Saturday, August 25, 2012

Reaching the Top of Those Stairs: Fond Farewell to Jerry Nelson

This weekend was supposed to be Part 2 of our "Good Business/Bad Business" feature, but due to recent Muppet news, this weekend is not one for negativity but rather a time for mourning/remembrance.  Veteran Muppeteer Jerry Nelson passed away on August 23rd at the age of 78.  Muppet Freak spends this weekend remembering the legendary Mr. Nelson.  (The "Bad Business" Article will most likely now be pushed back two weeks as i'll be spending next weekend helping out someone in need.)

The news of Nelson's demise is not unexpected.  Due to his age, declining health, and the diminishing amount of time and energy he's spent over the past decade contributing to the Muppets (he had retired from physical Muppeteering though still providing voices for select characters), fans, family and colleagues have had time to adjust to the thought that Nelson may soon no longer be with us.  Unlike Jim Henson's death which came far too early and without warning, this was no huge surprise that came out of nowhere.  The Muppet team (both that of the Classic Muppets and the Sesame group) have had years to prepare for this eventuality with the training and recasting of most of his characters.  His (LARGE) stable of beloved characters will still be around to make us laugh, cry and reach our hearts.

Of course, that's by no means to say that the news is not sad.  It's actually more bittersweet.  While sad it's finally come to pass, it's actually quite uplifting to bear in mind that he did actually live as long as he did.  He was around long enough to continue to mentor those taking on his characters but also to provide one last special "audio cameo" as an Announcer Voice for "The Muppets" film last year as well as recording his very own album, Truro Daydreams a few years back.  I'm sure those close to him have had opportunity to let them know they loved him and when the end did come, it was in his sleep.

But for Muppet Freaks and fans worldwide, what makes Nelson's death particularly poignant is that this was the passing of one of the true long-time veterans...that special trio of Jim (Henson), Frank (Oz) and Jerry.

Now of course, if one was to be really technical, the original Muppeteer trio would be Jim and Jane Henson along with either Bob Payne or Jerry Juhl as the third.  But mention "Classic Muppeteer Trio" to any Freak and they'll know who you're referencing:  the three that made up the main team as early as the '60s when the Muppets were gaining national recognition.  The threesome that were immortalized ("immuppetalized"?) in puppet form as The Country Trio.  The ones that were the true core group of original veterans that had remained main players throughout the decades.  Even though each performer was incredibly talented and generated chemistry with any scene partner, when these three acted together the resulting manner in which they'd play off each other was akin to great jazz musicians such as seen here (Nelson is Miss


Even though Oz is still with us, his direct ties with the Muppets has been almost totally cut for years now - basically limited to a few Sesame bits here and there despite his characters being all successfully recast and no real involvement with the Classic Muppets for a good decade.  So while Frank Oz is still alive and seemingly well, when it comes right down to it, Jerry's departure really does feel like the last part of that particular team is completely gone.

While many fans would love to see Oz take a more active role with the Muppets - even as just a creative consultant if not a performer (rather than becoming a bit of an "armchair quarterback" commenting on how they could improve rather than marching over to Disney and working with them, bringing his often strong opinions to the table as one of the last remaining disciples of the originators), this doesn't seem likely to happen.  Thus, the loss of Nelson truly does seem to represent the end of The Trio.  His departure really hits the Muppet fan community hard because of the subliminal recognition that it represents an ending of an era.

But moving away from the conceptual and to the specific, Jerry Nelson was an amazing talent whose multiple contributions to the Muppet team will be sorely missed.  Of the Classic Trio, Henson and Oz were the more forefront, taking on the lead characters and having much more of a general public name recognition.  But Nelson was the important stock player of the three, able to supplement the world of The Muppets with any and all kinds of supporting character.  Name an accent and Jerry could do it.  He had the ability to take on any kind of character from largest (Snuffleupagus) to smallest (Robin the Frog), male or female or other, sweet to sour.  Henson referred to Nelson as "the Mel Blanc of The Muppets" with an incredible range of voices.

