project, Jim would simply fold his arms and sigh knowingly. “Richard, please,” he would say quietly. “I’m trying.”
If this approach was diluting the creativity of Henson Associates’ output, it hadn’t affected the project he was most excited about post-Labyrinth. In the way MTV had visualized such intangible quantities as lyrics and melodies, The Storyteller was intended to bring the words of “unfamous” folk tales to life, with the same punchy rhythms and optical panache as a music video. (To that end, the pilot episode was helmed by “Take On Me” and “Billie Jean” director Steve Barron, from a script by future Academy Award winner Anthony Minghella.) The concept caught the attention of NBC, then at the top of the broadcast heap thanks to epochal hits like Cheers, The Cosby Show, Hill Street Blues, and Miami Vice, all of which were shepherded by the star of the Peacock executive suite, Brandon Tartikoff. Working with NBC represented a full-circle moment for Henson: The very first Muppet show, Sam And Friends, had aired on the network’s Washington D.C. affiliate, WRC-TV, and the characters made their national television debut on Steve Allen’s Tonight Show. Henson, Juhl, Frank Oz, and puppet builder Don Sahlin had even left a permanent mark on NBC headquarters, killing time before an appearance on The Jack Paar Program by painting the plumbing in a dressing-room utility closet, transforming the pipes into a mob of Muppet monsters.
But it wasn’t a sure thing: The Storyteller’s fate at NBC was pinned to a trial broadcast at the end of January 1987. And so Henson threw himself into a new pitch, a backup to offer Tartikoff in case audiences rejected the new show as soundly as they had Labyrinth. (Or one of the sour moments in the Henson-NBC relationship: The lackluster Land Of Gorch segments from the first season of Saturday Night Live.) Such pragmatic thinking would make The Jim Henson Hour possible. It also set up the anthology series’ greatest weakness.
Henson’s fallback pilot, Inner Tube, is an unmistakable product of its time: Set in a Max Headroom-esque dystopia of all TV, all the time, Inner Tube concerns a crew of foam latex characters tasked with maintaining “the most sophisticated television system in the world.” With its echoes of The Young Ones, Spitting Image, and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, the 10-minute presentation is covered in the fingerprints of the ’80s. What’s noticeably absent is the generosity of spirit and madcap energy of vintage Jim Henson. As the Muppet fansite Tough Pigs pointed out in 2014, Inner Tube has the unsettling effect of turning Kermit The Frog into the mouthpiece of a faceless, all-powerful media conglomerate, one claiming to offer shows “to match your mood, your IQ, your income bracket, and your clothes.” It’s a cynicism that’s a bad look for the Muppets—even ones that aren’t as ugly as Jake, Henry, Crasher, and the other stars of Inner Tube.
Beyond Kermit, Inner Tube boasts at least one Henson hallmark: A fascination with the cutting edge of technology. Henson’s film and TV work had always demonstrated a curiosity about how gizmos and gadgets (and their anatomical equivalents) functioned, integrating the contributions of tinkerers, builders, inventors, and human-sized Doozers like Sahlin, Raymond Scott, Kermit Love, and Faz Fazakas. Inner Tube was the latest result of that fascination, a comment on the limitless programming opportunities of cable and satellite television articulated through chroma key effects and computer generated imagery. Henson had no qualms about pulling back the curtain on these technological marvels: As early as 1970’s The Muppets On Puppets, he was giving TV audiences a thorough (if somewhat dry) behind-the-scenes look at his operations. Nineteen years later, one of the final installments of The Jim Henson Hour was given over to a similar theme. When “Secrets Of The Muppets” finally aired on Nickelodeon in 1992, it taught a whole generation of young viewers why meteorologists never wear blue—if they did, you could see right through them.
The endless bank of television screens at Inner Tube HQ only existed in a computer, as would their successors on the series that launched on the back of The Storyteller. Though NBC brass, TV critics, and Emmy voters were fond of the tales woven by a heavily made-up John Hurt and his canine companion (voiced by Brian Henson), Henson was right to prepare a plan B. Too expensive to air and produce on a weekly basis, The Storyteller was reformatted as a series of special presentations—an arrangement that all but ensured a meager viewership. With the low ratings rolling in, Henson hatched a new plan with Tartikoff. Just as Walt Disney had done in the ’50s and ’60s, Jim Henson Presents—later The Jim Henson Family Hour, and eventually simplified as The Jim Henson Hour—would find the Muppet man showing the full range of Henson Associates’ creativity, playing emcee and host at the top of every episode.
