Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The hand that rocks the puppet: 13 pop-culture attempts to make puppets appealing to adult audiences

Illustration for article titled The hand that rocks the puppet: 13 pop-culture attempts to make puppets appealing to adult audiences

1. Meet The Feebles (1989) 
Long ago, before director Peter Jackson became synonymous with visual-effects epics like the Lord Of The Rings trilogy and King Kong, he got his feet wet as a filmmaker in New Zealand on the shock-and-awe circuit, directing such cult splatterfests as Bad Taste and Dead Alive. Jackson’s Meet The Feebles took a decidedly twisted turn, which is pretty impressive considering his previous film involved a guy who dismembers a crowd of dancing zombies by strapping the business end of a lawnmower to his chest. This dark comedy/musical takes direct aim at Jim Henson’s Muppets with a backstage showbiz story featuring anthropomorphic animal characters such as a starlet hippopotamus named Heidi who gets caught up in a bizarre love triangle with a walrus and a cat, and a foul-mouthed rat named Trevor who dabbles in puppet-on-puppet pornography. Characters are gleefully killed off using all sorts of creative, bloody methods, and the comedy famously mined for the darkest humor possible from a musical number about the joys of sodomy to a Vietnam flashback that parodies The Deer Hunter’s Russian roulette scene.

2. NBC’s Saturday Night Live (1977-79)
The groundbreaking first season of NBC’s long-running sketch show also featured an attempt to make the Muppets more suitable for an adult audience. Henson created a new batch of characters including the monarchic oaf King Ploobis, his loyal subject Scred, the king’s hippy-dippy son Wisss, and the ominous stone deity The Mighty Favog, and set them in the mystic Land Of Gorch. Just like their human counterparts on the show, the sketches tackled more mature subjects like sex and drugs, but its writers detested having to come up with material for puppets every week causing writer Michael O’Donoghue to famously remark, “I won’t write for felt.” The Gorch scenes were cut by the start of the second season, but Henson’s characters made recurring appearances throughout the following season to remark on their recent firing. 


3. Puppets Who Kill (2002-06)
Canada’s Comedy Network turned a handful of innocent-looking playthings into convicted felons with sordid pasts and stuck them in a halfway house for adult audiences’ twisted amusement. Each episode, their determined social worker (played by Dan Redican, one-fourth of the radio/TV sketch group The Frantics), tried to counsel this band of troubled puppets, which included a dog named Rocco who suffered from violent mood swings, a “comfort doll” named Cuddles that had passive-aggressive tendencies, a teddy bear named Buttons who humped anything that moved (including the mayor’s wife in the very first episode), and a psychopathic ventriloquist dummy named Bill.

4. Team America: World Police (2004)
Even though South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were eventually able to bring their all-marionette action comedy to the big screen, the production itself was fraught with problems. The film aimed for the Jerry Bruckheimer method of action filmmaking, using puppets to tell the story of an elite squad of American terrorist hunters who travel the globe to “go police the world,” only to have their efforts thwarted by liberal celebrities such as Alec Baldwin, Michael Moore, and Matt Damon as well as conniving dictator Kim Jong-il. Parker and Stone hired The Matrix trilogy’s director of cinematography, Bill Pope, to handle the movie’s biggest action sequences and also wrote their own musical numbers as a spoof of action-movie soundtracks with songs like pop-country ballad “Freedom Isn’t Free” and assuredly pro-American theme “America (Fuck Yeah).” The duo had an army of puppeteers on hand to help control the principal cast and extras, but getting them to do something as simple as take a swig from a glass on a close-up shot required several frustrating reshoots. The MPAA sent the film back with an NC-17 rating several times, which led to the decision to weaken the edgy comedy and cut the infamous puppet sex scene from the theatrical version.

5. Greg The Bunny (2002)
Greg The Bunny got its start on Manhattan’s public-access network as a half-hour comedy called Junktape before IFC took notice and brought the series to its lineup. Eventually, the loveable bunny and his cast of wild characters—including an egotistical ape named Warren and an out-of-work vampire actor named Count Blah—moved to the big show on Fox as a primetime sitcom alongside such names as Seth Green and Sarah Silverman. It only lasted one season, a cancellation that the show’s creators blamed on a softened tone that made it feel more sitcom-ish than its predecessor. The puppets returned to IFC as a vignette show that spoofed films such as Pulp Fiction, Rain Man, and Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Warren The Ape also got his own self-titled spin-off for one season on MTV. 

6. Crank Yankers (2002-2007)
Adam Carolla, Jimmy Kimmel, and Daniel Kellison’s success with The Man Show gave them carte blanche to create another show for Comedy Central’s lineup, and they responded with Crank Yankers. This comedy centered around crank phone calls occurring in a city called Yankerville, which was inhabited entirely by puppets. Kimmel and Carolla provided most of the voice talent and invited their comedy friends like Kevin Nealon, Seth MacFarlane, Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, and Jim Florentine as guest puppets. Celebrity cameo calls from the likes of Eminem and Jeff Goldblum were also a regular occurrence. Some of the show’s more memorable characters included an elderly man with hearing problems named Elmer (based on Kimmel’s own grandfather); Carolla’s gruff, woodworking Vietnam vet Mr. Birchum, a character he had been performing since his days with KROQ’s Kevin And Bean show; and Florentine’s mentally challenged Special Ed from his “Terrorizing Telemarketers” albums. 


