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"Adult" Puppet Comedy Reflects Jim Henson's Roots

Question:\r\nWhere did the idea for "Stuffed and Unstrung" come from?


Brian Henson: “Stuffed and Unstrung” started as a workshop, \r\nactually—classes within our company.  We\r\nfound that our puppeteers were not ad libbing as well as traditionally, \r\nJim\r\nHenson Company puppeteers have. \r\nWe’re sort of famous for going off script a little bit and ad\r\nlibbing.  And we kind of lost a lot\r\nof that and puppeteers were sticking to the script and we thought \r\neverything\r\nneeded to get a lot funnier, so we thought we would go to a good improv \r\ncomedy\r\ninstructor. Patrick Bristrow is who we decided to invite over to talk \r\nabout\r\ntraining our puppeteers in improv comedy, to get them off of script and \r\nget\r\nthem thinking about character development and sharpening up their \r\ncomedy.


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


So\r\n we took a\r\nshow to the Aspen Comedy Festival, called “Puppet Up” at that point, and\r\n in\r\nAspen we just did three shows, and in Aspen, there was a producer from \r\nthe\r\nEdinborough Fringe Festival, who said, “Please come to Edinborough,” so \r\nwe sent\r\na troupe to Edinborough, and then in Edinborough there was a producer \r\nfrom the\r\nMelbourne Comedy Festival, so we went to Melbourne.  So\r\n it’s one of these shows that kind of organically\r\ndeveloped and it started developing momentum way before I even thought \r\nthere\r\nwas a show here. 


And\r\n then, after\r\nthe success at Melbourne Comedy Festival, then we regrouped back in LA \r\nand we\r\nwent back into workshopping and decided to develop a proper show and \r\nthat’s\r\nwhen we started working on “Stuffed and Unstrung,” which is a much \r\nbigger and\r\nsharper version of “Puppet Up.” \r\nAnd we wanted to premiere it in New York, because New York is \r\nsort of\r\nthe home of the Jim Henson Company and it’s sort of the tone and flavor,\r\nalways, of the puppet work that we’ve done traditionally. \r\n And that’s what brought us here and now\r\nwe’re here.


Question:\r\nWhat’s the biggest challenge when it comes to puppet improvisation?


Brian Henson:  Well, it’s kind\r\nof fun.  It’s, I think it’s a lot\r\nricher than what we call fleshy improv—I think it’s very funny, puppet \r\nimprov\r\nand fleshy improv. First of all, you’re improvising through a puppet, so\r\n you’re\r\nnot always yourself: you’re a cow or you’re a pig or you’re an old \r\nwoman, you\r\nknow, whatever puppet you pick, or you’re a demon, you know, whatever \r\nyou pick\r\nup, that’s what you get to be in the scene.  And \r\nthat adds a whole liberating energy to the show and to\r\nthe comedy.  You can get a lot more\r\noutrageous and a little crazier.


In\r\n many ways... I\r\nthink it’s easier in some ways, or it’s more entertaining or more \r\nguaranteed to\r\nbe entertaining than traditional improvising.  Again,\r\n because you’re not just you in your body.  A \r\npuppet that starts to improvise badly\r\nis almost funnier than the puppet that’s improvising well. \r\n So the show gets better when the\r\nimprovising is really good, but also the show can also sometimes get \r\nbetter\r\nwhen the improvising sort of goes a little wrong and that’s sort of a \r\nblessing\r\nto improvising with puppets.


The\r\n challenge\r\nis, well, there’s a huge challenge, which is when you’re improvising, \r\nyou’re\r\nmeant to sort of clear your mind completely, just be open and funny, and\r\npaying, you know, paying attention. \r\nAnd with puppets, especially in our company, we sort of demand a \r\nvery\r\nhigh standard of puppetry, so it’s a real technical skill. \r\n So while you’re trying to improvise,\r\nyou’re also trying to puppeteer, you’re doing everything that you need \r\nto do to\r\nperform a puppet in our style, for a camera.


So\r\n that’s the\r\nchallenge, you have a big technical aspect of what you’re doing whilst \r\nyou’re\r\ncreatively trying to improvise. \r\nAnd I’d say that that is a challenge, but it also is, again, it’s\r\nhelpful.  It’s helpful to have the\r\ndiscipline of, okay, I’m doing, I’m doing something that’s quite precise\r\n over\r\nhere, working the puppet, and I’m doing something that’s very imprecise \r\nand\r\ncreative and unleashed over here, which is the comedy side.  And it’s kind of nice to allow your brain\r\nto be doing those two things at once.


Question:\r\nDo you get nervous before shows?