The original proposal was audacious, if not indicative of Henson’s scattered, keep-everyone-busy priorities in the waning days of the ’80s: A wheel of programming rotating on a monthly basis, anchored by an hour-long version of The Storyteller in week one. The unsold Inner Tube concept, retitled Lead-Free TV, would comprise week two, while “Picturebook Specials” like The Tale Of The Bunny Picnic followed in week three. As for week four? In the pitch reel prepared for Tartikoff and the NBC crew, Henson has some ideas for what might go there, none of them terribly specific:
Many of these shows will be set in the real world, with a mix of humans and puppets. We might do a mystery with Kermit and the gang, or a comedy about an enchanted bowling ball. We might also do a musical that takes place in a space ship with creatures unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Despite the spectacular promises made in that pitch reel, the network wouldn’t buy The Jim Henson Hour without first demanding some changes. First to go was the rotation plan, which would’ve overtaxed an enterprise the size of Disney, let alone a smaller, 150-person organization like Henson Associates. NBC and Henson would compensate through compromise: When The Jim Henson Hour premiered on April 14, 1989, its twin engines were The Storyteller and a hybrid of Inner Tube/Lead-Free TV and The Muppet Show called MuppeTelevision. MuppeTelevision would open the program with a familiar sensibility and friendly faces, while The Storyteller would serve grander ambitions and bring things to a close. The “Picturebook Special” concept was preserved in a scaled-back form, with wiggle room that allowed for half-hour digressions like the hilarious Miss Piggy’s Hollywood and hour-long telefilm presentations Dog City, Monster Maker, and Living With Dinosaurs.
If NBC sensed an identity crisis from the pitch reel, what the network ordered was full-on dissociation. MuppeTelevision transitioned uneasily into The Storyteller, its sight gags, production numbers, and parodies an odd match for the emotional complexity and occasionally disturbing imagery of The Storyteller. In terms of production value and preparation time, The Storyteller had an advantage over the other parts of The Jim Henson Hour machine, two completed episodes and four scripts having been held over from the original run of specials. Where the visual effects work clashed with the handmade charms of the Muppets, it was a crucial element of The Storyteller, giving it a gauzy, dreamlike look worthy of the Creature Shop’s cinematic efforts. The diminutive devils created for “The Soldier And Death” count among the shop’s finest efforts, radio-controlled animatronic puppets possessing all the expressiveness of Labyrinth’s goblin army an a dash of malevolent mischief borrowed from Gremlins.
MuppeTelevision, meanwhile, would be the first time Kermit and company failed to live up to the lofty heights of The Muppet Show. It certainly didn’t help that Vicki was constantly reminding her co-stars of their TV legacy; then again, hers is one of the few memorable presences introduced in MuppeTelevision—and a great vessel for the talents of Sesame Street veteran Fran Brill. Crowd scenes and ensemble work mean that Muppets are rarely retired, but Vicki, avian repairman Lindbergh, and the half-Doc Brown, half-Max Headroom robot Digit have largely been AWOL since the end of The Jim Henson Hour. But even in their salad days, they were overshadowed by holdovers from The Muppet Show: Kermit was MuppeTelevision’s undisputed core, with The Great Gonzo serving as a devoted lieutenant/incorrigible screw-up. Other favorites were reduced to cameo appearances, as Frank Oz’s directorial commitments restricted popular characters like Miss Piggy and Fozzie Bear to a small handful of appearances. Piggy being Piggy, Oz managed to headline the best non-Storyteller segment of The Jim Henson Hour, the showbiz sendup Miss Piggy’s Hollywood.
But one MuppeTelevision newcomer stands for all of The Jim Henson Hour’s mismanaged priorities: Waldo C. Graphic, a shapeshifting computer-generated image created in concert with the animators at Pacific Data Images. Being composed of 1s and 0s was Waldo’s defining trait, the spectacle of puppets interacting with a computer graphic justifying the cost and labor associated with bringing Waldo into Muppet Central. According to “Secrets Of The Muppets,” two minutes with Waldo amounted to 120 hours of image rendering. (No wonder he’s offscreen for the majority of his segment in the series premiere.) For a show whose CGI opening credits cost almost $500,000, no technical budget item was too expensive.
