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31 Genius Facts About Jim Henson

On this episode of the List Show, John Green shares some little-known facts about the brilliant man behind pop culture icons like Big Bird and Kermit the Frog.

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1. Did you know that Jim Henson coined the term "muppet" in the 1950s while working on TV? Contrary to popular belief, the word is not a combination of "puppet" and "marionette." Henson said, "It was really just a term we made up," since he did very few things with marionettes.

2. In The Muppet Movie's opening scene, Kermit sings "The Rainbow Connection" sitting on a log in a swamp. That scene wasn't as simple as it looked. To get the shot just right, Jim Henson had to crouch inside a custom-made diving bell submerged under water.

3. Oddly enough, Henson didn't grow up loving puppetry. He initially just saw it as a way onto television, and by the time he was in college he had a five-minute show on air every weekday.

4. While Henson made money off of that show, Sam and Friends, he also had another college gig: He designed and silk-screened posters for theater shows. He even ran a little printing business out of his college's student union.

5. Henson made the original Kermit out of his mother's old turquoise coat. At the time, Kermit wasn't a frog; he was just an abstract lizard with a dissected ping-pong ball for eyes. Over the years, Kermit gained the frog collar, turned green, and grew webbed feet. As Henson put it: "We frogified him."

6. If you want to know how much Henson cared about his art, this might give you a good indication: While making a commercial for Southern Bread, Henson decided he wanted to have an archer shoot an apple off the head of a Muppet. So he hired an archer, stuck his hand in the Muppet's head, and placed an apple right on top. The archer stood twenty yards back and hit the apple on the first shot, but because Henson didn't like how it looked on camera, he had the archer do it four more times, shooting at his hand—which was a very valuable hand! Fortunately he'd hired a very excellent archer. That's a great rule for business in general, actually: Never hire a second-rate archer. Unless it's Jennifer Lawrence. Jennifer Lawrence you should hire for any job, obviously.

7. Jim Henson's creativity was inspired by his grandmother, Dear. She taught him to draw, and paint, and sew, and amazingly all those skills would come in pretty handy. When Henson finally completed college, taking time off to work on his show and art in between, his degree was in home economics.

8. And he was always a pretty driven individual, and not afraid of a little ostentation. Like, Henson showed up to his college graduation in a Rolls Royce that he'd bought with the money he'd earned over the years of college.

9. Henson wore his beard to cover up acne scars from his teenage years. His agent, Bernie Brillstein, described the look as, "A cross between Abe Lincoln and Jesus."

10. "In the early days of the Muppets, we had two endings," Henson said. "Either one creature ate the other, or both of them blew up ... I've always been particular to things eating other things."

11. Although he made a number of movies, Jim Henson was only nominated for one Oscar, in 1966, for his experimental short Time Piece. In it, Henson uses no puppets and utters only one word: "Help." He says it four times.

12. George Lucas consulted Henson when he was creating the Yoda character for The Empire Strikes Back. Henson suggested that his colleague, Frank Oz, should be the performer, and Oz nailed it, both performing and voicing the character.

13. Lucas and Henson stayed friends over the years. In fact, on the first day of shooting Labyrinth, Lucas arranged for Darth Vader to stroll over to Henson and hand him a good luck card.

14. And Lucas wasn't Henson's only friend from the science fiction world. Jim Henson was also good friends with Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. They even collaborated on projects, like the Labyrinth video game.

15. Speaking of collaborations, the Swedish Chef has two human hands and is performed by two puppeteers simultaneously. Henson and Frank Oz performed the character together, with Henson voicing the "hoargie-boargie" puppet. Frank Oz performed both of the puppet's live hands, allowing him to execute the detailed and expressive hand motions and handle the equipment in the chef's kitchen.

16. Cookie Monster, meanwhile, evolved from a character in an IBM training video. He's always had a tough time with self-control though: Previously he'd been known as "The Wheel Stealer".

17. Henson hired designer Don Sahlin to build many of the most popular characters. Sahlin perfected the sewing technique called the "Henson Stitch," a way of hiding fabric seams so that the puppets would look realistic on TV, even in close-ups.

