Wondering what goes into an improv puppet show? We've got the behind-the-scenes scoop. Brian Henson, Executive Producer and Performer on Puppet Up! Uncensored (and Co-Chief Executive Officer of The Jim Henson Company) was kind enough to grant us the following interview.
tbs.com: So where did the idea for Puppet Up! Uncensored come from?
Well, initially, I wanted to help the puppeteers become more comfortable with ad libbing and going 'off script'. Traditionally, we used to ad lib a lot, but more recently, performers started to really stick to the script quite religiously and that was making the material not as fun--not as loose or anarchic as we would like our comedy to be. So initially, it was just trying to get the performers more comfortable. We started doing improv training with Patrick Bristow (the show's creative director and host), who has done a lot of training at The Groundlings and is a very established comic improviser himself. Patrick came in and started working with a group of about fifteen puppeteers and we had so much fun in those classes that we put it up in front of an audience just to see how it would work. It worked incredibly well, and it has just kept growing from there. Now we've done this live show in several countries.
tbs.com: Some of the funniest moments come from when the performers go off script and it gets a little blue. Do you ever worry there might be some push back from die-hard Henson fans?
First let me say that we never go 'on script' in this show. All the material is completely improvised. Nothing is prepared. We have a prepared structure that means we may know, for example, that it's two characters on a date. But other than that, the audience suggests where the date is, whom the two characters are, what's going on in their relationship, and then we have to make up the rest of the material.
In terms of The Jim Henson Company, my dad first started with adult-minded comedies very early on. He also worked in an era where most of the airwaves were highly censored. But he was always a very naughty, irreverent performer and this show basically captures that same level of naughtiness and irreverence, but in a contemporary setting. Having said all of that, I think it's very important that everybody always knows that this show is for adults only. This is our opportunity to let our hair down and get crazy every now and then, even though generally we are very safe with the material we do.
tbs.com: The audience is a huge part of the show. How do you get the audience over to your side?
I think the audience realizes very quickly that these performers don't have any safety net. There is no script. They're always on the spot and that builds a certain amount of sympathy and empathy for the performers. So the audience realizes that they're not watching some prepared speech. They're watching people quite desperately trying to figure out what's coming next in a scene. For the first three to five minutes, they're just figuring out what they're looking at: either performers standing in front of a camera or puppets on the video screens. They're trying to figure it all out. Once they do, they very much get on board and they love watching. I believe they probably love watching things go badly as much as they love watching things go well.
tbs.com: During the show people can see the performers; you seem to be pulling the curtain aside in a way. Aren't most puppeteers shy, introverted people?
Maybe some of us puppeteers are shy, introverted people. But at the same time, it's not like what we do is a secret. We're not magicians. My dad never wanted to hide from the audience how we were doing things. If he went on the Johnny Carson show, he would sit on a chair with Kermit the Frog on his arm. He was never hiding how the puppets were performed. And, likewise, we don't. We've always known that visitors who come and visit us when we're shooting a TV show just love watching what we're doing.
tbs.com: There's a good amount of one-upmanship between the performers. Is this a necessary and enjoyable part of the creative process?
The show is competitive because it's a game. I mean that in a non-negative way. We really are playing when we're up there, and we're playing with each other. But we're also trying to make it harder for each other. I think in the improv community it's called "pimping." And if you're "pimping" the other performer, you're either teeing things up for them or you're actually making it harder. When that happens, the audience gets exactly what's going on and they understand we're a bunch of friends who are really teasing and screwing with each other. In a lot of ways, that's the most fun we have.
tbs.com: The range of characters is pretty amazing. What comes first, the personality or the actual puppet itself?
Puppet character development can come from all different places. It might be that a designer drew a sketch of the character or it might be a puppet builder who sets out to simply build something. Sometimes, it can be the writers writing a character. And sometimes, it's a performer who comes in and says "I can imagine a character like this" and there is already a voice developed. But for this improv show, we have a selection of about eighty puppets, so the puppeteers start by picking up a puppet and then thinking about what voice and personality to put to this character. Then they have to listen to the audience suggestions to figure out who that character is within that scene. You often drop everything you've prepared--except the puppet--if the other performers set you up with something entirely different than what you were planning on. As performers, we're pushed to create characters faster than we can even think and it really expands a lot of our breadth.
tbs.com: Do you think improv work can transfer to your other projects?
Oh, absolutely. It was always the point of this whole show to develop something that would be funny for the American market. So we've developed a strong, funny voice, point of view, and types of relationships so that now our writers can watch what we're doing when we're improvising and write within that voice and point of view. In that way, it's also directly impacting all the rest of the work we're doing that is not improvised. The performers now feel much freer to ad lib and to play with their scripted lines slightly in order to root the character more organically within what they're doing, which, in turn, often makes the material funnier.
tbs.com: You're no stranger to producing and directing large and complex movies. Did this create an urge to go low tech with something like this?
Yeah. I'm sure in a lot of ways it's really very, very, therapeutic. We get together as a group once or twice a week for a few hours, even when we don't have a show, and we workshop as improvisers. And it's wonderful because the main preparation that you do is to force yourself not to think about anything. You have to relax. You have to listen, but you can't prepare. And there's something really wonderful about that. It's a little bit like going to a therapist. After doing three hours of improvisation, I don't need therapy for weeks.
tbs.com: You have an incredibly talented cast. Would your improv still kill if you didn't have the puppets?
I don't know. Now you're circling back to the fact that puppeteers are basically introverted shy people, which I guess we are. I think the reason why these puppeteers have the courage to go on stage is because they have puppets on their hands. And frankly, they're not looking at the audience. We're all looking down at the monitors so that we can see what we're doing, so our awareness of the audience is mostly hearing them laugh and hearing them applaud which is always terrific. But I think we're not as vulnerable as improvisers who aren't puppeetering.
tbs.com: What's next for The Jim Henson Company?
Well, we've got lots of things going on. As a company, we concentrate really on kids' production, preschool puppet shows and 3D animated shows. We do a lot of 3D animation these days. We call our way of doing this animation "digital puppetry" because it's actually all performed in real time. It's a very cool and new way of doing 3D animation. So we have that television development, and then we're also creating primetime projects for adults and families as well as primetime science fiction and fantasy series.
We have a few series in development for a few very different TV channels here in America, but more in the tradition of "Farscape" or the Jack and the Beanstalk
miniseries that we did. We still have about twenty movies, actually, that are pretty advanced in their development, so I think we'll start putting those in production quite soon and possibly the first one would be a Dark Crystal
sequel that we're working on.
tbs.com: Thank you for talking to tbs.com.