7. Spitting Image (1984-1996)
This notorious British satire show savagely ripped the biggest names in politics, celebrity, and royalty with puppets that featured crude caricatures of such famous faces as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and even The Queen herself. The puppets were made by the puppeteering duo Peter Fluck and Roger Law, who had never worked in television and only worked on caricature sculptures for print media. The show failed to launch in its first season and almost faced cancellation, but Red Dwarf creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor took over the head writing duties and started it on a path that would turn it into one of Britain’s longest-running comedies.

8. Avenue Q (2003)
Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez created Avenue Q, their long-running Broadway show, as a way to reach out to audiences who didn’t like the traditional musical and thought it would be more believable if puppet cast members suddenly broke out into song. They created a Sesame Street-esque world around their own lives and struggles to find their place in the world post-college that used the pathos of children’s shows to speak to an older audience about more grown-up issues like racism and sex. The duo originally planned to pitch their idea as a TV show but eventually developed it as an off-Broadway play. It quickly transferred to the Great White Way and won three Tony Awards in 2004, including one for Best Musical. The characters included the downtrodden Princeton and the endearing Kate Monster as well as more cartoonish Muppet parodies such as the gravel-voiced porn addict Trekkie Monster and the lascivious and loose Lucy The Slut.

9. The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson (2008-present)
Scottish comedian, director, and Drew Carey Show alumnus Craig Ferguson received a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to host and build a late-night talk show after the sudden departure of Late Late Show host Craig Kilborn. After taking the reins, Ferguson attempted to make the show more comically personal than political or topical, using his monologues and “Tweets And Emails” segments. And in 2008, he turned to hand puppets for the show’s cold opens. From there, Ferguson created a handful of memorable characters including the flamboyantly playful shark Brian (who came in quite handy when Ferguson won the chance to host Discovery Channel’s Shark Week), the spry southern alligator Wavy, and the squeaky, expletive-spouting rabbit Sid. MythBusters’ Grant Imahara later built the biggest puppet in Ferguson’s arsenal, a robotic skeleton sidekick named Geoff Peterson.

10. Let My Puppets Come (1976)
Gerard Damiano, director of Deep Throat, made a puppet follow-up to his wildly successful underground porn films that aimed for an adult audience in the strictest sense of the word. The film placed puppets in some of the movie’s more sexually explicit roles as it spoofed the adult film industry with a behind-the-scenes story about a production company trying to raise a quick buck by making a cheap porn film with a high art director as the mob muscled its way into the business. Some of the human cast members included Screw magazine founder Al Goldstein and model and future Bloodsucking Freaks star Viju Krem.

11. TV Funhouse (2000-2001) 
Robert Smigel’s recurring “Saturday TV Funhouse” skits and wildly successful Triumph The Insult Comic Dog character led to his receiving a spin-off, TV Funhouse, a cult comedy series that appeared on Comedy Central and spoofed classic children’s shows. The series was full of unique Smigel (Saturday Night Live, Late Night With Conan O’Brien) touches throughout from foul-mouthed animal puppets who have adventurous road trips to Tijuana and become addicted to a narcotic form of “Christmas Cheer” (made from the spinal fluid of the show’s brainless host, Doug) to an angry dog in a Wile E. Coyote-esque quest to capture his own tail. Sadly, the show only lasted one season.

12. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1988)
The vast majority of movies and shows that use puppets for their cast do so for comedic effect, but a few have managed to use puppetry or the art of turning inanimate objects into flesh and blood characters that audiences care about for more dramatic purposes. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Todd Haynes’ retelling of Carpenter’s life and fatal struggle with anorexia, used Ken and Barbie dolls for its cast as a not-so-subtle strike at unrealistic, yet reinforced body-image expectations. The art film saw rapid success on the film-festival circuit, but it was quashed by an intellectual-property lawsuit from Karen’s brother Richard for using her music without proper permission. The lawsuit made it impossible for the film to be distributed officially, but it eventually became a cult film in underground circles.


13. Dante’s Inferno (2007)
This live-action update of Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy turned detailed comic drawings into puppets to style its production as a living, breathing independent comic book. The movie is based on the graphic-novel adaptations of The Divine Comedy by artist Sandow Birk and uses single-panel, hand-drawn cutouts of characters and sets to populate its frames. Puppeteer Paul Zaloom, better known in pop-culture circles as Beakman on the kids’ science show Beakman’s World, used his skill and the art of found-object and shadow puppetry to create the action for this bleak journey through a familiar looking Hell filled with urban decay, abandoned cars, and strip malls. The cast includes the voice talents of Dermot Mulroney as a hoodie-sporting Dante, James Cromwell as the Roman poet Virgil, and several Upright Citizens Brigade alums including Andrew Daly, Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, and Scott Adsit.