This is a fun one: I’ll be one of several cultural historians providing commentary for the Nat Geo docuseries, The ’80s: Top Ten, which is now available to stream in all six parts on Disney+. It was a genuine thrill to be asked to participate in this series, and I’m humbled to appear alongside folks like Rob Lowe, Kevin Smith, Ridley Scott, Tony Hawk, and tons of others.
While I’m not sure exactly what you’ll get to hear me talk about — I spent several hours on camera last December talking about a lot of stuff — I’ve had a peek at the first episode and I was beyond delighted to see that I got the final word on the last episode of M*A*S*H, one of my favorite television shows pretty much ever.
Coming up on Monday, I’ll be sitting down with the brilliant Denise Kiernan on her CRAFT: Authors in Conversation podcast, where we’ll talk over (virtual) cocktails about research, writing, and the general dark art of telling stories through histories and biography. Drinking may also be discussed.
The fun begins on Monday, October 25, at 5 p.m. PT/8 p.m. ET. Tune in! It’ll be good! We promise.
With all five seasons of The Muppet Show arriving on Disney+ on February 19, it seemed as good a time as any to rejoin my pal Rob’t Seda-Schreiber with the Bayard Rustin Center for Social Justice on their Social Justice Power Hour and rank the Top 10 Muppet Show Social Justice Moments. If you’re a fan of The Muppet Show, you might even be able to guess the top moment–but I hope we surprised you with a few others.
While I’m always running my mouth over on Twitter about stuff I’m doing and places I’m talking, it’s embarrassing how absolutely terrible I’ve been about making making that same information available over here. New Year’s Resolution, then: let’s change that. We’ll see how I do.
Let me start then with a really interesting one: I had the pleasure of being part of an episode of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency’s online magazine, DIA Connections, where I talked all about Dr. Seuss (and Frank Capra AND Chuck Jones) and the hilarious — and effective! — Private SNAFU training films they produced for the U.S. Army during WWII. My segment begins about 15 minutes in, but you can listen to the entire thing below.
Next up, I made my third appearance with Dan Heaton on his Tomorrow Society podcast, where this time we talked — and talked and talked — all things Mandalorian (if you’re not watching it on Disney+, go get it. You’ll love it. Promise.) I always have a blast talking with Dan — he really knows his Star Wars — and this time we discussed Westerns and pirates, potential Star Wars spinoffs, Boba Fett fetishists, and that spectacular Season Two ending. I hope you’ll give it a listen, thanks.
I’m also looking forward to participating in the WED Reads book club, which brings their monthly book group conversation to Twitter. The name of the game at WED Reads is to cover Disney-themed books, so we’ll be talking all about Jim Henson’s relationship with the Walt Disney Company, and how the House of Mouse is handling — or not handling — the Muppets franchise. It’ll happen on March 1, so join us on Twitter at the WED Reads account at @WEDReads.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The George Lucas Talk Show, the fantastic improv/comedy show/performance art presided over by the talented Connor Ratliffe doing a spot-on, and hilarious, George Lucas impression. You can catch it over at Planet Scum–and you may find me wandering into their episodes from time to time.
Many people read Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who! as allegory. With its oft-repeated mantra of, “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” it’s been read as Seuss’s hat tip to post-war Japan (probably partly right). The anti-abortion movement has also embraced it (Seuss threatened to sue).
But its actual meaning, according to Seuss himself?
Remember the plot: Horton finds a clover containing a microscopic society of Whos. Horton protects the clover with his life (and at the expense of his dignity), even as countless baddies — who don’t believe the Whos exist — threaten to steal the clover and destroy it.
As the bad guys move in, Horton implores with the Mayor of Who-ville to encourage his citizens to shout as loudly as loud as they can:
“‘Don’t give up! I believe in you all! A person’s a person, no matter how small! And you very small persons will not have to die If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!'”
The Mayor frantically appeals to his people to raise their voices in what he calls their “darkest hour”:
“‘The time for all Whos who have blood that is red To come to the aid of their country!’ he said. ‘We’ve GOT to make noises in greater amounts! So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!’”
But despite their best efforts, their shouting isn’t quite enough to be heard . . . until the smallest of Whos adds just *one more voice* to the crowd, shouting YOPP!
“And that Yopp,” writes Seuss,
“. . . That one small, extra Yopp put it over! Finally, at last! From that speck on that clover Their voices were heard!”
That one voice was enough to make a difference, and saved Who-ville. Without it, no one would’ve heard the Whos, and the story would have had a *very* different ending.
