Make Art Make Money
Elizabeth Hyde Stevens | ISBN: 1477817387 & 978-1477817384 | Finished: 1/2015 | Rating: 9/10
Make Art Make Money Summary
Make Art Make Money by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens is a gem of a book. Before reading Elizabeth’s book I didn’t know much about Jim Henson’s life and career. After reading it I feel like I went along on his journey. I followed his transformation from humble beginnings to one of the most well known artists of the modern era. If you are an artist or creative trying to make a living off your art it is a must read. This wonderful biography will change your mind about what is possible for creatives.
Here are some things I found especially interesting in the book.
1. Success takes hard work
Jim Henson was not only a great artist he was also a smart businessman. He built an empire with the Muppets and Sesame Street, amassing a net worth of $150 million before his death, and he did it without sacrificing his vision. How did he do it? One thing you must realize is creating great art takes not only a lot of time but some luck as well.
As Stevens says “[I]f you’re wondering why, as the song goes, you haven’t made it yet, perhaps you just haven’t earned it yet.” You need to make your time count. You must give “total self-sacrifice and servitude” towards your art if you want to succeed.
The problem with most creatives is they want instant success. There is not a single self-made person in this world who has achieved success without putting in the work. Those instant successes are likely the results of years of hard work.
Henson became a puppeteer because a children’s show came to his high school looking for pupeteers. He won the audition and taught himself how to be a pupeteer. While on the show, producers from another network saw his work and hired him. This may seem like an instant success story, but it neglects all the hard work that went into achieving this success.
Henson honed his craft on the first show he worked on and he was eventually given his own show Sam and Friends. Even though the show was only five minutes long, he worked all day to create them. He worked endlessly on his craft and even stepped into the control room to learn from the technicians. Sam and Friends was also the birth place of the world’s most famous frog, Kermit.
2. Surround yourself with like minded people
Often times artists want to live alone on an island. They believe their best work only comes when they do everything themselves. This is the opposite of Jim Henson.Henson encouraged collaboration and play into his efforts to bring about his best work. He realized that he couldn’t do it all on his own.
Henson had great power, but it came from generosity. As Stevens described it, “If you want a job like Henson’s, you need to give someone else a job.” Henson’s work required collaboration and as an audience we can feel the joy of his team of people working well together.
During one stint on Sam and Friends, Henson took a six week trip to Europe to get away from all of the work he was putting in. The remarkable thing is, the show didn’t stop when he left. The reigns were handed over to Jane. Upon coming back from his stay in Europe, he learned he could step back and rely on others. The show was bigger than him, and Jane’s work proved that to him. He also realized that he was meant to be with Jane and they would later get married.
“Henson’s marriage effectively set the tone for the kind of relationship he would cultivate with his next employees— that of partnership, family, and brotherhood.”
The teams Henson created for each of his projects were good because he found the right people. Instead of choosing the best or most qualified candidates, Henson chose people he knew would fit his crew. He even hired people who had never pupeteered before.
For Fraggle Rock, Henson hired actors, jugglers, and mime artists to work on the show. He wasn’t just looking for people who were good puppeteers, he was looking for people with a sense of humor and a spark. According to one account, the auditions felt “relaxed and low-key.” They were filled with a lot of laughs. Puppeteering can be taught, having a passion and a love for your work can not.
The people Henson hired also had to be passionate about their work. Every artist’s goal is to make something good. When you are working day and night “the line between job and life is indistinguishable.” Most artists work to create something great, to become a master at their craft. This was especially true for the teams Henson assembled.
The point is, Henson wanted people who could both have fun and be passionate about their work. He wanted to surround himself with people who were like him.
3. Henson funded his art by making commercials
Before Henson struck it big with Sesame Street and the Muppets he needed a way to fund his projects. The art he wanted to create wouldn’t be able to pay for itself so he turned to where the money was: commercials.
By creating commercials, Henson was able to successfully fund his other projects. Henson was making a lot of money through his commercials and he understood that making money was good for his art.
The money Henson made from commercials allowed him to experiment. The only limit to his creativity was his imagination.
It may be hard to imagine Henson creating commercials for the corporate world, but they paid a lot of money. The compromise he made was turning the commercials into spoofs. He used commercials as a way to create skits. In them his puppets would parody the product they were promoting. Companies loved these parodies so much that they started asking Henson to spoof their products.
Although Henson earned a lot of money from making commercials, Sesame Street gave him an excuse to quit his commercial making gig. He made enough money that he was able to choose what he wanted to work on. He chose Sesame Street so he could educate young minds.
Henson was able to leverage his success with Sesame Street to make The Muppet Show, and from there he went on to make movies. Stevens sums it up perfectly:
“Looking back on Henson’s career, one thing led to another. Sam and Friends led to commercials. Commercials led to Sesame Street. Sesame Street led to licensing. Licensing led to The Muppet Show, and The Muppet Show led to movies. Henson made art make money and then made money make art. And though it was right for Henson to quit ads when he did, they were an important step along the way.”
4. Innovation and quality were key to his success
Jim Henson grew up in a time ripe for innovation and invention. As a child, the televisions was a new medium. Henson used this to his advantage.
What was the key to the success of Henson’s work? He never settled for good enough. That doesn’t mean he created a specific vision that everyone followed. According to Stevens, his version of quality “required not just his own creativity, but the creativity of those around him.” Instead of following his ideas exactly, he wanted others to co-create those worlds together. Henson knew ideas created together would be better than his vision alone.
Henson wanted to push the envelope and break barriers. He wanted to create to surprise and to create something truly new. His brand of innovation required a lot of experimentation. It also cost a lot of money. This is one of the reasons it is so hard to copy Henson’s work. It takes a lot of money to create such an expensive high quality product.
We may take it for granted now, but Sesame Street at its time was innovative. It was a combination of “Madison Avenue, Harvard curriculum experts, nonprofit television, and network comedy writers.” This newness is what drew Henson to Sesame Street. It was something that was never done before. It was another experiment. Stevens describes it like this:
“When you’re working on the never-before, your employees feel exhilarated and invested in their work, and so do you . Everyone does their best, and in that sense, it is of quality. If you create quality, you create value.”
5. Never stop pitching
Jim Henson spent his whole life pitching his ideas to others. His imagination and ambition were unmatched. Since his first audition, the puppet show on local TV, Henson spent much of his time pitching his ideas. He did this so he could eventually make what he wanted.
Henson had to pitch in every phase of his career. Here is a list of all the pitches he had to make:
Sam and Friends
He had to pitch his own ideas to get his very first show on local TV.
He pitched all the commercials he made to other companies so they would hire him.
He had to make a great pitch to eventually land his agent Bernie Brillstein.
Experimental Films and Toys
He had to pitch his ideas so people would fund his experimental film and toy ideas.
He had to pitch Sesame Street to win over the press, parents, and teachers. Even while at Sesame Street, Henson continued to pitch so he wouldn’t be pigeon-holed as a kiddie entertainer. He did this by creating Muppet TV specials.
He had to pitch his Muppet specials to multiple TV stations, but this still didn’t get him his own Muppets show. He had to pitch for six years before he landed The Muppet Show. The funds for the show came from angel investor Lew Grade who was convinced to invest because of Henson’s constant pitching.
The Muppet Show
He had to pitch the first season of The Muppet Show to get more funding for the other seasons of the show. The show became such a success that Henson was finally able to work on his next project: movies. His first two movies The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper were both successes.
He had to pitch his Muppet movies so he could finally work on his dream project The Dark Crystal. Unfortunately The Dark Crystal and his second dream project Labyrinth were not commercial successes. This caused Henson to shift his focus from movies. Instead he moved his efforts towards creating a great number of shows.
He pitched a bunch of shows so he could sell his company to Disney. At this point in his career Henson wanted to be bought out so he could get back to creating. He wanted to use Disney’s money so he could create projects without worrying about expenses. Sadly, Henson was not able to see this through because of his untimely death.
Why Henson Pitched
If you learn anything from all of Henson’s pitching, it’s that artists must pitch to be successful. The only way to get your work in front of more people, and achieve your ultimate goals, is by pitching. No matter how much success Henson saw at each stage of his career, he still continued to pitch.
Stevens describes it like this:
“In order to have your independence— your creative freedom— as an artist, you have to just keep pitching.
You can convince people of anything, as long as you try enough people, and as long as you really believe in it yourself. If you believe in your art, make a pitch for it today. Spend a day at the easel working on a pitch of some kind. Watch Jim Henson’s impressive pitching for inspiration, and then go out and sell, sell, sell!”
Jim Henson was one of the most revered creators of his time. He not only revolutionized the use of puppets in entertainment, he also dramatically changed the possibilities of what you can accomplish on TV and in film.
He accomplished this by working hard, surrounding himself with the right people, innovating, and pitching his work. He was not afraid of making money from commercials or selling out because he knew he could use this money to fund his projects.
There are a lot of lessons you can learn by studying Henson’s life. This review is just a short summary of the treasures found in Make Art Make Money. I could not recommend Elizabeth Hyde Stevens’ book highly enough.
Kindle Highlights for Make Art Make Money
Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career
Elizabeth Hyde Stevens
The idealist is attacked not just by the establishment, but also from within, where greed starts to change one’s motives.
For the most part, money is the enemy of art.
great art wants quality, whereas good business wants profit.
Quality requires many man-hours to produce,
Great artists fight for such expenditures, whereas successful businessmen fight against them.
Trouble arises in societies when a person tries to convert a gift into a commodity.
Gifts, on the other hand, are given in sacrifice with no hope of return,
For art to truly affect us, it needs to be, in a sense, “given.” For a commodity to be successful, it needs to be bought and sold.
The gift economy, on the other hand, grows with each transaction, with gratitude and societal bonds being an “increase” for both the giver and recipient.
we feel “richer” the more we give others,
an artisan working in a gift economy but trying to survive in a market economy.
capitalism does not reward art that is a gift.
We intuitively reject art when the cost to make it is less than the cost to buy it.
But as much as we know and value art—as a society—we expect our best artists to starve.
“There are three primary ways,” he tells us, “in which modern artists have resolved the problem of their livelihood: they have taken second jobs, they have found patrons to support them, or they have managed to place the work itself on the market and pay the rent with fees and royalties.” At
must develop a more subjective feel for the two economies [gift and market] and his own rituals for both keeping them apart and bringing them together.
be able to disengage from the work and think of it as a commodity.
And he must, on the other hand, be able to forget all that and turn to serve his gifts on their own terms.
we accept the victory of money over art and welcome the artist’s destruction in righteous, sulky pessimism.
One does not rid the temple of the money-chargers by singing alone; one expels them by occupying the space they currently hold and keeping it. It is time for the faithful to reenter the market.
Jim Henson’s idealists fight back and beat the business-heads, but when they do, they turn into capitalists.
It may seem sad to young idealists, but this seemingly contradictory evolution is actually the solution to the artist’s problem.
Henson was a member of the Silent Generation, Americans born in the hardship of depression and raised in war, and yet paradoxically this time produced many of the creative visionaries who would inspire the boomers to mass hippiedom.
Having made hundreds of television ads, Henson was already a capitalist when he made “Business, Business.”
Henson freely referred to himself as an “artist,”
He owned a business, but his business rested on the ideas the idealists were shouting—brotherhood, joy, and love.
Though a capitalist, he was also a staunch artist.”
When you think of leaving an artistic legacy of lasting good, I don’t think you can aim much higher than Henson’s—the work he created is beloved by so many, twenty-three years after his death, in more than a hundred different countries.
“Beware of artists. They mix with all classes of society and are therefore the most dangerous.”
In 99 percent of cases, you can tell if a man on the street works in finance or acrylic—not because these are mutually exclusive professions, but because we wear our battle colors to show we have chosen a side.
What is a human being? Complex to the point of absurdity, a whole person is both greedy and generous. It is foolish to think we can’t be both artists and entrepreneurs, especially when Henson was so wildly successful in both categories.
Henson was “notorious for going over budget,” because he made it a point to hire and retain good artists.
When Henson joined on to the experimental PBS show Sesame Street in 1968, he was underpaid for his services
Yet he spent his free nights in his basement, shooting stop-motion films that taught kids to
He had all the makings of a tragic starving artist. The only difference between him and us is that he made peace with money.
The artist who wishes neither to lose his gift nor to starve his belly reserves a protected gift-sphere in which the work is created, but once the work is made he allows himself some contact with the market.
phase—if he is successful in the marketplace, he converts market wealth into gift wealth: he contributes his earnings to the support of his art.