18. And Henson and Sahlin collaborated to create the "magic triangle," a way of positioning the eyes and nose and mouth of a puppet so that it appears that the eyes are actually focusing. This is part of what makes all the Henson characters look alive compared to other puppets.

19. The Henson-created TV show, Fraggle Rock, was the first HBO original series. Take that, Sopranos!

20. Jim Henson had a specific and somewhat lofty purpose in creating Fraggle Rock. He wanted to end war by teaching kids about peaceful conflict resolution. Duncan Kenworthy, who produced the show said, "Obviously, if you were going to change the world's ideas about how to resolve conflict, you had to start with children. And so we began." This from a man who either blew up his puppets or had them eat each other.

21. In early drafts, the Fraggles were called "Woozles", and the early name for the Doozers was "Wizzles", and the Gorgs were giant "Wozzles". Henson wrote in his notes, "These names will very likely be changed." Good call.

22. Fraggle Rock was filmed in Toronto but it was designed to work around the world, you know, so that it could end war and everything. From the start, Henson intended to do co-production in various countries where the show would air, replacing Doc and his dog with culturally-relevant native counterparts, and avoiding taboo topics that could present problems in certain cultures. And these co-productions did happen in France and Germany and the UK, but in 90 other countries, they just dubbed the show.

23. I've been a bit hard on Fraggle Rock's ambition to, you know, end war, but Fraggle Rock was a hit in the Soviet Union. In fact in 1989, Soviet television ran an episode of Fraggle Rock and it immediately received 3000 fan letters. Soon, both Fraggle Rock and The Muppet Show aired in the USSR, making them the first Western shows broadcast on Soviet TV.

24. Henson wrote the 16-page treatment for The Dark Crystal while snowed-in at a Howard Johnson hotel during a blizzard. As he wrote in his diary, "It's such a wonderful challenge to design an entire world—new kinds of life, vegetation, etc. like no one has seen before."

25. And Henson was never afraid to experiment with new technologies—like Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas was the first time he used radio-controlled puppetry. The technology was based on the work of some NASA engineers and not only allowed him to manipulate the critters' mouths, but also allowed for puppets that could, like, row and steer boats in water.

26. Believe it or not, The Muppet Show was turned down by all three U.S. TV networks before being picked up by the British TV mogul, Lord Lew Grade. It went on to become one of the most successful TV shows ever, airing in 106 countries to over 235 million viewers.

27. And the show was also made without a contract; it was just a handshake deal. The only condition was that Henson had to shoot it in England.

28. But of course that wasn't Henson's only hit. For instance, in 1970, the Sesame Street song, "Rubber Duckie," performed in the voice of Ernie, reached number 16 on the Billboard charts. He does make bath time lots of fun.

29. Meanwhile, Henson's performance of the "Rainbow Connection" reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

30. In 1986, Henson was asked to contribute some thoughts for a book called The Courage of Conviction that ended up not being published, but this writing finally surfaced in a book called Jim Henson: The Works, The Art, The Magic, The Imagination which celebrated Henson's life's work. He concluded by writing, "At some point in my life I decided, rightly or wrongly, that there are many situations in this life that I can't do much about—acts of terrorism, feelings of nationalistic prejudice, cold war, etc.—so what I should do is concentrate on the situations that my energy can affect ... I believe that we can use television and film to be an influence for good; that we can help to shape the thoughts of children and adults in a positive way. As it has turned out, I'm very proud of some of the work we've done, and I think we can do many more good things."

31. Before he died, Henson wrote up instructions for how his memorial service should be held. He insisted that no one wear black, and that a Dixieland jazz band end the service with "When the Saints Go Marching In." He wrote, "It would be lovely if some of the people who sing would do a song or two, some of which should be quite happy and joyful. It would be nice if some of close friends would say a few nice, happy words about how much we enjoyed doing this stuff together."

He got his wish, and the most touching song was "It's Not Easy Being Green," performed by Caroll Spinney as Big Bird. He ended it, choking up, by looking up and saying, "Thank you, Kermit."

Thanks for watching mental_floss video, which is presented to you today by our friends at Lifetime. And as we say in our hometown, "Don't forget to be awesome." 

Banner image courtesy of John Gooch/Keystone/Getty Images.

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