As Seuss said later, “’A person’s a person no matter how small,’ . . . And of course when the little boy stands up and yells ‘Yopp!’ and saves the whole place, that’s my statement about voting—everyone counts.”
Sixty years ago this week — on August 12, 1960 — Dr. Seuss published what would become his biggest-selling book of all time. Written as the result of a $50 bet between Seuss and his friend and publisher at Random House, Bennett Cerf, the book, by some estimates, has sold north of 200 million copies.*
The book? Green Eggs and Ham.
When I discuss Becoming Dr. Seuss with audiences, Seuss fans tell me they have warm memories of this one; it’s the book that taught them how to read, or it’s the first book they received as a gift — or, as grown-ups, it’s a book they can still quote and recite word-for-word. And it is a great book–but it’s an important one, too, both in the Seuss library and in the overall oeuvre of children’s literature. There’s a lot going on between its colorful orange boards, the result of sweat, inspiration, and no small amount of luck. But to truly appreciate how smart, and how important Green Eggs and Ham is, we need to go back a few years before its 1960 publication to get some background and some context.
Let’s start, then, by checking in with this May 1954 issue of LIFE magazine (that’s comedic actress Kaye Ballard on the cover, by the way, who was burning up Broadway in the musical The Golden Apple and would later make an appearance on The Muppet Show) which features an article by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist John Hersey titled, “Why Do Students Bog Down on the First ‘R’?” The cover text teases the article as “Why Can’t My Child Read?” but the gist is the same: namely, Hersey was discouraged by the low rates of childhood literacy in the United States, and placed the blame for children’s lack of interest in reading squarely on the shoulders of the ponderous Dick and Jane standard reading primers on which several generations of children had been raised.
The real problem, as Hersey saw it, was that Dick and Jane were terrible. The text — with its now-easily lampooned, “Look, Jane, look. See the ball?” syntax — was bad enough, but Hersey thought the artwork was even worse–“insipid illustrations depicting the slicked-up lives of other children,” he railed. No one, he concluded, was interested in reading about Dick and Jane and their lives of quiet desperation. At the very least, suggested Hersey, couldn’t they get Dr. Seuss to illustrate the otherwise turgid text?
They never would get Dr. Seuss to illustrate Dick and Jane; instead, Seuss was approached by William Spaulding, an editor of children’s books at Random House rival Houghton Mifflin, who had read Hersey’s article and begged Dr. Seuss to “write me a story that first graders can’t put down.”
But there was a catch. Putting aside all their other problems, Dick and Jane were at least living their dull lives inside an actual reading primer, operating under a strict educator-approved vocabulary list of about 300 unique words at the first grade reading level. For his book, then, Dr. Seuss would have to play by those same rules, using only the words on the sanctioned reading list. Seuss told Spaulding he’d take the list home and “play with it.”
He played with it for nearly a year. It was, he said later, an “impossible and ridiculous task…I was forbidden to use any words beyond the list. I almost threw the job up.” Eventually, he decided to read through the list one last time, vowing that “if I find two words that rhyme and make sense to me, that’s the title.” Unfortunately, tall and ball were a bust.
Cat and hat, however, were not.
After another year of work, Dr. Seuss published The Cat in the Hat in the Spring of 1957.** For Cat, Seuss had used 236 unique words from the word list. (His total word count, with repeated words, is about 1,600.) It was Seuss’ first real blockbuster of a book — the one that permitted him to finally devote himself full-time to writing and drawing books for children. But more importantly, Cat in the Hat is a bestseller with a pedagogy; with its reliance on the officially-sanctioned word list, it’s a book teachers approved of, one parents loved, and one kids actually wanted to read. In 1957, that was a game changer.
Inspired by the huge success of the Cat, Random House created a new imprint called Beginner Books, aimed squarely at beginning readers and which continued to lean on the educator-approved word list. Dr. Seuss was brought in as the imprint’s president and editor–a seat from which he would not only recruit and work with other writers and artists on children’s books (one of the most popular of which was P.D. Eastman’s Go, Dog. Go!) but would also regularly produce his own books under the new logo, featuring the Cat himself.
Among the first books Dr. Seuss produced for the Beginner Books imprint was One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, completed in 1959. One Fish was an experiment for Seuss, as he was deliberately using an even more restrictive word list of short words, and placing the accompanying drawings as close to the text as he possibly could, like so:
It would be the prototype for a new line of books Seuss was already informally calling “Beginner Beginner Books,” aimed at very early readers with limited vocabularies. Soon, there would be a new imprint at Random House, overseen by Seuss, and formally designated with the moniker Bright & Early Books. The Bright & Early Books relied on an approved vocabulary list of only 182 simple words—a little more than half as large as the already restrictive list adhered to by Beginner Books.
