Jim Henson should probably be arrested.
During a press conference in Los Angeles earlier this year he freely admitted that his passport carries a neat one-word summation of his occupation: puppeteer.Isn't there some kind of law against gross oversimplification?
I mean, anyone who has been paying any attention at all during the past 35 or so years knows that "puppeteer" only begins to describe what this man does for a living. He's also a respected writer, producer and director, and a solid case could be made for calling him an educator and an actor.
And now you can add one more title behind Henson's name: television host. That's the function he'll be serving tonight when NBC introduces The Jim Henson Hour (7 p.m., Ch. 2), a fast-paced, innovative new series that features new Muppet creations, new installments of the Emmy Award-winning "Storyteller" series, guest stars both flesh (Louie Anderson, Bobby McFerrin, Ted Danson) and fabric (Miss Piggy) . . . and Henson.
"I do appear briefly as myself at the beginning," Henson said during the press conference. "And I'm still doing Kermit the Frog and Rolf, whenever he appears. But I think just sort of shepherding the whole thing along is basically my role. I do enough things where I can move from one thing to another. I have such a good time doing that."
And "having a good time" is something that Henson has proven to be something of an expert in during an entertainment career that is set to move into its fifth decade. Ever since he started as a puppeteer on a Washington, D.C., television show in 1954, Henson has been interested in making sure that both he and his audiences have enjoyed themselves. And on television shows like "Sesame Street," "The Muppet Show" and "Fraggle Rock," and in movies including "The Muppet Movie, "The Muppets Take Manhattan," "The Dark Crystal" and "Labyrinth" . . . well, a "good time" was had by all.
None of which means a thing when it comes to "The Jim Henson Hour." No amount of distinguished history - not even Henson's recent induction into the Television Academy Hall of Fame - counts for much if the new series can't stand by itself on its own entertainment value. Just ask Lucille Ball. Or Mary Tyler Moore. Or Dick Van Dyke.
Fortunately, the very fact that Henson is able to wear so many different hats helps spare him the embarrassment of a dismal return to prime time. Under his creative artistic control, "The Jim Henson Hour" delivers an eclectic mix of slapstick comedy, poignant family drama and teletronic wizardry.
In other words, more "good times."
The first half of the hour is dominated by "Muppetelevision," a high-tech variation on the old "Muppet Show" theme. Kermit hosts a series of songs, sketches and comedy bits featuring guest stars, Muppet favorites and some brand new creatures including an android character named Digit and television's first completely computer generated character, Waldo C. Graphic.
The "Muppetelevision" stuff is fun, quick and lively. And if all of the bits don't all work to perfection, so what? Just wait a minute or two and something else will be along that you'll probably like better. (The same thing, by the way, could be said for the show itself. I've seen two episodes, and to be honest, I didn't like the one they're showing tonight nearly as well as one they'll present in a couple of weeks. Watch for an installment featuring Bobby "Don't Worry, Be Happy" McFerrin.)
The real highlight of "The Jim Henson Hour," however, comes during the show's second half, when Henson pulls out all of the imaginative stops for new episodes of his "Storyteller" series. In case you've forgotten, this is the delightful series where Henson gives an impressionistic Muppets-eye-view of the world of fables and fairy tales, with John Hurt in the spooky, ethereal title role. These stories mix humor and drama, humans and Muppets, reality and fantasy to create some of contemporary television's most magical moments. They're worth the price of admission - an hour of your time - all by themselves.
Unfortunately, Henson feels he can only produce five "Storyteller" episodes during the 13-week run of "The Jim Henson Hour." But don't worry - the king of TV Land's Imagi-Nation has plenty of ideas to fill the remaining hours. There's a film noir gangster story called "Dog City," featuring an all-dog cast. And "Lighthouse Island," filmed entirely in Nova Scotia. And "The Song of the Cloud Forest," focusing on an endangered species in the Latin American rain forests. And "Miss Piggy's Hollywood," featuring you-know-who.
"We haven't done a lot of testing or anything like that to see if any of this stuff will work," said the soft-spoken Henson. "We're just putting together a show that we believe in."
And for 35 years now, that's been more than enough.
-IN A STATE that has had more than its fair share of "interesting" politicians, former governor and Salt Lake City mayor J. Bracken Lee stands out. Fiesty and outspoken, he was loved by some and criticized harshly by others. But he was always colorful, whether he was serving two terms as governor, having his own party nominate someone to run against him for his third term or taking a road often traveled - from the mayor's office to the governor's - backwards.
Old Fights, Good Times: The J. Bracken Lee Story (Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Ch. 2), a new KUTV News documentary, looks back on Lee's career. And it does so through his own eyes, using home movies that Lee, an amateur filmmaker, took himself, including rare footage of miner's strikes, Utah society and hometown parades. Narrated by Rod Decker, "Old Fights, Good Times" is a fascinating glimpse into the history of a man - and a state.
-SPEAKING OF KUTV, I've been wondering: If the LDS Church sold KSL and bought KUTV, would they have to change their slogan to "Two Together Forever"?
Well, would they?