“Jim was not known for being precious about his puppets; he viewed them as tools,” says Toronto puppeteer Frank Meschkuleit who worked on Fraggle Rock. “And yet he brought a magic to it that I don’t think has been repeated since he passed. ... It just doesn’t seem to have the warmth it used to.”
The Muppets’ magic went further still when they hit prime time: The arrival of The Muppet Show in 1976 introduced to North America the idea that puppets were a popular entertainment for adults too.
That breakthrough should not be underestimated.
“No TV station in the States would back it; he had to go to England to get it produced,” Anthony says. “It was looked at as being very avant-garde, very risky by the American TV establishment.”
And yet the characters could hardly have been safer. “ The Muppet Show was always positive,” Stroumboulopoulos recalls, citing Kermit as his first role model as a TV host. “There were problems backstage, but they were always overcome.”
Indeed, the Muppets’ niceness was so pronounced it actually encouraged other puppeteers to push in the opposite direction. Most obviously, the 2003 Broadway musical Avenue Q and its Muppet-like puppets and the 1989 cult film Meet the Feebles, with its misanthropic animal creatures, both derived their humour from introducing the icons of childhood into a nasty adult world of ambivalence and disappointment.
More subtly, the complex themes favoured by art puppeteers such as Burkett or Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop, which invents a new style of puppet for each show, contradict the Muppet-inspired notion that puppets are family entertainment. It can be uphill work: Old Trout Judd Palmer recalls that his company once tried to revive Punch and Judy, but parents would bring their kids to the show and then complain about the violence.
“I guess that is taking a stand against the niceness of the Muppets but I wouldn’t do it now,” he said. “You are banging your head against a wall.”
Not that the Muppets, who are rumoured to behave lewdly the minute the camera is turned off, would necessarily be opposed to pushing the envelope. The original characters were purchased by the Walt Disney Company in 2004, but since Henson’s death in 1990 his children have supervised his legacy; in particular his youngest, Heather Henson, has greatly encouraged the adult puppetry movement by organizing puppetry festivals and supporting Puppet Slam, an online network of underground puppet artists.
Meanwhile, the Disney-owned Muppets can count on the fond memories of a generation raised on Sesame Street, as well as a dose of geek chic, to bring audiences flocking. Jason Segel, co-writer and star of the new film, established his credentials with his turn as a nerdy, jilted puppeteer in the 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, operating a Muppet-like Dracula character who sings a song of lost love. With The Muppets he turns to pure nostalgia, sending human characters off to dig Kermit out of his lonely mansion and rescue Fozzie from a seedy Vegas bar where he performs with Muppet knock-offs so they can restore the franchise to its former glory. Shouldn’t be too hard to do: The Muppets’ star has never stopped shining.
PUPPETRY ON STAGE Canada has an enviable reputation for live puppetry. Here’s what’s coming up:
Ronnie Burkett Burkett and his marionettes are currently in the midst of a national tour, performing Penny Plain, an apocalyptic drawing-room comedy about a blind woman waiting for the world to end. The show is now at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre until Dec. 17, and opens at Toronto’s Factory Theatre on Jan. 20.
Puppetmongers Toronto’s Puppetmongers, a.k.a. Ann and David Powell, make their annual holiday appearance for children at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre beginning Dec. 14. This year they perform Bed and Breakfast, an update of the Princess and the Pea fairy tale set in a miniature Edwardian mansion full of wily servants and real electrical light.
Old Trout Puppet Workshop Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop is currently working on Ignorance, a show with puppets made from stones, sticks and leather that explores the idea that puppetry dates back to the days of the caveman. It will receive a world premiere at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on Feb. 28, but in the meantime the company is still accepting suggestions about how to write the script and build the puppets at www.theoldtrouts.org/ignorance.
Editor's note: Jason Segel is a star and co-writer of the film The Muppets. James Bobin is the director. Mr. Segel also wrote and starred in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Incorrect information appeared online and in print on Saturday.