The dance involves art and money, but not at the same time.
Hyde’s dance steps go a little something like this: Make art. Make art make money. Make money make art.
Truly, for Jim Henson, money was a fuel that fed art.
He viewed money as energy, the energy that makes concrete things happen out of worthy ideas. Money was not an end in itself. It could provide physical infrastructure or it could help him hire other artists and technicians to realize a nascent idea. I don’t ever recall him being the least bit concerned or afraid of money or obsessed by it, which many people are. It just wasn’t what drove him—at all.
Maintaining a balance between art and business has always been a part of what I do. You operate with as much honesty and integrity as you can afford. Success has brought the ability to pick and choose what we do.
sketches—becoming the most successful version of yourself.
the first step to making money is an emotional one—to “make some peace,” as Hyde says, “with the market.”
whatever your art, there is some business in which you participate.
By closely examining Jim Henson’s relationship with money, we can derive a philosophy that will serve us in our own careers—no matter what they may be.
In his office, Henson hung a “Shrine to the Almighty Dollar”—a comically-large dollar bill with a small pyre at its feet.
The dollar meant something to Henson—it meant more art.
what is a hero but a person upon whom to focus one’s thoughts—to imagine one’s dreams?
LESSON 1 FIND A GOOD REASON TO SELL OUT
Henson became a household name, and through Sesame Street toys, Henson became a millionaire. In short, merchandizing is the “secret” to Henson’s success.
Before he became a mogul, he had to find a good reason to do so.
One of the virtues of the second job is that Hyde says it makes it easy for artists to “mark the boundary between their art and the
for many years Edward Hopper did commercial drafting for magazines before his real work became profitable.
magazine money allowed him to keep painting.
with commercials, there were drawbacks.
some part of Henson’s content was always dictated by the sponsor.
“It was a pleasure to get out of that world. If you’ve ever worked in commercials, it’s a world of compromise and a world of
self-censorship—commercials were more than a compromise for Henson.
“The whole process is really not easy on a creative
in 1969, Jim Henson decided to stop making commercials.
Henson no longer had the buffer of commercial pay to keep his projects funded.
To keep funding his high-quality work, Henson needed another option to emerge, and almost like karma, one did—merchandizing.
Like commercials, toy merchandizing offered Henson a way to be his own bankroller, and it would be better than commercials, because there would be no boss above his own creative vision; however, at first, Henson refused.
Jim hated the idea of selling out.…
They always wanted to do things for the right reasons.
[T]he whole idea of merchandising made them feel like sell-outs.
you have every child in America watching this show, and one day it will hopefully be worldwide. You’re educating kids better and more creatively than TV ever has.
You can’t not give it to them.
Henson did, in fact, take great pains to make sure the products that made him rich were not “shit.”
Second, you will have full control of what’s done.
Sesame Street’s mission was to educate poor kids.
Henson did not want to sell kids things that were bad for them
Henson would always control the merchandizing; it would never control him.
“Third, if what I believe will happen with this merchandising happens[,] … you will make enough money to have artistic freedom for the rest of your life.”
Artistic freedom. Those two words sold him … for an artist to imagine being able to do as his heart desired without asking anyone for money …
It was the desire to be free from the market that ironically convinced Henson to become one of America’s great merchandisers.
Henson had the veto power. He was the one in complete control of his art,
the toys were more than commodities, that they would be art themselves,
The reason that Sesame Street became so lucrative for Henson was copyright and trademark—intellectual property.
Copyright is a key to making money as an artist, because it allows a work of art to be made once at great cost—making it, in a sense, a gift—and then reproduced relatively cheaply, giving back to the creator infinite profits.
Yet, profit for art is usually a long-term prospect.
but that is a long-term approach to value that requires a steady and separate revenue stream—to continually invest in one’s quality and to give, in the short term, more than one receives.
“We believe that only if our books and playthings are amusing will they be purchased and used enough to have educational value.”
The fact is, when discussing business, it’s perfectly natural to exploit resources and markets, unless of course what’s being exploited is children and their innocent love and trust in us.
An artist can turn anything into art—even a commodity.
“Jim’s staff did the initial design work and prototypes (rather than leaving it to the licensee’s research and development area).” Henson approved every licensed product
‘We don’t need the money, just make me beautiful products.’
Art, any artist knows, is inherently affirming, wondrous, and nourishing for the creative mind.
If art works, it speaks to you about life.
he almost let people rip him off if it was good. When people made things that he didn’t feel were up to par, then it upset him.… [H]e wanted it to be at least complimentary.
Jim Henson countered merchandizing’s grossness by using it as an excuse to make more art.
And most importantly, Henson put the profits back into his art.
As Hyde notes, it is a “necessary” phase for an artist existing in both a gift economy and a market economy: “If he is successful in the marketplace, he converts market wealth into gift wealth: he contributes his earnings to the support of his art.
PURE ART DON’T SELL FIND A HANDLE
he’d actually licensed a line of toys four years earlier.
An interesting lesson came out of this foray into toys.
These early “Muppets” were truly Henson’s passion, his art in its purest form.
The toy company, it seemed, knew what Henson didn’t. Whatevers, frackles, and snerfs don’t sell. Animals give people an easy handle.
[Henson:] Yeah, all the characters in those days were abstract because that was part of the principle I was working under.…
I still feel are slightly more pure.
Rowlf, our dog, call him a dog, you immediately give the audience a handle. You’re assisting the audience to understand; you’re giving them a bridge
[I]n terms of going commercial and going broad audience, you want to reach the audience as much as possible, and you need those
the “nice thing” about pure characters is the artistic game played with the audience—closer to approaching art—and the nice thing about the handled characters is their mass market appeal—the money and ratings they can generate.
In order for Henson to get to do what he wanted, he had to change
without this initial “handle,” Henson could never have made The Dark Crystal or Fraggle Rock,
Warming up his characters, what we might call “selling out,” allowed him to innovate, and he learned to accept that.
in show business the “market” is often the “audience,” it is a blurry line between selling out and reaching many hearts with your gift.
The market can start to shape the work. Yet, some contact with the market will not entirely destroy a work.
all artists are affected by the market
The Muppet Show was an art that made clear compromises to conform to the market—having
The Muppet Show also raised the bar for what was possible on TV, by bringing more art to it than the medium required.
THERE ARE BAD TOYS WHICH MEANS THERE MUST ALSO BE GOOD TOYS
Henson’s great genius lay in his ability to see the humor, the beauty, the art, in everything.
the economic model of the toy works, because the toys can be mass-produced cheaply using a copyright that was very expensive to make.
he would not fall into the trap of creating a company that broke down into two parts—the creative personnel on one side and the business people on the other.
To avoid that schism, he tried to hire business people who would fit comfortably into the creative family that was already in
Henson had famously waited for Frank Oz to finish high school so that he could hire this irreplaceable puppeteering prodigy, and with this same cautious precision, he hired businesspeople he had already worked with and knew he could trust.
Henson had to make sure that every new person could “fit in comfortably to the creative family.”
by hiring the right people to create his toys, Henson turned a commodity into something we might call “pop art.”
Henson loved the handmade item—he filled his home with crafts while he sold their opposite, the mass-manufactured lunchbox.
Henson’s products often retained a glimmer of that “artsy-craftsy” feeling that made them, because he put more work into them than he had to.
PART OF THE PROBLEM TO BE PART OF THE SOLUTION
Henson used his merchandizing profits to make twenty more years of art—art that tried to teach a worldwide audience to live together in peace. He used it to employ hundreds of artists and to inspire millions more. One could argue the world is a little better—because he sold out.
HOW TO ENACT YOUR SELLOUT
We should never sell out to the extent that it would ruin our art or change our gift into an empty commodity.
By viewing them as “creative freedom,” and then putting his effort into making them “beautiful,” Henson seemed to sell out in a way that made us love the art no less, and possibly more.
his view of copyright wasn’t about profit; it was about protecting the work.
Your art may not involve characters or anything merchandisable, but there may yet be some way in which mass production or mass media can benefit you.
Copyright creates a nice loophole for artists in the law that says they must starve. If you can make a work once and profit infinitely—proportional to the amount of times the art is given—then you can beat the system.
Regardless of what your art is, in the larger sense, there may be an option for revenue
The trick is to be open to the possibilities.
What would you never do for money? How could you convince yourself to do it—for art?
However you choose to address the grossness of the problem will resemble the rest of your art
Reconsider selling out as quite possibly buying you time later to be more pure.
you might need a handle for the masses to grasp your idea, but once you have it, your audience will follow you into any strange and darkened corner of your imagination—into places you never thought possible.
the market’s demand can give you the artistic freedom
if you do “cash in” on a big wave, it is “necessary,” in Hyde’s words, to funnel the profits back into the art.
There is always something bigger and better you want to make but just don’t have the money for.
For myself, the switch from fiction to nonfiction is my sellout,
I was spending hundreds of hours crafting my fiction, but the only place I managed to publish it was a very small press that didn’t pay
I wanted the kind of work Henson had—fun, difficult, rewarding, worthwhile. I started to study his business methods,
cartoonists—Henson’s legacy is clearly one of benevolence, art, and giving, and it is lasting.
For me, writing a prescriptive book is a “handle” to get my ideas across.
I could not have learned so much about business from anyone else besides Jim Henson.
Truly, there is no one alive today who knows the way for you to become a successful artist. To find it, you’ll need to imagine it.
It was the Sesame Street licensing bonanza that made Jim Henson rich, but that stroke of luck didn’t appear overnight.
to get Kermit to the point in 1976 when he was incredibly marketable, it took forty years
art is work.
if you’re wondering why, as the song goes, you haven’t made it yet, perhaps you just haven’t earned it yet.
As artists, we desire nothing more than the freedom to work long hours on our art.
you need to shift that freedom into its opposite form—total self-sacrifice and servitude.
You must give many hours to the work—hours that you do not want to give, but feel you must give.
art is—a sacrifice of one’s time, one’s lifetime, to make others feel something.
A sacrifice, a gift, an object upon which people think in wonder, Did he really give up his life for this?
It is a special kind of work that artists must do, and it is a kind of work that sometimes looks nothing like work at all.
Henson was always working, and because he was always working, he was always playing.
Henson labored in service of his gift, labor that often came to nothing,
Learn to work without hope of reward.
START WITH ANY ROCK AND PUSH DO SOMETHING REPETITIVELY
As the club’s set designer, had never actually puppeteered before, so he taught himself.
Producers from another network saw his work and hired him. In time, they gave him his own show, and years later, he would be remembered as the premier creator of TV puppetry.
the real secret to Henson’s success was hard work.
It was lucky that a director from WRC-TV, a local NBC affiliate, happened to be on set to scout his talent, but he had to work a kiddie show to earn that luck.
But the job was more than money. As he had learned, work was exposure.
the producer Carl Degen saying of Jim, ‘The kid is positively a genius. He’s absolutely
With a nightly show comes the kind of ball-and-chain the artist needs to evolve.
Being locked in like this forced Henson to continually innovate, but he surely grew weary of it.
It wasn’t just writing the scripts; designing and building the props, sets, and puppets; and recruiting performers. It wasn’t just the daily pressure to come up with new ideas. It was also the years of nurturing his imagination.
In his spare time, he’d be in the control room trying to understand what was going on.
This learning experience is what allowed Henson to develop his own system for performing with puppets on TV
According to Jerry Seinfeld, the only way to learn is on stage.
Though great art can surely be tainted by the marketplace, we must not go so far as to shut our work off from an audience.
Does this mean the artist must conform to what people want?
style grows alongside their reactions to it, either to become recalcitrant and stubborn or to yield and give in—depending
Fortunately for Henson, the network didn’t ask him to rein in his weird ideas—they let him find the limit himself.
Ultimately, this sacrifice—years of giving his life away—is what makes Henson’s characters seem human.
It had to be learned through experience, through experimentation. By doing.
There is something about a character that operates like a black hole—all the work you put into him stays with him.
Practice—it can be grueling, thankless, and unceasing—but in devoting oneself to trial and error, an artist is investing in the worth of one’s name.
Of the twenty-four hours of Henson’s day, all of them went into his art in some way,
artist does not experience his time as leisure. It’s work, and it’s work that’s never done.
When you eat, sleep, and breathe your art, you never get a vacation, yet Henson and Disney chose it—willingly.
there are two types of work in the story. The shoemaker’s work resembles a factory job—there is no art in such robotic tasks—tracing patterns, cutting them out. What the elves do, on the other hand, is more like magic. They are the artists. They sew in such a unique and gifted way as to produce quality—and not everyone can do it.
