by Elizabeth Stevens
Karen Prell performing Red Fraggle at Comic-Con. Photo by krysaia.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of “Fraggle Rock”’s first airing on January 10, 1983. In the spring, the cast and crew got together for a reunion in Toronto, where the show was taped. They gave toasts, performed songs, and ate well into the night. There was a Marjory-the-Trash-Heap cake topped with intricate sugar-paste Fraggles and Doozers that fed over a hundred people.
While most of the participants were getting on in years, two guests had not been old enough to work on “Fraggle Rock.” Mark Bishop, the CEO of Marvel Media, and Matt Wexler, former executive producer at Spin Master Entertainment, both gave speeches attesting to the profound effect “Fraggle Rock” had on them at a young age. “Fraggle Rock” gave a lot of people the impression that they could do what they love for a living, and many of them now do.
Elizabeth Stevens’ Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career is available now for Kindle. Her history of The Muppets is available online.
But many don’t. Corporate work culture has become particularly toxic in recent years. In August, a twenty-one-year-old intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch died from a seizure after performing eight all-nighters. His internship was paid, and that is a rarity. Last year, it came out that an account executive at Goldman Sachs called his clients “muppets,” apparently meaning “clueless.” This Thanksgiving brought the infamous Walmart employee food drive for fellow employees. In many companies, there are an array of methods for expressing disrespect for clients, bosses, employees, or even the company’s mission. It’s not really surprising when that mission is, at the end of the day, just accruing money.
I’ve spent the last few years researching Jim Henson’s business practices as an antidote to this corporate wasteland. In my search, I came across a statement that I just couldn’t shake. According to Dave Goelz, the performer who plays Gonzo, there was a familiar refrain at every reunion: “Over and over we heard them say it was the best job they ever had.” From 2013, it sounds like one of the Storyteller’s Fraggle tales: too good to be true.
I asked Jocelyn Stevenson, one of “Fraggle Rock”’s co-creators, about this. She is compiling a behind-the-scenes book due out next year. Everyone she interviewed told her: “Fraggle Rock” was the best job they ever had. I asked the show’s producer Larry Mirkin, too. “Almost everyone who worked on the show has said that,” he said, “and that’s not an exaggeration.” It’s hard for me to imagine such a workplace actually existed. But it did.
Why was “Fraggle Rock” the best job so many people ever had? Co-creator Jocelyn Stevenson gave me five words.
“Fraggle Rock” “was made in service of a compelling vision,” Stevenson said. When Jim Henson brought together the three people who would ultimately create the world of “Fraggle Rock” — head writer Jerry Juhl, designer Michael Frith, and writer Joceyln Stevenson — he told them he wanted to make an international show that would “help stop war.” His initial producer on the project, Duncan Kenworthy, said that everyone “almost laughed” at him, because “it’s such a — on the face of it — impossible, enormous, grandiose sort of idea.”
Henson not only made an anti-war show, he did it with a light hand and silliness. The episode “Fraggle Wars” deals with McCarthyism overtly (“My name is Mokey Fraggle, and I am not now nor have I ever been a member of the enemy Fraggles”). But most of the time, the message is imperceptible; it was written in the structure of the show’s universe. In the show there are three species that don’t see eye-to-eye, both figuratively and literally. The Doozers were “knee-high to a Fraggle,” and the Gorgs were sheer giants. In DVD interviews, Kenworthy explained that “Fraggle Rock” modeled how conflicts could be “loosened” by exploring each of the different points of view involved. Adults may be a lost cause, but “the children,” he said, “could understand the Gorgs… the Fraggles… the Doozers, and see why they couldn’t understand each other.”
“Fraggle Rock” was made a few years before the toppling of the Berlin Wall and aired in countries across the world (the United States, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and eastern Europe). It was key that the show rejected the “good versus evil” thinking of the Cold War, and introduced the idea of being a global citizen to an emerging Millennial generation during their most formative years. Did Henson stop war? No, but he may have helped change the attitude of the next generation. The very fact that the show had a compelling mission — this dream of peace — made it a peaceful place to work.
