The late Jim Henson was not only an expert puppeteer. He was a comedic genius who knew how to change his art form to different audiences.
Before his thought of “The Muppets,” Henson started making puppet shows that spoke more to adults.
Some of the first sketches that Henson and his wife created back in 1955 were made for adult audiences, some of which included risqué situations, “crude” jokes, and “adult” language. They were a little more tamed with their art by creating TV ads with the puppets for clients like IBM and AT&T.
While the Muppets ultimately became a household name and the one most closely associated with Henson, the legacy he left behind made an impression on mature audiences. That legacy lives on today through Henson Alternative, a division of the Jim Henson Company, where more of their adult-focused content comes from.
One of the products to come out was a live puppet show called “Puppet Up!” Under the direction of co-creator and host Patrick Bristow (“Ellen”, “Seinfeld”, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”), the show is entirely improv “mayhem” all done by master puppeteers who have impeccable comedic timing.
Since its debut back in 2006, Bristow and company have presented the show during select times during the year and all over the world. It’s gotten rave reviews, so it was decided to have a residency in the historic Charlie Chapman Soundstage on the Henson lot in Los Angeles, CA.
We chatted with Bristow over the phone a few weeks ago as he and the team prepare for a new set of “Puppet Up!” shows to happen in LA in a few weeks.
DE: You’ve worked on Disney projects before. What did you do?
PB: I was brought in to consult for a few projects at Disneyland. One was “Snow White: An Enchanting Musical” (closed) and the other was the Royal Theatre shows in Fantasy Faire. Both times I watched the shows and then gave notes on comedic timing and improv skills. They ended up great!
DE: How did you come up with “Puppet Up!” and when did the Jim Henson Company get involved?
PB: Like Disneyland, I was first brought in to teach improv to a few performers who worked at the Jim Henson Company. After about 6 weeks into the class, they were really benefitting from learning, but realized that the process could be entertaining for others, too. Then “Puppet Up!” was born.
DE: What does “Puppet Up!” mean?
PB: When you’re on a set, there is cue that someone calls out to prepare to act out a scene. In our case, we’re using puppets, so we needed a cue that got us ready to perform with the puppets themselves. They are pretty heavy, so our standby position would make the puppets look dead. But when we heard “Puppet up!,” we knew it was time to bring them to life and literally raise them up from the dead!
DE: Brian Henson, the son of Jim Henson, also co-created this show with you. Why do you think he liked the idea?
PB: He wanted to carry on his father’s legacy through a new comedic voice for the company. If you go back to the early Henson stuff, there was mayhem, violence, darkness, and twisted-ness that was presented in a very child-like way. Our show is a product of all that.
DE: What will the “Puppet Up!” show evening look like?
PB: Think less, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” and more sketch-based like “The Muppets” or “SNL.” It’s all short-form improv that’s directed by the audience through suggestions they give on the spot. Over the two-act structure with a opening/closing musical number and legacy sketches, but between those scripted things, it’s all thought up as we go. Nothing is pre-planned, so anything can happen.
DE: Is the idea of “anything can happen” the reason why the show is marketed for adults and “uncensored”?
PB: Our audiences are always different. Some of them want to have sketches that have an overwhelmingly adult theme (like sex, drugs, profanity, etc.), but we’ve had sketches where it was incredibly tame. We make no pretense that it can “go there.” It all happens organically as improv comedy should.
DE: But you don’t want to make the audience feel too uncomfortable and leave a bad experience in their minds as they leave, right?
PB: Absolutely! As the host for the evening, I need to make sure that I read the room and place limits on the sketches and performers where they are needed. The cast is also very adept at “controlling” the creativity, too, up to a point and do it in a clever way. The result was still very tasteful, but very forbidden!
DE: How often will you be hosting these “Puppet Up!” shows?
PB: We hope to do them as often as possible. We love having them come to our historic home (Charlie Chaplain Theater on the Jim Henson Company Lot) and create a lot of fun. That said since the theater is a working set, we don’t have access to it all the time. The plan is that we will try to do at least three weekend sets of shows every year. We’ll see where it goes from there!
Tickets might still be available for this weekend’s shows. Be sure to check out the official “Puppet Up!” website for availability and to sign up to be notified for future shows as well.
Our special thanks to Patrick Bristow for taking the time to chat with us for this story!