Last week, I had the pleasure of discussing Dr. Seuss with Marcus Smith on his “Constant Wonder” radio show on BYU Radio. It was one of the more interesting interviews I’ve participated in, thanks to some really good and fun questions from Marcus, as we covered issues like Ted Geisel’s German upbringing and how that affected his work; his growth as an artist; why the Pulitzer Prize meant so much to him; and whether Dr. Seuss cheats at rhyme.
It was all part of a longer consideration of the poetry of William Shakespeare and Dr. Seuss — and if you missed it, not to worry. You can listen to it–or at least my part of it–here.
Posted onMay 23, 2020|Comments Off on Becoming Dr. Seuss in the NYT
Becoming Dr. Seuss arrives in stores in paperback on Tuesday, May 26, and I was thrilled to see it get a shout-out in the highly-coveted “Paperback Row” section of this weekend’s New York Times Book Review. You can see it in the image below, just beneath the list of hardcover bestsellers (and I know the graphic can be hard to read, so you can read it online here).
If you’d like a signed copy of Becoming Dr. Seuss delivered right to your door, you can order one — or signed copies of any of my other books — from the fine folks at Bookworks by clicking here. And we both thank you.
Posted onMay 9, 2020|Comments Off on Happy Birthday Kermit! (And Sam! And Lisa!)
May 9 is the birthday of Kermit the Frog — a date that was chosen mainly because it was the date that Sam & Friends debuted on WRC-TV in Washington, DC (Kermit, was there, though he wasn’t yet a frog, and was relegated mostly to supporting cast member). So, happy 65th to Sam and Friends–and to Kermit.
But in the happiest of coincidences, May 9 is also the actual birthday of Jim Henson’s oldest child, Lisa Henson, who turns 60 today. So the happiest of birthdays to Lisa as well.
Posted onApril 23, 2020|Comments Off on Take a (Virtual) Walk with Me Through the Jim Henson Exhibition
Having the City of Albuqerque, the State of New Mexico, and pretty much the entire planet on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the traveling Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited—currently in residence here at the Albuquerque Museum—would be pretty much impossible to see for the remaining weeks and months of its time here in the Duke City. Fortunately, the Museum is making a virtual narrative tour available to view online—and they asked a certain local biographer to serve as your host and tour guide.
A bit of a peek behind the scenes: I was absolutely thrilled to be asked by the Museum to lend a hand with the virtual tour. With everything still on lockdown, I spent about an hour one afternoon making a quick walk through the exhibit with Denise Crouse, the museum’s communications manager, to get a good handle on the featured pieces, and to figure out where to stand for each segment. We were also curious whether the sound could be turned off—there are countless videos playing in the exhibit, which meant I couldn’t stand in certain places without sound ‘bleeding in’ from video screens around the room. (Fortunately, on the day the cameras rolled, all audio tracks were muted.)
On the day of filming, the cameraman showed up masked so he could mic me, then—keeping a responsible 6 to 8 feet apart at all times—we shot these segments on the fly, using no notes—and, with one exception, doing it all in one take (the one exception was the segment on television and Sam & Friends, which I had talked through MUCH too rapidly the first time). The goal was to get it done as quickly and as well as we could, then get out—and we definitely did that, finishing everything up in about 75 minutes.
Despite a few ‘uhs’ and some garbled phrases (‘Sesame Street’ came out particularly messy at one point), I’m happy with the final result—and truly proud to have been asked to do it.
Posted onApril 4, 2020|Comments Off on Cabin Fever? Catch Me Talking Jim Henson with Tough Pigs
Stuck inside and looking for a break from your latest binge watch? The fine folks at Tough Pigs have got you covered with their new twice-a-week series “Cabin Fever,” where they interview folks from all over the Jim Henson/Muppet world. I was pretty thrilled to be asked to serve as one of their first guests — so here I am, with Joe and Ryan from Tough Pigs, coming to you live from my office in New Mexico. (Don’t be too impressed with my attire–I had on shorts with it…)
Why isn’t there more Muppet stuff on the new Disney+? Where is The Muppet Show? What about The Muppets at Walt Disney World? Is it the cost of music clearances? A lack of interest from the top? I talked about it with Drew Taylor from Vanity Fair, and our answer is . . . uh, we don’t really know.
But join us as we speculate all about it anyway! Just click right here.
The paperback of Becoming Dr. Seuss comes out on May 26. I know that seems like a loooong time from now — and who knows what shape the world will be in by then? — but if you’d like to pre-order an autographed copy, I’m working with Bookworks, an independent bookstore here in New Mexico, to get a copy in your hands.
You can pre-order the book by clicking here. And once their doors are open again, you can order signed copies of any of my other biographies as well.
Until then, take care of yourselves, and each other.
“The fact that [Dr. Seuss] took writing so seriously, even before he knew what he was doing, speaks volumes to just how intuitively good he was and how much he valued the reader. His sense of his books was, ‘I don’t do this just for children; I write for people.'”
