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Your Thoughts: "Jim Henson: The Biography" by Brian Jay Jones

Discussion in 'Henson People' started by Phillip, Sep 23, 2013.

  1. Oscarfan

    Oscarfan Well-Known Member

    Hmmm. Let's settle this the smart way, but asking a question only he would know....

    What's your name?
    CaseytheMuppet likes this.
  2. Muppet Master

    Muppet Master Well-Known Member

    Wait, OH MY GOSH, YOU'RE BRIAN JAY JONES!! :fanatic:! Can I ask you some questions?
    MikaelaMuppet likes this.
  3. brianjayjones

    brianjayjones Member

    Well, sure! I'll try to answer them fairly quickly -- bear with me.
    MikaelaMuppet likes this.
  4. Muppet Master

    Muppet Master Well-Known Member

    Of all the people you interviewed for the book who was your favorite person?
  5. brianjayjones

    brianjayjones Member

    Tough question, as they were all terrific in their own unique ways, and it would be almost impossible to choose a favorite -- sort of like asking a parent to choose their favorite child or something. So I'm going to fudge this one just a bit by telling you who I had the most fun with.

    The Muppet performers were a particular delight -- and I'm so thrilled to have watched Dave Goelz and Steve Whitmire perform live, and honored that I got to speak with Jerry Nelson before he passed on -- but if I had to choose just one who constantly surprised me, I think I'd have to say Frank Oz.

    I was scared to death going into our first meeting together, as he had a reputation for being prickly and not wanting to talk about certain topics. But I found him to be an incredibly warm, generous, and -- you guessed it -- incredibly funny guy.

    We had our first conversation (I always hesitate to call them "interviews" because it's more like two people just talking) at a diner over breakfast, a bit slow going at first. But when I was talking to him about the first Muppet offices in New York, he grabbed my page of questions, turned it over, and excitedly drew the floor plan of their offices. That was the point that seemed to break everything open, and the conversation flowed for about another three hours.

    I went back to interview Oz several more times, usually meeting him in his apartment (where it was a thrill to actually see the Bert "sculpture" that Jim had given him, which Oz talked about during the memorial service), following up with e-mails, and, at times, talking on the phone (there's nothing quite as cool as seeing your caller ID light up with OZNOWICZ FRANK). He's definitely the king of the colorful turn of the phrase, and always thoughtful and very frank. And Frank. Ahem.

    Interestingly, he is the one person I spoke with who, for his own personal reasons, did NOT want to be recorded. So I would scribble furiously on my notepads when we talked, writing sometimes only one or two quotes per page in gigantic handwriting, trying to get it all down. Then when we were done, I would run across Central Park to the New York Society Library and open up the laptop and start typing furiously while everything was still fresh, all the way down to the well-placed swear words that Oz uses as comedic punctuation.

    A final note regarding those swear words: I left them intact in the first draft of the book when I submitted it to my editor, all but certain they'd be editorially knocked out. They weren't -- and while I have heard complaints from some readers about "the F word," Oz's voice fairly leaps right off the page because of it. It's just the way he talks, it's real, and I'm thrilled my editor was bold enough to leave Oz intact.
  6. Slackbot

    Slackbot Well-Known Member

    Wow, it's great to hear--er, read--that Oz's voice was so well preserved in the book. Kudos to the editors for not bowdlerizing his freakin' distinctive turns of phrase.

    My question would be, were there any issues that you would have liked to research or write about more and, for any reason, weren't able to? I'm not looking for "the juicy stuff" here--there was just enough in the book and between the lines--but any other spots in Jim's career that you would have liked to have gone into more detail on?.
  7. fozzieisfunny

    fozzieisfunny Well-Known Member

    BRIAN JAY JONES!!! OH MY GOD!!! I LOVE YOUR BOOK!!! Can I possibly interview you in a PM? ( You can have the honors of creating it.)
  8. minor muppetz

    minor muppetz Well-Known Member

    This is the first I heard of that reputation of not wanting to talk about certain subjects.