When artists speak of “practicing your craft” or “serving your gift,” we might picture this kind of endless robotic toil.
“Work is what we do by the hour,” Hyde says, “it ends at a specific
“Labor has its own schedule. Things get done, but we often have the odd sense that we didn’t do
Henson himself said, “[W]hen I’m working well ideas just appear.… It’s just a matter of our figuring out how to receive the
“And labor,” Hyde notes, “because it sets its own pace, is usually accompanied by idleness, leisure, even sleep.”
A labor, Hyde says, is “something that is often urgent but that nevertheless has its own interior rhythm, something more bound up with feeling, more interior, than work.”
For an artist, there is nothing more fulfilling than making good art.
Henson said, “The feeling of accomplishment is more real and satisfying than finishing a good meal or looking at one’s accumulated
If you can practice your art enough to observe what your body does, you can learn to do it at will—with your conscious mind.
The part of us that creates is often something we’re ashamed of. Consciously, we ignore it. Society encourages this.
all three are necessary work for every working artist—cutting the leather, selling the shoes, and working the magic.
“Year after year, we watched him push himself beyond what we could possibly imagine. You had to try to keep
“It’s hard for people to understand the reason Jim worked so hard is [that] he loved
Henson said, “Perhaps one thing that has helped me in achieving my goals is that I sincerely believe in what I do, and get pleasure from it.
For artists, like entrepreneurs, it seems, it’s all or nothing—frequently poverty or riches—but a traditional middle-class life it’s not.
I sincerely believe in what I do, and get pleasure from it. I feel very fortunate because I can do what I love to do.
The thing that makes sacrifice worthwhile is that you believe in it.
Career ambitions and life goals for Henson were one and the same.
It is refreshing to know that even someone as driven and ambitious as Henson had his moments of self-doubt, and to know that when he did, he didn’t try to work against the doubt—he explored it.
To have a certainty in one’s purpose is crucial, to feel that one is doing
COROLLARY TO LESSON 2 BE LUCKY
Henson had been learning to be a boss, he had been cultivating an intense work ethic, and he had developed a home-grown aesthetic.
Henson’s shoestring budget resulted in Kermit being fashioned out of fabric from his mother’s old
His work in commercials led both to a healthy workshop budget and eventually to Sesame Street,
Henson may not have chosen his career up until 1958, but he was able to turn burdens into strengths.
“Take what you got and fly with it,” Henson said.
look for individuals who turned burdens into advantages with a little art.
When used correctly, anything can be turned into music—anything can make us dance.
WHAT HAVE YOU ALREADY PRACTICED? PRACTICE IT MORE
You don’t have to be at the right place at the right time. You have to know what your time and place is good for.
Part of the game of art is taking what is, playing with it, and seeing what could be.
We are all lucky for something. The trick is in knowing how you are uniquely lucky, and in turning that gift into something others can appreciate.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK (HAVE A WORKSHOP IN YOUR BASEMENT OR GARAGE)
Play and experimentation loosens our grip on life and allows for more chance luck to surprise us.
bring your work home with you, to let your work take over your life,
Creating a workspace in your home makes a space in your future for breakthroughs and epiphanies to exist
Behind Henson’s stroke of luck lies a graveyard of TV pilots that were not picked up
Henson had worked hard for that luck.
The key to your success may lie in something you already do, but do not yet see as your power,
If you look back at the successes you’ve had with your art, can you remember how much work they took?
Really observe the way you work—even the parts you are ashamed to acknowledge.
There is nothing worse than not working on something you believe in.
GIVE SOMEONE ELSE A BREAK HIRE SOMEONE
Sugith Varughese, said of his scripts: You feel like you were channeling something. It wasn’t coming from me, it was coming from this collective funnel of creativity that came through because of the juxtaposition of real specific people like Jerry Juhl and Jim, and I was just lucky to be in the room. And it just passed through
There is something about collaboration that encourages more play
Henson had great power, but it came from generosity. If you want a job like Henson’s, you need to give someone else a job.
Art is often more interesting to the audience when artists collaborate.
The kind of art Henson wanted to make required collaboration.
What we feel as an audience is that a lot of people really enjoyed working together, something we don’t get to experience very often in our own careers.
Through stepping back, Henson learned he could step back, because the show was bigger than just him.
Henson’s marriage effectively set the tone for the kind of relationship he would cultivate with his next employees—that of partnership, family, and brotherhood.
When Kermit sings “Getting there is half the fun, come share it with me,” it’s a basic sentiment, but one that was at the heart of the company’s philosophy.
It ends with the poignant line, “When all these people believe in you … maybe even you can believe in you, too.”
FIND YOUR PEOPLE WITH A SILLINESS AUDITION
You need to find the right people, people like you.
Reading these accounts, it almost seems like the most important thing to display at the interview was an ability to have fun while working together.
Working together is a crucial skill, because as Dave Goelz said, “Almost nothing in the Muppets is ever done in isolation. No one ever does anything really by themselves.” Puppeteers attended script meetings, and writers watched the tapings. A songwriter and lyricist played off one another, and off the script, which sometimes took its visual cues out of the song lyrics. As Goelz said, Henson’s organization was “interdependent,” just like the Rock itself.
LAUGHTER TENSION’S SWEETER SISTER
In play, there is room for everyone, because there are infinite roles to play—you can change the game to make room. The conversion of competitive tendencies into play is truly the essence of Henson’s work.
Henson’s relationships with fellow puppeteers is a model to follow in artistic fields where (1) tension can be channeled to serve to work, and (2) everyone’s work is in its own style.
A HANDSHAKE MAN NO HR PROFESSIONAL
separating business and creative conversations is important; it creates a sense of play that is independent from economics.
For artists, money is often an afterthought, because the primary goal is making something good.
For people who work day and night, the line between job and life is indistinguishable, and so is the line between coworker and friend.
ADDENDUM TO LESSON 3 WHY PEOPLE WORK FOR YOU
what every artist wants—a chance to be loved for the hard work that only he can do. To be rewarded for doing one’s art. Not just a cheap, profitable derivative of one’s art, but the real thing—the whole thing—what he was born to do, and do masterfully.
Artists work for artists for good reason. It is because they are “passionate,” in Goelz’s words, about art; they want to “become” something, in Prell’s words; to have a “meaningful career” in Bailey’s.
QUALIFICATION TO ADDENDUM NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO WORK FOR YOU
SIDEBAR ON FREELANCERS
HERE’S ANOTHER OPTION YOU CAN BE A HENSON OR YOU CAN BE A SPINNEY
If one is too “precious” about one’s art, one can’t leverage its power as well to the benefit and survival of that art.
It may be better to be a Spinney. It’s harder to be a Henson.
You don’t have to be a Henson. But if you’re going to be a Spinney, you need to find a Henson.
HOW TO START A SNOWBALL
a great deal of his success came not from him alone but from the snowballing of a lot of creative artists working together.
when you pay another artist to help you, you give them more than the check; you give them the message that good art is worth paying for.
oftentimes, without money, collaboration cannot happen.
Please don’t fall into the trap of becoming professional. Be yourself.
To him, business was a handshake—an acknowledgment that both parties were on the same page.
When you find good collaborators, you will do your darnedest to keep them around.
the first step is very simple: reach out to other artists.
Imagine yourself as a “fearless leader” of artists, leaving a legacy like his.
When the right people appear in your life, they will have their own reasons for joining you.
you, for whatever reason, can help them achieve their dreams.
Collaboration with other artists lightens the load for you. You don’t have to do it all by yourself. What do you dream of?
MAKE COMMERCIALS FOR YOU HIJACK THE AD
Henson’s art relied on keeping a core group of people together.
Without financial incentive, collaborators tend to move away, get families, get other jobs—ones that do pay.
Art alone doesn’t usually pay the bills, so what is an artist to do? Go where the money is.
Effectively, making TV commercials was Henson’s second job to finance the rest of his artistic projects.
If you’ve ever worked in commercials, it’s a world of compromise
Henson’s Vonnegutian so-it-goes signoff implies he was happy to leave his past—the frustration of commercial work—in the past. But commercials, as they say, paid the bills.
Hopper’s work for magazines was a response to a market demand, and the results are commercial art.
Hopper’s work for magazines should be considered not a part of his art at all but a second job taken to support his true
Hopper’s career was split in two,
calls a “protected gift sphere” for himself, a space for his work to grow on its own terms, free from market demand.
Commercials protected Henson’s art because they allowed him to do projects based on their merit, not for the money, until, of course, one came along that made its own money—the surprise hit Sesame Street.
It seems advisable, then, for an ambitious artist to take on a second job like Henson did, in commercials.
Commercials can be good money, but they are not to be undertaken lightly by artists.
Television and its ads are a delusional system, and it takes a special kind of mindset to participate in them without losing your way as an artist.
STRANGE BEDFELLOWS IN BED WITH BAD COMPANY
We think of Henson as artsy-craftsy, philanthropic, and slightly revolutionary, so it is strange to think of him making commercials for gasoline, banks, or junk food in good conscience. Part of the problem with ads is that when you endorse a for-profit business, you never really know who you’re in bed with.
But effectively, when you make commercials, you are often helping a for-profit company with a good deal of money, and often the reason that company has so much money is due to exploitation and disregard for humanity.
Henson seemed to be somewhat selective in the kinds of companies he worked for, and at the time, we perhaps didn’t know how harmful oil dependence or factory farming could be.
servers. In the arms race of office technology, the company these new tools helped most was IBM. Henson did even more for the growing technology company, creating entertainment for the salesmen themselves to watch for inspiration.
INTO THE LIAR’S DEN HOW HENSON COULD BRING HIMSELF TO PROMOTE THIS JUNK
Though it would seem like a hassle to have to read copy about juicy chicken wings, Henson created skits around these lines, often tongue-in-cheek.
There is a fun, ironic quality to it, almost like it is a spoof of the ad copy itself.
Henson was co-opting the sponsor spot and using it as his own airtime. If given the choice to cede some of your precious five minutes to a commercial sponsor or to use that time for an extra skit, it’s easy to see why an artist might choose to do promos.
It seems only natural, then, that upon seeing these Esskay promos, other companies would start to ask Henson to have his puppets spoof their chicken, their coffee, their photocopiers, and so on. A great commercial advertiser, it seems, was born accidentally.
These ads are
Yet Henson did have a problem with commercials.
According to Falk, Henson made “Flapsole Sneakers” to “play around.” But more than that, the fake ad displays Henson’s obvious disdain for, and discomfort with, the job he was paid to do. “Flapsole Sneakers” is a parody of opportunist advertising, of selling unrealistic desires, and its complicit knowledge that products are not what they seem. At the end, it seems to say, none of these products will ever be enough, so when you’ve bought them all, we’ll sell you imaginary financial “products,” which, of course, will make the fund managers rich. At its core, advertising is a game of con-artistry. At its most honest, it tells you where you can throw away your money on fleeting pleasure.
Ads trick us, making us think they’re our friend, when they’re really working for someone with interests that conflict with
And here is how Henson the artist managed to survive in the world of commercials for so long. Henson didn’t just parody ads in this for-fun reel. He parodied ads in every one of his for-real commercials.
PARODY THE AD WHILE STILL PLAYING THE GAME
He was … making fun of Madison Avenue and the way things were sold, and yet he was very successful at it. He was much loved by the Madison Avenue executives. Maybe having it come from a puppet character made it
“Typically, Jim was making fun of the capitalistic ambitions of the people that hired
And for some reason, when working with puppets, negative emotions seem to be converted into play—into laughter.
Henson’s strategy seemed to imply that people value laughter more than basically anything else—more, we see here, than their own pride.
It shows them by making the client laugh. If Henson can make the client laugh, they know he can make their audiences laugh.
Henson’s ads functioned more like public service spots, alerting the viewer to the motives and tricks of Madison Avenue. It was education, teaching anti-ad-literacy.
AD VS. ART AD AS ART
Many of the most famous Muppets were created for ad campaigns: Big Bird is really a variation of a seven foot dragon created by Henson for La Choy commercials; Cookie Monster was a pitchman for Frito Lay; Grover was used in promotional films for IBM.
Henson did retool his commercial characters in service of education, yet it would be quite wrong to think of Henson as an advertiser-turned-artist. He didn’t get his start doing ads. He got his start doing puppets, and that just so happened to lead him into ads and education, not because he chose those worlds, but because they chose him.
