When people ask me why I enjoy working with puppets, my standard answer is that it's the best of both worlds: acting and playing with toys. It's all of the expression that you get from acting and all of the satisfaction of playing with a cool toy, plus you get to be kind of outside it watching. When you're acting, you never really see yourself doing it, but when you're puppeteering, it's outside yourself and you can watch and adjust—it takes on its own life. I like to use the analogy that if stage acting is like film, puppeteering on stage is like an animated film in that it opens up a whole realm of possibilities that you wouldn't have otherwise.
It's been three generations in a row now where the Muppets and Sesame Street are people's primary exposure to puppetry. I was not a kid who liked to get up early, but I was willing to wake up to watch The Muppet Show on cable at 6:30 am. I didn't trust VCRs because they would work half the time, and then I'd set something wrong and I'd miss the first five minutes or it wouldn't get recorded at all.
I've been doing puppetry for about ten years now, but it's only been a greater focus than my acting for the past five or six years. My first puppet class was in junior college in Sacramento at American River College. It was supposed to be a 50/50 blend of puppet performance and puppet construction, but it was taught by a technical theater person who was much, much more comfortable with the construction stuff. We spent a lot of time just doing different types of puppets: hand puppets, sock puppets, a couple larger scale puppets. I still have my final project which I carved out of a giant block of upholstery foam with an electric carving knife. It was like one of the Mystics from The Dark Crystal—the big, weird hunched-over things—but a crappy version of that.
When you've grown up watching the Muppets, it takes a while of dealing with puppets before you're able to see the Muppets as anything but the characters they are. Which is awesome—that's why puppetry works. It's not just a suspension of disbelief, it's an enthusiastic suspension of disbelief. Our brains prefer to think of them as a living thing.
It takes a long time before you can actually imagine a hand in there instead of just seeing Kermit. As soon as you start really realizing what's going on, then you can start noticing, "Oh! Hey? It's weird that they're riding a bicycle right now?" or "How are they sitting on those boxes floating in the middle of a lake?" Then you start to become more aware of the people behind them, like how each performer brings a lot of their own individual personality to the characters that they do.
It especially works when part of even the puppeteer thinks of the puppet as something that's alive. There's an old clip of Jim Henson on one of the talk shows with Kermit sitting next to him, and he's puppeteering Kermit the whole time as he talks about the whole phenomenon. He's not disguising the fact that he's puppeteering him at all, but everybody's eyes still go to Kermit. You want to see it as a creature.
Howdy Doody you have to stay one layer away from because he just isn't relatable in that same way. It's weird because the Muppets are pretty inflexible: Howdy Doody had moving eyes, yet almost none of the Muppets have eyes that move in any way whatsoever. I know the Muppets have a lot of rules and guidelines when they're building the puppets about the position of the eyes relative to the nose, etc, but I think a lot of it is just people with good instincts about what type of face is relatable, and then a lot of people who are very good at making it come to life. But I think a lot of it comes from the puppeteer's ability to create eye contact and focus.
One of my favorite clips ever of old school Muppets was watching Frank Oz do Fozzie Bear on some British interview show. I can't remember what the show was, but he's being interviewed by this guy who has just a massive, fascinating toupee. They're chatting and the man is asking Fozzie questions, and the eye focus of the Fozzie puppet drifts slowly upwards during the conversation. It's really clear that the puppet is completely distracted by this guy's toupee. And it's one of the best laughs I've ever seen, gotten from nothing but changing the focus of the character's eyes.
You can see some puppets that don't have that kind of focus, where there's a flatness to where they're looking. And there's puppeteers who aren't able to connect to what that puppet is looking at. And you can definitely see when it fails—in that moment when the puppet's not connected by the eyes, things die a little bit. Even if you're watching a human actor who's not connecting with things, you lose interest.
People might think the mouth is most important, but it's actually a little easier than the eyes. The mouth movement of a puppet is so simple compared to the way the human mouth moves that you have a lot of play. Some people want to enunciate every little syllable, but you'll also see people who go a lot more broad and just kind of fake the syllables in the middle of a word. It's forgiving because people have such a wide variety of ways of speaking.
It's really clear watching the new Muppet movie that the puppeteer behind Kermit has practiced a lot of the head shape changes that the puppet is capable of. By shifting the position of your hand, you can make the head squeeze in and up and forward. I don't know what the actual plate of his mouth is made of—it's probably not cardboard, but it could be anything from gatorboard to a number of materials—and just digging in the pads of your fingers and curling back gives him that downward type of look, like what Walter did when he ran screaming out of the studio. You can push your thumb up between your fingers to form sort of a cup and then point your fingers downward—that's the scowl mouth that Kermit does. It doesn't always look quite natural, but it's like freeze-framing a cartoon. A lot of the time when you do that, the character is in a really importable pose that doesn't even make sense out of context, but those extreme positions just add depth to a reaction and they completely fit when you see them in motion.
