By Page Brocious
Jim Henson, the widely famous puppeteer pioneer (sorry for that alliteration), is generally known for his creation of The Muppet Show and the iconic characters associated with it — namely Kermit the MC frog who Henson voiced. People like me, who unfortunately belong to Generation Y - with a mild nostalgia for the more recent Muppets movies and Sesame Street - may not have been exposed to Jim Henson’s earlier more experimental works of the 60’s and 70’s. It’s in these commercials and short films that Henson fully explores his affinity for light-hearted cynicism that appeals to an adult audience.
When Henson was just a freshman at the University of Maryland he created a 5-minute puppet show called "Sam and Friends", featuring an early version of Kermit, that aired on a local D.C. station. He worked alongside his future wife, Jane, experimenting with new methods of filming and puppet construction. This show led to various guest appearances on national-broadcasted shows like The Today Show.
While this was going on, though, Henson was hired to make a commercial for a D.C. coffee company, Wilkins Coffee. This endeavor lead to over 100 eight-second segments advertising the coffee, and beyond that, to two decades of commercial advertising for everything from Wilson’s Meat to Pak-Nit fabrics. Now, in most cases this career choice might seem like a sell-out move. But for Henson it kick-started his prolific career and gave birth to several puppet proto-types that would appear in his later works. Not to mention they also embody a pun-y simplicity that are very suited for an adult audience, despite their puppet stars.
These Wilkins coffee commercials began airing in 1957 on local television stations, and soon became extremely popular. They feature a puppet named Wilkin and another named Wontkin. In each snip-it, Wilkin somehow asks the aptly named Wontkin to drink the brand name coffee and he stubbornly refuses. Then Wontkin might be shot in the head or run over by the Wilkins “bandwagon”—afterwards Wilkin delivers a line like “you either go with Wilkins or you don’t go at all”. Henson’s clever play on the in-your-face propaganda one might expect from a commercial adds to the pure comedy of it. The Wilkins bits also highlight an endearing violence, not unlike The Itchy and Scratchy Show. As pretty much every generations knows, violence can be fun for the whole family.
Henson did a lot of other product sponsorship, but he also created loosely instructional sales videos for IBM in 1966. This unexpected combination solidified the unique stylistic qualities that make Henson’s work so venerable. And as made obvious in the range of products that he “sold,” Henson was not expressing personal loyalty to these companies but using their business as a way to develop his artistic style, and even to make fun of the typical associations with television advertising in his comedy.
One IBM video stars Rowlf the Dog, who was one of the first nationally recognized characters of Henson’s repertoire. This was his Muppet Show pianist gig that you might be more familiar with. In this piece, Rowlf is an eager salesman for IBM typewriters. In the 10-minute video he uses different versions of the typewriter to write to his mom about what a great sales-dog he is. He even goes so far as to create various commercials to send to the head of sales. Rowlf imitates Henson’s quick wit in these commercials within a commercial (so meta). In the slapstick style of Henson, Rowlf carelessly drops his typewriter case down a set of stairs and the camera shows it falling for an unrealistic amount of time. The most intriguing thing to note about this scene is the repetitive sound of the case hitting the ground that creates a distinct beat. Music is a key aspect of many of Henson’s works, like his short film "Time Piece" (also created around the same time).
"Time Piece" premiered in 1965 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And at the risk of sounding cliché, it is an undeniably artsy, visual film that shows off the broad scope of Henson’s creative abilities (sans puppets). However, it still maintains the quick-witted humor that most associate with Henson’s work. Henson plays the main character of the film, who appears in a hospital bed with a doctor checking his pulse through a stethoscope. The exaggerated, incessant beat of his heart remains constant throughout the film, like a ticking clock or the sound of his footsteps. And the beats are interspersed with catchy jazz riffs and stop-motion animation similar to "Preston Blair’s Air Force" piece. This film might be sending a message that time is inescapable, but it seems equally concerned, if not moreso, with the laughable conglomeration of short, bizarre scenes.
Interestingly, it becomes clear that Jim Henson’s legacy is not just built on Muppets. The creation of memorable puppet personalities and his innovations in television, film and animation bring hilarity and innovative art to adults as well as kids. And also coffee. And typewriters.