How Jim Henson 'Directed' His Own Muppets Memorial Service
The untimely death of Muppets creators Jim Henson at age 53 was, without a doubt, one of the saddest events in the history of talking sock entertainment. Hell, the history of socks in general. But, as tragic as the event itself was, it also led to one of the highest points for this noble art form and for a franchise that usually centers on a pig thirsting after a workaholic frog with untreated anxiety. We're talking about Henson's legendary memorials services, which are probably responsible for the only time a man in a giant yellow bird costume has sung "It's Not Easy Being Green" in a packed church without being asked to leave.
Big Bird's genuinely moving tribute to the hand inside Kermit is only one of many highlights here. Another memorable moment is Frank "Adult Yoda" Oz's eight-minute eulogy for Henson, in which he talks about the time his late friend asked him to pose nude for him on the Saturday Night Live dressing room (again, not something you usually hear from someone standing behind a church podium).
In the eulogy, Oz says that Henson instructed him to take off all his clothes, cover his genitals with his hands, and look at the camera "in a state of shock, which was not difficult at that time." Despite not seeming like the type of person who would do something like that even for a spouse, Oz eventually agreed to Henson's request because that's how much confidence they had in each other. That confidence was rewarded the next Christmas when Oz received an elaborate sculpture of Bert from Sesame Street, one of his most famous characters, holding many tiny Berts, and with his eyes hollowed out. And when you look into Bert's brain, you see Oz standing there naked and in shock. We honestly hope this video survives thousands of years into the future, because otherwise future historians are gonna come across the sculpture and get some pretty weird ideas about our religions.
The services also included a Dixieland band playing lively jazz music and several Muppets actors performing a long medley of Henson's favorite songs. Skip to 0:54 below to see a bunch of adults singing in chicken voices inside a historic cathedral.
The memorials were silly and colorful, like Henson's own productions. That's because, in a way, he also produced them. See, everything we just described was based on Henson's own instructions, left in a letter written four years before his death, when he had no reason to believe he wouldn't still be around today. He starts by saying he wants "a nice, friendly little service," only to then specifically request "a Dixieland band," some "happy and joyful" songs from the mourners who can sing, "nice, happy words," and stories from his friends (no mention of nude photography anecdotes, but it's implied), and "a rousing version of 'When the Saints Go Marching In'" for the finale. At this point, the word "little" sounds sarcastic.
Henson ended the letter saying that "it feels strange writing this kind of thing while I'm still alive, but it wouldn't be easy to do after I go." At some point, he also made it known that no one was allowed to wear black. Even in death, he was still a control freak. But it worked: we keep saying "services" because there were two of them, one in New York and then one in London a month later. It was the only funeral so good, people demanded an encore.
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Top image: The Muppet Studio