Yup, that’s me on Dr. Seuss — all this and more in a quick-hit Q&A I did with the folks over at Capital Group (!), where they take books seriously.
You can read the rest of it here. And my thanks to Joe Simmons for the conversation.
Posted onJanuary 23, 2020|Comments Off on Remembering Terry Jones, Jim Henson, and Labyrinth
I was sad to hear of the passing of the great Terry Jones who died on January 21 at the age of 77. Jones was the Iron Man of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, who could play anything and everything brilliantly, be it straight or silly. The New York Times has a nice obituary on Jones, but makes no mention of a non-Python project that I know means a lot to people.
It was his 1986 collaboration with Jim Henson, George Lucas, and David Bowie.
I’m talking, of course, about Labyrinth, for which Jones wrote the screenplay.
Yup. Here’s how it happened.
The plot to Labyrinth had been sparked by an offhand remark artist Brian Froud made to Jim Henson while talking about what they hoped would be their post-Dark Crystal project. Jim enthused about old mythologies, and Froud casually mentioned that he liked stories about goblins stealing babies. Intrigued, Jim ran with the idea, scribbling out pages and pages of notes, and began looking for an ideal writer for the screenplay based on the idea.
Jim wanted to give Labyrinth the lighter touch he felt that 1982’s Dark Crystal was missing, and thus wanted to collaborate with a comedian. Jim was a fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus — he would mark the show’s broadcast time on his calendar each week — and especially admired Terry Jones’s children’s book The Saga of Erik the Viking, which he had recently read in advanced copy.
In late 1982, Jim approached Jones about working on Labyrinth, with the enthusiastic encouragement of Python alumnus John Cleese, who had appeared on The Muppet Show, and who called the proposed collaboration “a really marvelous idea.” “Your contributions will surely make the script jump to life,” Jim wrote in a note to Jones—and was thrilled when Jones said yes.
Henson handed Jones a story treatment–developed from his own notes by poet and Fraggle Rock lyricist Dennis Lee–and an enormous sheaf of Brian Froud’s art. Jones was only moderately interested in Lee’s treatment, but he loved Froud’s work, and went to the pages repeatedly for inspiration. “Every time I came to a new scene I looked through Brian’s drawings and found a character who was kind of speaking to me already,” Jones said, “and suddenly there was a scene!”
Jones delivered his treatment for Labyrinth in March 1984. Henson immediately forwarded the script on for revision, passing it off to one writer after another, and sending Jones’s script through 25 rewrites over the next two years.
It was Jones’s first draft, however, that Henson used to land one of his biggest fish, handing it off to singer David Bowie at a backstage meeting and asking, “If you like the script, would you consider being Jareth and singing and writing songs for the film?”
Jones’s script did the trick. Bowie was in.
By summer 1984, most of the revisions to Jones’ screenplay had been made largely by Fraggle Rock writer Laura Phillips. But Jones and Phillips had very different approaches to the basic story and relationship between the two main characters, Goblin King Jareth and the young heroine, Sarah, who enters the labyrinth to free her baby brother. Where Jones was episodic and funny — and incorporated many of set pieces Jim loved, such as the Escher Room — Phillips was more character-driven.
“It was about the world,” Jones insisted, “and about people who are more interested in manipulating the world than actually baring themselves at all.” Jones thought it was more important to give the characters something interesting to do and to keep the story moving–and that the actors themselves could make the characters shine. Jim, who liked bits of both scripts, simply encouraged everyone to keep working.
In the same vein, it was Jones, too, who argued for a strong female leading actress, insisting she could convey her character “in her manner and by the way she talks and walks.”
In January 1985, after auditioning hundreds of girls and young women — including Helena Bonham Carter and Jane Krasinski — Jim Henson selected 15-year-old Jennifer Connelly as his lead. You can see her audition here:
Henson would continue tinkering with Jones’s script right up until five days before filming began in April 1985. At that point, he was huddling over the pages with comedian/screenwriter Elaine May. Also involved: Labyrinth producer George Lucas, who helpfully (!) drew concentric circles on the script as he explained the revisions to the plot.)
It was a lot of talented chefs, but an overcrowded kitchen—though the final film would give screenwriting credit solely to Jones, who still “didn’t feel that it was very much mine. I always felt it fell between two stories. Jim wanted it to be one thing, I wanted it to be something else.”
Any such complaints aside, Jones’ script is full of remarkable moments—including a “well of hands”—an idea Jones loved, but wasn’t sure how it might be pulled off onscreen.
Take a look here to see how they did it:
Jones also gamely did promotion for the film — and did anyone ever look like they were having as a good a time in a sea of goblins and creatures?
So here’s to Terry Jones, who poked us with pillows, exploded in a restaurant, made Karl Marx a lovable game show contestant, played the organ naked, mothered a Messiah, sang about traffic lights — and who made a Goblin King dance and steal our hearts. What an enormous talent. I miss him already.