"Adult" Puppet Comedy Reflects Jim Henson's Roots

Brian Henson’s latest show is derived from early memories of watching his dad off-set with the Muppets.
  • Transcript


Question: Where did the idea for "Stuffed and Unstrung" come from?

Brian Henson: “Stuffed and Unstrung” started as a workshop, actually—classes within our company.  We found that our puppeteers were not ad libbing as well as traditionally, Jim Henson Company puppeteers have.  We’re sort of famous for going off script a little bit and ad libbing.  And we kind of lost a lot of that and puppeteers were sticking to the script and we thought everything needed to get a lot funnier, so we thought we would go to a good improv comedy instructor. Patrick Bristrow is who we decided to invite over to talk about training our puppeteers in improv comedy, to get them off of script and get them thinking about character development and sharpening up their comedy.

And that started about four years ago now and it was just a workshop.  The puppeteers really responded to it.  Patrick Bristrow really responded to it. It’s great fun to do improve comedy with puppets.  And Patrick thought we should try to put an audience in front of one of the workshops, basically in front of the class and see how the performers rose to having an audience there, because he said, “You know, it’s a really interesting test, because sometimes it gets even funnier.”  And, so, I thought, well, if we’re inviting an audience, let’s do it right.  So I put in a proper studio audience at our studios in Los Angeles and it was just a little showcase and it was just for fun.  But there was a producer from the Aspen Comedy Festival who happened to be there, as a friend of a friend, and she said, “I’d like to book you into the Aspen Comedy Festival,” and we said, “Well, there isn’t really a show to book in, this is just a little showcase and it’s really our workshop.”  And she said, “No, it’s great, I love it, just do exactly what you did.”

So we took a show to the Aspen Comedy Festival, called “Puppet Up” at that point, and in Aspen we just did three shows, and in Aspen, there was a producer from the Edinborough Fringe Festival, who said, “Please come to Edinborough,” so we sent a troupe to Edinborough, and then in Edinborough there was a producer from the Melbourne Comedy Festival, so we went to Melbourne.  So it’s one of these shows that kind of organically developed and it started developing momentum way before I even thought there was a show here. 

And then, after the success at Melbourne Comedy Festival, then we regrouped back in LA and we went back into workshopping and decided to develop a proper show and that’s when we started working on “Stuffed and Unstrung,” which is a much bigger and sharper version of “Puppet Up.”  And we wanted to premiere it in New York, because New York is sort of the home of the Jim Henson Company and it’s sort of the tone and flavor, always, of the puppet work that we’ve done traditionally.  And that’s what brought us here and now we’re here.

Question: What’s the biggest challenge when it comes to puppet improvisation?

Brian Henson:  Well, it’s kind of fun.  It’s, I think it’s a lot richer than what we call fleshy improv—I think it’s very funny, puppet improv and fleshy improv. First of all, you’re improvising through a puppet, so you’re not always yourself: you’re a cow or you’re a pig or you’re an old woman, you know, whatever puppet you pick, or you’re a demon, you know, whatever you pick up, that’s what you get to be in the scene.  And that adds a whole liberating energy to the show and to the comedy.  You can get a lot more outrageous and a little crazier.

In many ways... I think it’s easier in some ways, or it’s more entertaining or more guaranteed to be entertaining than traditional improvising.  Again, because you’re not just you in your body.  A puppet that starts to improvise badly is almost funnier than the puppet that’s improvising well.  So the show gets better when the improvising is really good, but also the show can also sometimes get better when the improvising sort of goes a little wrong and that’s sort of a blessing to improvising with puppets.

The challenge is, well, there’s a huge challenge, which is when you’re improvising, you’re meant to sort of clear your mind completely, just be open and funny, and paying, you know, paying attention.  And with puppets, especially in our company, we sort of demand a very high standard of puppetry, so it’s a real technical skill.  So while you’re trying to improvise, you’re also trying to puppeteer, you’re doing everything that you need to do to perform a puppet in our style, for a camera.

So that’s the challenge, you have a big technical aspect of what you’re doing whilst you’re creatively trying to improvise.  And I’d say that that is a challenge, but it also is, again, it’s helpful.  It’s helpful to have the discipline of, okay, I’m doing, I’m doing something that’s quite precise over here, working the puppet, and I’m doing something that’s very imprecise and creative and unleashed over here, which is the comedy side.  And it’s kind of nice to allow your brain to be doing those two things at once.

Question: Do you get nervous before shows?

