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From the Stars and Stripes archives

Muppeteer Henson vocal on video violence

By HAL DRAKE | Stars and Stripes | Published: August 8, 1986

TOKYO — Muppeteer Jim Henson, whose fantasy-world characters changed the face of television, says it could stand more change and should stop using violence as a crutch to prop up viewer interest.

"The violence on television bothers me more than anything," said Henson, who came to Tokyo to publicize his newest full-length movie and to oversee a fingers-crossed trial run of "Fraggle Rock" on Japanese TV.

As the creator of "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show" sees it, television could be a force for global good, the reason he's trying to get foreign producers to work with his crew on "Fraggle Rock."

INTERNATIONAL FRIENDSHIP and cross-cultural understanding at the kiddy-show level? To Henson, that's no fantasy and "Fraggle Rock" could be the key.

"This is a place where you can begin to do it. ...

"We were trying to design a show that would work very internationally," Henson told the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, "a show for this whole world marketplace and a world audience. ... It is basically an entertainment fun show but the thought behind it relates to people getting along in the world, understanding each other's cultures (and) points of view."

"Fraggle Rock" has been running daily on NHK, a government-owned network, to test viewer response. That show starts with live characters, Doc and his dog, who discover a hole in the floor of their workshop — the doorway to a world "inhabited by all these silly creatures called Fraggles."

One of them, Traveling Matt, is a mustached, comically inquisitive explorer who puts on a sun helmet and safari shorts to venture from his underfloor world into the real one.

"As he went around, he'd misinterpret everything. ... He went to San Francisco and we shot a Traveling Matt on the wharf there."

MATT SAW FISHERMEN fixing nets and reported that they were strange beings who made holes, sewed them together, then took them out on boats and threw them away.

"It's saying, look, if you don't know what's going on, you can radically misinterpret what some other people are doing," Henson said.

It's a subtle dig at a child's awareness, he allows, but still the first step toward teaching the young to know and understand different cultures.

And he feels it would be a drastic improvement over the violence that buffets all TV viewers, young and old.

"It's something that I feel we really overdo a great deal in the States," Henson said.

"It's not only the kid shows but the adult shows because the kids are watching the adult shows just as much."

Arguments that TV detective dramas are no more violent than fairy tales or Punch and Judy shows are lost on Henson.

"At this moment, people are seeing the thousands of murders that ... the average television viewer sees every year," Henson said.

"And this is just way out of perspective. I think that it shows a great lack of responsibility on the part of broadcasters and on the part of the producers and directors. It's all of us. And I think we have to change it."

Henson said that because violence "is interesting and a great dramatic plight," it's a tool often reached for by scriptwriters.

"You can't keep doing this," he adds. "You know, toilet jokes are funny but you don't keep telling toilet jokes all the time. It's the easy way out."

With streaks of grey in his beard, Henson is still a young success. As a mid-1950s high school student in Washington, he wanted to break into television — answered a television station's want-ad for puppeteers.

"Puppetry was something I didn't know anything about ... so I went to the library and got a book on puppets."

Pierre the French Rat got Henson his first job and put him through college. He took his mother's cast-off spring coat and fashioned a character named Kermit, at first a formless, hand-operated android who didn't become a frog until years later. As "Sesame Street" started in 1968, both Henson and Kermit became famous worldwide.

Now Kermit came out of Henson's tennis bag, complaining of being jetlagged as he postured for cameras and said he wanted to meet Japanese frogs. Henson used a hand to work Kermit's jowls and pulled wires to move him around. Kermit's voice was Henson's — always has been.

IN TOKYO, HENSON gave box-office figures for his movie, "Labyrinth," a nod of satisfaction. It has limped badly in the United States but grossed easy millions in a month-old run in Japan.

He also opened, on the seventh floor of the Yurakucho Seibu Department Store at Marion Building, Nishi Ginza, a museum full of fabled characters from his Creature Shop — everyone from long-billed, flatfooted Big Bird to Lado, a great, horned haystack of a creature who helps the hapless teen-ager heroine of "Labyrinth."

The exhibit closes Aug. 18.


Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, poses with the character Lado from at a Muppets exhibit at a Tokyo store.
DENNIS ROGERS/STARS AND STRIPES

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