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'Puppet Up!' plays to the adult in you

August 17, 2007|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

"Puppet Up! -- Uncensored," an adults-only improv show featuring puppets instead of people, comes from the Jim Henson Company -- but don't expect Kermit the Frog singing "It Ain't Easy Bein' Blue."

First, these are puppets, not Muppets: In 2004, the Mouse ate the Frog -- that is, the Walt Disney Co. acquired the Muppet characters, including Kermit and Miss Piggy, for $90 million. Second, "Puppet Up!" which will perform tonight at the Avalon Hollywood theater, does not include recognizable characters from other TV shows and movies that have featured Henson Company characters, including "Sesame Street," "Dinosaurs" and "Fraggle Rock."

According to "Puppet Up" producer-performer Brian Henson, son of the late Jim Henson, and director-host Patrick Bristow, the idea of limiting the show to adults is not to push for R-rated material but rather to allow the audience free range to toss out improvisational suggestions -- and performers to run with them -- without shocking parents to whom the word "puppet" means family entertainment.

In fact, even with a cast of puppets that includes 12 anthropomorphic hot dogs, none has ever been used onstage to suggest any portion of the male anatomy -- though one of the hot dogs has stood in for Britain's Prince Charles. With an enthusiastic cast of mostly Henson Company veterans, one may assume all hot dogs will be portrayed with relish.

The puppets are no more anatomically correct than one might expect of any Henson creations. Because the cast includes humanoids, extinct species, plants, animals, aliens and food items, nudity is appropriate in some cases.

Kermit didn't make the cut

The group of 75-odd -- in fact, very odd -- puppets includes some newly created for "Puppet Up" and some that have had minor roles in previous Henson productions. The idea is to avoid using puppets recognizable from other shows so the puppeteers can use them free of audience expectations about the voice or personality of the puppet.

"My dad was a very funny guy," Henson says during a pre-rehearsal conversation at Jim Henson Studios on La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. The company's headquarters, housed in the former Charlie Chaplin Studios, is immediately recognizable by the large green Kermit tipping his hat from a rooftop. "He started in late-night television and did commercials and a variety act before ever doing a TV series. In those days, his humor was very adult but in a highly censored medium. In this show, there isn't any reason the humor has to be inappropriate for young audiences, but it is improvised, and we try not to censor the audience."

Given such freedom, Henson concedes that audiences tend to go where no puppet has gone before. The cast takes the suggestions, but "we try to do it in a slightly classier way instead of jumping straight into the garbage can. But the show tends to go very quickly to places you don't want a kid to go."

Bristow, an alumnus of the Groundlings comedy troupe, says, "It's not necessarily blue, but sometimes it's a darker side of life, even if it is improvised by a fish and a squirrel."

The only control Bristow exerts over subject matter is keeping the suggestions from being boring. "You'll hear improv directors who say, 'I take the first thing I hear.' Well, the first thing I hear is often 'Tourette's Syndrome.' How many times can you do a Tourette's scene? Or if I ask: 'Where do these people work?' -- often the first thing you'll hear is 'McDonald's.' " What the cast really wants the audience to do, Bristow says, is to "scare us" with their ideas.

The creators of "Puppet Up" are a little surprised to find themselves dealing with audiences, period. Several years ago "Puppet Up" began as an exercise for Henson puppeteers. Because of his improv experience, Bristow was brought to the studio to instruct.

The idea of improv, Henson says, is to reenergize puppeteering in Hollywood. Though puppets went to Broadway in 2003 with "Avenue Q," Henson says that on TV puppets have failed to regain the wild popularity the ubiquitous Muppets enjoyed in the 1970s and '80s. The 1976-81 TV series "The Muppet Show" was syndicated in more than 100 countries, and guest celebrities included Carol Burnett, Diana Ross and dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

"There were two things we were trying to achieve," Henson says. "One was a new comedic voice for puppets, and by that I mean a new writing voice, a new comedic style. 'The Muppet Show' came out of, distantly, vaudeville, then variety like 'Laugh-In' and stuff like that. But the puppet comedy voice didn't work through the sitcom era."

Henson thinks that new voice must originate with the puppeteers. "We had been trying to do it through the writers, and that was just a little tough because they didn't really understand what the puppets could and couldn't do," he says. "We thought, 'Why don't we start with the performers?' Now writers can sit and watch our show and say: 'Oh, yeah, now I get how to make the puppets funny.' "

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