Why is Kermit so popular? It's hard to say. He's so minimal—even when you put him next to Walter, who's as minimalistic as a Muppet is going to get. But Walter doesn't carry the attention that Kermit does, even though he's a solid character. I'm biased, because I sincerely believe that it's mostly due to Jim Henson letting so much of himself shine through Kermit—it's why he became so easy to pay attention to, because there's so much of an actual person in him.
Kermit has always been complicated, but one of the great things about him was he was kind of an asshole. He'd lose his temper all the time, shout at people, get stressed out and freak out. But what stuck out to me in The Muppets is that four or five times over the course of the movie, he was like, "Eh, let's quit. It's not working out, so let's move on." That bothered me because that's not a character trait that he's ever had. He's started to go that direction before, but usually something within himself rallies and he's like, "The show must go on." But in the movie, the main thing that he does is to give up on everything. In the end when he gives that speech about how they're going to start over as a family, that rang really true for me—that was still heartwarming in a very Kermit sort of way.
As for the way he treated Miss Piggy, I've always empathized with him. Piggy's pursuing him mercilessly and he just wants to get on with the show. I think Miss Piggy and Kermit belong in that on-again, off-again limbo of couplehood where there's flirtation. But they shouldn't be a full-on couple—without that push and pull, it'd be so much more boring. Like at the end of A Muppet Christmas Carol when they've got all the kid frogs and pigs running around—that's well and good for the end of that movie, but if that was the actual story of Kermit and Piggy, how boring.
When you see the Muppets up close, it's kind of crazy how mundane their materials are—feathers, yarn hair—but when they're in motion, those become like skin, an actual organic material. And they're textured—they aren't shiny—which if I had to guess why is because it's a middle ground between glossy and matte, the same way that human skin is not really glossy and not really flat. But the real advantage of their materials is that they're flexible: Kermit can crane his neck forward, crane his neck back. He can move all around in a very life-like way. It's all about finding a material that has enough stiffness to hold it's shape while being able to move like organic skin.
Jim Henson had the idea that simple elements can be expanded into an entire character. Like for Bert and Ernie, his whole idea was an odd couple where one puppet has a vertically oblong head and the other has a horizontally oblong head. That was it. It's also fascinating to see what they include and what they leave out in different characters. For example, Janice from the Electric Mayhem, she has a dangling uvula in the back of her neck, which almost no other Muppet has. You see which ones have eyes, which ones have noses, and you see how unnecessary it is for one character to have all of those things—and how big a difference it makes which ones they keep and which ones they leave out.
There are no hard and fast rules about what makes a puppet relatable because there's always something that breaks that rule and is amazing. With each puppet, it just comes down to whether you can look own at it and see a living creature there. Sometimes you can have the most beautiful puppet head that's pristine and photo-realistic, but it just doesn't have that spark of life. And something that's just two dots and a smiley face does. Sometimes you see it and sometimes you don't. There's definitely a moment where you add a piece and it's there. It's really exciting.
Watching your puppet come to life is amazing and heartbreaking at the same time. I don't want to say it's like giving birth because not only is that kind of cliché, it's also obviously hyperbole. But it's hugely exciting. And nerve-wracking because you get so invested that anything that goes wrong is crippling—it hurts. And sometimes, it's somebody else who's able to bring your puppet to life in a way that you can't. And it's hard not to get possessive. Sometimes even just letting someone puppeteer it at all feels like a violation, even though it's not. Is that emasculating? Well, it's never happened to me, so...
Could The Muppet Show ever have been performed on an actual stage? It would take a lot of planning and you'd probably go broke doing it. You wouldn't have the versatility of having them disappear from one place and pop up in another, but you could do a lot of things with doubling puppets so you'd have more than one. They wouldn't be able to pick things up the way they could on The Muppet Show, which usually involved cutting away to another shot where the puppet's hand was attached to whatever they were picking up. You'd have to build a lot of places to hide the puppeteers. But the important thing would be that you'd still be able to have that really existing interaction between the puppets and the guest stars. You'd still be able to do the musical numbers and the comedy bits. And the tricks that you were able to do live would be all the more impressive.
Our puppetry company, Rogue Artists Ensemble, likes to do challenging, dark pieces. We've done Neil Gaiman's Mr. Punch, we did a show about the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol. But we steer away from calling ourselves avant garde because part of our company's mission statement is making theater more accessible to people. We do get a lot of people coming to our shows who never go to plays. And puppetry and masks are both really old theater traditions. We think of them as tools in a toolbox. But we think of modern tools, iPads and projections, the same way.