The mistake Henson made with MuppeTelevision was one his Labyrinth buddy Lucas was doomed to repeat in the following decade: By digitally constructing whole sets and characters, he’d removed a crucial component of what made his creations so magical the first time around: They exist in the real world, and have texture on camera. In close-up, the felting on Kermit’s textile skin is visible. When Dave Goelz moves Gonzo, we can see the wispy hairs on the back of his head sway back and forth. Bean Bunny’s fur is matted like that of a favorite stuffed animal, appropriate for a character bearing the burden of cuteness for a franchise that was, despite popular perception, never 100 percent cute or 100 percent for kids.
But in Muppet Central, these characters are surrounded by nothing but digital information. This has the unfortunate effect of flattening any scene set in the control room. Where The Muppet Show had used practical sets and effects to turn the TV screen into a puppet stage of seemingly infinite dimensions, MuppeTelevision hemmed its characters into their blue-screen environs. The contrast is especially startling when The Jim Henson Hour stages a throwback production number, like the closing sequence from MuppeTelevision’s third episode. In a roomy beach set, Gonzo swings from a vine, Bean digs in the sand, and penguins do backflips. In a setting where the characters are limited to doing almost anything, they appear much freer.
And for all the similarities between the creative giants—formative years spent in the country, a balance of artistic brilliance and business acumen, the willingness to try new techniques and new technologies—Jim Henson was no Walt Disney when it came to hosting a television show. Henson had hoped that Kermit would act as emcee for The Jim Henson Hour, but Tartikoff wanted the star and mastermind of the program on-camera. He would have to throw together in a matter of months what Disney spent years cultivating. A voice coach was hired, and Henson was warned away from the pensive body language that was his conversational default: The folded arms referenced by Richard Hunt, or the fingers framing his face on The Dick Cavett Show. Without a folksy persona like “Uncle Walt” to fall back on, and without a Muppet on his arm, Henson the host appears to be at a loss. Based on how later episodes blow through their introductory notes, his priorities are clearly behind the camera (or just below the camera frame).
But The Jim Henson Hour was never going to have its priorities straight, because it had so many priorities to attend to. It was two TV shows masquerading as one, with some of the same creative staff pulling double duty on both. And then every once in a while, a third show came along, pulling resources out of the writers’ room (staff writer/future Big Bang Theory creator Bill Prady co-wrote Miss Piggy’s Hollywood with Henson Associates hand Jim Lewis) or the workshop (the Creature Shop built the massive centerpiece of Monster Maker, The Ultragorgon, in a scant five weeks). “It was rigorous to make,” Henson Associates producer and creative consultant Alex Rockwell recalls in Jim Henson: The Biography. “Because one minute you’re shooting the Muppet stuff in Toronto and then you’re up in Nova Scotia doing one of the Creature Shop stories. It was really exhausting, and Jim’s energy got pretty diffused—unlike on The Muppet Show, where it was so focused.” Also cited in the biography, Juhl’s epigram for the show was much less upbeat than his Muppet Show roundball analogy: “Most things didn’t work on that show. It was a huge frustration and a great sadness.”
The few things that do work still hold up. The Storyteller is as visually rich as any project that carried Jim Henson’s imprimatur, and there are MuppeTelevision segments—like the ratings sequence, or a sketch from the same episode that runs hapless Link Hogthrob through a genre-hopping gauntlet determined by viewer whim—that successfully integrate the lo-fi charms of the Muppets with hi-fi computer imagery. Dog City, an original telefilm inspired in equal parts by vintage gangster films and C.M. Coolidge’s Dogs Playing Poker paintings, successfully launched an animated spin-off and contributed to the proud Muppet tradition of groan-worthy wordplay and cheap gag names.
The Jim Henson Hour was a failure of ambition, the work of artists who wanted to show they were more than the funny characters they held above their head. But the nature of that “more” was only sporadically articulated, as the realities of cramming multiple ideas into a single hour of TV outstripped dreams of enchanted bowling balls and outer-space musicals. The Jim Henson Hour was supposed to be everything to itself, which made it difficult to be anything to everyone represented on those monitors vexing poor Kermit. Even at its very best, it had to settle for putting a smile on the face of Mr. Harry Stapleton and his too-few real-world equivalents.
One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe: Like Gonzo The Great, this one’s a weirdo.