What the Muppets Have to Say About Your Business and Your Audience

I have been reading the new biography of Muppets creator Jim Henson by Brian Jay Jones. Part of Henson’s genius was that he recognized things about the medium of television that seem obvious in retrospect. In particular, he understood the importance of literally seeing things from the audience perspective. Most early television shows that included puppets used some version of a traditional puppet theater on the set so that the audience was presented with a televised traditional puppet show as it was performed on a small stage framed by its own small proscenium arch.

Credit: Zanthia via Compfight cc
Credit: Zanthia via Compfight cc

What Henson realized was that the television screen itself provided the frame for the audience and that this frame could be moved and the puppets could move into it and out of it in ways that could create dynamism and humor. From the audience perspective the puppet was no longer contained in a puppet theater, but could move and interact just like the real actors on the set as long as the puppeteers themselves were outside the frame that was created by the television camera.

Once Henson and his team saw the puppets as the audience saw them through the television screen, as actors with freedom to move, the next step was to bring the camera in for close-ups just like they did for real actors. This pushed Henson’s puppet design toward construction techniques that enabled the Muppets to be more expressive close up. Rather than wooden-headed with single-hinged mouths, the Muppets were soft and pliable and could, with lots of practice in front of the mirror, express a wide range of emotions with their faces and mimic more exactly the mouth movements of spoken words. An early innovation, in fact, included having a small TV monitor for the puppeteers so they could see exactly what the audience was seeing (and so they could keep their own heads out of the frame).

Henson was so successful at creating real Muppet actors over the long term that when people met Kermit (or other Muppets) “in person,” they interacted directly with Kermit even though Jim was obviously sitting right there speaking the voice and moving his hands. He understood that for the audience,  it’s the frame they bring to the experience that matters.

So ask yourself, “How does your audience (your customer) actually see into your business?” How do they interact with your performance? Would it be helpful to make your business more visually accessible? Consider these examples: the pizza parlor where you see the dough being spun into pies; the car wash that you ride through in your car, the product delivery process that you track online from the factory to your front door; the chef’s performance at a Japanese steak house; the makeover shows with the behind the scene views of progress for the TV audience and then the big “reveal” at the end.

What innovations might you introduce into your business if you considered a different “frame” for your audience? Is your business entirely opaque to them? Maybe you want to keep your trade secrets and to maintain some magic. Maybe the audience doesn’t want to know how it’s done. Henson and his team were always amazed how kids on the Sesame Street set who saw how the show was done interacted with the Muppets as real “people” even though the puppeteers were right there.

Maybe the deeper magic happens because you are so totally committed to the audience experience that even though you are also totally transparent, your audience experiences the magic anyway.

Suggestion: Take a little break and watch some of your favorite Muppets’ skits on YouTube – you will be glad you did.