When employees feel that their company doesn’t do good, or that it takes advantage of people, they are more likely to act of out of selfishness or self-interest. People stuck in such corporate treadmills work to pay a mortgages, not to achieve a beautiful vision. I think anyone would much rather work at a place like “Fraggle Rock,” where, as Henson said, “trying to do something that makes a positive statement… brings out the best in a lot of people,” and gives them something they’ll be “proud of for a long time.”
Karen Prell, the performer who played Red Fraggle, described the philosophy at “Fraggle” as “very different than a lot of productions. A lot of productions are conflicts and egos. In our case it was just thrilling to see what heights we could get to with everybody’s input.” If you want to teach children about conflict resolution and world peace, it’s important to model that behavior in the way you make your show. The show’s producer, Larry Mirkin, said everyone at “Fraggle Rock” had “shared values… not just what the work is but how you do the work.” And according to him, “there was never an argument on the set.” They just didn’t have time for them. “We all just believed that in order to make the show, we were going to make it by means of this joyful process.” Essentially, the show practiced what it preached.
More than just an advertising buzzword, “creative” means you get to create, to make things. But most managers don’t feel comfortable allowing the kind of freedom that creation requires. When Jim Henson asked his team to imagine an entire world from scratch — the universe of “Fraggle Rock” — he gave them an amazing gift: autonomy. Jocelyn Stevenson called it “creative generosity. The freedom to make mistakes,” and it’s an essential component for any truly “creative” workplace.
Jim Henson was never one to rest on his laurels, and as soon as “The Muppet Show” taping wrapped in 1981, he called a meeting to talk about “the next show,” Michael Frith said. Henson held a couple meetings in a “very grand conference room in London’s Hyde Park Hotel.” He didn’t give this group a prescriptive “script Bible,” only his vision: to help stop war. “Ideas emerged pretty quickly,” Frith said, “a tribe of small, animalish things who lived behind the walls… A world began to take shape. And we laughed a lot.” This is not difficult to imagine — in interview footage, these people laugh more than anyone I’ve ever met. They talk about their work with gleeful smiles.
That’s not because they are unrealistic. Once, during a taping, Jerry Juhl said to writer David Young, “I’ve got a great idea for Doc’s workshop: Gobo steals his nitroglycerin tablets.” They never made this show, but there were several episodes about death, including a “funeral dirge you can dance to.” It was said about Henson that something that would depress anyone else would tickle his sense of humor; the people he selected also had this disposition.
Henson’s selectivity was the secret weapon that allowed him to give his chosen few complete autonomy, complete trust, in creating their art. Mirkin believes Henson’s “instincts” about people were crucial. He trusted, Mirkin said, “them, and he trusted the process… The creative process that every day starts with nothing but possibility.” He and the people he worked with had “a deep love of that place.”
What does “trust” look like? For “Fraggle Rock”, Frith said Henson “gave us his house in London to work in… a couple of the most intense, creative and hilarious weeks I’ve ever enjoyed, anywhere, on any project.” While Henson was busy working on The Dark Crystal, his merry band of co-creators made lists: “Things we know about the Fraggles,” “Things we know about Doozers.” Frith made hundreds of sketches, without much thought for limitations, and many of these things came to be. “No one ever said it would be too expensive or too time-consuming,” he said. “[P]eople just pushed through the night to make things happen — again and again. A trio of dancing giants, hundred of tiny, marching workers, dozens of furry Fraggles… endless caverns, crystalline constructions, and gleaming underground cities, a tumbledown castle, Doc’s cluttered workshop….”
