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.

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.

 

Lives of love and beauty – Kevin

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Kevin is the one on the left

Kevin Bruce Scott: son, actor, puppeteer, integrity trainer

The man I affectionately dubbed Sweetums on our first meeting in honour of his impressive size, hirsuteness and rolling voice has wondrously become a constant in my life, even despite his gregarious activities that see him crisscrossing the North American continent. I first met Kevin when he auditioned as a puppeteer and actor for a sketch comedy show I was helping another friend develop (Nicholas Lemon’s SomeTV!), and it was bromance at first blush.

To know Kevin even for a few moments is to experience an earthquake of enthusiasm and playfulness that has been rivalled by very few in my advancing lifetime. Quick of wit, clever of brain and charming of eyebrow (you have to see it), Kevin routinely explodes with volcanic laughter and excitedly joins any creative moment with love and insane bonhomie. To merely stand in Kevin’s presence is to experience unbridled love…but dive in for the amazing hug, if you get the chance.

I say without hyperbole that should Kevin reach out with any idea, I am an eager participant because I know that even if the idea amounts to nothing tangible, I will have had the best time working on it.

Thanks you, Sweetums, for going on that audition and making my face hurt with smiles.

 

See also:

12 Days of Gratitude – Kevin

Effortless Alpha (Kevin’s blog & mission)

Brian Henson talks to me (sorta)

Brian and me

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

12 Days of Gratitude – Nicholas

Nicholas

This is my friend and soul mate Nicholas, a man who is more of a character than the puppets he brings to life.

From the moment of our first meeting, Nicholas and I have been kindred spirits, finishing each other’s sentences, flubbing each other’s jokes. When Nicholas embraces you into his heart, you know that you are loved and that you will never have to face any challenge alone.

Make the effort to meet the many faces of Nicholas and experience the true definition of kindness.

P.S. You can also learn more about Nicholas’ strange afflictions on his web site: Lemon Productions Inc.

(Part Eight of my 12 Days of Gratitude…because the rest of the news sucks)

12 Days of Gratitude – Kevin

Kevin Scott

This is my friend Sweetums…I mean Kevin…a man whose body had to be so large simply to contain his great heart.

Actor, comedian, puppeteer, voice of God, Kevin has more talent than any one individual should, but it is his smile and laugh that set him most apart from everyone else. When Kevin is amused, all of Kevin is amused, and his laugh is a sonic hug that embraces you and makes you feel special.

If you have never been hugged by Kevin, you are seriously missing some love in your life. It is totally worth the risk of asphyxia.

(Image ©edwardambrosius)

P.S. You can check out some interesting work by Leo, a mutual friend, below.

(Part Four of my 12 Days of Gratitude…because the rest of the news sucks)

Puppet Up! visits Toronto (UPDATED)

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As some of you know who’ve watched this space, I am fixated on puppets and improv and so, several months back, I started a social media campaign to bring Puppet Up! uncensored to Toronto.

For the uninitiated, I recommend you click the link to see what this show is all about. Briefly, however, it is the Jim Henson Company taking their puppetry genius and applying it to a largely improvised comedy show designed for adults.

Well, shortly after starting my campaign, the Henson Company announced the show was coming to Toronto. While I realistically have to believe the wheels were in motion long before I started whining on Facebook and Twitter, I will happily claim responsibly for them coming.

In the weeks leading up to the show, like a 15-year-old girl at a Bieber concert, I followed everything PuppetUp! on TV and online. I tweeted with the show organizers on an almost daily basis, and then when one of the puppeteers (Grant Baciocco) made the mistake of letting the world know he was in rehearsals, the stalking began.

PuppetUp! shines into the night

PuppetUp! shines into the night

My first show was opening night (October 22) and within seconds of the lights going down, my mind was completely blown! This was everything I imagined and then some. It was everything I had in me not to run down from the balcony, up the aisle and onto the stage, grabbing a puppet as I passed the wall of hollow bodies. As one, the audience laughed, cringed, oohed and ahhed at the antics that both sent up and paid noble tribute to the late Jim Henson.

But then, dear god, I found out that you could have your picture taken with some of the puppets after the show…I am proud to say I did not swoon (on the outside).

(L-to-R) Brian Clark, Grant Baciocco and Peggy Etra surround me with puppet love

(L-to-R) Brian Clark, Grant Baciocco and Peggy Etra surround me with puppet love

Opening night was going to have to hold me for another week as 7 hours after the lights came up, I was in a cab, heading to the airport and a week-long date with the Austin Film Festival. The conference was great but I positively bounced at the idea that when I got home, I had two more shows to see…the final weekend matinees.

