Tuesday, March 9, 2010
If there's one thing we've learned from TV, it's that everything is cuter when a puppet does it. It's a fail-safe formula. A person performs a hackneyed visual gag and we all groan in agony, but an adorable puppet does it and we fall for it hook, line, and stinker.*
It's no mystery that children love puppets, but TV in the 80s and 90s proved that adults have a pretty solid puppet-loving capacity all their own. Puppets often make the best punchlines, giving them an automatic boost in likability in both kids' and grown-up television programming. Plus, they never need a stunt double or act like a diva when it comes to contract renewal. Talk about cutting expenses.
Puppet-studded programs may not be the most highbrow fare on TV, but they have a unique style of entertaining us. They allow us to suspend our disbelief to a point where if we can believe this talking toy exists somewhere in real life, maybe all of the magical features that come along with it are possible, too. These 80s and 90s shows didn't need to be realistic or to feature deeply developed characters; we were perfectly content with our cartoonish, overdrawn cliches. So long as they kept feeding us hilarious puppet gag antics, we were more than happy to partake in spoonful after heaping spoonful.
Eureeka's Castle was a Nick Jr. gem, giving us a quirky, offbeat world of wizardry and goofy characters. The show revolved around sorceress trainee Eureeka, thickheaded dragon Magellan, peanut butter sandwich-gobbling twins Bogge and Quagmire, the visually impaired Batley, and the vaguely ethnic pushcart proprietor Mr. Knack. The characters were creative and imaginative in a way that bodes well for children's programming. It may not have been highly educational, but it did teach me to fear claymation Slurms. Those things were weird.
If there's one thing kids love more than puppets, it's baby puppets. Have you ever seen a more adorable little sheeplet? When I grew up, I was horrified to find that "Lambchop" referred to a cut of meat. Slicing into it for the first time was pretty traumatic, though luckily there was no stuffing inside. That might have scarred me for life. As a device to distract myself from the lambchop chopping task at knife, I just hummed a few bars of "This is the Song that Never Ends." That seemed to do the trick.
Mystery Science Theater 3000
I think our buddy Joel at MST3K had the right idea. If you're stuck orbiting the earth sequestered on a spacecraft forced by the powers that be to watch n endless stream of B-movies, you should definitely use the spare theater equipment to build yourself some sentient robot pals. You should, of course, name them Gypsy, Cambot, Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo. There are pretty much no other options.
For many of us, this was our first major exposure to puppetry. Or, equally likely, our first exposure to platonic male puppet roommates who share a cookie crumb-ridden bed and know an awful lot about each other's bathtime habits and carrier pigeon preferences. Either way, most of us fell for the cuddly Sesame Street characters, and hard. I mean, a monster who lives in a garbage can? Where do they come up with this stuff?
Alf Sings "Old Time Rock and Roll" - Click here for the most popular videos
Just when you thought noses couldn't get any more phallic looking than Joe Camel's, you met Alf. And then, you knew. This was the be-all-end-all of vaguely suggestive schnozes. ALF stood for "Alien Life Form", which is how we kindly earth-folk classify floppy-looking brown masses who grew up on the Lower East Side of the planet Melmac. ALF definitely had his moments, but his appearance is just a little unsettling. It just feels inappropriate.
If after watching this show you cried out endlessly, "I'm the baby! Gotta love me!" I'm sure your parents were less than pleased with their decision to grant viewership privileges. The show wasn't really directed at kids; it was more of a family sitcom that happened to feature full-size puppet characters. By the time we'd realized this, though, we'd already moved on to gleefully smacking our fathers on their heads with a frying pan while screaming, "Not the mama! Not the mama!"
There have been so many incarnations of The Muppets over the years it's become difficult to differentiate between one series and another, but for the sake of 90s nostalgia we'll single out Muppets Tonight for brief examination. The show hinged pretty heavily on celebrity guest appearances and wasn't especially a standout in the long line of Muppet shows. I must say, though, the Baywatch parodies were worth a chuckle or two.
That is some seriously rockin' theme music. I probably haven't seen this intro since 1992, yet somehow I find myself singing along with a surprisingly adept command of the lyrics. It's catchy, right? It's got that sparkly puppet charm sprinkled liberally throughout. Well done, Jim Henson studios. Well done, indeed.
Fraggle Rock managed to slip in a bunch of heavy issues while we were busy enjoying the musical numbers and highly colorful wardrobe selection. Some of us also spent a fair amount of time giggling over the fact that there was a Fraggle named Boober. I mean, Boober! Can you beat that?
Who knew a marionette could be such a bad-ass? It probably speaks volumes about my level of maturity that the theme song's phrase, "Skeeter's what I want" amuses me in a slangy double-entendre kind of way. I don't think I've advanced much in behavioral age since the days this show originally aired.
Unhappily Ever After
This show gave many of us an unquenchable desire to own a crass, wise-cracking stuffed rabbit. Mr. Floppy was just so adorable. His looks were, anyway. His personality could probably have used a bit of a tune-up to align with his cherubic appearance, but it all just contributed to his puppety charm.
If you had to pick the most terrifying mode of puppet, I'd say human-head-on-tiny-puppet-body would fall pretty darn close to the top of the list. Weinerville was a Nickelodeon cartoon/live-action variety show based on the comedic stylings of Marc Weiner. The characters were undeniably creative, but they still seem a little creepy to me. Add cross-dressing to the giant head/tiny puppet body mix and be prepared for the wrath of Weinerville.
Whatever the reason, puppets had a hold on us. Maybe we just don't watch enough Nick Jr. anymore, but the proportion of puppets in prime-time programming seems to have persistently plummeted. It's too bad, really. A lot of today's shows could probably use a good puppet boost. Just think: if this weekend's Oscars had used puppet presenters, we'd have been far more likely to push through to the bitter end. Just a thought.
*This is not a typo, it's just a terrible, terrible play on words. Had I been a puppet, you would have been all over that one