And of all Nelson's attributes and long list of talents and abilities, it is his voice that will always most be associated with him.  Not only due to his range but also its resonance - he would typically be called upon whenever an "Announcer" and/or "Voiceover" part was needed.  Indeed, even though all his characters were puppeteered and voiced by others in 2011's "The Muppets", Nelson still lent his unmistakable voice as the Muppet Telethon Announcer adding an element to the film that wouldn't have seemed right if not somehow present.  (Tell me you didn't weep with joy when you heard him).

...And of course more than that was his singing ability.  Of the male Muppet performers, Jerry was with very little debate among Muppet Freaks, the most gifted singer.  Just as he could perform any kind of character, so too could he handle any type of music.  The Muppets are synonomous with music and much of that music was as outstanding as it was because of Jerry's contributions.  So here, let's take a moment to let his work speak for itself with a few songs that not only demonstrate his amazing abilities but also manage to honor the man himself at the same time...

If there's one word that could best be used in association with Jerry Nelson, it would be "NUMBERS".  Because as a word with two definitions, Jerry would be strongly matched with both of them.  His highest profile character was Sesame Street's Count von Count.  Millions of children learned how to count because of Jerry.  And as just visited, just as The Count was The Master at numeric numbers, Nelson was The Master of musical numbers...often at the same time!...

As you can see (and hear) just as exhuberantly as The Count is throwing himself into counting, Jerry is throwing himself into the song!

Precisely because Nelson was "The Voice of the Muppets", i would hereby like to propose to the Muppet Fandom community that in the same spirit that Muppet Freaks have adopted September 26 as "Jerry Juhl Day" as a day to remember/honor the late Muppet headwriter by doing silly things, August 23 should hereby be observed as "Jerry Nelson Day".  (Of course this year, honoring "Jerry Nelson Week" as we alternately mourn his recent passing and celebrate his memory)

And HOW do we honor it?  By taking a moment during the day/week to observe a moment of silence to represent the loss of The Muppets' "Voice".  But then spending the rest of that time blissfully engaging in music - both the listening and making of it.  Of course, Muppet/Jerry Nelson songs should be included but take some time to enjoy old favorite songs you haven't listened to for awhile or explore something new.  Visit a music shop (or shop online if brick buildings have gone by the wayside in your area.)  Play something for someone else.  Whistle a happy tune.  And also take a moment to count the roses...and the noses...and guys named Moses... (And if you're really feeling brave, visit a restaurant that's likely to provide subpar service!)

The best way to remember a departed loved one is to not only grieve in sadness but also remember with fondness and joy all the things you loved.  Celebrate the time they were with us.  Just as Jim Henson and Jerry Juhl wished that people would honor their passing with lively spirit, so do does it seem appropriate with the beloved Jerry Nelson.  So Muppet Freak closes this post the best way we know how...with "a funeral dirge you can DANCE to..."  (For those who don't know, Nelson plays both Gobo Fraggle and Pa Gorg here)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Good Business/Bad Business Part 1: Giving Fowl Play the Chicken Finger

Welcome to "Good Business/Bad Business", a look at how well (or how horribly) companies entrusted with preserving the legacy of Jim Henson's creations and characters are living up to the task.

I'm kind of hesitant to call this a "series" or even a "miniseries" for that matter due to (a) concerns about how much longer i'll be around to do Muppet Freak (i'm already on borrowed time) and (b) when it comes right down to it, articles like this really shouldn't even have to exist. If a company is completely true to the spirit of Henson, doing the right thing should always come naturally. "Bad Business" articles shouldn't ever occur and "Good Business" articles should be as newsworthy as the sky being blue another day.