Sitting at the feet of the master

Sitting at the feet of the master

On Saturday (Nov 2), there I was, second row, stage left…effectively at the feet of show co-creator and host Patrick Bristow. Rather than have to squint at the puppeteers and watch the big screens, I now had close up access to the puppeteers, who became more fascinating than what was happening onscreen, to me. The show was great, although a few of the bits in the first act failed…which made them even funnier. It was in that show that I truly fell in love with the talent of puppeteer Colleen Smith. WOW!

And it was after that show that I finally got to meet Grant Baciocco, who was as charming and affable while wielding a camera as he was on Twitter.

Brian Clark and Peggy Etra welcome me back (Grant Baciocco on camera)

Brian Clark and Peggy Etra welcome me back (Grant Baciocco on camera)

My love and enthusiasm for this show was so big that I decided there and then that I had to buy tickets for the final show and I had to bring two friends along for me even though it would mean going out of pocket. I was so tickled, I had to share this with people. Texting madly to check my friends’ availability and enthusiasm, I then popped open my laptop and purchased the best available tickets for the Sunday, 8 pm show for all three of us.

Matinee ticket and 3 tix for the final performance

Matinee ticket and 3 tix for the final performance

Then came the show on Sunday (Nov 3). Again, sitting at Patrick Bristow’s feet. Shouting suggestions left, right and centre. Feeling like we were developing a bond, even though I knew he probably couldn’t see more than two feet into the audience.

Nary a flaw in this show. The musical numbers popped. The classics practically brought tears. Colleen and Grant were amazing. Brian Clark, Peggy Etra, Michael Oosterom and Ted Michaels were on fire. And I got to add Michael to my photographic portfolio of puppeteers.

(L-to-R) Was able to add Michael Oosterom to the list of puppeteers with Brian Clark and Peggy Etra (Grant Baciocco on camera)

(L-to-R) Was able to add Michael Oosterom to the list of puppeteers with Brian Clark and Peggy Etra (Grant Baciocco on camera)

To make the afternoon even more special, as I waited in line at a nearby restaurant to grab dinner between the 4pm and 8pm shows, who should walk in behind me other than Patrick Bristow. Still needing a picture with two of the puppeteers, I couldn’t die quite yet, but I was getting close. Patrick was wonderful and charming and was nice enough to pose for a photo.

Patrick Bristow and I await dinner near the theatre (no earthquake, just shaky camera)

Patrick Bristow and I await dinner near the theatre (no earthquake, just shaky camera)

So here we are. Eight pm on Sunday night. I met Leela in the foyer of the theatre and left the ticket at Will Call for my friend, Michael. If I vibrated any faster, I might have been able to pass through walls. I was going to get to share this with two really important people in my life. This was my birthday gift to me…sharing PuppetUp!

There were a couple bumpy bits in the first part of the show, but it was still amazing. And the closing half was A-FIRKIN-MAZING! Every bit went perfectly. Even from the balcony, Patrick would take my suggestions (I was in the balcony, not Patrick). Leela, who is a tough comedic audience, laughed raucously throughout the show (high praise if any of the PuppetUp! people are reading this).

Leela and Michael were both great to hang back with me…I wanted to be one of the last people to get my photo done tonight so I could let everyone know how much I appreciated their performances and talents. And beauty of beauty, the entire cast was out for photos on the last night. I was going to complete the set of puppeteers for the photo.

Finale photo with (L to R) Brian D Clark, Michael Oosterom, Ted Michaels, Colleen Smith. Buried is Peggy Etra, and Grant Baciocco is on camera duty.

Finale photo with (L to R) Brian D Clark, Michael Oosterom, Ted Michaels, Colleen Smith. Buried is Peggy Etra, and Grant Baciocco is on camera duty.

As I was waiting for my turn, Patrick passed through the lobby and asked me to hang back. Interesting.

After having my picture done and convincing my friend Michael to get his done, Patrick came out from a back room and handed me a puppet from the concession stand as thanks for all the support and enthusiasm I offered them while they were in Toronto. Nice! She (the puppet is a girl) is sitting on my desk as I type this.

The new lady in my life thanks to Patrick Bristow and the folks at PuppetUp!

The new lady in my life thanks to Patrick Bristow and the folks at PuppetUp!

I was able to shake everyone’s hand and let them know how much I enjoyed knowing them. I am currently hooking up with many of the puppeteers on Twitter and Facebook. And have promised them all that I will initiate the next social media campaign to get them to come back to Toronto.

Based on their experiences in Toronto, both in the theatre and on the town, I think they’d be open to the idea.

And now, sadly, PuppetUp! has left Toronto, but not without leaving an incredibly big mark on my heart. Thanks, folks. It was a special couple of weeks.