Jim Henson’s company, called Muppets Incorporated at the time, was not a subsidiary of any advertising company. It was both its own advertising company and its own production company.
What made Henson different from the Mad Men was that Henson’s enthusiasm in his ads came from an honest belief that he had something to offer viewers.
Henson pitched his commercials the same way a playwright would pitch his play to a theater—giving it everything to get to make his art.
That is because a person who makes art and also sells art thinks in a very uncommon way.
If you want to go from being an artist with a day job to being an artist whose work pays for itself, exposure is the key.
With enough exposure, an artist can find his market, or perhaps create it. Henson’s commercials were, in a sense, a lot of free exposure. Shifting the lens a bit, they were an ad for his own work.
There is a simple joy in humanity that runs through all Henson’s projects. The knowing positivity of Henson’s Muppets is just as strong in the ads as it is in The Muppet Movie.
UNCOMMON ADMAKING WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE
We hate ads because they are false, because they lie to us.
To clear up confusion, Henson paid for this ad, giving Brillstein’s start-up some much-needed publicity. When you see ads like this one in the newspaper
It changes the way you think of advertising. It becomes less like a scam and more like communicating something important to a large number of people.
Although commercial work may have given Henson some of his ten thousand hours of puppetry, eventually day jobs tend to drain energy away from one’s art. In 1969, Henson quit the ad game, and his move suggests that in the long run, it is a game an artist really can’t win.
STOP AS SOON AS YOU CAN SAY NO TO ADS WHEN YOU CAN AFFORD TO
Jim’s rule was simple: Don’t sell [the copyrights to]
Even early on, when he arguably needed it most, Henson refused some money. If inflation calculators can be trusted, that would look more like $400,000 today.
Sesame Street gave Henson the excuse he needed to refuse commercials altogether.
Sesame Street was born of 1960s idealism, and it was revolutionary. Henson signed on to the project before anyone knew that Sesame Street would be a success, because he believed it had a mission worth supporting.
Sesame Workshop’s mission is “to use the educational power of media to help children everywhere reach their highest
With Sesame Street came a firm moral reason for Henson to quit his second job.
Henson couldn’t make commercials and Sesame Street, because he was channeling the power of advertising now for good.
This is Gladwell’s point when he says Sesame Street grew out of commercials. The creator-producer of Sesame Street, Joan Ganz Cooney, explained in her research: Parents report that their children learn to recite all sorts of advertising slogans, read product names on the screen (and, more remarkably, elsewhere) and to sing commercial
Sesame Street, on purpose, used what was already transfixing young minds to their TVs. Michael Davis put it best: If the neurotransmitters in their little brains could snap, crackle, and pop for a cereal commercial, couldn’t similar electrical activity be duplicated by teaching children the concepts of over, around, under, and through
The segments on Sesame Street were ads—ads for literacy, good behavior, number skills, peace, and love.
If Henson were to continue making commercials, it would be damaging to his credibility as an educator.
Kermit, the frog, is a Muppet I made over ten years ago and have used on many network shows and commercials. For the past ten or twelve years, approximately half my income has been derived from producing Muppet commercials.… However, since the advent of Sesame Street, and my own interest and concern for children’s television (I am an enthusiastic member of Action for Children’s Television), I have become a great deal more selective, and have turned down many lucrative offers that seemed to be trying to capitalize on Sesame Street.… The Children’s Television Workshop is a very dedicated group of people who function with the highest sense of integrity. To mistakenly attribute a motive of exploitation to these people is not only insulting but potentially quite damaging to the job they are doing. As for myself, I don’t intend to leave commercial television. This is where the Muppets and I have worked for many years, and it is the income from commercial TV that makes my participation in educational TV possible. What I will try to do is what I have tried to do on Sesame Street this season, that is, to work
Yet, for Henson, compromise had actually led him to integrity. In his own words, “it is the income from commercial TV that makes my participation in educational TV possible.”
When The Muppet Show aired in 1975, Henson could have used the characters—who were in no way educational—in commercials, yet he did so only sparingly. At that point, his business generated enough money on its own that commercials were not necessary, and Henson could afford to be choosy. Throughout the seventies and eighties, Henson only made a handful of commercials, according to archivist Falk, “where he felt the situation and product was particularly
Henson saw commercials for what they are—tools. And tools are neither good nor bad; it’s what you make that is.
A Muppet protagonist would rather die than be the puppet of an unjust cause.
Henson made art make money and then made money make art.
And though it was right for Henson to quit ads when he did, they were an important step along the way.
THE ONLY WAY TO STOP IS TO (FIRST) START RETHINKING THE AD
Movies, by nature, are less gift than TV. With TV, fans don’t buy a show—advertisers do.
Moviegoers don’t get a free lunch. They get the lunch they’ve paid for.
Ads can be exploitative and obnoxious, but if you’re smart enough to ignore them
lives—what ads really do is facilitate the consumption of free art.
Henson’s characters were also a gift—ads’ gift to everyone.
But ads are themselves tools—exposure—that can be used for various purposes, including good ones.
Yes, Henson ultimately had to refuse commercials to protect Sesame Street. But without Henson’s participation in commercials, there would be no Sesame Street to protect.
HOW TO HIJACK YOUR DAY JOB
Where is the money right now? Where are the thieves? Where is the most potential to impress people with a little art? Where might you come in?
Refuse anything that is not consistent with your vision. Make money with ads, by all means, but if you do go into advertising, hijack the ad.
Reserve hours or whole days that are just for art. Don’t let your day job take over your life simply because it has a more immediate payoff.
Hijack commercials and commercialism. Use it to create ads for you. For your continued creativity. For you to get to keep making art.
GROUPS AND OUTSIDERS INVITE THE OUTSIDE IN
The key for those of us who would follow in Henson’s footsteps is not simply how to enter business. It is how to conceptually rethink the relationship between ourselves, our group of likeminded people, and those outside that group.
Henson didn’t assimilate to advertising culture,
He wanted them to join him.
Your world is limitless. If you don’t see eye to eye with someone, invite them into your world.
This idea that “time just stopped” would feel familiar to artists who often lose track of time when they work.
Henson did not want to be stuck working for just one group of people.
Henson wanted to entertain everyone.
Henson’s satire—like the gentle mockery of Don Quixote—parodied everyone.
He parodied all of us for all of us.
Henson believed that puppetry could help the world overcome cultural conflicts.
he wasn’t deluded by the thinking of any particular group of people.
The laughter that his characters inspired was able to break down barriers, proving that even queens, presidents, and all other manner of Pooh-bahs are just people, and their humanity is evident when they share a moment in laughter.
Shared laughter breaks through barriers of language, culture, and prejudice.
Many artists today refuse to aim for a broad audience, because they feel it will water down the quality of their work.
If we are looking for a way to become more successful, more Hensonlike in our own careers and lives, we might start by trying to see beyond our own culture.
THE PARADOX OF OUTSIDES AND INSIDES
a recipe for a Hensonlike skit is to put two different worldviews together, and to let the ensuing conflicts turn into comedy.
Henson seemed to be constantly turning over this problem—the paradox of outsides and insides—in his work. Each of us can see only so much of the world, and others see a different chunk than we do.
This inclusion/exclusion feeling holds us back.
if you want to stop war in the world, well how do you do that? Well, it’s about conflict resolution.
The paradox of outsides and insides seems to show up thematically in Henson’s work, and always with a sort of lighthearted positivity.
Henson believed there was a way out of society’s perpetual conflicts.
ADULTHOOD IS ANOTHER CULT
By seeing the good people inside all of us, Henson treated his audience as innocents.
Children, it should be noted, exist almost 100 percent in the gift economy.
Someone once said that all children are artists, but adulthood avails us of this habit.
Uniting adults is a very wise thing for a self-supporting adult to do. Trying to be edgy and hard as so many “serious” artists do prevents them from reaping the benefits of a truly universal audience.
In exposing that everyone, deep down, is childish—is meek, innocent, and goofy, and has a sense of wonder and a capacity for joy—Henson’s Muppet Show, when it finally received funding from London’s ITC, broke down the barrier between adulthood and childhood.
Universality is rare, which is often why it is misjudged as simplistic or watered down—things that are much more common.
Rarity in business is quite advantageous—it means there will be less competition for your profits.
MAKE A JERK LAUGH WHY PUPPETS CAN SAY WHAT WE CAN’T
Karen Falk wrote that the Meeting Films were designed to counteract “the stupor of technical language and
The scenario is ridiculous, but it discloses a fundamental paradox of business ethics. How do you run a business with honor, ethics, and integrity when you’re competing to out-sell, under-sell, and ideally obliterate the competition?
Puppetry is an art that shows the world to itself, shows it how it moves, and makes that movement (which is terrifying, dangerous, and larger than any of us) small, nonthreatening, and funny.
puppets are used to speak true feelings.
With puppets you can deal with subjects in a way that isn’t possible with
There is an interesting effect when people perform with the Muppets or any puppet—we can’t help but react positively towards them.
There is something about a small being that is harmless and almost irresistibly lovable.
Puppets can do what people can’t; they can show a jerk how he’s funny, how he’s human. It is an example of inviting the outside in.
Puppeteer Dave Goelz said: There’s a philosophy I think Jim started out with—that people are basically good, life is to be enjoyed, take care of other people, there’s enough for everybody.
Henson didn’t see movie tickets as a scarcity, but rather an abundance, infinitely renewable.
Because Henson felt magnanimous toward other fantasy filmmakers, he gained allies in Hollywood.
PARODY AS GIFT GIVE GREED A MIRROR
For Henson, parody was the gift that could bring disparate groups together.
In Henson’s worldview, the villains are always given a gift in the attempt to invite them into the Muppets’ way of thinking.
“Most of us—certainly Jerry and I and I think Jim and Jocelyn—we really didn’t believe in the idea of good and evil as I think sometimes it’s handled in different shows, and the conflicts in the show are usually because of people’s misunderstanding—conflicts of interest rather than one character is good and one character is bad. We just didn’t think that way about the
The Muppet universe is one of inclusion, with striking echoes of Hyde’s book.
In order to turn a stranger into a friend, a gift is given.
adult conflicts stem from the outside-inside paradox,
could actually be resolved through the giving of a gift.
Henson once said, “I try hard not to judge
the kind of parody Henson gave people who were different from him was the kind of mirror that does not lie, but offers a chance to join “us.”
successful people in this world who, like Henson, achieve universality, are almost always those who truly want to—who want to talk to everybody and bring everyone together.
HENSON’S UNIVERSALISM REFUSING TO FALL INTO SUBCATEGORIES OF HUMAN
Although Henson was very idealistic and positive about humanity, he was very aware of how the world actually worked.
when you decide how to live your life, numbers shouldn’t really come into it. And that includes money.
In The Gift, Hyde warns that “[w]ealth ceases to move freely when all things are counted and priced.”
THE ONLY BOUNDARY YOU NEED CANNOT BE TORN DOWN
He was a businessman and an artist, and he proves that these roles can coexist in one person.
When you pass into business, the boundary should be porous, but when you are in the gift-sphere, the boundary should be thick as a wall.
Jim Henson liked to transcend barriers between groups and invite everyone in.
So how will you invite them in? Start by noticing the uniqueness of your enemies.
Study these people, and look for ways in which they are really not all that different from you.
Never forget that you’re more than any one group.
Even though we all stick to our little cults, try to see yourself from the outside and to speak from that wisdom.
If you’ve chosen a life of art, well then, that’s the only boundary you can’t transcend.
ALWAYS INNOVATE ON TECHNOLOGY AND ART
The emerging technology of Disney’s day was film,
Television was where Henson developed his art,
It is striking that Disney, Henson, and Catmull each used a technology that emerged around the time of his birth and matured at the same time he did—around twenty—when he began toying with it.
It seems like a pretty good formula for artistic and financial success.
QUALITY IS NOT PERFECTION
Henson’s work, which while lifelike, was not realistic. It sought to represent, to suggest reality, but not to copy it.
For The Dark Crystal, Henson’s artists created new languages, new species, a new map, new plants, new cultures with their own new folk art traditions. In short: a new reality.
Henson’s work always seemed to delight in how unreal objects
Crystal—could suggest reality.
Henson was not a perfectionist in this sense, because his version of “quality” required not just his own creativity, but the creativity of those around him.
Henson’s conception of “quality” was such that it allowed for others to co-create his worlds, which meant that he did not know in advance what those worlds would look like.