But two recent events in the world of Muppet/Henson fandom really do deserve special comment. The "Bad" example is an article i've had in the works for months now and have been hinting at for quite some time. The "Good" example is however such an extraordinary example of how Henson-Legacy Companies should behave that a direct contrast between the two really highlights the extreme differences between them so it's through that lens that i shall discuss them here.

So let's kick off with our "Good Business" Spotlight on The Jim Henson Company for its stance against corporate-sponsored bigotry.

Everything started out innocently enough. It's become an American Institution for entertainment companies to partner up with restaurants and food establishments (particularly of the fast food variety) to offer premiums in cross promotions, often focused around the "kids meals" Henson Company/The Muppets have done this numerous times over the decades. Heck, they've even been SELLING chicken practically from the earliest days...

How many of us have Jack in the Box Muppet figures sharing shelf space with our Palisades Muppet action figures or still have - and drink out of - our McDonald's Great Muppet Caper Glasses? Henson's partnership with Chick-Fil-A was hardly new. As early as 2003, CFA was offering Bear in the Big Blue House books and just last year, as Pajanimals was celebrating its expansion from shorts to a television series in October, Pajanimals board books were offered at the chain with Melissa Segal, SVP of consumer products at Henson Co. noting at the time: “Chick-Fil-A came to us awhile ago. With the series also launching on Sprout this month the timing just couldn’t be better." Because of the success of the Pajanimals books, Henson partnered with CFA again this year, this time with a promotion themed around the Jim Henson Creature Shop.
But not long after the start of the promotion, one of CFA's "dirty little secrets" had become increasingly public knowledge: that they had been donating millions of dollars to anti-gay organizations since 2003 including Focus on the Family, Exodus International and the Family Research Council. The recent headlines and media spotlight on this issue put Henson in a rather horrible position. The bulk of Henson's works have centered around themes and messages of diversity, non-discrimination, equality, and peace - and now here they were directly connected with a company at a time when they were unapologetically not just advocating the exact opposite but also contributing to causes dedicated to denying gays and lesbians civil rights.
Henson fans who were aware of CFA's actions at the time the cross-promotion was announced were already wondering if their support of Henson was strong enough to justify handing over money to a chain that would likely use those same dollars to fund the opposition of civil rights - just to pick up a Henson themed finger puppet. Likewise, besides discussing their quandary among fellow fans on message boards/fan forums, they also asked Henson if they were aware of the nature of CFA's activities and how a "good boy like you could get involved with a thug like that"? Deciding that the Henson name and legacy simply could not be seen to be affiliated with homophobia and bigotry, Henson ended the partnership and pulled its toys. On July 20, they issued the following public statement: "The Jim Henson Company has celebrated and embraced diversity and inclusiveness for over fifty years and we have notified Chick-Fil-A that we do not wish to partner with them on any future endeavors. Lisa Henson, our CEO is personally a strong supporter of gay marriage and has directed us to donate the payment we received from Chick-Fil-A to GLAAD." (GLAAD being the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination, for those unfamiliar with the acronym). Take very special note of the above statement. Lots of people have since attacked the Henson Company for its stance hurling lots of false accusations against them. Their statement simply acknowledges they have different business philosophies and as a result decided a partnership would not be a good thing. That's the first of these two sentences. The second sentence assures Henson fans and those concerned with equality and civil rights that rather than just pocketing the money CFA gave them, they decided to hand it over to an organization that will help fight for the rights of those who the organizations CFA funds would rather see stripped away. (It should be noted that even though the statement cites Lisa Henson's support of gay marriage, the organizations CFA donates to aren't just anti-marriage equality but any civil/equal rights for gays in general.) Note too what's NOT said. There is no call for boycotts. No negative language used toward CFA or its views/actions. They simply say "we believe different and we don't wish to be affiliated with them any longer" and they LEAVE IT AT THAT! CFA supporters will try to say Henson is "anti free-speech". For one thing, CFA isn't just speaking of a view, they're funding millions of their profits to actively deny people civil rights. But "just for the halibut", let's say hypothetically that it was just a matter of words and not actions. Henson doesn't say in its simple, short statement that others shouldn't have an opposite view - just that they themselves do and don't wish to further a relationship with CFA as a result (By terminating ties, not only wouldn't Henson have bigotry associated with its name, by the same token CFA could likewise be "freed" of their affiliation with a company they may be better off without).