Still with me? In 1959, Random House publisher Bennett Cerf approached Dr. Seuss and gleefully pointed out that the new Bright & Early imprint relied on a tight list of 182 words. Then he laid down a playful and very specific challenge: could Dr. Seuss write a book using only 50 of those words?
Cerf bet Dr. Seuss $50 that he couldn’t.
Seuss, who who had agonized and struggled with a broader and less restrictive word list as he worked on The Cat in the Hat, nevertheless rose to the occasion. But it’s probably no coincidence that the resulting book was all about convincing someone to do something they didn’t really want to do.
Green Eggs and Ham would be its own kind of misery, requiring Seuss to create complicated charts, checklists, and multiple word counts as he struggled to keep track of the words he was using. He also imposed on himself a requirement to stick with one-syllable words, though he would make an exception for “anywhere,” which was made up of two short words that young readers would know.
Rhyming, too, could be tough with a fifty word restriction. “The agony is terrific at times, and the attribution is horrible,” he said. “If you’re doing it in quatrains and get to the end of four lines and can’t make it work, then it’s like unraveling a sock. You take some of your best stuff and throw it away.”
Dr. Seuss delivered Green Eggs and Ham to Cerf at Random House in 1960. He was glad to be done with it, and somewhat nervous about how it would be received.
We all know how it turned out. “The good doctor has scored another triumph,” exclaimed the New York Times, while one reviewer wrote presciently of Green Eggs and Ham: “A vocabulary of only fifty words, but they will long be remembered.”
For the rest of his life, Dr. Seuss would find himself at book signings and dinners in his honor where he would be served plates filled with green eggs and ham. “Deplorable stuff,” he said later, “The worst was on a yacht in six-foot seas.”
Generations of readers would look for hidden meanings and metaphors in its text—but for Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham was only ever about one thing: “Cerf bet me fifty bucks I couldn’t write a book using only 50 words,” he said later. “I did it to show I could.”
Oh, and Seuss also said later that Bennett Cerf never paid him his fifty dollars.
Regardless, Happy 60th Birthday to Green Eggs and Ham. Thank you, thank you, Sam I Am (and Dr. Seuss!)
* Publishers can be persnickety about releasing sales figures on the record. Total sales for Green Eggs are reported as anywhere from 8 million to 15 million to 200 million.
* * In a trade-off deal, Random House–Dr. Seuss’s normal publisher–permitted Houghton Mifflin to publish the textbook version of Cat in the Hat for schools, while Random House retained the trade rights. As it turned out, few schools bought the textbook version. Random House would make a mint off the Cat; Houghton — where the idea had originated in the first place! — not so much. Random House would eventually acquire the textbook rights back from its rival, and promptly shelve them, preferring to issue only the trade edition.
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 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.
If all goes well, you should be seeing me talking Dr. Seuss on Morning Joe tomorrow morning (that’s Tuesday, May 28) around 8:30 a.m. ET. This isn’t our first try; I was supposed to be on last week, but was bumped by Bill de Blasio, who was announcing he’s running for . . . some sort of elected position.
There are three major newspapers in which we tellers of tales and spinners of yarns–whether those yarns or tales are fiction or non-fiction–love to see our work reviewed: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal. What makes these three the trifecta? Mostly its because they each have large circulations that extend well-beyond their home markets–they end up in front of lots of readers, reading the papers in hotels and airports or on iPhones and laptops. They’re also papers with different audiences and different, often distinctive, points of view.
I’m thrilled, then, that Becoming Dr. Seuss has run the Triple Crown–and seems to have emerged out the other side in good shape. If you’re so inclined, you can click here to read the review in The Wall Street Journal (under the headline, “‘Becoming Dr. Seuss’: Who Killed Dick and Jane?”, which I think Dr. Seuss would have loved). Because WSJ is behind a subscription paywall–and therefore you may not be able to read the entire thing–here’s a quick peek:
“A fluid and enjoyable new biography . . . Brian Jay Jones takes a long appraising view of the life, career and creative evolution of Theodor Seuss Geisel . . . In this lively chronicle, Mr. Jones tackles the controversial elements of the Seussian oeuvre in a forthright way, setting them in the context of both the times and his subject’s own life.”
And here in the New York Times is what might be one of my favorite reviews of anything I’ve written ever, “‘The Cat in the Hat’ and the Man Who Made That,” written by the brilliant author and essayist Adam Gopnick.
Finally, I want to thank all of you, who have been so enthusiastic about Becoming Dr. Seuss. I appreciate all of you.