The opposite of trust is micromanaging. In The New York Times, Joe Nocera noted Apple’s Steve Jobs was the kind of “micromanaging” “dictator” who demanded others work to achieve his vision and were not paid to have their own. By contrast, Paul Williams, who wrote the score for The Muppet Movie, once said Henson was easiest person he’s ever worked for. He said he’d experienced the alternative, and “It’s hard to work when the phone’s ringing every two minutes.”
When people are given the autonomy to create according to their own vision, they feel not just good but grateful. Juhl said, “He took this set of people and said you guys are gonna do this… and I’ve always been really grateful for it.” The head of the puppet building workshop, Caroly Wilcox, said something similar: “He trusted us to invent… to be given the chance to create was something Jim did for all of us, and that was a great pleasure.”
Throughout every stage of the production, people were trusted to create. Mirkin says no instructions were ever given in the script about the design of the Doozer constructions, and it brings to mind the joy of building with Tinker Toys — except that it was a paying job. With writers, Stevenson noted that head writer Jerry Juhl never took away a writer’s script and rewrote it, “which is so often done…. At the end of the show it was still your script,” she said. “The words were your words.”
With the rise of the Internet, there is no greater buzzword in workplaces than “collaboration.” When Steve Jobs wanted to create an atmosphere of collaboration at Pixar, he famously designed their new building to have only two bathrooms in the center, so that all of Pixar’s hundred employees would have to see each other in random interactions throughout the day. But how dictatorial is that? It’s hard to imagine having a fruitful meeting of the minds when you’re running halfway across a building with urgency. Jobs, not much of a collaborator himself, had the wrong idea about collaboration.
Collaboration can’t be compelled; it can only be inspired, by a leader who collaborates. A careful listener, Jim Henson was known to take a janitor’s counsel on occasion because “a good idea could come from anywhere.” In the 1960s, his company was a small collective consisting of Jerry Juhl, Henson’s wife Jane, and himself, and “everyone was doing everything.” It was extremely collaborative, and so it was only natural that he understood how to create this environment at “Fraggle Rock”: by selecting other natural collaborators and giving them autonomy.
Karen Prell has said that “nothing at the Muppets was done in isolation,” and even this is an understatement. The songwriting duo of Phil Balsam and Dennis Lee were selected out of a “heap” of cassettes, and were already collaborating, one dropping off a tape in the mailbox at night and the other dropping off a sheet of lyrics the next morning. Though Juhl and Henson rejected hundreds of other applicants, they never rejected a song from Dennis and Lee. Once they were selected, they were trusted.
Perhaps the best example of collaboration is in the characters themselves. A character like Gobo Fraggle comes to life somewhere between the design process and the performance. Puppeteer Jerry Nelson, for example, would look at the size of the puppet’s mouth to determine what kind of voice he had. The writers had an idea of who the characters were, but they also watched the performers improvising, and much of the banter between Goelz and Whitmire became dialog in later scripts between Boober and Wembley. With the giant Gorg characters, it goes one step further: each Gorg was the result of a mime performing big, foolish body movements and a puppeteer controlling the face via remote control.
Collaboration like this leads to a lot of laughing and silliness, and it’s easy to see why. Let’s take the process of “assisting.” When a character like Cantus has two live hands fluttering over the keys of his pipe, the puppeteer effectively needs three hands, so the right hand is actually performed by a different person than the left. Syncing up isn’t simple, but it can be magical. This is what true collaboration looks like. Think different, yes; but think three-legged race, not distant bathrooms.
“It’s actually really fun to assist because you have this exercise in just tuning in. It’s almost like becoming a radio,” Prell said. “You would surprise yourself” by seeing what “came out of two people at the same time.” Since Henson worked this way from the very beginning, he didn’t have to think of wild architectural gambits to trick people into collaborating. Henson showed everyone who worked for him that collaboration was fun.
Collaboration is an expensive proposition, because with writers watching performances, performers attending writers’ meetings, and many characters being performed by two people, there are more people-hours to pay for. Jim Henson was not on set much for “Fraggle Rock” — after directing the first two episodes, he only returned occasionally. But when he left “Fraggle Rock” in the hands of his trusted few, he left them with something crucial: a lot of funding.