Brian Henson: It’s actually good when the performers are nervous, because it kind of sharpens up your brain and a little bit of adrenaline is good.  Initially it’s really tough.  I think initially it’s terrifying because going into a show where, you know, “Oh, I’m going to be on stage for two hours, I have no lines to memorize, I have nothing really prepared,” and actually I say that, the show is not all improvising.  The show is probably 60 percent improvising and 40 percent not.  So there’s quite a bit of it that we do have prepared and that part of it, you have memorized and you’ve rehearsed and you’re prepared, just like any show.   But the fact that most of the show you can’t be prepared for, you have no idea really what’s coming is initially very nerve wracking, by now, it’s kind of fun.  You get used to it, you look forward to the adrenaline of the stage fright before you go out.

Question: Does the show's raunchiness contrast with the other puppet shows you've produced? 

Brian Henson: This is certainly the raunchiest, if you use that word, raunchy. The roots of Jim Henson, though, was adult comedy.  The first show that my dad and my mom did together was for, was a comedy series, a short form that went in the middle of late-night news, and then through all of their career, it was always the “Ed Sullivan Show,” it was a variety act, my dad was on the “Jimmy Dean Show” for a few years.  It was actually what my dad did and with the Muppets, the years with the Muppets, it was really all targeted to adults.  It was in a time when everything had to be safe for the whole family.  But he was targeting adults.

“Sesame Street” was really the first kids show that my dad did.  He did a couple of TV specials that were targeted for kids before “Sesame Street,” but really, it was, it’s kind of going back to our roots, when we start to get adult.  This show gets very adult sometimes, and that’s because of the audience.  There’s an awful lot of scenes where we don’t know what the scene’s going to be about, we ask the audience, pick a place that the scene is happening, pick the relationship, tell us who they are, things like that.  And if the audience is in a kind of naughty, raunchy mood, then they’re going to make naughty, raunchy suggestions and then we take them and we do the scene anyway, and that’s part of the fun.  We try to keep it a classy show, but it certainly is blue at times.  And it all depends on the audience, sometimes we’ve have audiences that don’t really want us to go too far in that direction. 

Question: What would your dad say if he saw the show?

Brian Henson:  I think he would love it.  Really, initially what I very quickly realized that I was loving about the show was... because it reminded me of when I was a kid and I would visit the sets where my dad was shooting with the other puppeteers.  And one of the funnest things was watching what they did before the director called action and after the director called cut.  And they’d keep their hands in the puppets, they’d stay in character, and then they’d start goofing around with each other and be off of script, and it would get quite blue.  And it was a whole lot of fun, and in many ways what we’ve done with the show is just taken that part of my early memories of visiting my dad, shooting with the Muppets, and taking that and making a show that’s really an expansion of that, and presenting a show that’s all that.  And that was always my father’s favorite part about shooting as well.  Often, my dad would shoot very, very late. He was quite a workaholic. They would do 20, 20-hour shoots and stuff like that.  And he could be on a set at 2:30 in the morning where all the puppeteers were just laughing so hysterically at each other that they can’t actually do the scene, and they’d have to wait until, until they’d gotten themselves back under control to do the scene.

And again, we’re kind of trying to be in that place, that’s just so absurd and irreverent and hysterical and it’s something that at our company we’re kind of, we’re so irreverent about everything, we’re sort of irreverent about the establishment, we’re irreverent about civilization, we’re irreverent about philosophy, we’re irreverent about religion.  We’re also irreverent, we have an irreverent attitude towards puppets, as well.  So a lot of what we do is we’re kind of making fun of the puppets for being puppets, even while we’re doing it.  And again, that all feeds into the absurdity of this show.

In the show, we have recreated two sketches that my dad had, or pieces that my dad had developed.  One that he had developed with my mother, one that Frank Oz had developed with my dad.  And these are old pieces from the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, and we’re going to develop more, too.  So they’ll be others of those.  So it’s sprinkled in there as a spice into the show.  It’s really great to do one piece, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face,” my dad developed in 1956, when he was 20 years old, and it’s great to do that piece again now and see that it still really works as well as it ever did. 

Question: What’s that sketch about?

Brian Henson:  Oh, well, I can’t tell you; it would be telling you the end.  It’s a one-character lip-syncing—because in the early days, that’s what my dad was doing.  My dad and mom were, they would take what were popular hits, and lip-sync to them with puppets and do a ridiculous story.  So it’s Rosemary Clooney—Rosemary?  Rosemary Clooney, right?  The singer?  Yes.  Clooney—doing, singing, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face,” which is, you know, really a love song, but what we see on stage is we see one puppet that’s got a ridiculous blond wig on and she looks ridiculous, and next to her is a head that’s just a piece of fabric with a pretty face on it.  And then while she’s lip-syncing, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face,” to this little head next to her, the head eats the cloth fabric and swallows it and it’s sort of this weird, demonic character there, who then tries to eat the singer.  But it’s a lot of fun.  So there’s a couple of pieces like that.

Recorded on April 8, 2010