Henson cared a great deal for quality, but that was defined as the best each person could do, and when the voices came together in harmony, in an organic—but not random—creation, the outcomes of his projects must have been a constant surprise to him.
Henson knew that allowing others to truly create—not to blindly recreate his ideas but to add to them and imagine their own—would make his projects better than anything he could have imagined alone.
According to Jerry Nelson: If he could see it happening in his mind’s eye and knew that it would work, he would dog it until it worked.… We always wanted to give Jim exactly what he was looking for. We didn’t always know what that was, but we were willing to try until we found
Henson was like a perfectionist at times, because he took the time to get something right.
When asked why Henson made movies, Frank Oz once said: Jim didn’t think of it in hit terms. He got to have control and play. And create whatever he wanted; and that was a joy, and he loved it. He always pushed the envelope. He just loved breaking barriers. He just loved breaking
Oz repeated it twice for emphasis. Henson just loved breaking barriers. It wasn’t about creating the most perfect example of a thing—because there is no surprise in that. For Henson, it seemed to be about the surprise. Doing something truly new.
Jim liked to change things around on the show to keep it new. And he liked to change the look of the show,
In fact, Jim Henson was continually changing small things as well as the overarching style of his work.
Innovation requires experimentation. But this leads us to a hard reality: playing with your medium costs an enormous amount of money.
Arts. Everyone in the sciences and many people in industry understand the value of R&D, but in the Arts, spending money on “experimentation” or on something that has no concrete “end user” in sight is often considered wasteful, when it’s absolutely essential to innovation in the arts (just as it is in the sciences or in industry). On a deep artistic level, Jim trusted the process of creating art and he had the economic means (derived from other artistic efforts) to support that
THE (FINANCIAL) TROUBLE WITH QUALITY IT’S PROFIT-LESS
Innovation is expensive. The way to get it—experimentation—tends to cost more than it has to, making it a kind of gift. But giving gifts, as Lewis Hyde illustrated, does not make artists rich and seldom makes them break even.
According to Time it was “listed on the books as making no profit, in part because Henson keeps putting money back into the program.… ‘The long-range profit for this show is down the road, when it’s syndicated and sold to the stations,’ says Henson.
Just as toy sales made Henson’s gift of Sesame Street possible, they allowed The Muppet Show to be profitable, even while making no profit.
This is how thinking long-term can turn an unprofitable business model profitable.
Its investor was repaid with toy sales, and then, years later … they hoped its quality would lead to an increase in value.
work. Profitwise, you’ll never get ahead. However, if you are an innovator who absolutely loves what you do, this is actually the most ideal, satisfying, and self-sustaining business model you can adopt.
Making something with quality requires a different business model. Innovation requires patience—years with zero dollars on the books, a separate revenue stream if possible, and very often investment of one’s own money.
Whereas a typical businessman would spare this expense, Henson wanted to create something new.
one thing the venture capitalists forget is that when you blaze a trail with (expensive) quality, you are unlikely to have much competition.
One reason the show has not been copied the way everything successful in television is copied, is that it’s so expensive to produce. The Muppet Show has set such a high standard for this kind of work that a cheap version of it would just be
This same effect is noted with Disney and Pixar. Their quality came from an expense too great for any sane business to undertake.
Borrow-and-promise had been Disney’s business strategy from the very beginning.
For innovative companies, it is not surprising to see periods of money-sucking while a masterpiece is in development.
To get funding, Henson had to convince Grade to share his long patience. Grade was once an artist himself—a dancer—turned mogul. Compared to Disney, Jim Henson started out with more capital of his own—profits from commercials and then Sesame Street toy sales—but in order to make a primetime puppet show and then a full-length puppet movie, Henson needed angel funding from Lord Grade.
While artistic businesses can get going to a good financial clip, they require more and more funding as time goes on, and bigger and better projects.
Each of the paths I have described is a way of getting by, not a way of getting rich.… No matter how the artist chooses, or is forced, to resolve the problem of his livelihood, he is likely to be
In the final accounting, Hyde seems to say, art will always cost more than it makes. And unlike the investor, it seems the artist can’t ever stop creating, take his profits, and live on vacation for the rest of his life. Yet, Henson’s career shows us that while he was alive and working, an artist—while not technically profiting—can thrive when capital is flowing.
There seems to be some sleight-of-hand involved in making art pay, almost like the creation of a market bubble whereby the value of your work increases consistently over time because of people’s belief in it. It’s the difference between real dollars and “Disney dollars.”
Companies like Pixar, Henson, and Disney built their reputation based on quality that they had to borrow to pay for.
But the value of the reputation demands even greater expenses, and so the bubble grows only as long as there are passionate artists working at its behest.
cases, Henson didn’t earn money based on the show itself; he earned money after the shows were made—almost karmically because it would have been hard to predict at the time.
If a show is cheap, it’s not worth watching once, but if it is quality, it can be rewatched, sold, and rented again and again.
WHAT WAS SO INNOVATIVE ABOUT SESAME STREET? EVERYTHING
One of the most innovative works in Henson’s career was Sesame Street, a show many of us take for granted.
Sesame Street was innovative. The never-before, the what-if, the why-not, Sesame Street was more experimental than anything else Henson had done in the sixties, and that was saying a lot.
Today Sesame Street is an American institution, the longest-running children’s show in history. In order to be part of this moment in history, Henson relaxed his stance against making kids’ TV, and he didn’t negotiate for a big salary.
Henson clearly did this work not expecting profit.
But I think any artist will agree: getting to do a project worth doing is actually a very good deal.
Jim Henson joined Sesame Street because, as Oz said, he loved breaking barriers.
“Never before had anyone assembled an A-list of advisers to develop a series with stated educational norms and objectives. Never before had anyone viewed a show as a living laboratory, where results would be vigorously and continually tested.”
Innovation is not the easy path. It’s not the road to short-term financial profit. It’s the never-before. The miracle of creation. The first.
When you’re working on the never-before, your employees feel exhilarated and invested in their work, and so do you. Everyone does their best, and in that sense, it is of quality. If you create quality, you create value.
Innovation is not just about using the latest tools; it’s an itchy temperament that is always looking to surprise itself.
Innovation is experimenting, seeing what is possible, using whatever is at hand.
TO REMEMBER IS TO MISREMEMBER, THAT IS, TO IMAGINE CHANGE THE PAST
When we praise Henson with words like “imaginative,” “creative,” “original,” and “innovative,” we are misrepresenting what it actually means to do something new. Creation does not resemble the fiat “Let there be light” out of darkness.
“Creating,” for artists, is then a process of making incremental changes to the familiar in order to let us see—to learn—the new.
Copyright lawyers have conditioned us to think that artists create something out of nothing and then retain full, exclusive rights to that something.
But the truth is that all artists borrow from the work around them, which often contains someone else’s tweaks.
Today, companies like Disney have lobbied for copyright to include the author’s lifetime plus seventy years. For that reason, smart artists tend to tweak the uncopyrightable—works like Shakespeare and the Bible that are so old their copyrights have clearly expired—or tropes from the never-copyrighted: folk tales, fairy tales, and legends.
Folklore allows an artist to play with what’s there without getting sued.
Doing a new take on an old tale is something Henson did throughout his career, from Hey, Cinderella! to The Storyteller’s “Sapsorrow,” from “The Frog Prince” to “Hans My Hedgehog.”
By copying, the flaws in our copy often alert us to the skills that are uniquely ours.
Like dreaming, art reassembles the familiar into something new. It is in the misremembering or the reimagining that the actual “creation” occurs.
REIMAGINING TELEVISION BECOME BOTH PERFORMER AND AUDIENCE
We think of originators as sui generis bootstrappers, blazing their own path. A lack of education can be a boon, forcing an artist to make it up as he goes along.
The ventriloquist is out there facing the audience. The puppeteer works below. In that way, on television, I can watch the monitor and see how my own performance is going. No actor can do that. It’s an eerie feeling but a great one because you become both performer and
Henson says “you become both performer and audience,” he is implying that though you yourself are moving your hand, you might be surprised by what you see on screen, being from a different perspective than your own. For this reason, watching the Muppet performers backstage has the funny look to it of dancing while being tethered by the constant eye contact with a TV monitor.
What this does for the performer is to allow him to become a director of the scene—to position his character in the frame in a deliberate way—and to use the subtlest of head tilts to convey emotion.
It’s easy to miss how incredible this invention was. Adding a screen into the equation is key. It means the puppeteer is actually performing gestures for himself to delight in. The real innovation is in using TV to watch yourself.
Henson learned a little bit from many people, but avoided being overly influenced.
An eternal pluralist, Henson seemed more influenced by artists working for Disney than by the man himself.
Many of the things I’ve done in my life have basically been self-taught … if you learn too much of what others have done, you may tend to take the same direction as everybody
Perhaps the way around the anxiety of influence is to combine as many good things as possible into your style. You cannot help but draw on the past if you wish to innovate.
All of them invented new technology, yet none of them did so for the sake of technology; they did it for the sake of art. They invented a technology that would help them achieve their narrative needs. They were working on art first.
For artist-entrepreneurs, tech—when it is innovative—grows in tandem with the needs of the artist. Tech follows ideas.
HOW TO USE NEW MEDIA WITHOUT LOOKING LIKE A CHUMP
More than any other genre, futurism dates itself quickly.
it’s not about the tech you use, but in how you use it.
Technology lives and dies by its people.
Eisner’s mistake was that it wasn’t the tech that made Toy Story great—it was the people who could use tech to suit their artistic goal.
If Disney truly wanted to compete with Pixar, they should have increased funding to their hand-drawn animation studio. But by fetishizing the effects of innovators, Disney defunded innovation.
it is more important to find good people than to find good ideas.
All technology is a mechanical embodiment of someone’s dream.
The machine can be destroyed, taken apart, and used to create something new, but the voice of the inventor is what endures.
Although Henson loved “to jump into the middle of new technology,” he jumped in to experiment, to play, not to perfect.
Even Pixar, which has not been without its “repetitive stress injuries,” is run with the philosophy that “[t]echnology inspires art, and art challenges the technology.”
“Walt Disney understood this. He believed that when … technology and art are together, magical things
Art isn’t perfect. It’s human. It’s about expressing something about life, and if it doesn’t do that, it’s not art.
There is tech that enlivens the soul and tech that dulls it.
Henson always seemed to be aware that how he used technology would be—or would eventually be—part of the story, part of the act.
For Henson, it was important to bring together the people, not the technology itself.
the performance is where the humanity is, where the relationship is and I think that has to stay at the heart of it
If a technology didn’t express “humanity,” Henson wouldn’t use it.
THE SCHOOL OF FAILURE THE ONLY WAY TO LEARN WITHOUT COPYING
While expressions can be copyrighted, no one can own an idea. It was more like a professional courtesy. Innovation tends to lead to differentiation, which is good for the whole guild. It makes room for everyone.
I had never worked with puppets when I was a kid, and even when I began on television, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I’m sure that this was a good thing, because I learned as I tackled each new
The best way to educate yourself is not necessarily to enroll in school, but to learn by doing, learn by trying, and often learn by failing.
Many careers start with a library book, because self-directed learning is the kind that really sticks.
Business school only hedges you against failure by delaying the inevitable.
HOW TO INNOVATE FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE
It is the uncommon entrepreneur who can make her own market. Though she may be unready at first, trying and failing is the only way to learn. To be uncommon, avoid being overly influenced by what has come before. Use your influences promiscuously—appreciating what is good about each one.
Do not fetishize a technology just because it is new. Use whatever works well.
Quality is asking for one more take, getting everyone to focus and work well together, helping others to co-create and achieve their own personal best.
Pay attention to the emerging technology of your time, because it will become the newest ingredient to your mix.
Be on the lookout for all that is uncopyrighted, or uncopyrightable. Folk tales, well-worn comedy set-ups, and very old literature.
when you try to copy your heroes, do it as a tool for self-exploration. Notice the flaws in the copy. They are uniquely yours, and they may not be flaws at all.
Think of innovation not simply as doing something new, but as doing something amazing.
Copyright is merely a legal restatement of the artist’s creed to not copy one another. Think not about how to register your work, but rather how to use the power of innovation to make people trust your name, which is naturally your trademark and no one else’s.
Notice how technology plays into your work, because we cannot help but be affected by it.
I still marvel at the old tech that still works like magic: pen and paper.
Continue to invest in your own R&D, to innovating your art with technology old and new. Henson didn’t wait for a network to fund him; he put his own money into the development of his projects. Innovation costs a lot—not because of technology but because of man-hours. And yet, even if your work doesn’t earn you profit for the time being, its quality is what can earn money down the road—sometimes years later.
