Man or Muppet?

They swear. They're rude. They are the world's most advanced felt-based lifeforms. And now they have let Fest inside them. Edd McCracken gets up close and personal with the stars of Henson Alternative's Puppet Up!

feature | Read in About 6 minutes
Published 13 Aug 2013

My life as a Muppet is short-lived. Like a bug-eyed mayfly, it lasts mere hours. It was always going to end this way: on stage, disorientated and mute, hundreds of strangers staring, body crooked as if struck with rickets, my felt-mouth agape, vomiting. Being a Muppet can mess with you.

But before the end, there is a beginning full of primary coloured promise. The invite came from the good people at Henson Alternative's Puppet Up! - Uncensored. How would I like find out what happens below a puppet's waist? If I had Muppet arms, I would have flapped them wildly.

But first, a disclaimer. Technically speaking, in a very real get-it-wrong-and-legal-action-will-follow kind of way, I was never really a Muppet in the first place.

Jim Henson, father of The Muppets, is an Abrahamic figure. After his death in 1990, his felt-based family split into three. Disney bought the rights to The Muppets (Kermit, Fozzy Bear, Miss Piggy et al.), Sesame Street (Big Bird, Elmo, Bert and Ernie) was bought by Sesame Workshop, and his son Brian took over running The Jim Henson Company. 

Puppet Up! comes from the latter stable. The show first visited Edinburgh in 2006 and is currently packing out the Assembly Hall on the Mound every night. It is the wisecracking, foul-mouthed Skid Row to the pedestrianised kid-friendly fare of Sesame Street. It mixes live puppetry with improvised comedy, taking suggestions from the audience.

Both facets are as slick and on the over-sized nose as you would expect from a troupe that trained improv comedians as puppeteers and vice versa. And now one of their top performers, Drew Massey, is bravely attempting to take someone who is neither and teach him to do both.

He arrives in the studio space with a black box. Inside lie five different puppets: Buck, Mad Men's Don Draper cross bred with a Muppet; a red squirrel; a chubby hot dog with a tartan waistcoat; a mono-browed wee critter; and a goofy green-skinned puppet with Simon Cowell-style high-waisted trousers. 

“Just put your arm in there,” says Massey, presenting me with the squirrel's undercarriage. And like a veteran viewer of Vets in Practice, I slide my arm right in. And so it begins.

Puppet Up! is two shows in one. The first is that you get to see the puppeteers in action. The second part happens on two big screens overhead. They are filled with a live feed from a video camera sitting high at the apex of the stage. The puppeteers arch their respective puppets over their heads so only the characters are visible onscreen. They use small monitors to see the action overhead. For such a vibrant, energetic show, it's amazing that there are no humans in shot.

Back in the studio, my arm is inside the squirrel. Massey's is inside Buck. We raise our alter egos overhead and into shot.

“The first thing is to get your focus,” says Massey. “If your puppet isn't looking at something, it will look like a zombie.” Massey's ramrod straight arm gives his puppet life and purpose. My arm seems to have given the squirrel polio.

Its body leans to one side. Its head is at a confused angle. This is one unfocussed rodent. I have created a zombie squirrel.

It turns out the position your arm needs to be in—straight forearm, hand above elbow—is rather unnatural. But with a few pointers from Massey, we slowly bring this varmint to life. It is genuinely thrilling. Cue flailing Muppet arms.

Next up is movement. This is where it gets tricky. The monitors the puppeteers rely on reverses movements. In their world left is right and right is left. They live through the looking glass.

“It's terribly confusing,” says Massey. “Sometimes it really screws with your mind. But fortunately I've been at it long enough that most of it I can handle through sheer kinetic memory. Once you really get past the idea that the screen is not a mirror image, the whole backwards element, that takes care of most of it.”

And he's right. The redefined physics of the puppet-world soon becomes normal. Sort of. As normal as a world with talking squirrels and irascible hot dogs can be.

To make the puppets speak, Massey makes a hand movement as if flicking off water. He moves Buck's mouth with an easy, tempered rhythm. Not every syllable is enunciated – that would look weird. It is the same cartoon logic that dictates such characters should only have four fingers. 

One of the most disarming things about Puppet Up! is that the puppets swear. For Massey, who watched the Muppets religiously as a kid in California and yet now fills their kin's mouths with expletives, does it not feel, well, transgressive?

“No,” he says. “And here's why. Early on in The Muppet Show, I always saw Jim Henson as being a bit of an anarchist. Even though he did kids TV and he was certainly mindful of the rules, there was always so much in his work that I found subversive. There was always an undercurrent of doing it in an off-kilter and naughty way. So it seemed like a natural thing to do. I have a feeling that if he was still alive, he would kinda dig it.”

Our puppetry crash course draws to a close. After tips on how to make the puppets funny (“It turns out it is enough to have a squirrel and a tortoise discussing very real things that makes it funny"), and on how to operate their arms like chopsticks, it is over. Massey has been a patient teacher. I unsheathe myself from the squirrel. It’s been amazing but my life as a puppet is over.

Or is it? Later that day, I am at Puppet Up! watching Massey put everything he taught me into practice. And then, unexpectedly, I am pulled up on stage to take part in an improv skit. This is my chance to show the world what I can do. This is my moment.

I am given the green-skinned puppet. Hundreds watch as I confidently insert my arm and raise it over my head. I enter the scene on screen. And forget everything. 

My puppet is a zombie gnarled by a cruel Victorian disease. It keeps floating out of shot, confusing left for right. It speaks without moving its lips. It seems my greatest trick is to make an inanimate object die on stage.

Finally, the gracious comedians set my puppet a challenge. They ask it to pick up some food, eat it and spit it out. Grabbing control of the arms, I mimic the motion of stuffing its green face, and then barf the imaginary food on the floor. I remember to make the appropriate gargling noises this time. And finally, mercifully, the crowd laugh. 

This is the end. I am disarmed. The experts return, and the puppets live again.