Wanna see something funny? (Sad and a little sick, but still funny?) Visit The Jim Henson Company's Facebook page. It's flooded with posts attacking them for being "anti-free speech"... yet Henson hasn't taken them down. Even if they don't disagree with you, they'll still let you post an opposing view on their page even if the manner in which you do so is slanderous and in all fairness really shouldn't be left standing on a page for a family-friendly company. Once again, Henson has taken the high road and has handled the whole situation with class and grace. By the same token, i would like to lead the call among Henson fans to similarly make a donation to either GLAAD or the gay/lesbian-friendly organization of your choice (lots of local organizations can greatly benefit from support just as much as an international one) - ESPECIALLY IF YOU PAID FOR A HENSON PREMIUM AT CHICK-FIL-A. Doesn't have to be big - double what you paid the CFA cashier is just fine! Paid $3 for a kids meal to get that Henson collectable? Give at least $6 to a gay friendly cause. Muppet Freak officially encourages Henson fans to follow the company's lead.
Of course, in discussing the topic, there's a couple things i can't let slide. The first is the notion that "Gay" and "Christian"/"Religious" are opposites. That it's "one or the other". HOCKEY PUCKY!!! It's companies like CFA and the organizations they support that would like you to believe that but while such extremists seem to represent the "Official View" on the relationship between people of faith and gender orientation, in reality (away from the blare of media headlines) many people of faith not only recognize that the two really don't have much to do with each other nor are mutually exclusive but (SHOCK! HORROR!) it's even possible for someone to be BOTH gay AND Christian (or Mormon, Catholic, etc). Why, i'd bet that you probably even have churches near you that actually cater to the gay/lesbian community and/or has a congregation that's primarily made up of a gay/lesbian membership. Gay people-of-faith often tend to get lost in the media hype that often thrives on debate and "either/or"-focused "reporting" and i really think if more people took the time to visit a predominantly gay church service at least once a year to observe how the two can peacefully co-exist, these faux-"debates" would lose any relevance or credibility. Hey, remember how i just advocated for donating to a gay/lesbian friendly cause in the above paragraph? Why not the collection plate of one of your local gay friendly/focused places of worship? (Convinced there aren't any near you? Contact your nearest gay community hotline, magazine/newspaper, or group and inquire and prepare for a likely surprise! Look up "Metropolitan Community Church" in your yellow pages or localized Google search) Likewise, look into attending a workshop or checking a book about the historical depiction of homosexuality in the Bible. Just about every single Bible passage used to justify religious discrimination against gays originally used words that have no modern translation (describing specific rituals and practices specific to the time) and vary greatly in different publications of the Bible as to the words and phrases used to attempt to take their place. Spend some time looking at different versions/translations of the Bible and comparing the words used in other variations in contrast to those who erroneously use the word "homosexual" This is the #2 Big Thing that almost always gets ignored in the conflict-thriving media - if people took the time to actually LEARN what the Bible was originally trying to convey in the first place, religious opposition to gays and lesbians would be essentially meaningless and nonexistent. Sadly, antigay fearmongering brings in large checks to the collection plates of religious extremists so those who really SHOULD know better have a tendency to sit on this knowledge. But you don't need the Pat Robertsons of the world to be your sole source of religious education. Take the time to do the research yourself! But enough about all that "heady" stuff! Let's get to something REALLY important that any responsible Muppet/Henson fan blogger should discuss when writing about this subject. Since you know, actual legitimate news organizations no longer employ fact-checkers or value truth and facts over sensationalism and headlines... THIS HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH "THE MUPPETS"!!!!
I don't think there's actually been ONE news agency that somehow avoided to miss the fact The Jim Henson Company hasn't owned the Muppets since 2004, having sold them to Disney nearly a decade ago. The Chick-Fil-A premiums were NOT "Muppet Toys", "The Muppets" haven't done anything in opposition to CFA, etc. etc. etc.!!! Let's review, shall we? Sesame Workshop owns the "Sesame Street Muppets". Disney owns "The Muppets" (aka "The Classic Muppets" alias "The Muppet Show Muppets" otherwise known as "Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal and that whole gang") Henson owns...everything else - Fraggle Rock, Labyrinth, Dark Crystal, Farscape, Pajanimals (ahem), the Jim Henson Creature Shop (AHEM!), Sid the Science Kid, Dinosaur Train, Stuffed and Unstrung, Henson Alternative, to name just a teensy tinesy few. Yes, Henson CREATED the Muppets and owned them until Disney bought them in '04 (with a few footnoted blips in the interim not worth going into here) but no longer has any official ties to them and anything between Henson and CFA has at no time had anything to do with "The Muppets". I'd expect Fox News to get this wrong - they've elevated inaccuracy to an art form! But Reuters, Los Angeles Times, NBC News, The Associated Press and COUNTLESS others couldn't get this right?! Wanna see something really sad? Here's a "typical" example of how the story was reported in mainstream media...