Larry Mirkin told me money wasn’t an issue for the production, because Henson had convinced two networks to fund the show. HBO, eager to make its first original series, gave Henson a generous amount of cash. Canada’s CBC network also supplied some cash as well as the facility and crew who filmed the show. And because Henson owned the show (instead of either network) he was able to sell it (again) to international markets.
With HBO’s artist-friendly subscription model, “Fraggle Rock” became the unlikely predecessor to “Sex and the City,” “The Sopranos,” and “Girls in the U.S.,” and in Canada it joined the innovative taxpayer-subsidized CBC lineup, which would also produce “Kids in the Hall.” Neither network, Mirkin said, ever gave “Fraggle Rock” a single script note, which was as rare then as it is today. “It is so rare,” he said, “that you have to say this.”
It would be hard for anyone to make a show like that today, even Henson. “He was at the top of his commercial game.” The Muppet Show had been a huge success, and Henson could essentially do whatever he wanted; funders were eager to share in his success. As my book details, it took many years of hustle for Henson to get to this stage — a fifteen-year side career of TV commercials, making the difficult decision to merchandise his Sesame Street characters, and using this money to garner enough exposure to land an angel funder. It was thirty years into his career, so “Fraggle Rock” was one of Henson’s most mature works as an artist.
It’s no surprise that we don’t see children’s shows today as beautiful, wise and well-crafted as “Fraggle Rock” — a show that took three hours to shoot fourteen seconds of footage because the writers think it would be funny to see Doozers on pogo sticks. The market doesn’t encourage such wastes of expenditure, but Henson had his own money and worldwide stardom, so he could afford to.
Accordingly, the producer’s job became one of diplomacy rather than enforcing budgets. After the crew stayed until six in the morning one night flooding the Gorgs’ basement, Mirkin “made a rule that we would not go overtime on Wednesdays and Fridays… People have families to get home to,” he said. Many of the CBC crew retired soon after and said working on “Fraggle Rock” was “a great way to go out.” While it isn’t always easy to get so many different people to work well together, if you have enough money and select the right people, it can be a lot of fun.
Challenging and (Incredibly) Fun
You’ve read the word “fun” enough times by now to become skeptical, as well you should. Larry Mirkin insists that “as much fun as you would hope it was to make “Fraggle Rock” because of what was on screen — it was actually more fun to do it” — “the entire time.”
But, for the “Fraggle Rock” creators, “fun” and “challenge” went hand in hand. “We were still dealing with production demands,” Mirkin said. The songwriters pushed themselves to write three original songs each week. It may seem fun to puppeteer, but have you tried to hold your hand above your head for even five minutes? For Henson, and for those who worked at ha! (Henson Associates), part of the fun was the challenge of hard work.
Jocelyn Stevenson describes “Fraggle Rock” as challenging; for her, there was a “huge learning curve.” Coming from magazine publishing, she had never written for TV before and had to learn by doing. Among the “Fraggle Rock” writers, many came from other disciplines: David Young had published a novel and bpNichol was a poet. Young was a proponent of The Gift, a book about art given to him by Margaret Atwood, and Stevenson’s literary influences included Lewis Carol and Ogden Nash. Because they weren’t TV professionals, the show’s creators didn’t think about “Fraggle Rock” as being “for children.” It was simply a show with intelligence and humanity where they could tell the kinds of stories they wanted to tell.
It can be incredibly rewarding to “rise to the challenge,” as Steve Whitmire has said about doing his first central character, Wembley Fraggle. It was “left in our hands to be the authorities about what we do on a daily basis,” he said. Today, Whitmire performs the most central role of the Muppets: Kermit the Frog. While the “Fraggle Rock” team may not have been made up of experts, they were all dedicated to doing their absolute best.
