Ever catch yourself watching Sesame Street and think, Cookie Monster is funny, but he needs more dick jokes? Well, don't fret. Because Stuffed & Unstrung is what happens when Jim Henson's puppets stop teaching kids the alphabet and start letting the expletives and adult-content humor fly. Boasting more than 80 puppets manipulated by six comedians from the Jim Henson Company, this show is guaranteed to fulfill your burning need to see Muppets go nuts and be completely inappropriate. It's what they were always meant to do.
We talked with Patrick Bristow, the show's MC, about the lewd puppets, the talented cast, and how the late Jim Henson might have reacted to seeing his beloved Muppets running amok.
Stuffed & Unstrung is performed by Henson Alternative, the adults-only wing of the Jim Henson Company. The uniqueness of the show is that it allows the audience to see the puppets, as well as the puppeteers manipulating them underneath on big screens above the stage. It's a show filled with comedy improv, audience participation and outrageousness. (Keep the kids at home for this one!)
New Times: How did the idea for Stuffed & Unstrung come about?
Patrick Bristow: It started as an improv class for some of the puppeteers that the Jim Henson Company used regularly in order to broaden their skill set. The puppeteers took to improv so quickly that i suggested we do a little demonstration show on the Henson lot for the other employees. Brian henson then upped the ante and we ended up doing an invitational evening performance that was attended by around 200 people. Reps from the hbo aspen comedy festival came and booked us to perform at the festival. So the whole show was born out of a happy accident in a way.
How do you think Jim Henson would reacted to a show where his puppets get raunchy?
From everything I've heard from his family and those who knew him, he would have whole-heartedly approved the show. If you see his older work that pre-dates Sesame Street and the Muppets, we know, you would see how delicious and twisted and subversive that early work was. He had a naughty side to his sense of humor according to his son Brian Henson. I think we're working in that tradition.
Is the entire show improv?
No. The very first "show" we did on the lot was pure improv, but we've added some musical numbers and vintage re-creations of early Jim Henson and Frank Oz routines. So it's more of a variety show with improv as a big part of the show.
What are some of the challenges of doing improv with puppets?
The lack of eye contact! Eye contact is so very important for regular improv. The puppeteers have to constantly watch video monitors to see where their puppet is on camera as well as to check the puppets eye lines, etc. So our improvising puppeteers have to be excellent listeners. Really excellent listeners. Also, improv is about being focused and relaxed so you can respond quickly to whatever pops up. Distractions are to be avoided. And there's nothing more distracting than having to puppeteer at a Henson standard while improvising.
How do the puppets interact with the audience?
We have a couple times during the show where a puppet speaks directly to audience. It's a challenge for the puppeteer who can't look out into the audience to see who is talking to them. For the audience, though, it's like those moments in Woody Allen's "Purple Rose of Cairo" where the characters on the movie screen start addressing the audience. Surreal and fun.
People would love to hear Kermit make a dick joke. Are there any Muppets we'll recognize in the show?
Afraid not. The Muppets as a brand are owned by the Walt Disney Company. All of our puppets are either custom built for the show or were created for other projects many years ago. Audiences won't recognize them. But that's the cool thing about our puppets. Each time a different puppeteer uses a puppet, there's the instant creation of a character that lives for that one moment in that one show only.
Any other puppeteers besides Brian the audience might know? Is Kevin Clash (Elmo) in this?
Well, no, Mr. Clash is not in this show, though I understand he's absolutely hilarious. I think he's probably too busy. But some of our cast members have extensive TV credits and if you read their bios, you'll likely recognize some of them. And while Brian Henson performs with the show, he is not part of the cast for the Florida appearances.
What's one of the craziest or raunchiest things that's happened on the tour?
We had the suggestion of "bikini wax" as an activity for an improv just last night. A squirrel was getting a wax from a "humanoid" puppet and one of our other puppeteers grabbed a pair of loose puppet legs that have "hooker heels" on the feet. He used them to depict the squirrels legs up in the air. Hilarious and disturbing all at the same time.
Has there ever been a performance where parents accidentally brought their kids with them?
There have been a couple younger teens in the audiences here and there. Even if the parents know their kid is cool with the naughtier humor in the show, it can make the surrounding audience feel a little insecure about laughing at the darker or more adult content. So it's just not a good idea to bring the under 18 set. You never know what you might have to explain on the ride home... or what your kid might explain to you!
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Stuffed & Unstrung at the Arsht Center (1300 Biscayne Blvd) will be performed this Sunday night only at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $15 to $45. Call 305-949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org.