Diane Sawyer specifically mentions "The Muppets" in her intro. The report itself references "Muppet Toys" twice. Yet while this is basically the same way all major news outlets reported the story, who specifically is responsible for this particular report? ABC News. You know...ABC Network, currently owned by Disney, which actually DOES own the Muppets and not Henson!!! You'd think even without any fact checkers, someone there would catch the error! Apparently not in our ever so enlightened times! Oh yeah, since you watched that video, let's talk about CFA's amusingly sad attempt an a response. After Henson broke their ties, what were the chicken people gonna tell customers asking about "Where's the Henson toys?" (or "Where's the Muppet toys?" if they watch ABC News)? "They didn't agree with our corporate-sanctioned bigotry so they pulled them"? Bzzt!  Wrong answer! (Well, actually it IS the right answer but not the one CFA's gonna say!) HERE is how they chose to address such inquiries...
Note how they try to claim "June 19" as when they recalled the dangerous-toys-that-didn't-actually-harm-anyone-or-pose-any-real-threat-but-we-decided-to-be-"proactive"-since-some-fastfood-obsessed-kid-someday-somewhere-will-probably-have-fat-fingers-and-won't-have-the-common-sense-to-rip-it-off-if-it-actually-somehow-did-truly-get-stuck. June 19, the day before Henson's June 20 public statement. Nice try and valiant effort, Poultry Purveyors! But you forgot something. While our responsible news media that can't even get a simple fact like who owns the Muppets right are likely to give you a free pass since verifying the actual time of your claim would actually require, you know, work and actual investigation and all that nasty stuff, there's still those "meddling kids" that you neglected to take into account. Those regular Joes like me and you that can make some lil Google searches go a long way... You see, one of the nifty things about the internet-connected world is that everything's a great big Time Stamp. In other words, you can CLAIM you did something at a certain time, but people can actually verify the earliest something went online. The earliest reports of CFA's "finger hole follies" didn't hit the net til AFTER Henson's announcement. No Tweets, no Facebook posts, no photos, no anecdotes, no nuttin' prior to the 20th. Why just look at the Muppet/Henson fan community - we know EVERY LITTLE THING that has to do with Muppets/Henson and post about/discuss it on fan forums the nanosection something happens. Yet NO ONE anywhere had any stories on a Muppet Message Board of "Hey everyone, i went to a Chick-Fil-A just to get my Henson toy and they told me they recalled them" before we were all abuzz about the Henson's statement? Methinks some chickadees got some egg on their face trying to fudge the date in a desperate p.r. move!
So let's just take a moment to summarize...Henson acted responsibly all the while erring on the side of class, dignity and responsibility - while the "Christian" company ran afoul of "Thou Shalt Not Lie" (But hey, they've violated "Thou Shalt Not Kill" already for years since i don't think any of those sandwiches over the decades have ever been made with live chickens - unlike those offered by certain culinary contemporaries...)
Now, while i have a hard time believing that there could be any antigay Muppet/Henson fans (you mean to tell me you spent a LIFETIME following Henson's LIFE WORK dedicated to fairness, nonprejudice, and equality and you still ended up a bigot?) out there (You coulda knocked me over with a feather when i heard there were actually STRAIGHT Muppet fans in the world), no matter what side you fell on in the whole Henson vs Chic-Fil-A Brouhaha, the very moment CFA started to try to turn things around on Henson, then THAT should be the moment any Hensonite should have become hard-boiled against CFA. Ya don't mess with Jim. Now you've gone and made it personal - going from just being "antigay" to the more unforgivable sin of being "anti-Henson". So let's see? Anything else to be said before the Handing Out of Awards? Oh yes - not long after the Henson/CFA story became national news, the Democratic Party finally officially added marriage equality to its platform. So thank you to BOTH Henson AND Chick-Fil-A for bringing the issue into increased awareness and attention helping to nudge history in the right direction. I don't mean to egg you on, but let's give give credit where the feather belongs in the cap!
"Is that another CHICKEN JOKE?!"
Alright, so now the moment you all have been waiting for.... For defending and upholding the honor of the Henson name, philosophies, and messages in the face of ugliness, slander, and even Diane Sawyer and sticking up for what's right and just all the while doing so with extreme class, honor, and dignity, Muppet Freak officially presents THE JIM HENSON COMPANY with its first ever "Good Business" Award, the coveted "ZELDA" ROSE!!!
And while we're at it, even though these awards are just for the companies entrusted with Henson's legacies, it didn't seem right to not give Chick-Fil-A anything and let them go home empty handed, so especially for CFA... Muppet Freak, in honor of Henson and Muppet fans and Freaks everywhere - proudly presents you with a big rousing "CLUCK YOU!"

