The Happytime Murdered…well, Wounded

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A wonderful thing about the stage show Puppet Up! is that like all good improv shows, the lights go up, then good or bad, the sketch happens, and then the lights come down.

There is a window for the jokes to live or die, for the story to succeed or fail, for the characters to evolve or not.

And then the window closes, and we move on to the next sketch.

The Happytime Murders is what happens when that window refuses to close, or at least takes 91 minutes to close.

The plot is classic film noir. [NO SPOILERS]

The world is modern day Los Angeles, but it is now populated by humans and puppets, only the puppets are considered second-class citizen. The story centres on the exploits of Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), washed up cop and now puppet private eye, and a sudden killing spree that forces Phil to work with his old human partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy).

Old wounds run deep. Pain and distrust drips from the walls.

And then there’s this dame with a body that literally just won’t quit.

Now, atop that film noir scaffold, you can layer…no, trowel…no, backhoe 1000 sex jokes, puppets saying “fuck” every few seconds, and a rather unnerving cowsturbation moment and you have The Happytime Murders.

There is no doubt that Henson Alternative can do puppetry, and this film is ALL about the puppetry.

[Disclosure/Bragging: I personally know some of the puppeteers who worked on this film. (See Puppet Up! visits Toronto)]

The skill with which this movie was made is astounding, particularly if you watch the behind-the-scene videos on YouTube. These are seriously talented and amazingly funny people.

It was obvious in Puppet Up! It is obvious in The Happytime Murders.

As expected, the human actors simply cannot keep up with their frenzied felted friends. Even Melissa McCarthy at her Melissa McCarthy-est cannot compete on screen with these little monsters…seriously, she might as well have been Jenny McCarthy. (Note: Not intended as a slight on MM.)

The lone human performer who stood out and more than held her own was the delightful Maya Rudolph. I have always had my suspicions about that lady…that she is not fully human…this performance may have proven me right.

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So, if the puppetry was so brilliant, why didn’t this work for me?

Aside from lights cutting scenes off, the one thing that Puppet Up! has that the movie doesn’t is an emcee (ringmaster? Nurse Ratchet?) of the stage show.

As funny as the emcee is as a performer, he grounds the show. He keeps the performance from getting crazy…well, crazier…well, stupid. And he serves as a connection to the audience, joining us in our confusion or surprise.

 

There was no such grounding force in the movie, literally or metaphorically. There was little to emotionally connect us to the characters, and what little that was there was quickly swallowed by the next fellatio joke.

Speaking of which, where was the cleverness and the wit, the cutting satire and insightful playfulness that we routinely see in Henson outings and even in the raunchiest of Puppet Up! sketches?

From a comedy perspective, they took the best of The Muppet Show and rewrote it with the worst of Beavis & Butthead and Dude, Where’s My Car?

I’m not trying to point a finger of blame as I’m not sure blame is necessary or relevant. It was an experiment, and not all experiments are successful.

To that end, I hope there are more outings with these characters—again, particularly when you see what is possible from these talented people—I just hope in future efforts, they simply let the characters be real and don’t feel that they need to center all of the humour on their puppetness.

Otherwise, it is a felted minstrel show, and there would be the greatest irony in the world given the central conceit of The Happytime Murders.

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

True story

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Truth is relative. Truth isn’t about facts so much as believability. Something can be objectively factual, but if I do not believe it, it is not true (to me).

And while this position can complicate social interactions and any discussion of politics, its corollary is vital to creativity:

Something can be objectively fictional, but if I believe it, it is true (to me).

I stumbled across this concept years ago, while studying improvisation at Second City.

I entered the school thinking I was there to be funny, but rapidly learned that despite the appellation “improvisational comedy”, the discipline is more about being fully engaged with the other performers and your environment rather than being funny.

Despite the lack of props, despite the lack of costumes, despite being confined to a stage, improv is about truth. If it isn’t, if the audience doesn’t believe you, then your performance is ineffective.

Without truth, the audience will not engage emotionally, they will not invest in the characters, and at best, the performance becomes an intellectual exercise. At worst, it becomes boring.

The same is true for writing.

As part of my everyday life, but particularly as a screenwriting instructor, screenplay competition reader and story analyst/coach for So, What’s Your Story?, I digest a lot of stories that cover every medium and genre. In analyzing these stories, teasing out what works and looking for ways to improve what isn’t working, I find that most of my feedback ultimately drills down to the truth of the story.

