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Jim Henson Wanted to Free Us From Paperwork

In his short film from 1967, the famed Muppet-maker welcomes workers to a paper-free future.

Paperwork is kind of annoying, though it hasn’t ever seemed particularly sinister.

But wait! In his 1967 sales film for IBM called Paperwork Explosion, Jim Henson makes paperwork feel sort of like a slightly creepy conspiracy that we must all get to work dismantling immediately.

Henson, the beloved artist who brought us childhood favorites Sesame Street and The Muppet Show, was hired by the technology company to make a film singing the praises of its new machinery. Machinery that was destined to free us all from the day-in-day-out chore of paperwork. IBM looked at the stacks of paperwork cluttering the desks of American office workers everywhere and asked, “Have you considered getting a machine to do that for you?”

Henson’s experimental short film features quick cuts, talking heads, and a vague sense of unease. It can be read as a response to some of the questions society was asking about becoming fully automated. People were concerned about the role computers would play as American society came to rely on them more and more.

Placing Paperwork Explosion in context, Henson archivists note a Time magazine article from 1965 that wondered “Is the computer a friend or enemy of man? … Will it devalue the human brain, or happily free it from drudgery?”

Henson’s film tries to answer those questions. With a soundtrack of retro-futuristic music composed by electronic music pioneer Raymond Scott, Paperwork Explosion reassures us that “Machines should do the work, and people should do the thinking,” so fear not, settle in and, welcome to the future. (Of course, this was way before robots started doing backflips, so be careful what you ask for.)

Paperwork Explosion was just one of a series of films that Henson made for IBM. He also created several in-house training films for the company, including a few that featured his puppets. As for his work with IBM, Henson didn’t see it differently from other work he was doing during that time. “Back in the sixties,” Henson said, “I thought of myself as an experimental filmmaker. I was interested in the visual image for its own sake—different ways of using it—quick cutting and things of that sort … I loved what one could do with the montaging of visual images.”

Everyone would become more familiar with Henson’s work just two years later with the premiere of Sesame Street, but Paperwork Explosion is a fun look at his early innovative work.

Video Wonders are audiovisual offerings that delight, inspire, and entertain. Have you encountered a video we should feature? Email ella@atlasobscura.com.