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Puppet Up! an interview with Brian Henson

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A burly American detective interrogates an Angolese koala while a French ferret translates. The koala has just robbed a bank…a sperm bank. A bespectacled Orang Utan tells a bedtime story about stealing Dick Cheney’s brain and shooting a dog, then breaks into ‘The Big Fat Buddha Song’. Piddles the diapered puppy gets amorous with a puppeteer’s arm on stage while a nervous presenter barks instructions at her from video walls mounted around the theatre.

These are some hysterical scenes you won’t see when the Jim Henson Company brings Puppet Up! – Uncensored to the Melbourne and Sydney Comedy Festivals, because the show isn’t just live – it’s improvised.

the big fat buddhas in Edinburgh

Brian Henson spoke with me by phone from L.A. In a musically rich voice, with an American accent so forgivable it was almost Canadian, he enthused about the challenge of creating live puppet shows for grown ups, based only on audience suggestion.

“Because you’re trying to think as fast as you can on your feet and to be funny, you literally are almost unaware of what’s coming out of your own mouth – it’s almost like losing your temper. And, when somebody loses their temper they say things that they didn’t intend to say. There’s quite a few American politicians who will not be at all happy about our show.”

But, wait a minute – this is the son of the Jim Henson, voice and nervous system of Kermit the Frog. Brian Henson, co-CEO of a very children-oriented entertainment powerhouse. Sure, he worked on cult classics like Labyrinth and Little Shop of Horrors, various Muppet movies, and even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – but now he’s traveling the world as a cranky old man trying to break George Michaels’ leg in the disabled toilet?

“If you look at the original Muppet comedy, the Muppet comedy came from vaudeville, and then vaudeville became television variety shows, and The Muppet Show was borrowing heavily from that tradition of vaudeville and then variety comedy. Presently, what I was trying to do was to look for what’s in contemporary, funny, comedic voice and tone and energy for puppets that wasn’t sort of borrowing from modern sitcoms, which never felt right.”

Barely a year ago, Henson enlisted Patrick Bristow – a highly regarded improv artist and comedian. Bristow’s TV credits include Ellen, Seinfeld, Friends, and Whose Line is it Anyway?. In weekly classes, he challenged puppeteers and their hand-bound companions to nurture the spontaneity “that happens when you’re on a set at one of our tv shows, and what the actors do before the director calls ‘action’ and after the director calls ‘cut’.”

Mischievously, Henson says, “it was just so funny in the class that I thought ‘let’s put it in front of an audience – that’ll make the performers even more nervous, and probably make them even better’.”

One thing led to another – an agent booked them for Las Vegas, Warner’s TBS network broadcast the show, critics and web geeks got excited, and they recently finished a highly acclaimed 30 show spot at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Meanwhile, Henson’s company is launching a series called The Skrumps using patented technology to allow puppeteers to ‘act’ 3D CGI characters in real time, working on a live action Fraggle Rock movie, a sequel called The Power of The Dark Crystal, and he recently directed William Hurt in a movie called Battleground which was part of Stephen King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes series. His assistant reminds him that he has to finish the interview in time to get to the next meeting. How does he fit in the heavy touring of a live show with so many projects on the boil?

“I’m pretty much not necessary anymore. It’s a fantastic troupe and it’s growing. We also train newcomers, we’ve got all of that going here as well, so they don’t need me anymore. At this point, it’s probably an excuse to have fun. I don’t really have to be going to Australia but I’ve just had so much fun.”

Puppet Up! doesn’t feature any Muppets, as such. The Company sold the rights to Miss Piggy and Co. to Disney as part of an effort to restructure and move on. While this is the kind of Zen approach so evident in a lot of Henson stories, there’s a down side. BMW recently had Kermit sing ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’ in an effort to out-ironic Mercedes Benz’ use of Janis Joplin’s protest against capitalism. And Henson is understandably reluctant to discuss the specifics of trademarked characters. For instance, was there a hidden meaning in Oscar the Grouch looking like a bud of marijuana, and Cookie Monster always having the munchies?

“Nooo, I can’t comment on that! The truth is my Dad was, like, a really craaazy workaholic – lovely, and a wonderful guy – but he was working all the time. So we, as kids, would spend a lot of time at the puppet shop where he was building the characters and on his sets when he was shooting and it was wonderful. But because I was always there it was never weird to me, it’s only weird to other people.

“If you’ve been growing up with it since you were 18 months old – I had my hand inside puppets in the background of tv shows from the age of five – for me it was always normal, and wonderful. I had a very high respect for it all – I just thought it was all really cool, and, and, and wonderful. It never felt crazy.”

Australia has been Henson’s second home for the last 6 years while working on the sci-fi series Farscape. Even for performers unfamiliar with the Antipodes, Henson expects an organic experience.

“Once you have an all Australian audience and they’re making all of the suggestions for the content, that’s what makes the show Australian. And we don’t even know what that will be yet.

“The problem will be when an Australian audience member makes a suggestion and everyone in the audience knows what it is and then all of us Americans just go ‘boy, sorry, but we have no idea what you’re talking about’ and then, even then, we’ll usually take the suggestion.”

So you haven’t heard of Amanda Vanstone?

“No, that’s right, I couldn’t do that one. That wouldn’t necessarily stop us.”

A close colleague and friend who helped the family, and the Company, cope after the sudden and unexpected death of Henson’s father in 1990 once said that he’d “always remember Jim Henson as the man who balanced effortlessly between the sacred and the silly”. It’s a comment that seems to resonate with the new production.

“Yes! I think you’ll see that it’s just this wonderful, chaotic, nonsense that we deliver out there, and we do it with great commitment. But it is – a celebration of the absurdity of life.”

a version of this article, titled Puppetry of the Genus, is in the Australian Big Issue, March 12 – 27 edition.






Written by typingisnotactivism

March 22, 2007 at 5:42 pm

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