All good stories are true stories, but not all true stories are good.

Who are these characters? What do they want? What do they need? Why are they acting that way?

The world can be completely fantastical; it doesn’t have to look or function like any place I have experienced. The characters don’t have to be human or even corporeal.

But both must have a truth that I, as a reader or audience member, can believe in, something I can connect to.

Except with possibly the most Art House of work—where the thwarting of inherent truth is often the whole point—the world must have consistent laws by which it functions, even if those laws are completely alien to my real-world experience.

And, although I may not agree with a character’s motivations and reactions, I must on some level understand them and recognize them as true and consistent for the character and the world in which that character exists.

From my perspective, this is reason why Arrival works, and Valerian doesn’t.

Yes, there were plotting challenges in Arrival, its mixed timelines presentation often confusing things (and yet, ironically, that was the overall point of the story), but the characters made sense, their actions were believable, their world consistent if only in hindsight.

In contrast, the world of Valerian seemed to shift as required by the plot, a deus ex machina around every corner. And most of the characters seemed to suffer from erratic multiple personality disorder (respect to those challenged by the actual disorder) that invalidated each motivation and reaction as soon as it happened.

For me, Arrival had an inherent and universal truth, whereas Valerian was little more than artifice, an intellectual exercise in which I chose not to participate.

Consider your favourite stories from whatever medium—the page-turner novels, the lean-forward movies.

What pulled you into the story? What kept you enthralled? What made you forget there was a world outside?

Perhaps it was good writing. Maybe, an excellent plot. Possibly, interesting characters.

Whatever the intellectual rationale, you believed. If only for a brief period, the story was true (to you).

As difficult as it sounds, that is your target in writing. And because of your proximity to the story, it will be a challenge. But truth is the difference-maker.

Our writing is only as good as the truth we tell.

Best of luck.

 

Arrival: Screenplay (pdf) by Eric Heisserer

Valerian & the City of a Thousand Planets: Screenplay by Luc Besson

 

Award-winning screenwriter Randall C Willis is Story Analyst & Coach at So, What’s Your Story? (Facebook page). He also teaches screenwriting in Toronto at Raindance Canada and George Brown College.

Artists I adore (and you should follow)

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Barnaby Dixon – puppetry

As many of you know, I am nutso for puppetry and have somehow managed to know some amazingly talented puppeteers. But as much as I adore my friends, one fellow blows me away not just for his skill as a puppeteer, but also as a puppet designer.

For a guy that looks like he’s 12—I’m over 50, so you all look 12 to me—Barnaby Dixon seems ancient in his craft and wisdom. From the very first YouTube video I watched, he has dazzled me with his love of the art form, his ability to bring the inanimate to life, and his presentation style that draws you in and makes you feel like this is a private conversation. Stellar!

Visit Barnaby’s web site, Facebook page and Twitter account

 

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Baram & Snieckus – comedy

I know, I know. I have to get past my addiction to these beautiful sketch and improv wunderkinds. But I can’t help myself.

Apart, Matt Baram and Naomi Snieckus are wonderfully funny and vulnerable and endearing, but together, they rocket off the charts.

As I have reviewed previously (see below), Baram & Snieckus are to the modern era what Stiller & Meara and Nichols & May were to theirs, people who express the challenges and wonders of social awkwardness, allowing us to laugh at the things that frighten us in our daily lives.

No one is more neurotic than Matt…until Naomi erupts in her own mental mushroom cloud.

And that this husband-and-wife team are beautiful, friendly, giving, caring people is an absolute bonus.

You can follow Matt & Naomi on their web site, Facebook page or Twitter.

 

See also:

You and Me Both – A revue review

Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

 

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Filippa Levemark – visual arts

As a photographer, I adore nature. As a writer, I adore bizarre or interesting juxtapositions. Thus, I had no choice but to fall in love with Filippa Levemark’s work.

With the seemingly simplest of compositions, Filippa combines nature and human infrastructure to powerfully demonstrate that the two worlds are one and the same. Try as it might, humanity cannot hold itself as distinct from the wildlife that surrounds us, nor should it.

Her work is beautifully approachable and yet is rife with meaning, offering depths that may be missed at first glance.

Based in Sweden, my greatest hope is to find a way for her to bring her works to Canada.

