THE Melbourne International Comedy Festival is in for a treat this year as the group behind Jim Henson Company’s Puppet Up! Uncensored returns to the stage later this month.
He described it as a “fast-paced” comedy show with audience participation and improvisation, with one aspect of the show filmed above, and one in the shadows below.
“It is a rare opportunity for audiences to not just see what the puppeteers do when performing the puppets, but how they do it, too,” he said.
Puppet Up! began almost seven years ago as an opportunity for his puppeteers to “get funnier”, although Henson has trained puppeteers since he was 19 — when working for his dad on The Muppet Show.
According to Henson, “a strike rate of one in 15 puppeteers” made the cut and he needed to find a way to make the puppeteers more entertaining, with the skill to ad-lib and ability to bring the charters to life beyond a script. It was his wife who eventually suggested improvised comedy as a way to make the process of training puppeteers more efficient.
Calling on comedy legend Patrick Bristow to work with the puppeteers, Henson was so impressed with how funny the sessions were that he invited an audience to watch.
Producers from the Aspen Comedy Festival happened to be in the audience and afterwards they asked Henson to bring his puppets to Colorado for the festival. There, producers from the Edinburgh Comedy Festival saw the show, which in turn led to an invitation to Scotland. It was there that Melbourne International Comedy Festival producers saw the Henson troupe perform, inviting them to Australia back in 2007.
“The show grew organically from there,” Henson reflected.
With the success of his show in front of Melbourne audiences, Henson gained the confidence to develop it into something “much more spectacular”, and promised a completely different show for his upcoming visit.
The upcoming show will have re-enactments of Henson’s father’s early work from show Sam and Friends which aired on TV long before The Muppet Show began, and will feature unique digital puppetry where 3D characters can be seen on large screens in the style of the Henson Company’s kids show Sid the Science Kid.
The puppetry technique used for Puppet Up! is strictly for camera, with the puppets performed above the puppeteers’ heads and shown on screens at the side of the stage. This makes it different to what Australian audiences saw in other live puppet stage shows Avenue Q and Thank You For Being A Friend.
Being an improvised comedy show, the Star Observer asked Henson how difficult it was for him and his puppet troupe to amalgamate the often blank mindset a performer needed to be in along with the precise manipulation skills needed to perform a puppet.
“We have had improv aficionados say that we improve faster than any (other) improve comedy troupe,” he said.
“One of the main tricks improvising comedians are told is to try to engage yourself in an imaginary activity, like washing the dishes, and use that activity to blank your mind.
“With Puppet Up! we have this technically engaging process that is manipulating the puppet that helps us blank our mind for the comedy.”
The adult only show is partially so because the show works off real time audience suggestions that are collected by host Patrick Bristow. This inevitably pushes the show in an adult direction. Henson said this worked because “when a puppet comes out (on stage) they have no baggage, it is not an old white man, it’s not a young black boy, there is no expectations from the audience. So we can portray prejudice in such a way that people are open and objective when they’re being presented with that”.
Henson is certainly no stranger to Australia, having also been here for four years directing the sci-fi TV show Farscape from 1998. When asked about the return of Puppet Up! – Uncensored he told the Star Observer that even though he “loves Australia”, he would probably not be on the Australian tour, due to work commitments with the Henson Company.
There are internet rumours of a Farscape film in production, and although Henson could not comment on this he did say if he “was to make a Farscape movie, of course I would want to do it in Australia”.
He also spoke about his fathers legacy, the now Disney-owned Muppets, especially with a new movie about to be released.
“First of all, they (Disney) took a long time, I was really glad that we where able to move The Muppets to Disney,” Henson said.
“It was something that my dad wanted to do, it was something that he was trying to do when he died. We as a family where really happy to finally get The Muppets at home at Disney, we knew that when Disney protects a franchise and protects a bunch of characters they do it really really well.
“It took them a long time to make that first movie, but they did it carefully, and I think they learnt a lot, the last move The Muppets was not so much a Muppet movie as it was a big call to ‘wouldn’t it be wonderful to have The Muppets back’. The next movie The Muppets – Most Wanted will be a proper solid Muppet movie.”
Missing from the current Disney movies are Henson’s own characters Dr. Phil van Neuter, a villainous crazy neurosurgeon and Sal Minella, a flunky monkey who plays a bodyguard to another missing character, Johnny Fiama. The Star Observer asked Henson if it was likely audiences would ever see these characters under the Disney franchise.
“Disney will move very slowly and very carefully, with a lot of thought and a lot of market research,” he said.
“Creatively they are always a good solid brand of excellence, but they very much wanted to focus right back to the core Muppet Show Muppets and re-introduce them to the audience before going into the expansion group (which Henson’s characters are part of). But I miss doing Van Neuter and Sal Minella, but you know one day, maybe they (Disney) will come back to them.”
More recently in 2012, the Henson Company severed ties with fast food chain Chick-Fil-A after the the company caused controversy for its documented support of anti-gay Christian organisations. Star Observer asked Henson about this.
“As a company we try not to be politically aligned, we try not to get involved in any religious activity, we try to stay natural every where, as a company we don’t particularly make a stand for any cause,” he said.
“The situation with Chick-Fil-A, there where certain statements and attitudes that company was making we found too offensive and we had to respond by cancelling all of our business with them.”
Even though the Henson Company also no longer own Sesame Street, it was Henson’s dad Jim along with Frank Oz who respectfully bought the characters Ernie and Bert to life on the still-popular children’s television show. Ernie and Bert have un-officially become synonymous with the gay rights movement, with the question of their sexuality often bought up.
When the Star Observer asked Henson to weigh in on the Ernie and Bert gay debate, he laughed in response: “The truth is, is that they are not sexual characters. None of the Sesame Street characters really have any consideration of sexuality, or really sexual identity or really gender identity for the most part.
“That relationship (Ernie and Bert) was made up because it was fun, with out any real consideration, the consideration (of their sexuality) isn’t really deserved, they are not anything.”
Henson was also asked if the Puppet Up! troupe were ready for Australia and if they had been practicing any slang.
“I would rather that when they try to do an Australian accent and if they use Australian lingo, that they do it really badly and just go for it because that would be funnier than if they really worked at it and tried to be accurate on stage,” he joked.
On some of the strange situations Puppet Up! had found itself in from audience participation, Henson declined to comment.
“I couldn’t tell you, because I could get in trouble. Every now-and-then the show goes to really weird places,” he joked.
“The show is outrageous and wonderful and I wouldn’t want to get specific on audience suggestions because that will make the audiences prepare before the show, they should just come and see it.”
INFO: Puppet Up!’s national tour starts at the MICF on March 27 -30 before heading to Sydney and Brisbane.