Jim Henson Co.'s "Lily the Unicorn" Isn't Your Average Fairy Tale

Even if you're not familiar with Lisa Henson, you know her work. For one, her father was Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets and Sesame Street. Today, Lisa is the CEO of the Jim Henson Company, which is in the process of releasing new shows including Lily the Unicorn. Henson told us about Lily, and more, in a recent interview.

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Who's your favorite Muppet of all time?

My favorite Muppet is Rowlf the Dog. It's one of the characters my father puppeteered. Everybody knows that Kermit the Frog was kind of his alter-ego, but Rowlf was also sort of an alter-ego of his. I love Rowlf and his sort of paternal, encouraging, old folksy wisdom.

What's your favorite quality about yourself?

I'm fairly unflappable. I can withstand a disappointment or an obstacle without getting too freaked out. I just kind of stay on an even keel.

What's one thing that always makes you smile?

My kids doing something silly.

If you could instantly learn any one skill, what would it be?

To speak languages instead of just understanding them.

If you weren't doing what you're doing now, what's the second thing on your list of dream jobs?

I might become an animator.

Where do you look for inspiration?

Books, storytelling, and anywhere that people are creating a story that works on its own before they ever thought of it being a film or a television show.

If you could spend a week sort of being mentored by any person from history, who would you pick?

Queen Elizabeth I.

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What was it like to grow up with Jim Henson as your dad?

My mom and dad had 5 kids. We did a lot of things together as a family, and some of my earliest memories are of growing up on the sets of his shows. We had a very creative household with so many art projects, whether it was painting or sewing or making small movies, animations and mosaics. It was a creative atmosphere to grow up in, both at work and at home.

Do you think that process inspired you to eventually want to be in production?

I wanted to be a producer since I was a kid. I was more interested in the script development and editorial and the concept behind the shows than actually becoming a puppeteer or a puppet maker. Some of my brothers and sisters were drawn to be more physically part of the puppetry. We all balanced each other out pretty well.

How did you come to be CEO of the Jim Henson Company? 

I always wanted to be a producer, but at one point when I was a very young child, I was strangely interested in becoming a television programmer. I somehow thought there was a job where you could be in charge of what cartoons played when. After I graduated from college, I worked at Warner Brothers as a studio executive for feature films for 10 years, and several more years at Columbia, where I was president of production. 

For the last 15 years I've been back at the family company. It's been so rewarding because we're a family that owns the company and many of us have children of our own. We're making family entertainment. I feel like this is now my permanent position.

Tell me about the story behind Lily the Unicorn.

It just got launched on Amazon and we're so proud of it. The company is famous for puppetry, but recently we've ventured into making TV shows for kids with CG animation. This is actually one of our very first 2D animated shows. It means a lot to me because it has a strong female lead character. I'm a big admirer of Adventure Time, Regular Show and that genre of animation, but they always star two guys who are the best of friends, worst of enemies who get in trouble together. Girls love those shows, but they're not really about girls.

It meant a lot to us to make a show in that genre, because it's one we all watch and love. I would've watched those shows as a tween myself. I was addicted to Looney Tunes and everything that was sort of sophisticated, weird comedy. But they didn't star girls. With Lily we're venturing into something that we would make for our daughters or for ourselves when we were kids.

What is the show about?

Lily will have different adventures in every episode. She's kind of our anti-sparkle rainbow unicorn. She's a bit gangly and odd-looking. It's a different version of a unicorn than you would see in other animated shows. She's the only unicorn in her school. She's totally one of a kind, but she embraces her uniqueness and her weirdness and is full of life and happiness.

She's a weird character, but she's really confident, too. The loveable weirdo is what the Henson Company has been about for years. Her best friend is a little penguin, Roger, who takes no chances in life. Throughout the series she'll be pushing Roger to try new things and stretch a little bit when it's not his natural inclination.

She's up for anything. The show is based on a book by Dallas Clayton. We're very big admirers of his. He has a really modern sensibility, open to anything with big ideas, but at the same time, very odd and funny and original. We absolutely love his art. He wrote the book, he wrote the script, he designed all the characters. We think the world of him.

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Can you also tell me a little bit about Dot and the Jim Henson's Enchanted Sisters series?

The three new shows represent a new angle for us, all utilizing 2D animation. It's like we're making shows for the young girl inside of us, with smart, interesting, assertive female characters. All three of these shows are about girls. 

Dot is an exciting project based on Randi Zuckerberg's book. Dot's very facile with technology like many real kids are today, which you just don't see portrayed on television. But we also see her active in the real world. She's a kid who's balancing an activity like fishing with using technology to photograph, research and communicate her research with people. We want to encourage girls' interest in technology, and Randi Zuckerberg has made a mission of communicating that girls should stick with their interest in tech, because very few women are sticking with tech careers, even though they all have the aptitude. 

jim hensons enchanted sisters lisa henson interview

We started publishing the Enchanted Sisters because we wanted to do our own Henson princesses. Disney princesses are fantastic in their own way, but they're not the characters that would come from our company. Each of our princesses represents a season, so they're very tied to nature and balance each other out very well. The books are funny and adventurous and talk about themes of friendship and sisterhood. It's also a little wish fulfillment. You have these natural, wonderful magical princess powers of changing the seasons.

Loved this interview with Lisa Henson? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below, and click here to check out the Lily the Unicorn pilot only on Amazon!