    I think I read that there were a lot of pages cut from the book. And there are a lot of productions that I noticed were not mentioned or discussed in the book. I wonder if any such discussion was in the original draft and cut. Several posts/pages back I mentioned several of the productions not mentioned, but there is one production I was most hoping would be talked about, though it also often gets left out of biographies on Jim Henson and Sesame Street. That production is the movie Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird. Did you happen to talk about that production with anybody and just not include info in the book? Did there happen to be a section on it that got cut? Or did nobody think to talk about it?
  9. brianjayjones

    brianjayjones Member

    Actually, there were few substantive matters that were excised. Early on, my editor gave me the leeway and length I needed to tell Jim's story as comprehensively as possible -- this was the first time, after all, that Jim had been at the front of a full-length, "grown up" biography, so I wanted to ensure we covered as much as possible. That included giving readers a bit of background on Jim's ancestry, which is, I know, the bit that bored people the MOST in the book. I fell in love with some of that research -- I had enough information on Oscar Hinrichs, for instance, to fill a novella -- but tried to keep the information that was included as "Jim-centric" as I could, which was one of my major criteria for deciding what ultimately did and didn't get used in the final draft.

    But in short: in general, I'm happy with all the ground that was covered in the book, and there wasn't much on the cutting room floor (to mix metaphors) that I felt was absolutely critical -- the few times that happened, I was able to discuss with my editor why something was needed and get it back in.

    Now, there WERE some stories that were fun and colorful, but didn't necessarily need the length I'd given them. I started one chapter, for instance, with the Muppet performers meeting Queen Elizabeth. It was a story I LOVED, and everyone I talked with told me some hilarious version of it, adding one layer on another -- so I opened a chapter with it, and my editor called me and said, "This is great. But it doesn't work. You've gotta start three pages later." And he was right. You'll see a quick mention of them meeting the queen in there still, but length dictated that I had to knock it WAY down. Even at 608 pages, there's just never enough room for everything. (I'll talk a bit more about that down below)

    As for juicy . . . I know people are always disappointed when I tell them that, no, all the juice is already in there. Give huge props to the Henson family, who were incredibly open about talking about these things.

    There actually weren't a lot of pages cut from the book, but -- again -- you can never get in everything. The book was already over 600 pages and ran 35 dollars. It could easily have been 1,000 pages, and cost sixty bucks, but that makes the book much less accessible to many readers at that point. (I think there was some confusion on this after I posted a bit on my blog about the first draft coming in at over 700 pages. That was 700, double-spaced, typewritten pages, which doesn't have a 1-to-1 correlation with actual pages in the published book.)

    That said, it was just impossible to get every project Jim ever touched into the book. As I've told many people (and I think you and I, minor, even corresponded over e-mail on this), that meant that someone's favorite project was bound to get left out or glossed over, and I'm always sorry when that happens. (As you'll see, it even happened to me.)

    What I had to do, then, was "rank" the likelihood that a particular production might make it into the book for discussion (however brief) by gauging how "Jim-centric" it was. Jim's involvement in Follow That Bird -- to use your example -- was almost entirely as a performer. It was not a Henson production, Jim didn't write it, direct it, or produce it, design any new characters for it, or -- that I found -- even correspond about it. That doesn't mean it's not a fine production (the absence of a particular project is NEVER a statement on its overall value) -- but in the scheme of things, it just wasn't Jim-centric enough. (And to answer your specific question about whether something was written and got cut: I made the decision when writing to leave out FTB in first draft, based on the above criteria, so there was nothing in the first draft to excise.)

    And there were even some projects that had some element of "Jimcentricity" that didn't get much more than a brief one-line mention -- like the Ghost of Faffner Hall -- simply because, again, you just can't go into detail on everything.

    Now, just so the Follow That Bird fans don't feel picked on: a few of my own Jim-centric favorites went by the wayside as well. I would have loved to have spent more time on the IBM films with Rowlf, for example, and I don't think there's even a MENTION of the hilarious Wilson's Meats films, some of my very favorite (and most subversive) work of Jim's from the 1960s.

    Finally, no less than Jane Henson also mentioned that she would have liked to have seen certain sketches from 1960s variety shows and other guest appearances included -- but, again, regretfully, there's just never enough space. (Perhaps there's a future Henson scholar out there who can do for Jim what Mark Lewisohn did for the Beatles, and write a three-volume, 5,000 page history of Jim and the Muppets!)
    Last edited: Aug 17, 2014
    Muppet Master likes this.
  10. brianjayjones

    brianjayjones Member

    Sure, but let's do it over e-mail rather than PM! Drop me an email at brian (at) brianjayjones (dot) com.
  11. fozzieisfunny

    fozzieisfunny Well-Known Member

    I'm sorry. My email doesn't work. Can we please do it over PM?
  12. Oscarfan

    Oscarfan Well-Known Member

    I'm sure this was asked somewhere else before, but how much access to the Henson production archive were you given? Was it through Craig Shemin?
  13. brianjayjones

    brianjayjones Member

    Full, unlimited access, through Karen Falk, the Henson Company's crackerjack archivist. And she was (and is) the greatest.

