Jim Henson: "I work a great deal, but I enjoy it"

Do you feel like you work too much? When Jim Henson interviewed Big Bird (Carroll Spinney), he said:

When I work with Frank Oz, we’ll get into a project and work all day, all night, all the next day, and sometimes the next night two. Do you like to work like that?


Was Jim Henson a workaholic? 


Thank you to RogerEbert.com for publishing this excerpt from my book!

Last week for $1.99 eBook price

Because the last episode of the serialization comes out soon, this is the last week that Make Art Make Money will be $1.99.  Starting on Tuesday 11/19/2013, the book will be priced as a regular eBook - I'm guessing closer to ten dollars.

So, if you have friends who you think might get something out of the book, let them know that this week is the most economical time to get it. Anyone who buys the serial comes away with the full eBook on Tuesday - there's no difference. It's part of the beauty of the Kindle Serial.

Can you think of someone who might really enjoy digging into Jim Henson's business philosophy? Email me - I'll buy them a copy!


What did the world look like before Sesame Street?

November 10, 1969 -- it was a different world. The idea of public broadcasting was new. There were no cable networks yet. The dial only went up to 13.


We forget how much the world has changed since Sesame Street started teaching all Americans to read. According to Virginia Heffernan of The New York Times, the Sesame Street Season 1 has been labeled not suitable for children. She quotes the DVD case: 

These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.

I'm really curious - those of you who remember the world before Sesame Street: what changed? 

What do Jim Henson, Walt Disney, and Pixar have in common?

We know that these companies changed entertainment. But let's look a little deeper. Innovation isn't easy. How did they change entertainment?

Let's start by lining up their timelines:


These companies all used new technology to wow viewers. But new tech costs money. That means all three companies had to find a suitable division of labor to handle art, tech, and money. 

Let's look at the way that worked: 


Like the species in Fraggle Rock (Fraggles, Doozers, and Gorgs), Art, Tech, and Money need each other. But money often doesn't understand the process of creation, so a "hands-off" policy allows art and tech the breathing space to innovate.

With tech and art working closely, and money silently guiding their growth, these three visionaries changed entertainment, defined a generation of viewers, and inspired generations to come.  

To a lot of creative people, this seems natural, but it's not the way most businesses operate. Why is that? 

Why Did Henson Sign these Books?

Jim Henson built his company to be people-centric and artist-centric. One instance: sending Christmas gifts to all the guests of the Muppet Show. 

These are a few books autographed to Buddy Rich, Lola Falana, Carol (Burnett or Channing), and Dale Evans:



These inscribed books mention "Dave" - David Lazer, the show's producer who shepherded the guests around London throughout their stay, hobnobbing with Gilda Radner, Bob Hope, and other major stars of the 1970s. It's interesting to me to wonder whose idea it was to send signed books - Henson's or his business manager?

 Henson loved to give lavish gifts - a check for millions, a new car, or a handmade sculpture project. But David Lazer had the mind of a good businessman, honed at IBM, and encouraged Henson to give out more "attaboys" to keep people happy. 

Looking at the last image here, we don't see "Dave," so perhaps the idea came from Henson. I would guess it wasn't your typical mgmt technique to keep business connections flowing, but  as a personal gesture of kindness. Perhaps adding Lazer's name was also a gesture - a gift to Lazer, who so enjoyed his brushes with fame.

What do you think? 

Are you a collaborator?

Since I'm a writer, my work requires a lot of alone time. Who ever heard of a novel written by collaboration? Still, I've commissioned photography, illustration, and design, and written checks to pay these artists. I also belong to a writers collective that does not receive funding. These friends from my MFA are there to talk shop and dream big with me, and we're putting out an anthology this year called The Trout Family Almanac. Lately, it's been getting harder to come together when school, work, and marriage is scattering us around the world, but for writers, email is a godsend. Still, there's nothing like a paying project to keep artists working together. Henson and Oz became one of the greatest comedy duos in history, in part because Henson paid Oz to stick around long enough to become that.

Who has been the best collaborator in your life? How did you find him? Do you pay him or her? If not, what keeps the snowball together?

Are you a freelancer? How do you deal with the uncertainty of that lifestyle?

Are you a Henson or a Spinney? What's your story?

On the Nerd Lunch podcast

Are you over 30, but still a nerd at heart? Then try Nerd Lunch! I had a great time talking with CT on the Nerd Lunch Podcast

Listen here for talk of my favorite Muppets, what it's like to turn 30, and our reviews of 2011's The Muppets:


Check out more episodes of Nerd Lunch, including podcast discussions of Superman, Iron Man, Star Trek Into Darkness, Saturday morning cartoons, 90s sitcoms, and time travel. And coming soon to Nerd Lunch is Brucetober, a celebration of Bruce Campbell.

Are you a workaholic?

