I am of a generation that was influenced a great deal by Muppets. As my friend Karen put it, the most recent Muppet movie "is not for kids; it's for thirty-something geeks who love Muppets." Amen, sister! I am one of those (proud) geeks.
I've seen every Muppet movie in the theater since I was able to. There's a reason Avenue Q is in my top 3 favorite musicals EVER. I've only seen one Broadway show thus far in my life, and it was Avenue Q. In fact, we even sat in Row Q.
I collected Muppet and Fraggle toys from McDonald's in the 80s. When I was growing up, Fraggle Rock was only shown on HBO, which we did not have. We had four channels, including PBS, so I watched countless episodes of Sesame Street. Between it and The Brady Brunch, I spent much of my formative years believing that everyone else wore bell-bottom pants and spoke fluent Spanish.
This kid Wesley down the street did have HBO, though. I didn't really care for Wesley; he was kind of a wimp. But I made sure to play with him and then insist that we watch T.V. (read: Fraggle Rock) and drink cherry Kool-Aid in his basement.
I cried in 1990 when I heard that Jim Henson died. I absolutely hated seeing The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) in the theater because it was the first feature film without Jim Henson as the voice of Kermit (and it's still one of my least favorites, despite the awesomeness that is Michael Caine).
My two favorite Christmas movies are White Christmas (1954) and A Muppet Family Christmas (1987). I still have our version of A Muppet Family Christmas taped off the TV (on VHS with a handwritten label), complete with national and local commercials from 1987. When I was in college the first time around, my mom got me a commercial version of the movie on VHS. When I watched it the first and only time, it had been edited; some of the songs were cut. I was so angry, I threw it away. Even today, you can only find the original version on YouTube or my 1987 VHS copy.
In A Muppet Family Christmas, Kermit and his nephew, Robin, discover a network of Fraggle tunnels in Ma Bear's basement. Promptly after watching the show, I went downstairs to our basement to look for Fraggle holes. I didn't find any. That was the day the magic died for me, but that's a different story.
Well throughout college (at least undergrad #1), I used to tell people that I wanted to be a Muppet when I grew up. And I did. Rather, I wanted to work with the Muppets. I had heard stories about them remaining in character, that working with Kermit the Frog was working with Kermit the Frog, not Henson or Steve Whitmire. I wanted to witness that kind of magic first hand.
As I've gotten older, despite being an actor, that dream has become more and more of a fantasy and less than an achievable reality. A couple of years ago, Dave Goelz (performer of Gonzo the Great and Boober Fraggle, among others) was scheduled to come to the public library for a talk. I was prepared to show up at least three hours in advance in case there was a line so I could meet one of the greats. Two days before the event, he had to cancel.
A friend who also writes reviews (same friend who told me about Dave Goelz's scheduled talk, actually) told me Stuffed and Unstrung was coming to town. I immediately researched the show and promptly bought two tickets. While it appears to now be called "Puppet Up: Uncensored," Stuffed and Unstrung (as my program clearly calls it), is a Henson Alternative production. It is a live, improvisational show with Henson puppets (but not familiar Muppet faces) that is intended for ADULTS ONLY. Dirty, dirty-minded puppets!
While Avenue Q is an adults-only show which lampoons Sesame Street (in fact, all products for Avenue Q, such as the sheet music I own, have to have a disclaimer which states that they are not associated with Jim Henson Productions), it is still a scripted show. Taken from the Puppet Up! website:
What happens when Henson puppeteers are unleashed? You get a new breed of intelligent nonsense that is “Puppet Up: Uncensored” – a live, outrageous, comedy, variety show for adults only. Enjoy an unpredictable evening when six talented, hilarious, expert puppeteers will improvise songs and sketches based on your suggestions! With a motley group of characters brought to life by the world renowned puppeteers of The Jim Henson Company, this is not your average night at the improv and it is definitely not for children. But all others are welcome to enjoy the uninhibited anarchy of live puppet performance as never seen before! ("About - Puppet Up!")LIVE.
I could hardly believe it as I was buying tickets -- this was my chance to interact with the Muppets! Well, it was as close as I was going to get. I researched the crap out of the show during my ticket-buying frenzy. Not only did they take audience suggestions, sometimes they took audience volunteers on stage, too! Many of the clips on the website and on YouTube featured Brian Henson (Jim's son and the current head honcho for you Philistines) as a performer! OhmyGod, I might be within arm's reach of Brian Henson!
I made sure to buy tickets on the floor, close to the stage, because when performers are picking volunteers, they're not going to walk all the way to the cheap seats.
That same friend later asked if I wanted to go with him; he had two free tickets since he was reviewing the show, but I already had my tickets in hand. I was SO FREAKIN' EXCITED!!!!
My dear friend and fellow actor Pamela and I went to see the show. I could hardly contain myself. I nearly wet myself with excitement. As soon as we had our programs, I perused mine. It did not appear that Brian Henson was performing on this particular tour. Who cares?? The puppets were all hanging on a wall on the stage, staring out with their dead eyes, waiting to be given life by the talented performers.
