Not Just Child’s Play: Reclaiming Puppetry

The Muppets’ cousins are here! They’re funny! They’re felty! They’re… disgusting!? That’s right: the Henson Alternative, the ~adult~ division of the iconic Jim Henson Company, is here to satisfy your cravings for naughty puppetry with The Happytime Murders. It’s a 90 minute raunchfest that has left more than a few viewers underwhelmed, to say the least. With a dismal 22% on Rotten Tomatoes, and more than its share of genuinely awful reviews, let’s just say that this one’s not destined to be appreciated in its time:

“Maybe its gargantuan god-awfulness is not exactly a sin against cinema. But throw away your money on a ticket and you’re in for two hours of certain hell.”

Much of the criticism turns on the film sacrificing story for shock value, and I have to agree. While a few attempts are made to contribute genuine commentary through the less-than-fantastical world portrayed, these promises are left unfulfilled and we are stuck with literally too many sex jokes to tally. But don’t take my word for it, check out this (Green Band, but still NSFW) trailer, mull it over, and then still probably wait until it hits the streaming services.

It’s not just Henson’s estate capitalising on this trend. Puppets are popping up in the latest music videos and TV shows. Not to mention mainstream smash-hits like Avenue Q and Team America, that have used puppetry to satirise while saying something. Since Happytime is the first offering for adults by the Henson Company, perhaps its creators spent too much time trying to strip the children’s label, and too little time conjuring up a message. But are puppets even for children in the first place?

Jim Henson is in part to blame for the child-like attribution we reflexively give puppets. He’s produced a number of children’s shows – most notably, the longest running US television program Sesame Street. Sesame Street has always been rooted in themes involving early-childhood learning, and researchers have found that the program provides lasting educational benefits that are just as powerful as those gained in preschool. Puppets help develop our visual systems as infants, our language centres as toddlers, and even hone our emotional regulation skills later in childhood. So maybe this warm and fuzzy position in our memories contributes to the jarring feeling of seeing these felty creatures get so down n’ dirty. But we’ve only recently appointed puppets as educators, they’ve been used as storytelling tools for centuries.

Theatre and literature philosopher Tzachi Zamir proposes the child link can be traced to playing with dolls. Dolls are one of the only childhood acts that we do not return to as adult (unlike naps, self-centredness, and tantrums). Zamir suggests that at such formative years, before the more internal process of identity formation, playing with dolls allows kids to project character and identity by temporarily giving life to an inanimate object. Today, the closest we get to this sort of magical play is Snapchat filters. Playing with the real and imaginary is also what gives puppets power. The ability to dance between person and thing is what makes puppets effective and comedic storytelling devices to some, but also downright creepy to others.

The dissonance of seeing something so un-real portrayed as human situates puppetry well within uncanny valley. The theory is widely adopted by the robotics and animation industries, and describes the unsettled feeling when a character seems mostly human, but not quite:

“when something is, say, 50 percent human, our brains focus on the similarities and we embrace it. When it’s 95 percent human, we focus on the differences, and the unresolved conflict we feel… creeps us out.”

Now, the puppets in Happytime may not look 95 percent human, or even 50 percent human, but their uncanny thingness can be a difficult pill to swallow for those that can’t get past the cold unflinching eyes, weird voices and technicolour skin.

This eeriness is the source of humour for most modern puppetry. Not only in the dissonance between object/subject, but increasingly in the contrast between puppets’ association with children and their profane, undeniably ‘un-child-like’ portrayals. But if Happytime is any example, profanity won’t cut it.

Quality puppetry – particularly in theatre – is able to utilise this inherent in-humanity to express anxieties about social relations and society. The obvious thingness of puppets allows artists to make powerful statements about what it means to be human, and what it means to be estranged from humanity. Throughout the modernist period, puppetry became a symbol for human obsolescence in the face of industrialisation and uncontrollable forces. Today, in a world defined by interconnectedness and intersectionality, puppetry succeeds when it reflects on one’s struggle in understanding their place.

Avenue Q captured this anxiety in applying the Sesame format to comment on the struggles of navigating adulthood. Jim Carrey’s Kidding utilises puppets not only for plot, but to depict separation with oneself, one’s family and the world. Even Peter Jackson’s infamous and low-key repulsive Meet the Feebles presents fully realised and wholly flawed characters that foster empathy.

Perhaps this is why Happytime flopped: it ignored puppetry’s power. It facilitates genuine discussion about humanity, society and subjective experience in an accessible and entertaining form. It allows us to strip back some of the ugliness of the world and address the anxieties underneath. But perhaps most importantly, it reminds us of the childlike feeling of looking at an object as if it’s a human being, instead of the other way around.

That’s not to say that adult puppetry shouldn’t be weird or crass. After all, never forget that Gonzo was an alien with a chicken fetish.

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