You can follow Filippa on her web site, Facebook and Instagram.

 

 

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Irene Carl Sankoff & David Hein – musical theatre

As a student at Toronto’s Second City Training Centre several years ago, I had the great fortune to meet and do improv with a gorgeous and talented actress named Irene Sankoff, a truly giving performer.

Years later, I heard that Irene and her husband David Hein had created the somewhat autobiographical stage musical My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, which played to wonderful reviews in Toronto. What I didn’t realize was that the musical would explode in the theatre world both in Canada and abroad, setting these two up as a creative force of nature.

And just this past year, they have repeated (and likely surpassed) that success with a new musical Come From Away, based on events in Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11 when hundreds of air passengers found themselves suddenly grounded.

The musical just completed a spectacularly successful run in Toronto and begins Broadway previews on Feb 18 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York, where it is sure to sell out quickly.

But like my Baram & Snieckus comment above, what makes these two particularly special is that they are genuinely wonderful people and have such love for their craft and for the people who come see the show.

Recently, on a frigid Toronto morning, the pair brought coffee and donuts to fans waiting for rush tickets to their final Toronto performance (Toronto Star article). The pair and performers from the show entertained the small crowd, singing songs and chatting with the chilled throng. That is simply beautiful.

Follow Irene & David’s adventures on their web site, Facebook and Twitter.

 

Still Figuring It Out: Baram & Snieckus

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If Elaine May and Mike Nichols were alive today that would be horrible, because Nichols was buried two years ago. (May is still alive.)

That said, I am sure they would be happy to know that the legacy they started in the 1950s is being continued quite ably by Naomi Snieckus and Matt Baram, who previewed their latest revue tonight at the John Candy Box Theatre in Toronto.

Long-standing staples on the Toronto comedy scene, Snieckus and Baram are veterans of the Second City and both have had their turn at television (Mr. D and Seed, respectively). But this real-life husband and wife are at their strongest when they stand across the stage from each other and reveal their neuroses in a mass therapy session that other people pay $15 to see.

The new show is aptly titled as they truly are still figuring it out. A combination of sketches, Nichols & May-style audio pieces, some improv, and playful audience banter, the show, which runs about 60 minutes, is still a work-in-progress, some bits decidedly more solid than others. But in many respects, that is the charm of a Baram & Snieckus production; it never feels complete.

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This is a couple who consistently commit to their craft, who are willing to run with anything that comes up—including an audience suggestion of Dante’s cab ride, which turned into a motivational moment for an under-performing Satan with Daddy issues. But what makes this particularly charming is they are not afraid to let the audience know when they realize a bit isn’t working, and we all lean forward to see how they’ll extract themselves.

Their choice of venue facilitates this intimacy with the audience.

Although I have every confidence that Baram & Snieckus would have no trouble holding an audience in a large theatre, all of the revues that I have attended occurred in small venues, holding no more than 100 seats. The John Candy Box Theatre is no exception, and the audience sits so close to the stage that they become a tripping hazard for the performers.

Thus, when you see Baram & Snieckus perform, it is like you’re watching their lives from their living room.

[For the record, I have never been in their living room and this completely unnecessary ankle bracelet chafes.]

That intimacy, that vulnerability is the charm that bonds this team to the audience. These are your best friends and you are about to see them at their worst moment. Over and over and over again.

It’s schadenfreude for swingers. [The title of their next revue?]

One thing that was different from previous revues is the pair have started filming some of their classic sketches, and they projected two—from their previous revue You and Me Both—for tonight’s audience. This is part of a larger effort by the couple to make more of their material available online to audiences.

Still Figuring It Out, which runs until Friday, September 30, is practically sold out, so you’ll want to snatch the last few tickets soon, if you’re not already too late.

Alternatively, look for them on the web site of their company National Theatre of the World.

You will find laughs, and maybe a few insights as you too still figure it out.

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See also:

Toronto Star review of Still Figuring It Out by Carly Maga

My review of You & Me Both

Brian Henson talks to me (sorta)

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It could’a happened

As many of you know, I am a massive puppetry fan and have even written comedy for puppets (nasty beggars). And one of my favourite puppet performances–only after my own SomeTV!–is Puppet Up! – Uncensored, produced by the Henson Company under the leadership of Brian Henson, son of Jim (sounds biblical, doesn’t it).