The hardest puppet I've ever made was for The Gogol Project. The Tailor puppet changed in height from between 5-feet-tall to 11-feet-tall. He was constructed out of the tools of his trade: he had scissors for a mustache, a spool of thread for an eye with all these fabric swatches trailing down to the floor. He had a musical number and as it progressed, he got bigger. He was an amazing challenge of teamwork—even to move the head was a two-person job. Basically, the base of the head was supported by one person and I was controlling the top of the head, so everything was collaborative. Then there was a person controlling each of the arms and a person or two controlling all of the fabric that flowed off of him. You had to let go of the notion of control when you were doing it. It was a complicated puzzle of group dynamics.
It's hard now to watch The Muppets and not be watching the technique. Your brain wants to split and do both things at once: you want to be along for the ride and enjoying the character, but you also want to notice when they've done a cool trick and hidden a puppeteer somewhere, or when they're using a tricky edit to change where something's attached. There are definitely moments when I appreciate all the work they've done to bring a lot of detail to what the puppet is doing, and then there's moments when I realize I've become completely oblivious to the fact that this character is a puppet.
One of the things that really impressed me about The Muppets is this scene where Kermit is sitting in an easy chair talking about the theater. The easiest thing would be to just have his mouth and one of his arms active. But they had some real subtle controls going on just to add those motions that make it a more convincing illusion. Even just his left arm, which wasn't doing anything in particular, would just open itself up to the side a little bit. Just a small shift of a leg. Not enough to be a gesture on its own, but enough to add to the larger motions he was doing.
As for the new Muppet, Walter, I don't think he's that engaging. I like what they were trying to do blurring the difference between a human character and a puppet character and the design made sense. The hair is an interesting shock of expressiveness and the puppeteer does a great job with him, but the puppet itself is so nondescript, it's tough to connect with him.
I noticed in the credits that they actually outsourced the construction of the puppets in the movie. A company called Puppet Heap made them. I looked up their website and they do puppet design on a contract basis for a lot of companies, but yeah, Jim Henson's shop just did the costume design. Of course, there weren't any original puppets left behind that they could have used—each puppet has been remade so many times. I'm sure they wanted brand shiny new puppets for their new big movie. They nailed most of the designs. Fozzie's eyebrows seemed a little off, but that was the exception, not the rule. They were too light—it almost looked like he was going gray in the eyebrows. That's fine if it was a character choice, but they didn't age any other puppet in any way.
Back before the internet when it was all BBS, for my very first handle—and this was before I was into puppeteering—I picked the Muppet name "Lou Zealand," who pops up here and there, but was never a big Muppet. He's the yellow guy with the mustache and the neck ruff. They used him well here—he was one of the crew that went to kidnap Jack Black, which was gratifying. He was never that interesting a character. All he did was act wacky and throw fish. But he had a great name and voice. And I've always liked the Swedish Chef. Not just because of the character-although it is a great character-but because he's basically a Muppet who plays around with that old improv game where one person is doing the talking and the other person is blindly doing stuff with the hands. I always get a kick out of that.
But if I had to pick a favorite Muppet, it would probably be Rowlf. He's one of the ones with all the Jim Henson personality, but he also has a lot of soul and a great sense of humor. Plus, he's kind of the grandfather Muppet. He was the first Muppet to hit it big, the proto-Muppet—he was doing The Jimmy Dean Show before there was a Kermit. He was just a sidekick who'd pop up behind a water trough and they'd have a bit of banter. So he's kind of the elder statesman of the Muppets in my mind
I like to believe when I'm watching the Muppets that I can tell who the really talented folks are when they're operating the puppets, but I'm sure a lot of that is just me convincing myself that I can. Telling myself that it must be Jim Henson or Frank Oz or one of the old hands when for all I know, it could be a PA who just had a really good moment. Certainly vocally, you can tell the difference sometimes. Like the difference between Fozzie in The Muppets and Fozzie when Frank Oz voiced him was glaring. Once you know that Jim Henson does the voice of both Kermit and Ernie, you're like, "Oh yeah, they do sound alike."
I seriously believe that Jim Henson and Frank Oz had as good of a comedic chemistry together as any pair of performers has ever had in the last 40, 50 years. They were brilliantly funny together and such good puppeteers that they could ignore that they were puppeteers and just be funny together.
Honestly, it's got to be weird to step into a puppeteer's shoes when their puppet is so defined by who they are. I can't imagine what it was like for the first person who had to do Kermit and Ernie and Rowlf and Dr. Teeth because Jim Henson put so much of himself into them. And now, folks who saw them back in complain a little bit because they aren't the same because they can't be. You've gotta emphasize with the people who have to try to not only bring their own personality to those puppets, but also try to preserve Jim Henson's personality as well-that's a huge task. There will always be obsessives like me.