Jimmy O sits in a clear plastic case, high on a shelf in my apartment, protected from the curious paws of a couple of young cats. He’s waiting for me, always eager to spend time with me, and I never know what he’s going to say. Who is Jimmy O? Well, let me explain.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve been a fan of the Muppets. When I was only three years old, the only thing I wanted for the holidays that year was a stuffed Kermit the Frog. Mom got one for me, and I was (so I’m told) as happy as could be. I still have that stuffed Kermit, safely stored in a closet, and he’s held up remarkably well over the years.
As we get older, we naturally lose interest in the things that brought us joy as a child. That’s just part of growing up. However, I’ve never once let my love of the Muppets wane. In fact, the older I get, the more I seem to appreciate them. Their shows and movies work on so many levels, many of which go right over a kid’s head. In some ways, they’re even highly subversive. I remember re-watching the Muppet Show episode featuring Rudolph Nureyev and was shocked at the amount of blatant subtext in some of the scenes. There’s a whole level of humor in the Miss Piggy/Nureyev duet of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” that’s only appreciable in an adult context.
However, the main gift that the Muppets gave me, and I’ve written about this a number of times before, is the installation in me of the belief that being yourself is okay. In fact, it’s the best way to be. The Muppets are a decidedly motley assortment of characters, from demanding divas (Piggy) to misunderstood artists (Gonzo) to reckless manifestations of the id (Animal). Virtually every personality type is represented by one of the Muppets, and each Muppet is valued for his or her own individual strengths. In the Muppets’ world, you are encouraged to be creative and express yourself.
Growing up as a young gay boy, even before I understood what that meant, this proved to be a highly resonant message. I didn’t realize I was gay until I was a teenager, but before that I just knew that I was “different.” It wasn’t just about being gay, either. I was into fantasy and sci-fi, and I didn’t like the same things most of my peer group did, which invited a constant barrage of insults and ridicule. For me, the Muppets offered a kind of solace from all that. Here was a place where everybody was fine just the way they were, and you could be yourself without fear of attack (except for some mild heckling from the balcony, of course).
I’ve held onto that my entire life. Of course I’m not beaten up on the playground anymore, but the idea that whatever you want to be is okay never loses its power. It’s encouraged me to be myself, to write the music and stories I want to, and to do what makes me happy.
So, you can imagine how I felt to finally own my very own Muppet.
In 2008, FAO Schwarz opened their Muppet Whatnot Workshop. You could design your very own working Muppet Whatnot, either online or in their New York store. A Muppet Whatnot is one of the random, unnamed background characters you see in crowd scenes or in chorus lines. Muppet extras, essentially. For a long, long, long (did I say long?) time, I wanted to buy one, but I always felt the price was a little steep ($99.99) for something so marvelously non-essential. So, for the time being, owning a Muppet Whatnot of my own had to remain a distant dream.
When I’m not working or writing reviews for FBOTU, I perform with a local burlesque troupe (which actually resembles the Muppets in both variety and eccentric creativity). A recent show afforded me a little extra cash, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it.
That’s when Jimmy O came into my life.
It was fun enough just being on FAO’s website and designing what my Muppet would look like, but that was nothing compared to the reality of seeing my own personal, custom-designed Muppet right in front of me. When I came home from work on that Friday and saw the large, mostly unmarked box sitting in front of my apartment door, I almost jumped up and down. I was barely able to stop my hands from shaking as I cut the box open, because inside there he was: MY Muppet.
That might not seem like a big deal for most people, but for me it was nothing short of mind-blowing. I almost cried, I swear. The Muppets have informed my life so much, and here in front of me was MY VERY OWN MUPPET. It was made FOR ME. It wasn’t a replica of Gonzo or Pepe or Kermit. It was my own personal, original creation.
Jimmy O doesn’t really have a personality yet. I haven’t had enough time to develop a character for him. That’s the really fun part of the whole Muppet Whatnot experience. You don’t know exactly who your Muppet is until you start using it. Even Whatnot extras have distinct personalities and quirks, even if they’re just background scenery. I’m also very new to puppeteering, so I’m still trying to master using the Muppet in a technical way.
But I’ll be damned it if isn’t one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done. I get to have a Muppet of my own. I get a little bit of happiness just looking at him on the shelf, evidence of the creativity the Muppets can inspire. Jimmy O represents the Muppets’ influence in my life coming around full circle in a very literal, tangible way.
It’s time to play the music. It’s time to light the lights…and for real, this time.
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and fan of felt and fur.