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July 22, 2017

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Q+A, Part 1: ‘Puppet Up! Uncensored’ heads to Venetian this spring

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West Best Entertainment

Brian Henson, center and son of the late Jim Henson, with characters from his “Puppet Up! Uncensored” at Jim Henson Co. headquarters Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles.

‘Puppet Up! Uncensored’

Brian Henson, center and son of the late Jim Henson, with characters from his “Puppet Up! Uncensored” at Jim Henson Co. headquarters Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. Launch slideshow »
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Brian Henson, son of the late Jim Henson, with characters from his “Puppet Up! Uncensored” at Jim Henson Co. headquarters Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles.

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Jim Henson’s “Puppet Up! Uncensored” at Jim Henson Co. headquarters Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. Patrick Bristow is pictured here.

Click to enlarge photo

Brian Henson, son of the late Jim Henson, with characters from his “Puppet Up! Uncensored” at Jim Henson Co. headquarters Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Who would have guessed that the genius artists behind Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog and the other wholesome and good characters of The Muppets and “Sesame Street” would have a naughty side? Apparently, that’s what happened often before and after cameras rolled.

It became the inspiration for a new show — irreverent and unpredictable, unrehearsed and unscripted — that will debut this spring as a resident production at the Venetian. Those “Sesame Street” darlings won’t be in it, however. I reported the news of “Puppet Up! Uncensored” in October.

The Muppets were the brainchild of famed puppeteers Jim Henson and Frank Oz, and now son Brian Henson has teamed with improv guru Patrick Bristow to haul into Las Vegas an unruly cast of 60 puppet characters manipulated by six expert puppeteers to bring to life twisted scenes and songs on the fly — all prompted by the audience in this late-night mayhem. Patrick’s resume includes “Ellen,” “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Friends,” “Mad About You” and “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

Las Vegas producer Adam Steck of SPI Entertainment (Human Nature, Boyz II Men, Frank Marino’s “Divas,” Thunder From Down Under) worked for three years to bring “Puppet Up!” here as its co-producer. Base Entertainment (“Absinthe,” “Rock of Ages,” “Jersey Boys,” “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Mat Franco: Magic Reinvented Nightly”) is co-producing the show.

Vincent Marini, creative director and Base Entertainment executive producer who directed Mat’s show here, will direct “Puppet Up!” He said: “The combination of artistry and comedy is unlike anything that has ever played on the Las Vegas Strip. It’s already been a truly incredible experience working to produce this no-hold’s-barred tour de force comedy.”

Henson Alternative is Jim Henson Co.’s label for content created specifically and exclusively for adult audiences. The characters and puppeteers headed here will be starring in the upcoming movie “Happytime Murders” that is rated R. It’s a crime thriller set in modern Hollywood in a world that has a minority population of puppets, and there is terrible prejudice against the puppets.

It’s basically a buddy cop movie where it’s between the alcoholic ex-cop puppet who’s angry because he got kicked out of the police force and being forced to work with his old police partner who’s human to solve a series of crimes, and they hate each other. Their characters are currently seen on cable shows “No, You Shut Up” on Fusion and “Tinseltown” on Logo.

I flew to Los Angeles to Jim Henson Studios, the original home of Charlie Chaplin’s film headquarters, to meet with Brian, Patrick and Vincent to talk about “Puppet Up!” It’s scheduled for 9 nightly for audiences ages 16 and older in Sands Showroom.

I watched run-throughs with puppeteers Colleen Smith and Victor Yerrid, then at Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City a California version of their LOL antics. New, computerized video techniques are used to bring a never-before-seen look at puppetry along with resurrected classics and instantly recognizable pieces created by Jim and Jane Henson and Frank that haven’t been seen by live audiences in decades.

These puppeteers are genius talents, extraordinarily funny comedy stars who while working can’t look in their acting partner’s eyes and have to stay locked to monitors from the upright, tall camera that forces them to perform back to front. It’s not easy being funny!

Here is our conversation:

Brian: It is a delightful show, but it’s hard to describe because it’s very unique. We always trained people to be very good puppeteers, and our hit-miss ratio was 10 to 15 to 1, so for every good puppeteer that we got, we would have 9 to 14 who wouldn’t really make the cut. What my dad used to always say was, “They’re not adlibbers, and if they can’t adlib, they’re not going to be funny, and they’re not going to be able to develop the character.”

We had never thought in terms of the discipline of improv and our performance in comedic improv. We were just training them as puppeteers, and this hit-miss ratio was really kind of a problem, and it even got to a point where puppeteers started getting very uncomfortable if they were off script. If the character before them missed their line, they wouldn’t know what to say.

There was a staleness to puppet humor that hadn’t really been reinvigorated since my dad had done The Muppets, which grew out of “The Carol Burnett Show,” and all of that sort of energy at that time. There wasn’t that sort of modern, fun comedic style to do with puppets. We set out to figure out what’s the funniest that puppets can be, which is an interesting way to try to attack a problem.

