My Muppet Mentors

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Growing up, Judaism was the primary religion in my house, but there was a close second — in terms of ethical precepts, cultural heritage and daily devotion: the Muppets.

Jim Henson wasn’t our messiah, but the gospel his characters faithfully preached about — cooperation, community and compassion — would have earned him a seat at our seder, no strings attached. This mixed marriage manifested with “Ben’s Friends,” my Muppet-themed bar mitzvah, replete with hot air-balloon centerpieces plus Kermit and me, arm in gangly arm, on the T-shirts.

It’s been more than 20 years since Henson’s sudden, unexpected death; he would have just turned 75. Watching Sesame Street with my son lately, I’ve wondered what the world would be like were the man who gave us “Pigs in Space” still alive today?

Gay marriage would be legal. According to PBS, responding to a recent Facebook campaign, Bert and Ernie are not gay. I contend, however, that if Henson had lived just three more years, he’d have been so appalled by the passage of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he would have brought Bert and Ernie out of the closet — even if he had to put them in the closet first. Could anything be more anathema to the openness, acceptance and inclusion of Sesame Street than not asking and not telling? Starting in 1993, a whole generation would have grown up with two men in love being as normal as having a rubber ducky in the tub.

Global warming would be in remission. Environmental stewardship was always part of Henson’s world. The Fraggles, Doozers and Gorgs shared a delicate ecosystem even though they rarely encountered one another. Oscar the Grouch loved trash but never littered. Amidst overwhelming evidence of man-made climate change, Henson would have further enlisted his Muppet minions and their celebrity friends to make it easy — and compelling — to be green. Against this backdrop, candidate Al Gore and his ecological platform would have seemed Sam-the-Eagle patriotic rather than Guy-Smiley milquetoast. Then, the Floridians who decisively elected him — and Hensonites nationwide — would have supported President Gore’s aggressive, progressive agenda to combat climate change.

War on Poverty ≠ War on the Poor.  In response to 1994’s Contract with America and Grover Norquist’s faustian Americans for Tax Reform pledge, Henson would have created “Grover No-Quits,” an irrepressible blue Muppet who, clipboard and pen clutched in his flailing arms, would ask candidates to sign a pledge of his own. The pledge: Work hardest for the poorest constituents, and refuse to let poverty become a partisan issue. Thanks to the evolution of Sesame Street, more Americans would live in socio-economically diverse cities instead of stratified suburbs — and would support the real Grover in holding politicians accountable to their neighbors from all tax brackets.

There’s no telling what Henson and his exponential imagination would have aspired to, and accomplished, over the past 20 years or, for that matter, the next 20: Peace in the Middle East? Universal healthcare? Worldwide WiFi? The good folks at Henson Studios have admirably kept the Count counting and Snuffleupagus from becoming invisible, but what would Apple look like had Steve Jobs died after the Apple IIgs? Pixar (creator of a string of incredible movies, including, as it were, The Incredibles) is really Henson’s creative successor, but, short of the dystopian Wall-E, they have not yet shown the conscience behind the CGI.

Rather, all of us who grew up with Kermit and Co. — the lovers, the dreamers and Fozzie — are Henson’s legacy. It’s up to us to keep stargazing, to write so many songs about rainbows and to find out what’s on the other side.

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