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The Muppet Master

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The elephant, it appears, is in charge. ”Can everyone please get closer together?” it beseeches a collection of chattering creatures. ”Hmm, well, sure,” they mutter, regrouping with all the grace that 15 jostling and pushing 6-year-olds would muster as they form a line. ”Ow, ow, ow!” the elephant yells above the din, finding itself impaled on a cactus that refuses to stand still. ”Help me!”

The set of ABC’s Muppets Tonight, which begins airing March 8 at 8:30 p.m., is a scene of giddy chaos, where the premise of the show — that the Muppets take over a TV station — seems in danger of flooding into reality. Even when the cameras aren’t rolling, the puppeteers stay in character. Rizzo the Rat wanders around the stage wearing guest star Garth Brooks’ ebony Stetson slung low over his tiny body. The Great Gonzo flies gleefully overhead, butane tanks strapped to his back, and dressed in a snazzy red, white, and blue space suit. A grounded Kermit opens his mouth in a gaping yawn, mimicking that of his puppeteer, Steve Whitmire. And while the elephant whiningly attempts to disengage the cactus from his red jacket, a glance up his skirted bottom will reveal the man in complete control of the situation: ponytailed Brian Henson, 32, executive producer of Muppets Tonight, director of Muppet Treasure Island, president and CEO (taking the title of his late father) of Jim Henson Productions, and perhaps most important at this moment, Seymour the elephant.

If there’s mirth on the set, it’s deserved: In addition to Muppets Tonight, a revival of sorts of The Muppet Show (1976-81), Henson Productions just released Island, which has earned $19 million in its first 10 days. It is also producing Aliens in the Family, a live-action sitcom about a man married to an extraterrestrial, which will air right after Muppets Tonight, starting March 15. And all that follows NBC’s Gulliver’s Travels, starring Ted Danson and coproduced by Henson Productions; it won universal critical praise and garnered the highest miniseries ratings this season when it aired in February.

That Henson Productions is back on track and having fun again is something its 200-plus full-time employees find miraculous: Six years ago, when Jim Henson died suddenly of a streptococcal infection at 53, the company, inherited by the Henson children, was plunged into a grief so overwhelming that many still find it difficult to articulate. Henson’s death wasn’t the only devastating news: The employees soon found that the company’s finances were anything but solid.

Jim Henson’S image is everywhere in Henson Productions’ L.A. headquarters, from framed snapshots to glossy posters hanging in the corridors, and his name is never far from conversation. Many people have been with the company for decades and preface sentences with ”Jim thought…” or ”Jim wanted…” or ”Jim always said….”

”He was the only person I’ve ever met who was a genius,” says Duncan Kenworthy, who worked with Henson full-time for 15 years before producing Four Weddings and a Funeral (he’s now an independent producer). When Henson died, Kenworthy says, ”we were like zombies. How long does it take to mourn someone like that? It was like losing our father.”

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