In preparation for their upcoming run in Las Vegas (July 21 – August 31 at the Venetian), Puppet Up! put out a call for people to submit questions to Brian…so you know I had to.

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Well, kudos for Brian’s bravery, as he just responded in a two-part video (unfortunately, cannot embed video from Twitter so please click on link).

Cheers to the entire group for taking the time to do this…it was fun (at least, for me).

And if you’re even thinking of heading to Vegas, be sure to check out Puppet Up! – Uncensored at the Venetian. I guarantee you will have a great evening.

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Hanging with the Puppet Up! cast and characters after the Toronto finale

See also:

Puppet Up! visits Toronto

SomeTV! spreads like herpes at Burning Man

Behold, easily the best of Fringe Toronto

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I may have to give up comedy writing. Based on the sold-out sketch comedy show I saw last night at Toronto’s Monarch Tavern—part of the annual Fringe Festival—I am a flailing hack or self-deluded pretender.

Brought to us by the disturbed mind of Justin Haigh under the umbrella of Spoon vs. Hammer, Behold, the Barfly is a delightful show that is possibly the most consistently funny sketch comedy performance I have seen in ages, and if its run is limited solely to Toronto Fringe, we all lose out.

Trying not to spoil any of the sketches, let me just say that they are all really solid…even the ones that opened weak only to demonstrate that this was done on purpose. As a comedy fan and writer, I often found myself anticipating the direction of a sketch only to be surprised by a solid twist that never felt manipulative or like a bad M. Night Shyamalan moment.

The casting was amazing, each performer bringing his or her unique absurdity to the performance, and presenting the sketches with such vitality that they almost felt improvised (in the good sense). These are performers comfortable with their material, which is critical for sketch comedy.

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Ned Petrie is the classical Everyman who just wants to be loved (Credit: Laura Dittman)

Ned Petrie is clearly the anchor for this show. He does one delicious take after another on the Everyman, a stoic witness to the world gone mad. Eric Miinch is the clown, doing his damnedest to break up his scene partners with ad libs that enhance rather than disrupt the scenes in which he finds himself.

Elizabeth Anacleto is the shape-shifter, becoming whatever her role requires with mercurial fluidity even when required to shift smoothly within a single sketch. Marsha Mason—whom I should note I know personally—is a talent who can say more with a single facial expression than with the best written dialogue.

Jeff Hanson and Steve Hobbs are mesmerizing on stage, each one bringing an intensity to their performances that cannot be ignored, especially in one particularly disturbing turn by Hobbs. Kevin MacPherson and Sarah Thorpe, meanwhile, ably glue the entire construction together, the former largely coming in from left field at every turn.

If I have one criticism of the show, it is that it completely under-utilizes the amazingly talented women in the cast, the male performers generally taking the most significant roles.

As a male comedy writer, I completely understand the challenge of consciously writing female roles without looking like you’re writing female roles. It is not sufficient to simply lop the penis off a male character.

If Haigh and his team are given the opportunity to remount this show—dear comedy gods, let this be so—I would hope he takes time to tap more deeply the talents of these wonderful women.

In the meantime, if I want to keep writing comedy—because it’s all about me—I am seriously going to have to up my game.

Behold, the Barfly Cast

Seamless casting: (L to R) Hobbs, Thorpe, MacPherson, Miinch, Petrie, Mason, Anacleto, Hanson (Credit: Laura Dittman)

Behold, the Barfly continues at Monarch Tavern until July 10. After that, we can only hope.

NeoHuman podcast, starring me

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My friend Agah Bahari is interested in everything, which is one of the things that I love about him.

Not that long ago, he decided to indulge his interests by starting something he calls the NeoHuman podcast (which matches nicely with his NeoHuman blog), inviting many of the interesting people he knows to discuss pretty much anything that comes up.

Well, seems he ran out of interesting people and so he invited me to participate…and we talked about anything: biotechnology, pharma, global healthcare, designer babies, creativity, writing, screenwriting, 9/11, marketing, and the novel he and I are writing about his life.

But my favourite part is the question he asks all his guest, which is roughly:

If you met an intelligent alien life-form, what would you describe as the greatest human accomplishment and as the worst human accomplishment?

Never boring, my friend Agah.

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(Photo stolen with love from Kelly Brienz Showker)