If, at the beginning at least, the joke was which one of Shannon or Hopley was the puppet, which one the manipulator, the focus very quickly shifted to the duo's common enemy: the entertainment industry, which sought a puppeteer's control in every production deal they struck.
"There's very much the desire not to be the puppet," Shannon says.
Indeed, going from puppet-on-a-string production company to a deal with no strings attached isn't easy in children's television. Particularly when you're in the business of puppets.
But now the Toronto-based duo, known as Grogs Inc. and comprising Shannon and Hopley, has achieved just that with Nanalan', a half-hour television show aimed at two- to three-year-olds now airing on CBC.
With a pace as slow as cold molasses -- but just as sweet and nourishing -- Nanalan' has become the darling of Canadian children's TV, snatched up by CBC for two more years just weeks into production for its first season as a half-hour program.
Nickelodeon, the U.S. children's television network, has expressed interest in Nanalan' and this summer will test the show, shot in a building reputed to be an old munitions factory in Toronto's Liberty Village production district.
The Grogs even beat the venerable Jim Henson Company to appear alongside Whoopi Goldberg in a special for Nickelodeon's Nick Jr. featuring Sandra Bernhardt and Rosie Perez. Called Whoopi's Littleburg, the show is set to air this month.
The Grogs themselves still own and control Nanalan', a trick they learned over a hard road of false starts and one-sided production deals where normally, as Jack Lenz, the Grogs' chief financier, says, "the only backend you ever see is your own."
Not bad for two guys who dropped out of university in their first year for a low-yield puppeteering gig at the YTV network. Almost 15 years later, Nanalan' proves what can happen when artists make children's television.
Based on Shannon's memories of playing in his grandmother's Dundas, Ont., back yard in the 1970s, Nanalan' stars three-year-old Mona, a Martian-like green puppet with two sprays of asparagus-hued hair on either side of her head.
Almost entirely improvised by Hopley and Shannon, who manipulate puppets they create -- small, rubbery creatures with a fuzzy finish that disguise but don't entirely obscure their expressive hands -- Nanalan' looks more like children's cinema than kids TV.
One episode follows Mona's antics as her bobbing, elephantine Nana swaddles her in a snowsuit, all the zippers pulled and buttons snapped by puppet hands in closeup.
Another sees Mona exploring the properties of juice -- with real liquid -- as Russell, the terrier, darts through the scene wreaking havoc. Meanwhile, in the background, moving bees and butterflies constantly flitter, buzzing about flowers that Shannon and Hopley -- with keen attention to detail -- rearrange each show.
"We spread ideas out and slow them down so it's like a kid's life," the impish Shannon says. Chimes in Hopley, a more military type who marshals the forces within the puppet workshop: "It's like three-year-old real time."
Each episode, Nana's subtly flirtatious love interest, the avuncular Mr. Wooka, mounts a puppet show within a puppet show. Featuring balsa wood mini-puppets created by the Grogs' many friends within Toronto's arts community, Mr. Wooka's dramas are sublime, lyrical fables.
"I want each one to be its own artistic look," explains Shannon, gesturing around a workshop where multicoloured puppet hands hang like autumn leaves above counters. Over here, decapitated heads, cast from the people who help create the puppets, are stacked on shelves among plastic eyes, foam and puppet fur. Movie posters of some of Hollywood's most disturbing horror flicks -- The Fly, Jaws -- festoon the walls.
That adult sensibility and Second City-esque improvisation make Nanalan' a show parents can enjoy with their kids. "When adults see this, they see themselves," says Michael Larsh, first assistant director for Nanalan'. "They remember what it's like to be three years old."
But the Grogs do more than just kid's stuff. Their characters have appeared to much acclaim at Clinton's, a Toronto alternative comedy club frequented by the likes of Mike Myers and the former Kids in the Hall. And Swami Jeff -- their spaced-out yoga practitioner -- can be seen on CBC's late-night ZeD.
Hopley and Shannon, both 32, met in Grade 6 as theatre students at the Claude Watson School for the Arts in the former Toronto suburb of North York. Years later, both quit York University after just one semester to volunteer at YTV. Less than a month after introducing their puppets to kids across the land, the network hired them full-time.
That was in the early 1990s and Hopley and Shannon, barely in their 20s, had already discovered success, with their puppets -- in particular, the ghoulish Warren Chester Grog -- appearing on YTV every day.
"We'd get as much fan mail as the PJs," recalls Shannon, referring to YTV's upbeat human hosts, who shared the screen with the puppets.
When Warren Chester Grog single-handedly carried an entire 12-hour New Year's Day special in 1994, YTV's viewership soared.
It was the network's spirit of innovation that made it a wonderful place to start, Shannon and Hopley say, calling YTV an improvisational "training ground."
But soon, the network wanted to capitalize on their success by merchandising the Grogs' puppets. Things up till then had worked out well for both the Grogs and their YTV bosses; then the relationship soured.
"We had worked there for 2½ years on a handshake," Shannon says.
That's when YTV called in Lenz, a film and television composer with experience drawing up contractual agreements. "It was an interesting time," Lenz says today, "because I actually got them fired."
After examining their contract, Lenz counselled Shannon and Hopley to create their own company before renegotiating with YTV. "Foolishly, they took my advice," he says with a laugh.
The network fired them.
"Thus began the starvation and the paying of dues -- the chapter of darkness," Hopley laughs.
It wasn't that bad, actually. Lenz stepped in, setting up the Grogs in an old limousine garage where they set about experimenting and coming up with new TV scenarios.
"It was a hub, a secret base to hone our ideas on how to go about making television," Hopley says.
Why did Lenz, now a man in his 50s better known for scoring Mel Gibson's controversial film, The Passion, foot the bill for 10 years?
"I kind of felt a little indebted to them," Lenz says of getting them sacked.
He also knew what he'd stumbled across: Under Lenz's guidance, the Grogs met with some early successes. Disney nibbled, signing an unusual deal to co-own a show with Shannon, Hopley and Lenz. Other options came along, too. Still, little panned out. The big studios, though they wanted to tap into the Grogs, didn't exactly know how, Hopley and Shannon say.
Now, with the first season of Nanalan' airing on CBC, they're closer than ever to tapping into their full potential.
Still, they yearn for more. "Although cutesy stuff is great," Shannon concedes, "we're dying to do more adult satirical stuff."
After all, says Hopley: "There's no pension in puppeteering."