(Come back soon to see who wins the Muppet Freak "Bad Business" Award...which still needs a good name before we hand it out...)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Out of the Bedroom and Into the Boardroom

Yep, you caught us.  Muppet Freak was in hibernation mode for a while again

The last couple of months has been a bit of a nightmare, so of course when your nightmares happen when you're awake, the solution is to stay in bed and be asleep as much as possible.

But sooner or later, one has to get out of bed.  Why?  Well, usually to go to work.

So this month, Muppet Freak is taking a trip to the office!  We're going from the bedroom to the BOARDROOM!

To elaborate, we have a special pair of articles coming up called "Good Business/Bad Business" where we take a look at both terrific and terrible recent business practices coming from the companies entrusted with the legacies of Jim Henson's creations.

As for previous articles i've teased, they're on deck afterward...though one of them - that special major article i've been hinting at for awhile now confronting one of the most important and controversial issues confronting Muppet fandom - will actually be incorporated (no business pun intended) into this series.

With my current schedule, the weekends are the most likely time for updates (Mupdates?) so look for Part 1: "Good Business" next weekend.  Who will be named the recipient of the first ever Muppet Freak "Zelda" Rose?  And for doing what?

For that matter, who will be the winner of the "Bad Business" Award - and what will it be called?  Beats me.  I haven't thought of a good Muppety name for it yet.  Maybe one of YOU can name it and earn a special "Freakier Than Me" acknowledgement!  What should be the flipside of a "Zelda" Rose?  Whatever it is will probably have a similar play on words of a Muppet name.  Got any suggestions?  Include them in the comments!