As new technologies are being developed faster than ever, it makes sense to trust that if you make something of quality, it could increase in value.
As an artist, you probably aren’t thinking of an endgame in which you get to quit art and just enjoy life. And so, the ever-increasing cost of quality should not be depressing to you as long as you can find a way to get money to flow long enough for you to make your quality projects.
The worth of your company—the final tally—isn’t your ultimate goal. It’s the ability to keep making great art.
Because in order to leave a lasting legacy, you don’t want to die with the most money in your account; you want to leave behind pieces of work that feel as alive as you once were.
The work environment for Henson’s projects was one in which artists really cared about what they were doing, and the amazement audiences feel correlates directly to the glee felt by Henson and the people who worked with him.
BRING TOGETHER A TRIAD SEPARATION OF ROLES
The real triumvirate that we see at Henson, Disney, and even Pixar contains three necessary ingredients for success: business, tech, and art.
Artists can’t tell someone else how to do what they do.
The “art” of engineers is a kind that is meant to be used by others.
Many artists don’t know how they do what they do, let alone how to teach someone else to do it.
a tech advance is meant to be used by all; an art advance is meant to be used by the artist.
These technicians contributed to the quality of the art, and yet the credit seems to go elsewhere.
This may be less exploitative than symbiotic, as some prefer to work in obscurity and avoid the anxiety of the limelight
The relationship between art and tech is mutually beneficial. The art that builders make is impersonal—it can be used by others to make their art.
As Catmull said, “technology inspires art, and art challenges the technology.”
Each of these technologies became art, but notably, each was developed alongside an artistic goal, hugging it like a double helix.
when technology becomes disjointed from art: it dates itself quickly and it lacks heart.
The relationship between art and tech is thus one that works best when the two work closely, with constant cross-pollination.
In his Harvard Business Review article, Pixar’s Catmull notes in a section titled “Power to the Creatives” that the creative power in a film has to reside with the creative leadership, not with the corporate executives.
So, at Pixar, the development department’s job is not to tell the artists what to do, but to “help directors refine their own ideas” and “give them enormous
Businesspeople often fail to understand how art works.
Art requires a large investment in money that may not be repaid—essentially a gift.
when art and money can work together, they tend to create the greatest art the world has ever seen.
YOUR AGENT WORKS FOR YOU BUT YOU ALSO WORK FOR YOUR AGENT
The nature of the relationship is such that, in many cases, a person with an agent will earn more than a person without one. He has two people looking out for his financial health.
If either side can leave, both sides can have a say. But this marriage of equality requires the artist to put his foot down more than he may like.
an artist can make art without an agent, but an agent needs an artist to make money. There are times when an artist needs to just say no.
“If you want to know the real secret of Walt’s success,” longtime animator Ward Kimball would say, “it’s that he never tried to make money. He was always trying to make something that he could have fun with to be proud
The business partner must truly value the art.
You can’t have a business partner who doesn’t see your value.
moneymen intermediaries serve to do something very necessary for successful artists, to “mark the boundary between their art and the
WHAT THE AGENT KNEW HOW BERNIE KEPT HENSON A HIPPIE
Henson took “merchandizing” to mean records and the soon-to-come videos that would themselves be art—not toys.
As an artist, with few exceptions, Henson took projects that he thought would be interesting, not projects that would make the most money.
But as much as artists need someone to fight for them, that “fighting” spirit is often detrimental “in the play room.”
Jobs’s true value to Pixar seemed to lie not in his famously obsessive perfectionism, but in his ability to negotiate with Disney—to be the barrier that protected the artists from money.
THE VALUE OF SEPARATION LAWYERING THE LAWLESS
One reason to have a legal department is so that artists don’t have to discuss money with one another.
What is so uncreative about money? Well, even though money sometimes rewards innovation, it more typically rewards a sure thing—whatever your audience currently pays for.
Copyright prevents the art—while in a nascent stage—from being traded freely according to laws of supply and demand.
Lawyers are of great value, not just because they are experts at contracts and legalities, but because their work means that artists don’t have to be.
It is essential that the lawyers for a creative company understand how to work with artists.
Perhaps the way for businesspeople to truly appreciate artists is to try to make art themselves, and to see—usually—that artistic talent is actually quite rare, and so it is something worth protecting.
HIRE A BOSS
Jim didn’t run his company like a good businessman. He could never fire anybody, couldn’t accept any plan for downsizing that was drawn up for him by his advisers.
The fact that Henson kept Brillstein (agent), Gottesman (lawyer), and Lazer (producer) all on the payroll rather than having these managers replace one another demonstrates this.
Henson was a collaborator. In a business where collaboration is more important than minimizing overhead, where hierarchies dissolve, and people often come to work with one another again and again, it does not make sense to burn bridges by firing.
FIND THE ANGEL FUNDER LORD LEW GRADE
an angel funder is one who takes on great risk for a start-up for reasons besides pure monetary reward.
Grade essentially agreed to fund a show which would only make him money if the toys sold well or if they re-syndicated a few years later—making The Muppet Show a wildly expensive project with only a dream’s hope of returning on his investment.
Grade. In a way, Grade found Henson, yet in another, Henson’s incredible work ethic helped him find Grade by putting enough work out there for Grade to stumble upon.
HOW TO GET THEM ALL TO WORK TOGETHER
You must trust your businesspeople, but that does not mean you should trust any businessperson.
Henson selected his “people” well so that they would not damage the spirit of his enterprise.
The first step was to invite them in—into his world—and make them want to be a part of it, to share his dream.
Patrons for the arts are often just normal people with money to spare.
Let your entire body of work be your pitch to your imaginary angel funder.
While many artists write off all businessmen as heartless suits, Henson understood the debt he owed to them.
They, too, participate in the gift cycle of art.
Your masterpiece may be years away still, but it makes sense to start thinking today about how you could combine business, technology, and art to give the world something it’s never seen before.
PITCH, PITCH, PITCH AND THE INEVITABILITY OF FAILURE
When you hear the story about how The Muppet Show came to be, it sounds like a deus ex machina. Lew Grade’s ATV studio went looking for Henson and gave him a show. Brillstein’s breezy style certainly makes it appear that it was easy:
Yet the truth is that Henson had been pitching this show for years prior to Mandell’s offer. This windfall—the angel funder Lord Lew Grade—would never have come had Henson not cultivated his inner preacher, his inner pulpiteer.
It is something that separates the successful artist from the starving artist, the ability to sell oneself effectively.
Partly, it must’ve helped to have a manager who could see the steps it would take to get a major network interested. Brillstein urged him to take as many TV appearances as possible, saying, “I feel you need television exposure,”
The fact that Mandell happened to see Henson’s work on TV was not luck; it was the result of throwing hundreds of darts at the board.
Henson wanted a network to see. The ABC special The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence clearly outlined the show Henson wanted to make —a quick-moving variety show with an at-the-dance number, the Electric Mayhem band, a backstage section, and even Sam the Eagle. This ABC special was essentially a pitch tape proving that puppets could work in prime time,
ARE PITCHMEN BORN OR MADE?
A good artist is likely already skilled at listening, learning, and appreciating. These traits fit well in the gift economy that is art.
Quite often, financially successful artists resemble con artists.
However, when kept in check—in the service of the art—channeling one’s inner fanatic can break the artist out of his self-imposed poverty.
It is hard to say whether pitchmen are born or made. It is my suspicion that they are grown.
This tendency of enthusiasm to build upon itself suggests that you can teach yourself to pitch; you can work yourself up. The skill can be grown—for the right reasons.
What is the difference between a salesman and a pitchman? A salesman sells a commodity. A pitchman sells his own future
Becoming a pitchman was instrumental in getting Henson’s work aired and funded.
THE CONSTANT PITCHMAN
At the beginning, pitch like hell
Even with an agent, Henson still had to hustle. Even if it was Bernie who made initial contact, sussed out deals, or delivered the pitch, it was Henson who had to provide the material to be pitched. He seemed to pitch even more after Brillstein joined him, likely due to the growth of the company.
It took a great pitch to win over Brillstein—who was not very interested in puppets. And once Brillstein was on board, Henson had to pitch even more, because Brillstein got him more auditions and urged him to get more “exposure” and “media momentum.”
Throwing a lot of darts in all directions, then one big pitch
This only furthers the idea that there is no good time to stop pitching. Even when Ideal Toys had salesmen to do Henson’s job for him, Henson still needed to prime those salesmen to understand his ethos.
Even when he became an auteur and “authored” an art house film, Henson had to hustle.
For noncommercial works of art, distribution makes all the difference, and often, indie artists have to do the distribution themselves.
When you’ve put so much of your time, effort, and passion into something, it is hard not to feel like proselytizing.
And yet, in this 1960s period, Henson promoted both this art film and kiddie toys.
Brillstein wrote, “It was as if the guy had two careers: one public and successful, the other personal and noncommercial.
it is easier to pitch something that is both commercial and good than it is to pitch either alone.
Bull’s-eye: Pitch to find a home, then pitch to fly the coop
Part of the beauty of Sesame Street was that it was perfect for Henson—it combined both his commercial, persuasive skills and his philanthropic, artistic skills.
It is strange to think of anyone needing to “pitch” Sesame Street, and yet that is precisely what happened.
Even when the show aired, it needed to win over parents and teachers—the guardians who could control whether children watched or not.
Sesame Street was a new idea, and its premise—using commercial techniques to lure kids into learning—could have backfired. It is in great part due to Henson’s pitching prowess that Sesame Street won the country’s hearts.
Yet a moment of stability, like every other period of time, is not a good time to stop pitching. When Sesame Street made Henson a household name, he felt that it had “ruined [his] life” by barring his career from ever taking an adult route. Since he’d never wanted to relegate himself to the role of children’s entertainer, in this era, Henson pitched all the harder, this time to escape the pigeonhole he’d found himself in.
His characters already had a home on TV, but it wasn’t his own show—on Sesame Street, he had to answer to curriculum specialists. It wasn’t quite the Muppet series Henson had been dreaming of.
When used strategically, art can be a pitch.
Around 1968, … Jim started to seriously pitch his idea for a regular variety show hosted by the Muppets. Building on ideas from his guest appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show and the like, Jim created numerous proposals illustrating his concepts which he circulated to the networks, producers, and via his agent Bernie Brillstein.
Henson made compromises in order to be on television. His shows from this period included The Muppets Valentine Show with Mia Farrow and an Afterschool Special called Out to Lunch. In these instances, Henson seemed to be giving the networks what they said they wanted—tame kiddie fare—but also gave them what he knew was better—anarchic adult glee.
Henson pitched and made these shows because the perfect is the enemy of the good.
Far from a deus ex machina, The Muppet Show had been pitched seriously for about six years before the angel funder came along. And even then, it had to be pitched—to him.
This deal may seem like a gift from on high—and surely it was—and yet the pitch was ongoing, like a fish on the line that could still be lost at any moment.
The work itself can be a pitch
When Henson had finally got his dream—a national nighttime series for the Muppets, he was funded for only a single season. In effect, that made the success of the first season the pitch for next year’s renewal. As
With a few years of Muppet Show success behind him, Henson started to set his sights on the next target—
Dave Goelz once said, “I always think of TV as calisthenics and movies as craftsmanship. You get in shape with TV, because you do so much material so fast.…Then you go shoot a film, and you get the luxury of doing it
The work that is not a pitch
Luckily, Henson didn’t have to look far to find his funding for The Muppet Movie.
During Henson’s boom years, pitching seemed easy. And for as long as he was on top, it was.
Everything Henson had done thus far in movies and television seemed, in a way, to be a pitch for this one great film.
The Dark Crystal was even more artisanal. It really didn’t seem to be a pitch for anything—it is the thing itself, everything Henson wanted it to be.
Perhaps this is why The Dark Crystal’s poor reception was such a blow to Henson.
| Pitching more to get away from pitching so much
While Henson was making The Dark Crystal, he was also letting his core creative team from The Muppet Show develop the kind of show they’d like to do next, which became Fraggle Rock.
Yet the perceived failure of The Dark Crystal seemed to cause Henson to reevaluate his strategy. Since masterpiece movies did not return the investment, Henson took a step back and began to throw more darts at the board again.
Henson had varying degrees of involvement in these shows, but in general, he was not very involved in the day-to-day production of them. It is almost as though Henson the auteur filmmaker had been burned by putting all of his eggs into one basket and here shifted to coming up with great ideas, getting the ball rolling, and letting others take the helm of a fleet of Henson-produced television projects.