The night began, and it was perfect. As the video clip on the website explains, Stuffed and Unstrung is two shows for the price of one. The first show is watching the puppets live and also on the video screens; it looks the way you think it might look if you've watched any other Henson production. But the second show -- the SECOND SHOW -- is watching the performers as they also watch their own video monitors.
It may or may not interest you to know that Jim Henson revolutionized puppets on television. Before him, puppets were still stuck in a box, a makeshift "stage" a la Punch and Judy sometimes with the performers visible; even Howdy Doody was limited by strings. Muppet productions happen approximately seven feet in the air; the stages are built to accommodate performers with their hands over their heads. Guest stars have to watch where they're walking, lest they fall into a hole. And watching that is the second show.
Like any improv show, the performers asked for audience suggestions. Normally, I'm a pretty loud person. I saw both Second City and Paula Poundstone perform at this same theatre, and they both took many of my suggestions though I was in the cheap seats because I'm just that loud. I don't know what it was this night, but my voice was high-pitched and strained, not loud. Thank God for Pamela! That woman can project like nobody's business (and with excellent diction, too!). Several of her suggestions made it to the stage.
As intermission came, they had only asked for volunteers once. I wasn't picked, but I wasn't too upset. It was a silly sketch, and there was still the whole second act. I bought a magnet and a hot dog puppet during intermission, and the night continued.
The second call for volunteers came, and I tried my damnedest to be loud again, but still no go. Then the third call for a volunteer. This person would actually get to -- I can hardly type it -- perform a puppet.
This was it.
I screamed, "Me! Me!" Pam said, "Stand up!" and shoved me to my feet. I was practically jumping out of the row. And then it happened. Patrick Bristow, the host of the show, came to me.
Oh God. I almost peed on myself again.
Maybe you've seen him before, Patrick Bristow. He has a very distinct look, with his glasses and ginger hair. His bio says he
is best known for his numerous television appearances most notably as Peter on the groundbreaking ABC series Ellen. Other television credits include, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Seinfeld, Friends, Mad About You, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and others. Film credits include Twilight Of The Golds, The Longest Yard, as well as the first Austin Powers, So I Married An Ax Murderer, and the accidental comedy Showgirls. ("Cast and Creative - Puppet Up!")Patrick was a little taken aback by my
Yes, yes I am.
"You're not a puppeteer, are you?" he asked warily.
Here's where things get tricky. Performers (like me) being asked on stage with other performers (like them) can quickly become a mess. Why? Several reasons, such as the volunteer performer might be suspected of being a plant/ringer. More importantly, the volunteer might try to "out perform" the original performer, usually at the original performer's expense. Such behavior might be funny to the audience, but it's incredibly rude and comes at a cost. Don't ever try to take over someone else's show; like I said, highly rude and unprofessional. You're there as a guest and a participant, but not an actor/performer.
So with all of that in mind, I had promised myself that I would be on my best behavior. I wouldn't "try" to be funny or snarky. I just wanted to enjoy myself and be a Muppet for however briefly.
"No, I'm not a puppeteer."
"Wow, you're so excited. I'm a little scared of people who are this excited. Did you come with someone?"
"My friend, Pam." I gestured down to Pam, sitting on my right while I was still standing, breathless.
"Okay, yeah, I'm gonna pick her instead."
I -- what??
I am not making that up. In the face of my enthusiasm, Patrick Bristow, hateful human being that he is, picked my friend for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity instead of me. To her credit, Pam tried to protest and insisted that I go instead. But Patrick would have none of it. Pam was on her feet and ushered to the stage while I sank back into my seat, stunned. Even the people around me, who had witnessed my attempts to volunteer from the beginning of the show, were staring gape-mouthed.
Pam doesn't even know this, but as she walked onto the stage, I almost started to cry. Coming so close to achieving a childhood dream and then losing it to my dear friend, especially in such a deliberate and mean-spirited fashion, was almost too much bear. My whole body was shaking. For the tiniest of instants, I sincerely hated Pam. The realization of how ridiculous it would look to cry at such a show and not wanting my make-up to run were the only things that kept me from sobbing outright. My eyes slowly sucked the moisture back in as I tried to be an adult even though my little kid heart was breaking.
Pam's puppet performance was, of course, awesome. She was funny, but not too funny. She was well-behaved and didn't upstage the original performers; the audience loved her (as they always do; she's very talented). She told me as she was leaving, one of the puppet performers asked her (quietly, off-mic) if we were improv'ers.
"No," she said, "we're actors."
Overall, Stuffed and Unstrung (or whatever they're calling themselves now) is a fun and enjoyable evening of adult entertainment. It is also how Patrick Bristow single-handedly let me come within seconds of achieving a dream I've had since I was seven years old, and with a sneer, snatched it away. I will never forget that night, nor will I ever forgive him.
Fuck you, Patrick Bristow. You're a horrible human being.