Workaholics on Comedy Central

Workaholics on Comedy Central

Do you know how many hours you've spent on your art? I keep a tally going, and I'd estimate that this book took over 500, but that's just butt-in-seat hours. It's hard to account for out all the hours I thought about it while walking, sleeping, grading, watching tv, or talking to friends. 

Let me know what you think about this chapter. Are you a workaholic or a playaholic? When did you serve your craft? Do you have ten thousand hours logged? What holds you back? 

What did your bad bosses (and bad jobs) teach you that can help your art?

What do Jim Henson and Jerry Seinfeld have in common?

Happy 77th Birthday, Jim Henson. Hope you like this one:

What Do Jim Henson and Jerry Seinfeld Have in Common?

Mashed up photos from Muppet Wiki and Seinfeld Wiki

Mashed up photos from Muppet Wiki and Seinfeld Wiki

Jim Henson and Jerry Seinfeld are both tall, thin performers with a sense of humor and a natural bonhomie. Each created a series that will live forever in syndication... The Muppet Show and Seinfeld. But if we dig deeper into each man's creative process, and how they got to the top of their respective fields, Henson and Seinfeld have a lot more in common than you’d expect. For one thing, they both satisfy Malcolm Gladwell’s “Ten Thousand Hours” rule.

In Lesson 2 of Make Art Make Money, we learn that Jim Henson would “get into a project and work all day, all night, all the next day, and sometimes the next night, too.” His first show, Sam and Friends ran live five nights a week in the 1950s, often twice a day for six years. Henson did everything on the show from sets to scripts to the performance itself. This "all day, all night" lifestyle allowed him to experiment and hone his craft. As Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers, a person needs “ten thousand hours” to achieve the level of genius at something. Seinfeld approached that number early on, too.

In a great Laugh.com interview, Jerry Seinfeld tells Larry Wilde, “I’m sure more than once, I went 18 months without missing a night, and we do at least two shows a night usually.” Seinfeld cut his teeth on New York comedy clubs in the 1970s, but he wasn’t doing the 20-minute sets for the money. “It was really barely enough to live on,” Seinfeld said.

This is what we might call workaholism, but for Henson and Seinfeld, it seems to have led them to their success. As Gladwell writes in Outliers, the Beatles did their ten thousand hours in Hamburg, Germany, and it honed their unique sound. We might rethink their workaholism as something different, then, something more like… meditation.

In another striking similarity, both Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Henson meditated. Henson said, “I spend a few minutes in meditation and prayer each morning. I find this really helps me to start the day with a good frame of reference.” For a time, he practiced TM - transcendental meditationIn his fifties, he did yoga. The New York Times called Seinfeld as an “enthusiastic endorser” of meditation, and in the Laugh.com interview he spoke of both zen and yoga. Is meditation - specifically the practice of vipassana (mindfulness) -  the secret to success? Maybe it is.

In my research into Henson’s career, it struck me that it wasn’t just Jim Henson’s meditation that was meditative; his work itself was incredibly meditative. Every time Henson was on camera, he worked by watching himself on TV – performing to a monitor on the floor or strapped inside his costume, often doing takes repeatedly to get them just right. It is a way of watching yourself perform – the struggle, the success, the joy. Year after year, Henson, through Kermit, Rowlf, and Ernie, watched himself evolve.

Jerry Seinfeld also recorded all of his sets during those 18-month stints, and listened to the audio playback, paying close attention to the way the audience and performer co-perform – in a word, rhythm. Seinfeld studied the tapes of his TV performances for “self-observation,” noting gestures that were repeated too much, for example. Seinfeld, like Henson, watches himself, as he explained:

When you’re a comedian you have to analyze every aspect of how you communicate… It’s a weird internal exploration. That’s what becoming a stand up comedian is. It’s an exploration into the self.

Jim Henson: The Biography contains some of Henson's similar advice to young puppeteers: 

find [your] own unique style of puppetry. . . . It seems to me that each of us expressing our own originality is the essence of our art. 

If your work is a form of meditation, of self-exploration, perhaps being a workaholic isn't all that bad. Henson and Seinfeld’s techniques seem extremely rigorous, and yet, each man became the best at what they did, all while maintaining a center of calm in the middle of the storm. Maybe it’s the meditation.

The next time you see Seinfeld or the Muppets, picture Jerry Seinfeld sitting cross-legged in his hotel room or Jim Henson doing sun salutations overlooking the Malibu coast. It may have led to their incredible success. Meditate on that!

What's your sell out?

My book launches for Kindle today! I hope you guys like it. 

The first chapter illustrates that for Henson, merchandising the Sesame Street characters felt like selling out, yet he was convinced to do it for creative independence - both his own and CTW's. 

I have read that Walt Disney was quick to merchandize Mickey, even putting the mouse on bathroom tissue! Merchandising for artists is a tricky business. But it's a great source of funding - just look at Tickle Me Elmo!

How have you dealt with selling out? Do you think artists should sell out? When?