“There was an internal demand for excellence in the show that we all felt,” Mirkin said. It may not have been overtly stated, but it came from Henson himself. Jerry Juhl explained Henson’s quiet influence on those around him: “Year after year, we watched him push himself beyond what we could possibly imagine. You had to try to keep up.”
When a job is challenging, but not fun, it often stems from the leadership’s approach to other people. Steve Jobs has had an impressive impact on the world, but I don’t think he’s a great role model for creative people who want a good work environment. Jef Raskin described Steve Jobs as “impossible to work with,” failing “to give credit,” and prone to “ad hominem attacks.” At Atari, he told the engineers “that they were moronic and their designs were lousy.” The attitude of leadership sets the tone for the attitude at the entire workplace.
At “Fraggle Rock”, Larry Mirkin said, it was about “civility — behaving properly.” “We challenged each other all the time,” but it wasn’t about ego, he said, it was about “the best idea winning…. I’ve never been in a situation where a lot of tension made the work better.” As Henson’s stand-in with final cut of every episode, Mirkin was a listener and made good use of the phrase, “I don’t know — what do you think?” A lot of people, he said, are “afraid to look weak,” and feel that “I have to be in charge. I own this… but you want to work with smarter people than yourself. You don’t lose your authority.”
Part of “Fraggle Rock”’s civility may stem from having been filmed in Toronto, rather than Los Angeles. When Mirkin described unFragglish ways of working, “rat-race” thinking, “fear-based and power-based” thinking, it seems to describe an American corporate mentality.
Can we get more companies to run like this today?
No matter how much I wish I could, I can’t work at “Fraggle Rock,” because the show ended in 1986. There is reportedly a movie in the works, but this has been rumored for more than ten years.
But I’m convinced that it is possible achieve a workplace culture like “Fraggle Rock” today. “A lot of people want to work the way we work,” Mirkin said. He and Stevenson still try to work that way — the Fragglish way — whenever they can. So why doesn’t everyone?
Money often gets the upper hand of people. I want to work this way, but sometimes you just need a stop-gap job and it becomes your life. The big entertainment companies with the most jobs are the ones chasing last year’s hits and marketing demographics instead of human hearts. I wonder if the same entertainment industry that created Mickey Mouse and Kermit the Frog would be more likely to suppress such works today. For “Fraggle Rock”, money wasn’t the end goal, it was more about “what you want to put into the world,” Mirkin said. According to him, it’s still possible today, by finding the right people. “It’s your choice,” he told me. “Who do you want to be friends with?”
I asked Jocelyn Stevenson a silly question: Why isn’t every job like “Fraggle Rock”? “Because,” she said, “there aren’t many Jim Hensons around,” she said. “None, in fact!”
Henson’s business is unique, and not just among Hollywood studios. I think it’s a good reminder that it’s possible to have “joyous” workplace, but it starts with a leader who works that way. Dave Goelz has said that Henson’s films conveyed the attitude of his company, and I would have to agree. Before he died, Henson was able to “put into the world” his own, very beautiful work philosophy. This is how Goelz explained it:
“He gathered all sorts of people, in each of whom he saw something special. His company was like Noah’s Ark, loaded to the gunwales with all types, including some natural enemies. During our voyage all these different people worked together, and in so doing, even the natural enemies came to respect and love each other. That’s what is so special about Jim, and that philosophy of celebrating diversity underlies everything we’ve done. I think our audience senses that, and it means a lot to them as well. It’s a vision of a better world.”
Elizabeth Hyde Stevens spent three years searching for the answer to starving-artist syndrome by looking to her childhood hero: Jim Henson. Along the way, she created a research course at Boston University called “Muppets, Mickey, and Money,” and published her research online at The Awl, The Millions, Electric Literature, and Rolling Stone. Her book, Make Art Make Money: Lessons From Jim Henson, is available now for the Kindle reading app.