It may be difficult to imagine, considering the burnished piece of clockwork machinery the show has become, but in its early days, Saturday Night Live had puppet skits. And they weren’t just any puppets: SNL was a Muppet show.
The first season featured recurring sketches set in the Land of Gorch, an alien world peopled with “adult Muppets” performed by Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Jerry Nelson. The sketches were predictably weird, usually off-color and intermittently funny as hell, but SNL’s writers’ room hated the Muppets, and got them cut from the show in its second season.
In one of the last Gorch sketches, the Muppets plead with Lily Tomlin to get their jobs back, and Tomlin asks them about The Muppet Show, which had just debuted. Couldn’t they get hired there?
“They won’t let us work on that,” laments one of the SNL Muppets. “That’s family entertainment.”
Tomlin is puzzled. “But aren’t you family entertainment?”
“Hell, yes!” another Muppet blurts out.
That outburst neatly describes Puppet Up!, the new Henson Alternative-produced show that makes its debut at The Venetian on July 21. Like the SNL Gorch sketches, Puppet Up!—the name comes from a stage direction Henson used on its movies and television shows, literally instructing the puppeteers to hoist their puppets aloft for a take—marries the antic style of the Muppets to straight-up improvisation. Like the Gorch sketches, Puppet Up! features not-ready-for-prime-time players; there’s no Kermit, no Fozzie, not even The Great Favog. (Henson’s creations aren’t even called “Muppets” anymore; Disney owns the name and all its related intellectual property.)
And as often happened in Gorch, the puppets of Puppet Up! talk some crazy shit that you can’t quite believe is coming from family-friendly felt.
“My dad would call it ad-libbing. That’s how they would develop sketches,” says Brian Henson, chairman of The Jim Henson Company. (And yes, he’s Jim’s son through and through—he’s every bit as passionate about the work as his dad was, and the physical resemblance is striking.) “Gonzo, Piggy—all of those characters were developed in a very uncensored environment that the public never saw.”
Until now, that is. And just as the elder Henson was somewhat bemused to find himself doing a recurring puppet skit on a largely non-puppet sketch comedy show, so the son is amazed to be doing Vegas.
“Mostly, we’re a television and film company. I didn’t imagine that I would be doing a live theater show,” Henson says. “It just organically happened. The plan was to find a new tone of comedy that we really loved, start writing to it and then start producing television in that vein. What we found was that the energy contained within Puppet Up! is more exciting than scripted work.”
Remembering a Felt Fever Dream
Puppet Up! is easily described. The show is hosted by actor and comedian Patrick Bristow, best known for his recurring work on Ellen DeGeneres’ sitcom Ellen (though also he made memorable appearances in such films as Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Showgirls). Bristow works the crowd, fishing for improv suggestions. When he has enough, he assembles them into the framework for a skit, chooses a few puppeteers from the ensemble of six and stands back. They then grab puppets off a rack seemingly at random and perform the skit on the fly.
While the mechanics are basic, the content is something else again. Puppet Up! is by turns filthy, surreal, corny, side-splittingly hilarious—and, in some moments, even somewhat beautiful. Space aliens have café discussions with dogs; talking hot dogs ponder the mysteries of existence. Really, trying to explain the content of one specific show is pointless; the next show will be entirely different, depending on how vocal the crowd is.
“It tends to be quite blue,” Henson says.
“Once you put 500, 700 people in charge of what the puppets are doing … I mean, c’mon,” Bristow says. “One audience might be a bit more naughty, and another audience might prefer puppet violence.”
What if a crowd is a dud?
“We’ve never had a dud audience!” Bristow says. “Most people get swept up in this. I can’t think of the last time it didn’t work …” He checks himself, and says, “Except when the audience is too polite. In Canada, they’re so sweet. They wouldn’t shout out suggestions—‘Oh, we don’t shout.’ Finally, I said, ‘Just pretend you’re Americans.’”
A Few Dirty Dogs
Circling back to the mechanics of Puppet Up!: One of the coolest things about the show is that you can enjoy it in two different ways. You can either watch the puppets alone—the puppeteers perform them in front of an elevated camera, which feeds to stage-flanking screens—or you can watch the puppeteers at work below the puppets, a curtain Henson has never drawn back before now.
“We’re not hiding the puppeteers, we’re not hiding the cables, the monitors, anything,” Bristow says. “The slightly revolutionary thing about this for Henson is you never saw the puppeteers before. You weren’t supposed to. It’s almost part of the definition of puppetry. Avenue Q does a thing where the person is playing the character, but the puppet is also playing the character. We have a hard line above the heads of the puppeteers, but you can still see when they’re struggling, when they’re having fun and when they’re trying not to laugh.”
They might not laugh, but audiences will, and they’ll come back. The one constant to Puppet Up! is that it’s freaking hilarious, even when its audience goes inexplicably Canadian. And every once in a while, you get a night—a crazy, straight-outta-Gorch kinda Saturday night—like the one Bristow describes in parting:
“We had the hot dogs puppets up there. I asked the crowd, ‘What are they doing right now?’ And someone yells out, ‘Rimming!’
“I froze. The audience starts laughing, and I said, ‘I’m going to get some other … You really said that, didn’t you? We’re going to get some other choices, and put it up to a vote.’ So we did, and what did the audience go for? It’s a bunch of hot dogs.”
Bristow chuckles. “It’s a testament to the fact that you can have puppets do things that would be horrendous in public … and the audience laughs at it, because it’s foam and fabric.”
Nightly (dark Wednesdays), assorted showtimes at the Sands Showroom at the Venetian, $69-$109, 866-641-7469, Venetian.com.