We had tried with writers, and they would write real comedy that the puppets couldn’t do the way that comedians could do. There are some things puppets do well and other things they don’t do so well. That was how my wife decided on a really good improv director and improv trainer, and now we have Patrick.

Patrick: I was brought in to teach about six weeks of improv basics to a group of puppeteers who were ones who were commonly hired on camera jobs here. They took to it so quickly, they loved the freedom of following their own instincts and being in the moment and bringing their own humor to it, that it wasn’t very long before I said to Brian:

“Maybe in a month or two we should do a little brown bag lunch performance here on the studio lot for the employees so that they got a chance to do improv with real suggestions from a real audience.” Brian rented bleachers, the sound stage, a backdrop and wine and an audience of about 200 people, and that was the start of it.

Brian: Truthfully, I was hoping we could present this new tone of comedy to writers and that they would start writing, but at the time we just did a presentation for writers and our company and friends.

Patrick: It was a demonstration more than any kind of show. We didn’t think of it as a show.

Brian: But it got us booked in the Aspen Comedy Festival. We didn’t expect it at all because it wasn’t even a show at that stage. The producers who were friends of friends said do what you did, and we called it “The Jim Henson Puppet Improv.” We were the hit show that year, and we got booked immediately for the Edinburgh Festival of Comedy. We thought we’d better give it a proper name.

The term “Puppet Up!” you’ll hear tonight is a term that we have used for years and years and years. It’s used a little differently on every production, but if you say to a puppeteer it’s time to puppet up, it means basically the same as saying to an actor come onstage.

That means all the puppeteers have to get their puppets on and get ready to roll and indeed when we’re shooting a movie and the puppets are really heavy, we’ll actually add a cue for the first assistant director, “Roll sound, sound will roll, speed, then it will be roll camera, and then the call ‘puppet up’ because like in “The Dark Crystal,” those puppets weigh a ton. The puppets go up, and the director calls “action,” then you shoot the shot. So the term “puppet up” is something that we’ve been using for a long, long time.

Now every time a sketch starts, the audience will yell “puppet up,” and that’s part of the fun. We were critically acclaimed during our six-month run in New York, and we had a lot of fun doing it. It takes the same performers who are doing our TV shows, so we never really thought about doing a permanent and big, glamorous presentation of the show until now — and that means let’s really do it right in Las Vegas. We’re really excited about putting “Puppet Up!” on the Strip.

Click to enlarge photo

Jim Henson’s “Puppet Up! Uncensored” at Jim Henson Co. headquarters Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Click to enlarge photo

Jim Henson’s “Puppet Up! Uncensored” at Jim Henson Co. headquarters Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles. Patrick Bristow is pictured here.

Click to enlarge photo

Brian Henson, son of the late Jim Henson, with characters from his “Puppet Up! Uncensored” at Jim Henson Co. headquarters Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Click to enlarge photo

Brian Henson, son of the late Jim Henson, with characters from his “Puppet Up! Uncensored” at Jim Henson Co. headquarters Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Patrick: From that early demonstration, it grew organically over the years to become a much more complete theatrical evening. We’ve got re-creations of early Henson routines that haven’t been seen by live audiences for decades.

Brian: Pieces that my dad and mom put together when they were 20.

Patrick: So it’s like a variety show with improv. The audience is very much in control with me as a conduit between the crowd and the puppeteers, so every show is different. Our improvisers are very good about if they get the same suggestion twice attacking it from a different way. There is a certain honor to the way they approach improv.

Brian: What’s great about the show is that it pushes our puppeteers the hardest that they can be pushed, and they always really rise to it. Audiences are amazed at what the puppeteers do because that is amazing, too. They are the cream of the cream of puppeteers in the world. In fact, the training for “Puppet Up!” has become the sole training now for the Jim Henson Co.

We are training puppeteers on a weekly basis, and the training is to train them toward making company level for “Puppet Up!,” and if they can make it to company level “Puppet Up!,” then they can also audition for all of the other shows that we’re doing.

Traditionally, the puppeteers are always hidden, and my dad always loved to show off the puppeteers. Disney now controls The Muppets. The set is closed. It’s all a secret. My dad never did that, although people always thought he wanted it all closed and secret, but he would love to let people come and watch how we do it because it is really tough and interesting and it’s crazy and it’s a lot of fun to watch. With this show, we are a camera-only company. We don’t know how to perform puppets without being able to see the puppet from a subjective point-of-view.

That’s all of the training, all of training is that you have a puppet on your hand. We as puppeteers watch the puppet on the monitor and then bring it. You get to the point where you’re completely unaware of your hand, and as a performer you are directly bringing to life the character that you see on the screen without any awareness of what’s going on up here. That’s the way the training works. The cool thing that’s going on here, and Patrick can talk more about this …

Patrick: Because they always have to be looking at the monitor, they don’t have contact with each other. They have to be amazing listeners. Improv usually requires a lot of eye contact, but these guys amazingly can do really good improv with no eye contact at all. They’re not looking at each other. They’re looking at each other’s characters while looking at the screen.