In the 1980s, producerman Henson launched many ships with others at the helm, and let them take their own course.
At the age of fifty-one, Henson still had to pitch. And his bad-temperedness suggests he was starting to tire of it. The lifestyle of a producerman may have seemed at the start of the eighties like the best way for Henson to keep making art, but at the end of the decade, it seemed like another thing to work away from. Though he pitched more furiously than ever then, it seemed to be in order to escape pitching.
It has been said that Henson was a man of a million ideas—he was always thinking towards the next project. This could explain his life of constant pitching, and yet I don’t think Henson was happy to merely hand off his ideas to others.
Henson’s furious pitches in the eighties may have been an attempt to get away from the whole endeavor of pitching altogether.
Appearing hot in order to cool down
If Disney were to buy Henson’s Muppet business, they would become his new angel funder—promising to green-light any expensive project he wanted, because he would work exclusively for them.
proposition—it would mean Henson could spend less time pitching and more time creating.
All that producerman pitching in the eighties starts to seem like a deliberate strategy to attract Disney’s interest.
As Brillstein wrote, Henson wanted to “get out from under the organizational albatross that drained his creative energy.… With Disney’s money and machinery, Jim could be fully creative.” As a funded artist at Disney, Henson could stop being a producerman, and he might not even have to be a pitchman.
My view of Henson is that, from the start, he cultivated the skill of the pitch in order to achieve artistic aims. And if a shy creator like Henson could do it, anyone can.
FAIL, FAIL, FAIL PITCHING IS THE EASY PART
If we try to cultivate our own ability to pitch—to preach—we might start by getting wrapped up in the good things in others’ work, then really working to appreciate and revel in the good things in our work, until we finally get obsessed with convincing others of what could be.
Expressing enthusiasm for your work is, in fact, the easy part of pitching. The hard part is all the failure.
Pitching and selling gives you an innocent, childlike high, such that when one is suitably addicted, it offsets the pain of failure.
everyone successful fails in monstrous proportions matching their success. It’s just that they promote the success louder than the failure.
Ironically, the road to Henson’s success is a string of failures, and this was as true for Henson as it is for anyone else.
JOHNNY CARSON AND THE MUPPET MACHINE NEVER MADE
Picture yourself spending a day in wasted art, because that is what the labor of a successful artist looks like.
CYCLIA NEVER MADE
In the descriptions of his nightclub project Cyclia, Jim hoped to match quieter music with filmed depictions of nature
B’WAY THE DESTINY OF GREAT PUPPETRY, BUT NOT FOR HENSON
Broadway may have occupied a place in Henson’s mind as the site where critical success and respect would finally be afforded to his work, even if it was only a lowly puppet show.
It may be true that if Henson had not been so busy working on TV projects—The Muppet Show pitch, SNL, and Sesame Street—he might have made it to Broadway.
Brillstein wrote, “My one regret is that I never got him to do An Evening with the Muppets on Broadway. I believe if he had, it would still be running
B’way was a failure every year of Henson’s career. But it was also a possibility every year of his career—because he refused to close the door on something just because it was difficult to achieve.
The theme of that song, and that movie, is that artists—like you—need to be able to fail this hard and to be able to get back up and try again.
Some doors are closed permanently—but if you look at it another way, they’re not really closed—they’re just angled to lead somewhere new.
REUSE, REPURPOSE, RECYCLE
The beauty of turning Henson’s Broadway failure into a Hollywood love story is that he was at once accepting defeat in the present and holding onto the possibility of success in the future.
When NBC caught up and became more experimental, they remembered Henson’s pitch. Had he not subjected himself to failure, he would not have been forefront in their minds.
Henson’s pitch—though technically a failure—actually primed NBC to be more aware of experimental content and its value to their changing audience.
In many ways, a life of constant pitching is a life of constant failure.
When you watch an artist struggle and fail, think to yourself, How can I do that? How can I keep failing and keep pitching?
RE-SYNDICATE, CO-FUND, RE-PROFIT
Another benefit to pitching widely is that it tends to create more offers to fund your work.
With some clever sleight-of-hand, giving the same thing to multiple people yields a higher amount of funding.
Henson was able to pay the Fraggle Rock writers, performers, and artists well because of the extra money from both CBC and HBO.
For all the drawbacks that come with relentless pitching, I believe it is the single most important thing that can allow an artist to control his own financial destiny.
HOW TO CULTIVATE YOUR PITCHIFICATION
So how can you become a pitchman? Find what it is that you can’t shut up about.
Henson’s preachification leads me to wonder—is the shyest, most reluctant self-promoter perhaps the best pitchman? If he finds something worth overcoming shyness to preach, perhaps no one can silence him.
When you make something really great on spec, it can be a risk, but ultimately it gives you the power to control your artistic destiny.
If you can stomach failure, pitching allows you to say and do what you want, not just what the market wants.
In order to have your independence—your creative freedom—as an artist, you have to just keep pitching.
You can convince people of anything, as long as you try enough people, and as long as you really believe in it yourself. If you believe in your art, make a pitch for it today.
NURTURE TALENT AND GET OUT OF ITS WAY
Brian Henson has said of his father: He taught me to identify a person’s talent, nurture that talent, and encourage them to look to themselves for a solution.
A good boss, like a good teacher, empowers his employees.
Henson’s lessons are so imbedded in our psyches we don’t even notice them.
Henson’s management style was radically kind, radically gentle, and unlike Jobs, it bore a causal link to the kind of success an artist truly wants.
The real way to create innovation and collaboration is by setting an example—starting with oneself.
First, let us distinguish Henson’s approach from those who resemble him most. ALTERNATIVES: WALT
Starting from the ground up, each created a successful business by making quality popular art that would last for generations.
Both men owned their own companies yet were capable of getting into the mind of a goofy mutt. By studying the subtle expressions that give a character emotion and depth, each could transform this awareness into lifelike characters.
Similarly, pranks were common in Henson’s workshops and studios,
And both Henson and Disney nurtured their talented artists.
in many ways, being a visionary means protecting your vision.
Both men asked for great quality from their artists, yet, on closer inspection, Henson and Disney could not appear more different. NOT WALT
Disney had a vision that was not just strong, but unilateral and absolute.
“God help you,” a writer warned, if you took his idea in the wrong direction.
“He was a genius at using someone else’s genius.”
By contrast, Henson’s employees never went on strike, except in nationwide movements,
Unlike Disney, Henson happily listened to others and incorporated their visions into his own.
Henson is a good listener and if someone has an idea that is better than his own, he accepts it without hesitation. It is because of this that the others listen to him and accept direction without feeling resentment.
[H]is total generosity … a good idea could come from anywhere
If my suggestion was good, he accepted it without question. If he rejected a suggestion, he would always explain why it wouldn’t work.
Brillstein wrote, “Jim was not the kind to act stubborn.…If I had a counterargument, he always listened and considered it fairly.”
While Disney seemed to have no problem shutting another artist down, Brillstein said Henson was careful not to stunt another’s creativity:
Henson put his people first, knowing it would help them make better art.
In contrast to Disney’s egotism, Henson took the time to give his artists credit in all the ways he could.
“he appreciated everything and it extended to not just the performances, but also to any expertise that anyone
Though Walt Disney was an unforgettable entrepreneur, Henson’s care for others seemed to supersede his perfectionism, and in that he is decidedly different from Disney.
To Disney, animation was “a way of … finding absolute control,” Whereas to Henson, puppetry was “a way of
Though Henson’s shyness and reluctance to hurt others might sound weak, especially in business, it is a powerful quality that may in fact be the best way to manage talented artists, since self-control allows a person to hold back, do no harm, and to listen more than he talks, to truly appreciate and nurture the talent of others.
Since Disney’s management style was more controlling than Henson’s, perhaps a better comparison is to Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels.
perfectionism was thrown out the window in favor of rawer, human talent and collaboration.
Lorne just believed in what he was doing and nobody was going to get in his way.…His willpower outlasted everybody else’s. He cared the most about this show. Everyone else cared more about something
Unlike Disney, he gave his comedians the freedom to innovate, experiment, play—often overly hard, as with John Belushi or Chris Farley.
Though partying can seem “unprofessional,” it is in fact the essence of collaboration,
Lorne Michaels was so informal that Will Farrell didn’t even know he’d been hired.
More than a few of Michaels’s performers thought of him as a father figure, and this makes artistic sense, because if his comedians felt childlike, they could better play
Yet Michaels seems to be a very specific kind of father. Some described him as “manipulative” or “infantilizing.”
By contrast, Henson seemed to conduct his crew through appreciation,
While Michaels loved to hear himself talk, Henson loved to listen. And while Michaels was stingy with praise, Henson was reluctant to ever give criticism.
The whole Muppet thing works best when people are free and open and feel like nobody will criticize you.
He’d expect you to do the best you can, but he also knew where you came
He was just very delighted to be a part of it all, and he was—next take was better.
Henson himself used delight in the positive aspects of his work to make the next one better.
When he met Caroll Spinney for the first time, Spinney had just bombed on stage
Jim said, “I really loved what you were trying to do.” And he was absolutely sincere about it.
An artist has his own internal judge of quality, and it’s not necessary, Henson knew, to point his mistakes out to him.
if he thought something hadn’t been done well, he would never ever say that, and he’d say, “Hey, I wonder if we just should try…” and somehow he would turn the corner and it would be a positive.
We are tough on ourselves and tough on others. But perhaps a better way to improve is to stop criticizing ourselves and simply appreciate what is good about our work, so that the next take will be better.
Being gentle in business is certainly an uncommon approach, but one that may suit creative companies the best.
A COMPASSIONATE MANAGEMENT STYLE CENTER-OUT ORGANIZATION
What made Henson’s business different was that it didn’t start out with a traditional organizational hierarchy—with an orderly chain of command of unbreakable ranks—and as it grew, Henson Associates remained informal, with inspiration coming from the center, rather than orders coming from above.
Bad bosses make their work harder for themselves, because the more greedy, fearful, angry, and lazy you are, the harder it becomes to compel others to do good work.
by being fearless, hardworking, generous, and calm, Henson’s attitude easily spread out in a contagious way to those around him.
Jim would try all kinds of things, and he was not afraid to try something new, and if he could see it happening in his mind’s eye and knew that it would work, he would dog it until it worked.
Jim Henson inspired people to do huge amounts of work, but he did so by giving of himself.
Rank didn’t matter to Henson the way it would to a normal businessman. And for an artist interested in collaborating, it shouldn’t.
The center-out model is what we typically see in a rock group or gang, with a charismatic center orbited by others.
Yet if we shift the lens a bit and view things from inside the operation, this is how a troupe of artists works—like a good group of friends.
To criticize a motorcycle gang or garage band of cronyism would be nonsensical, because it’s not a government, corporation, or any kind of compulsory power structure. It’s more like a utopia—a tiny society formed on its own foundation.
Working with friends tends to increase the amount of emotional bonds that keep employees dedicated to the project.
Henson didn’t seem to see things through the typical business lens. He saw the human side of the equation and the benefits it would lend to art.
What makes Henson so special was not that he was able to create his unique business model once, with Jane and Jerry Juhl, but that he understood the process enough to set up these groups—which could function on their own in his absence—and help them grow.
SETTING UP STREET GANGS THE CREATURE SHOP AND FRAGGLE ROCK
Two good examples of satellite Hensonian groups are the London Creature Shop and Toronto’s Fraggle Rock.
If we look at the similarities between these groups, we can derive a formula for scaling the start-up mentality that artists and innovators need to thrive: instead of growing bigger, Henson’s groups grew more numerous.
In setting up both of these projects, Henson needed to give the crews two things—the time and space to co-create their worlds.
Henson said, “By keeping a group of people together, we are staying closer to what we’ve always done with the Muppets, where we had our own builders. That way you can make it better every time and build on your past
A 24-hour place is expensive. Ultimately, to “keep a group of people together,” Henson had to sacrifice part of his artistic vision, having the Creature Shop do work for commercials,
Giving collaborators time and space is akin to giving them Gladwell’s ten thousand hours, but Henson also gave them something more: ownership of their work.
For The Dark Crystal, each design team in the Creature Shop oversaw their creature from start to finish, essentially giving engineers the creative authority of artists.
Giving an artist not just credit but creative control over his work makes managerial sense. It also makes artistic sense.