Brian Henson: It’s actually good when\r\n the performers are nervous, because\r\nit kind of sharpens up your brain and a little bit of adrenaline is \r\ngood.  Initially it’s really tough. \r\n I think initially it’s terrifying\r\nbecause going into a show where, you know, “Oh, I’m going to be on stage\r\n for\r\ntwo hours, I have no lines to memorize, I have nothing really prepared,”\r\n and\r\nactually I say that, the show is not all improvising.  The\r\n show is probably 60 percent improvising and 40 percent not.  So there’s quite a bit of it that we do\r\nhave prepared and that part of it, you have memorized and you’ve \r\nrehearsed and\r\nyou’re prepared, just like any show.   But the \r\nfact that most of the show you can’t be\r\nprepared for, you have no idea really what’s coming is initially very \r\nnerve\r\nwracking, by now, it’s kind of fun. \r\nYou get used to it, you look forward to the adrenaline of the \r\nstage\r\nfright before you go out.


Question:\r\nDoes the show's raunchiness contrast with the other puppet shows you've\r\nproduced? 


Brian Henson: This is certainly the raunchiest, if you use that \r\nword,\r\nraunchy. The roots of Jim Henson, though, was adult comedy.  The first show that my dad and my mom\r\ndid together was for, was a comedy series, a short form that went in the\r\n middle\r\nof late-night news, and then through all of their career, it was always \r\nthe “Ed\r\nSullivan Show,” it was a variety act, my dad was on the “Jimmy Dean \r\nShow” for a\r\nfew years.  It was actually what my\r\ndad did and with the Muppets, the years with the Muppets, it was really \r\nall\r\ntargeted to adults.  It was in a\r\ntime when everything had to be safe for the whole family. \r\n But he was targeting adults.


“Sesame\r\n Street”\r\nwas really the first kids show that my dad did.  He\r\n did a couple of TV specials that were targeted for kids\r\nbefore “Sesame Street,” but really, it was, it’s kind of going back to \r\nour\r\nroots, when we start to get adult. \r\nThis show gets very adult sometimes, and that’s because of the\r\naudience.  There’s an awful lot of\r\nscenes where we don’t know what the scene’s going to be about, we ask \r\nthe\r\naudience, pick a place that the scene is happening, pick the \r\nrelationship, tell\r\nus who they are, things like that. \r\nAnd if the audience is in a kind of naughty, raunchy mood, then \r\nthey’re\r\ngoing to make naughty, raunchy suggestions and then we take them and we \r\ndo the\r\nscene anyway, and that’s part of the fun. \r\nWe try to keep it a classy show, but it certainly is blue at \r\ntimes.  And it all depends on the audience,\r\nsometimes we’ve have audiences that don’t really want us to go too far \r\nin that\r\ndirection. 


Question:\r\nWhat would your dad say if he saw the show?


Brian Henson:  I think he\r\nwould love it.  Really, initially\r\nwhat I very quickly realized that I was loving about the show was... \r\nbecause it\r\nreminded me of when I was a kid and I would visit the sets where my dad \r\nwas\r\nshooting with the other puppeteers. \r\nAnd one of the funnest things was watching what they did before \r\nthe\r\ndirector called action and after the director called cut. \r\n And they’d keep their hands in the\r\npuppets, they’d stay in character, and then they’d start goofing around \r\nwith\r\neach other and be off of script, and it would get quite blue.  And it was a whole lot of fun, and in\r\nmany ways what we’ve done with the show is just taken that part of my \r\nearly\r\nmemories of visiting my dad, shooting with the Muppets, and taking that \r\nand\r\nmaking a show that’s really an expansion of that, and presenting a show \r\nthat’s\r\nall that.  And that was always my\r\nfather’s favorite part about shooting as well.  Often,\r\n my dad would shoot very, very late. He was quite a\r\nworkaholic. They would do 20, 20-hour shoots and stuff like that.  And he could be on a set at 2:30 in the\r\nmorning where all the puppeteers were just laughing so hysterically at \r\neach\r\nother that they can’t actually do the scene, and they’d have to wait \r\nuntil,\r\nuntil they’d gotten themselves back under control to do the scene.


And\r\n again,\r\nwe’re kind of trying to be in that place, that’s just so absurd and \r\nirreverent\r\nand hysterical and it’s something that at our company we’re kind of, \r\nwe’re so\r\nirreverent about everything, we’re sort of irreverent about the \r\nestablishment,\r\nwe’re irreverent about civilization, we’re irreverent about philosophy, \r\nwe’re\r\nirreverent about religion.  We’re\r\nalso irreverent, we have an irreverent attitude towards puppets, as \r\nwell.  So a lot of what we do is we’re kind of\r\nmaking fun of the puppets for being puppets, even while we’re doing it.  And again, that all feeds into the\r\nabsurdity of this show.


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


Question:\r\nWhat’s that sketch about?


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

Recorded on April 8, 2010

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

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A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

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The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

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That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

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Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

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Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.