There are two giant projection screens on either side of the stage, so when you’re watching our show, you can be watching the screens where you’ll see what you’re used to seeing on TV, the puppets from about the waist up. Then you glance down to the stage and see the puppeteers and see how they’re achieving the puppeteering, or if they’re breaking or if they’re panicked. It’s two shows in one.

When they’re performing and look out at the audience, it really is that half are watching the puppeteers and the other half are watching the screens because both are really funny to watch.

How long before the blood drains out of their arms?

Brian: It was so unfair to audiences, but we used to do this thing in front of a live audience where the warm-up artists would say everybody hold your right hand up and everybody would hold their right hand up and then he would keep talking and talking and talking. You can normally hold your right hand up for about 30 to 45 seconds.

When you’re puppeteering, you get to a point where you have to be able to do it for 10 to 15 minutes. We have some parade performers who have done it for an hour and a half without putting their hand down, which is pretty impressive. Yeah, it gets heavy. Your body develops, and eventually you get used to it.

What do the puppets weigh?

Brian: These are pretty lightweight puppets between two to five pounds. The animatronic puppets you see in “Labyrinth” and “The Dark Crystal” or “Little Shop of Horrors” are much heavier. I worked a plant in front of me that was 110 pounds. It had a structure to help me, but it was 110 pounds.

When I’m putting a show together, I have to be aware that I probably don’t want to put a puppeteer in about four things in a row because they’re going to kill me afterward. They will get sore and maybe die.

Do you describe this show as adult because it does get naughty? Is Miss Piggy rolling over in her grave?

Brian: Yes, it’s naughty, but, no, Miss Piggy is probably going, “This is the way I want it to be.” When my dad would call it adlibbing, that’s the way they would develop their personalities, and my dad had a really naughty sense of humor. He had a really blue sense of humor, and Frank has the bluest sense of humor. Basically the way Gonzo and Piggy and Kermit and Fozzie Bear, all of their characters were developed in a very uncensored environment that the public never saw.

One person said to me, “What I love about ‘Puppet Up!’ is I get it that that’s really what The Muppets really are and that they’re censoring themselves to do television and film work.” The truth is it’s true. As a kid watching my dad work, the funniest stuff was before the director called action and after the director called cut when they would just rip off into a dark and naughty tangent, and it really was hilarious. My dad had a very adult sensibility. If he could have done this show, he would have loved to be able to do this.

It’s not light pornography. We’re not shockingly adult. Basically because there are a lot of audiences suggesting situations that are happening throughout, if the audience is in a largely very naughty mood, the show will move with the audience.

Patrick: It tends to be quite blue on occasion.

Brian: Once you put 500 to 700 adults in charge of what the puppets are doing, come on. We follow the audience’s lead, and we’re not trying to shock, but they tell us where they want it to go.

So, Patrick and Vincent, safe to say the audience in New York is a lot different than the audience in Los Angeles. Which is the naughtier audience? Are you prepared for what might really go off the rails in Las Vegas?

Brian: L.A. is naughtier than New York, and nobody can top Sydney, Australia. Sydney was bloodthirsty. I go out and meet 700 people, and the audience has its own personality and each performance is different. One audience might like puppet violence a little more, one might like things that are thoughtful and provocative. It’s always exciting to go out every single show. It’s new for me, as well.

Vincent: I think we’re excited for Las Vegas because every show really is a little different. You can come back and see the show two or three times and have two or three very different experiences. One of the things I learned just watching Jeff Dunham was that he really changed his show depending on what the audience was giving him that night, how far they wanted to go. I think that this show has the same idea about it. If the audience wants to go somewhere, you go there.

Brian: We’ve had somebody shout out a suggestion that was so reprehensible that the rest of the audience went, “No, no, no!” We go for it, and it becomes quite a party. Basically most people get swept up in this even if they come in a bit dubious, going, “It’s a puppet improv show, what?” Pretty quickly they get onboard, they get swept up.” It’s your childhood meets your naughty sense of humor night out. I can’t remember the last time it didn’t work or where I walked off going, “Wow, that was a lot of work.”

Vincent: As an outsider who saw this show for the first time a year ago, I think that one of the things that helps the audience get involved in it is when you walk in even though you don’t recognize necessarily any of the puppets, they somehow seem familiar to you because you’ve grown up with The Muppets.

If you’ve watched “Sesame Street,” there is something about the Henson look that you understand immediately, and that really puts you at ease and gets you immediately engaged and excited about being involved. The other thing is that there are plenty of audience members who don’t want to be involved, and they just enjoy watching the show and laughing and having a great time.

* * *

Check back Wednesday morning for Part 2 of our conversation, and check back often to Vegas DeLuxe as we post updates before “Puppet Up! Uncensored” opens at the Venetian this spring.

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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