When each character has been shepherded to the film by a single builder, the character’s evolution starts to resemble the way real creatures evolve.
RADICAL KINDNESS NEVER MAD
He was always really calm about
Henson held back, which is one of the hardest things for a boss to do.
When we micromanage the creative work of others, we tend to do more harm than good.
“Jim’s characters … were all part of him, but none more so than Kermit, who occupied the exact same relationship to the Muppet Show characters as Jim did to his
It seemed that Henson channeled his frustration into an outlet that ultimately helped his employees rather than stifling them—through successful comedy.
But shyness can also lead to effective leadership, because an introverted person is one with a massive amount of self-control.
Givers, takers, and matchers all can—and do—achieve success. But there’s something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: it spreads and cascades.
when [givers] win, people are rooting for them and supporting them, rather than gunning for them.
Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around
Instead of asking people to work harder, Henson showed them how. Instead of criticizing his employees, Henson criticized no one. Instead of taking credit, he gave it to others.
He started out with an attitude of compassion and let that inspire the rest of his day.
With meditation, more than restricting or controlling himself, Henson was able to coach or guide himself to grow better without stigmatizing his present failings.
LET PEOPLE SURPRISE YOU GET OUT OF THE WAY
Part of the effect of characters being performed by two people was to push more improvisation.
This is the ultimate goal of artists—to surprise oneself by one’s own performance—because only by doing this can we surprise our audience.
Henson was happy to be surprised by his writers. As a boss, he wanted you to explore your vision.
SYNTHESIS SYMPHONY OF CREATIVES
Henson’s goal as a leader was, as Steve Whitmire said, “seeing to it that this person does what they need to do
they also needed to know what exactly they were working towards.
Fraggle Rock producer Larry Mirkin often said, “we were all working in service of the best
Since this trial-and-error process is how many artists already work, as Midener did, it seems like the natural way to coax the best from people.
Henson appreciated everyone for what they did well. But in order to get everyone doing their best, each artist had to ultimately cede to the best idea, and Henson did not allow every idea to enter his creations.
Henson understood that best way to talk about weaknesses is to turn them into strengths.
Ultimately, difference is a positive thing for a symphony of creatives.
NO BIG BOSSMAN HAVE BEER IN A FRIDGE IN YOUR OFFICE
“you don’t work for Jim Henson, you work with Jim Henson”
It is entirely possible to have a management structure with no “top dog.”
When working for Henson, your role seemed to matter more than your rank—contractors,
In a small start-up where workers could leave and go home, a hierarchy-less system worked.
The Muppets’ affectionate anarchy might just be the best management model an artist can have.
Having no boss was something that must’ve had a profoundly freeing psychological effect on Henson. He knew the value of it. With no boss over him, it likely seemed natural to step back and share the freedom he felt with others.
The first step toward being an uncommon boss is to find a way to have no boss.
No, we each lead ourselves, and we all lead each other.
In a hierarchy where pecking order is important, there is much competition and aggression, but in Henson’s business, much of that could be channeled into the work itself.
Henson’s business seemed more like a family, where dominance is replaced with teaching, training the employees to become their own bosses.
HOW TO BECOME A RADICAL ENABLER
The first step to becoming a good boss is to throw off all bosses, if not literally—by starting a business—then emotionally, as much as you can, by thinking of yourself as the only boss of yourself.
Whenever it is possible to get control of your project, fight for it.
When you are the boss, you control everything.
If you are the boss, trust yourself. Banish fear from your thoughts through meditation, and use meditative activities that help you to understand what Henson said: You’re not the victim, but instead you’re the one who’s doing it.…[Y]ou are the person who ha[s] control of your
Don’t stigmatize your faults or failures—the ways you negatively affect others. Instead, look at what you’re doing well, and then try again.
Your leadership needs to start with you.
Even if you don’t have experience doing what your workers do, you need to find a way to learn about it.
As a boss, Henson was best suited to lead smaller groups, where innovation and creativity thrive. For most artists, this is exactly where we want to be anyway, not at the helm of a corporate behemoth.
The easiest person to change is yourself, and that is easiest to do when you are your own boss.
The inner calm that he brought to his leadership stemmed from a fundamental satisfaction with the amount of control he had over his life.
The way to encourage others to surprise you is to work with them—not above or below them, but with them—and to try to have fun doing it. And most importantly, exercise your appreciation of others.
YOUR COMPANY IS YOURS ALONE YOU’RE STUCK WITH WHAT YOU’VE MADE
The real key to making money as an artist is copyright—owning it, investing in it, and licensing it
Owning one’s work firstly means being able to protect it from being changed or exploited by others. And secondly, it allows the artist to recycle one’s previous works in an organic cycle of growth. When an artist can freely build on his previous successes and failures, he can keep doing what works and use what doesn’t for scrap parts.
As we saw, Henson’s reaction to failure was not to feel shame, but simply to appreciate what was good about it and to try to make the next take better.
You should never waste an idea, even if it’s terrible. There’s likely something in there that could work.
You should always fight to own your own work. Copyright allows artists to build upon what they’ve done.
STAY PRIVATE THINK TWICE ABOUT GOING PUBLIC
But the reason Henson could avoid talking money when he wanted to talk art was that legally, he was not required to disclose any of that information—his company wasn’t public.
For artists, a public company means having many bosses, and less artistic freedom.
Though he would have to seek funding at times from producer Lew Grade and networks for expensive projects, for the most part, his enterprise was funded by its own products—commercial work and merchandise. To never have to deal with stockholders’ desires
It allowed him to control the destiny of his own company, answering only to his own artistic standards of excellence.
OWN EVERYTHING YOU DO PAY UP TO BUY YOURSELF BACK
Owning your work has clear financial benefits, but it can be incredibly costly.
Henson made a lot of money this way, firstly by owning the copyright, rather than letting the coffee company keep it, and secondly by buying his contract back from the ad agency. It paid off.
Jim had broken the one rule they warn you about in Hollywood: Never put your own money in your
In the long view, Henson’s decision to buy back the film paid off. And yet, in the short term, it was thought a foolish choice by many, and at the very least, it was a risky choice.
Like children, artworks can be separated from the artist, and yet a parent can never truly “let go.” And in business—when we arrange our fiscal contracts—it makes sense to set up a scenario that conforms to this feeling. As
THE DISNEY SALE HIS MOTIVES AND THEIRS
In many ways, the Muppet deal was a classic Disney acquisition. The Muppets were irreplaceable assets, characters that had been created by Henson’s genius and elevated to their current popularity through years of nurturing. They were not the kinds of assets that could be created by forming a new division of Disney or giving an assignment to existing creative personnel.
Another likely motivation of Disney’s—though hidden—was that Henson was Disney’s competition.
To Henson, Disney must’ve looked like the ideal angel funder, willing to write a check for his expensive projects.
“Disney was promising to back any movie project Jim wanted to do. That was huge.” The promise to fund any project was paramount to the barrier-breaking Henson, who was eager to experiment with 3-D movies and theme park rides, which were too costly to produce on his own.
He was an artist first and foremost, and he needed to concentrate on his work and come up with magnificent ideas like he always had. With Disney’s money and machinery, Jim could be fully creative.
In his mind, the Disney deal would allow Henson to make more art and have to do less business. Because in fact, he didn’t sell his entire company to Disney, just the branch that made the money—“the licensing and publishing businesses of Henson Associates,
Henson was keeping his creative team, his production company, and his Creature Shop and jettisoning the licensing and publishing—the business
OUR POOR BOY THE SOLDIER PRODUCERMAN AND THE HEARTLESS GIANT
Henson himself earned a kind of immortality through his art. He was a self-taught artist who collaborated with others like himself, just as the soldier danced and played with the beggar.
you can’t really sell your company and keep control of your art.
On the whole, there is nothing wrong with a large corporation, as long as it has a “heart.”
BECOMING DISNEY SMALL COMPANY, BIG COMPANY
For an artist–entrepreneur, it makes a lot of sense to keep your business small. The bigger you get, the more time you have to spend on business and the more businesspeople you need to hire.
I’ve never particularly wanted to have a large organization. The trick is to try to stay small enough to be creative but still be able to do all the projects we want to do—and not get so big where you spend all your time just managing people and trying to keep everybody working
If a company’s profits depend on quality—as an artist–entrepreneur’s do—then a small company is ideal for maintaining quality control.
In effect, Henson’s business manager, Brillstein, was advising him to spread himself thin—to produce more shows than he could effectively quality control—to become a bigger company than an artist can sustain.
as Henson did not want to be a big company, he did want to be Disneylike in one aspect—creating his own theme park attractions.
Henson essentially wanted the job of an imaginer—the ability to dream big.
While Henson wanted a small company, he also wanted Disney’s one-of-a-kind playground and the funding that made it possible.
MERGER PROBLEMS CULTURE CLASH—WHAT WENT WRONG
“Everyone [in the Henson Company] said it’s been awful. It was clear that they’ve been having a severe culture
In Hollywood, the Disney name is synonymous with rigid, aggressive corporate control. The Henson atelier is informal and respect for the artist is the first
Disney wanted to take away both the Muppet performers’ creative ownership of their characters and their financial ownership of toy royalties; this is clearly not an “artist-first” business philosophy.
Just before the merger, Pixar’s Chief Technical Officer, Ed Catmull, told his employees, “Our number-one priority [is] protecting the culture that we’[ve] built and the way our people work together. A real creative community is a rare
WE WILL LIVE FOREVER ON THE IMMORTALITY OF KERMIT
Henson had two objectives when he decided to sell to Disney. He put the Muppets in a sort of Valhalla, where the Disney experts could package and promote them for all time. The deal also allowed Henson to get away from the bureaucracy so he could focus on and fund new
One gets the sense that it is in this small company, still family-run, that Kermit’s energy was meant to live on—perhaps not in the same copyrightable shape, but in the same spirit of collective creativity.
HOW TO RETAIN OWNERSHIP
Henson’s role as an artist–entrepreneur gave him great freedom—artistic freedom—which rested on his copyrights and the shares of stock he owned in his own company.
for an artist, it is harder to truly cash out, because the things you’ve made are not mere impersonal gadgets or algorithms; they are extensions of your personality. They are more like our children. Protect your art. Hold onto it. Control its destiny.
MAKE YOUR WORLD IN ITS LIGHT
What Jim Henson did with his life was amazing. He seemed to approach his career with the idea that he could do anything, so what was worth doing?
Art helps us explore what we believe through self-exploration, and often we uncover ideas we didn’t know we had.
I believe that we form our own lives, that we create our own reality, and that everything works out for the best.
Most people, and particularly kids, don’t realize that they are in control of their lives and they’re the ones that are going to make the decisions and they’re the ones that are going to make it either way.
To become whole, the artist needs to join with his opposite—the businessman.
Jim Henson said: “The feeling of accomplishment is more real and satisfying than finishing a good meal or looking at one’s accumulated wealth.”
When you make your heart the boss of your life, you can accomplish things that no one can take away from you.
There are millions of people out there who’ll tell you it can’t be done. They are the naysayers, the been-there-done-thats, the people in the audience who know the ending already. Believe in the never-before. The miracle. The surprise. Because no one knows the future. Even the smartest scientist and the most jaded historian will tell you he has no idea what tomorrow will bring. Jim Henson believed that we create our own reality. Do you?
April 6, 2015 at 4:19 pm
An epic post, Kevin. I read this book last year and was amazed at the value and research that Elizabeth put into it. You’ve done a fantastic job of condensing it down to its essence.
Like many others of my generation, Mr. Henson’s work is literally embedded into my DNA. His characters helped my brain develop in a fun way as I learned to count, read, and spell. When I was older, I was able to enjoy and appreciate his epic art pieces (The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth) for what they were, even if they did not bring quite the critical acclaim he was hoping for. Even at this stage of my life, the memory of Jim Henson’s commitment to craft and his enduring legacy of believing in (and developing) the talents of those around him serve as an example to me.
I especially love how in those early years in the sixties, when Jim wasn’t doing what he really wanted to yet, he was able to hone his craft on commercials while getting paid, biding his time until he could get the opportunities that he knew would come his way.
He saw money how all artists should: for the creative possibilities it could open up. He was generous and invested not only in equipment but in talented people. As a result, his legacy includes not just a great body of work, but legions of artists who adhere to his same philosophy and work ethic. I can think of few better artists to emulate.
April 6, 2015 at 4:53 pm
Thanks Mike! Yeah, the book has definitely shed some light on how great a career Henson had. I think I will check out all the movies he has on Netflix.