    ETA: For production archives -- if you mean video clips and the like -- I worked through the film archivists in the Henson Company in Hollywood, who provided me with access to raw video footage (meaning a lot of it still had the countdown reels on it and so on).
  14. Muppet Master

    Muppet Master Well-Known Member

    Here's another question, did you get some of the opinions of the muppet performers or Jim Henson's former co-workers on the book?
  15. brianjayjones

    brianjayjones Member

    Are you asking: "What do some of the Muppet performers or Jim's colleagues think of the book?" If so, then I'm pleased to say that I've spoken with many of Jim's co-workers and performers, all of whom have said really nice things about the book.

    If you click here, it'll take you to my website where I've listed pretty much all the reviews, and you'll see comments from Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, and Fran Brill. (There are lots of others who've sent me nice messages in e-mail and so on, but those aren't cleared for public consumption.)

    The book as published even used Oz's "blurb" on the inside cover jacket. That was a really big one for me, as I'm delighted that Oz -- who knew Jim probably better than anyone -- thought I'd "gotten" Jim.
    Muppet Master likes this.
  16. Slackbot

    Slackbot Well-Known Member

    Mr. Jones,

    Thanks for your answers to me and others. I know what it's like to have to cut out stuff you like to improve a book. After I finished what I thought was a really good draft my editor told me to chop off the first chapter; it just delayed the beginning of the real story. That ticked me off, but after I reread it I admitted, yeah, it wasn't needed, and out it went. As they say, to be a writer you have to be willing to kill your babies.

    You've got me curious about that anecdote about meeting the Queen. Any chance we could see the cutting room sweepings?
  17. Muppet Master

    Muppet Master Well-Known Member

    Yes, that's what I meant, and thanks for answering, it's not often I get to talk to a real author. Here's one more question (sorry if you're getting annoyed), were you crying when you wrote the last chapter like I was when I was reading it?
  18. minor muppetz

    minor muppetz Well-Known Member

    I don't remember e-mailing you at all about the book (though I know I did e-mail Michael Davis about Street Gang after that book came out).
  19. minor muppetz

    minor muppetz Well-Known Member

    Another thing I've wondered, which I have noted previously in this thread: The book does talk a lot about how ACC originally owned the distribution rights to a number of Jim Henson's productions before he purchased the rights, but it also mentions that when he purchased The Dark Crystal (and I assume the others) he still had to deal with Universal as the American distributor. From your research, did you learn anything about how Henson got the American rights from Universal (or would the American rights have eventually reverted to ACC if they still owned them)?

    And with all the talk about Jim buying back all those productions, I am surprised there was no mention of Tri-Star distributing The Muppets Take Manhattan (and only a brief mention of the company as distributor of Labyrinth). During your research did you hear anything about Tri-Star's distribution (at that point I guess the Muppets were big enough that a big-name movie studio would be willing to finance a Muppet movie)? At one point it's mentioned that MTM was produced "independently", given the way it was written I'm not sure if that just meant it wasn't distributed by ACC (or was the movie actually produced before a distributor got involved?)
  20. brianjayjones

    brianjayjones Member

    Probably not, sorry! Posting unedited text is a bit like going about with no trousers on. And my editor was right about it: it was fun, but it didn't quite hang together.

    Not annoyed at all! This is the fun stuff!

    I wasn't crying when I wrote the last chapter, but it WAS very emotional. I had Jim's medical records beside me, and I knew exactly what he had gone through, including what he told the doctors when he checked in (it's how I was able to track some of his condition in the days leading up to his death). It was a privilege to tell that story, and I took it very seriously.

    Ah, okay! I corresponded with someone who was a devoted FTB fan, who was disappointed it hadn't made it into the book. I thought perhaps that might have been you.

    I didn't come across anything that would help me give you much of an informed answer on this, sorry, and my conversations with Oz about MTM tended to lean more toward the production side than distribution.
    Muppet Master likes this.

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