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March 23, 2019

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The Venetian:

Q+A: ‘Puppet Up!’ mastermind Patrick Bristow — ‘Trading one insanity for the other’

‘Puppet Up! Uncensored’

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

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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.

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

Click to enlarge photo

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

Sixty naughty and outrageous puppets from Jim Henson’s collection of misfits are getting ready to travel from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for stardom on the Strip.

But as with all things in show business, the actual date for the relocation is in the hands of their agents who are fretting about our current desert heat wave. Who knew puppets were so fussy and even worried about scorching, 100-degree temperatures?

But the actual success is in the hands of six puppeteers who will bring them to life in full view mid-July in the adults-only “Puppet Up! Uncensored” at the Venetian anchored by creator, host and improv kingpin Patrick Bristow.

Patrick and several of the offbeat characters filmed TV spots and social media commercials in Las Vegas the last few days.

I won an exclusive invitation to sit in on one TV shoot at the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel as an Elvis Presley impersonator sought to marry two of the puppets who obviously shouldn’t have been joined in anything — especially matrimony.

Patrick and I talked after the puppets couldn’t wait any longer and decided that their bizarre honeymoon intimacies should start mid-ceremony — even before the vows were fully exchanged.

“This is great, really fun, we’re getting the fun stuff,” chortled Patrick.

So you’ve upped and left the safety of the Los Angeles puppet home for the pre-production challenges of Las Vegas?

It’s trading one insanity for the other, and I’m a big fan of it.

How does it feel to be here after — because you’ve talked about this a long time? Now it’s getting real.

It’s exciting, and there’s a lot of work to be done. We’ve been shooting promos this weekend out in the heat, on the street, in front of iconic locations and interacted with the public, which has been really fun.

Everyone’s very nice here. Everyone’s willing to help out, which is fun. The shoot is going well; the preparations for the show have been going well. We’ve been rehearsing the cast, getting our new set.

We just had various puppet pairings getting married by Elvis, including different species of beings being married because there’s no judgment here. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. I don’t think any of these marriages would be legal in other states. That’s why our show is very adult — you cannot bring the kids.

We now have our opening preview date of July 21 and the media night premiere on July 29. We have a gorgeous set. In the past, we’ve always had a very minimalist set. That’s been our approach to make it feel like you’re on a sound stage. Exposed cables and drapes with a rack for the puppets.

Now we’ve got a gorgeous new set that looks reminiscent of maybe an old New York or London train station, a corner of it, just a little corner of such a place where the puppets have set up home base. We’re going totally Las Vegas, our lighting, our effects, our sound design, the musical arrangements.

It’s such a bump up from the production that we’ve been doing on the road. The heart of it is absolutely still there; the content of the vintage pieces that we’re bringing, still there; the insanity of the improv is still there. But it’s just packaged and couched especially for Las Vegas. It is such a beautifully realized set of production values, and I’m so excited.

When I watched it in Los Angeles, there were six puppeteers and yourself as the improv master. Are we still at the same numbers?

Yeah, the show works best with six. We used to do it with eight, but we found that with six, the puppeteers get up more to perform, and the audience gets to know them and what to expect. They go, “Oh, that one’s getting up, and that one’s a little bit snarkier, that one always surprise me, that one always shocks me.”

When we have an ensemble of six, a couple are getting up to do an improv, the audience starts almost beginning to anticipate and be excited about what they’re going to see because you get to know these six performers. When we’ve had eight or more, it becomes this shapeless troupe.

How many characters will be coming to Las Vegas?

In terms of puppets, I think we’re going to be hitting around 60 or something that we’re bringing over. We have to talk to their agents because traveling in the heat is very bad for the ones made out of latex. I don’t know when they’ll come up; probably as we go into our tech rehearsals mid-July. They’ll have to be doctored and beautified and everything that happens to prepare them.

So they get hair and makeup just like a diva?

They get more than we do. We don’t get nothing! We’re responsible for our own look. The puppets have a dedicated wrangler who combs their hair, replaces their pupils, steams their clothes.

That’s amazing. That’s better than one major Strip diva I know who demands everything and gets everything. She’s just like the puppets, though, and is carried around everywhere.

At least there’s only one of her to keep track. When there are 60 of them, that’s a lot of egos to serve. We actually move into the theater about the middle of July, and our first public preview is July 21. Then we have our press opening July 29.

Are the puppets and the puppeteers up for this? Are you up for it?

We’re all up for it. You know this has been one of those things where we’ve done it periodically each year, like we do a spring tour, or we go to Australia or Canada for a gig, and everyone loves doing it so much that the idea now that it could be something that we do week in and week out, a permanent gig, is really exciting for us.

When I was in Los Angeles watching your run-through, we had a long conversation with your producer, Vincent Marini, from Base Entertainment. I made the observation that your audience there was all would-be actors and would-be puppeteers.

Live entertainment and industry people, yeah.

Whereas we don’t have that here at all. Nobody in the audience here is a waiter seeking to be a model or singer. They are purely there to be entertained and not go to school. So the audience is completely different. Have you worked on that knowing that the Las Vegas audience is going to be different?

We’ve discussed it, but remember we have toured all over the country, so most of our performances have been outside L.A. Most of our audience has been non-entertainment industry people. We’re very used to that, and it changes by region. I think the interesting thing about Las Vegas is we’re going to have people from all over the country and all over the world.

Each time that we go out there, it’s going to be meeting a new person on a blind date. A 750-headed new person who will keep us on our toes because we can feel the feedback from what this audience wants this night. Sometimes they want below-the-belt humor.

Sometimes, they want stuff that’s us, seeing puppets be a little bit violent. Sometimes they want to see puppets being sneaky and mischievous, and we sense that from the audience, and that’s how the show changes each night with that dialogue between us and the audience.

The audience interaction is when they yell out ideas to us. There’s no advance writing of cards. We’re pretty honorable about it. We are going to deliver an improvised scene, a sketch based on what we get from the audience that night in that moment.

In fact, if we get the same suggestion too many times, I’ll start using that suggestion as an example so they don’t prime the audience, so they don’t say that one. We want something new and fresh every single time if we can get it.

Do the puppeteers ever get stumped?

Oh, there are moments where we get a little bit stumped. It’s actually fun because the audience is on our side with improv, they want us to succeed, and they see if you’re trying really hard, and something’s not quite working, and they can see it in the puppeteers face, like, “I don’t know anything more about the French Revolution, I’m sorry.”

They can see that the person just plumbed the depths of their references. It’s fun, and one of the other puppets will usually call them out and go, “So, that’s all you got? Huh?” It’s very honest. The show’s very honest about itself.

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Patrick Bristow stars in “Puppet Up! Uncensored.”

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Jim Henson’s “Puppet Up! Uncensored” shoots a commercial.

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Jim Henson’s “Puppet Up! Uncensored” shoots a commercial.

Is there an additional special camaraderie among puppeteers versus theatrical players?

There is, like any subset, there are experiences that they have and understand and relate to that other actors or dancers or mimes don’t have. A lot of it has to do with the fact that they’re having a sense of humor about the indignities they face in their job because when they’re working on TV or commercials, sometimes they are told, “Alright, you have to fit under the sofa.

“We cut a hole, so you’re going under the sofa, and there’s a hole in the cushion, you’re going to come out a puppeteer.” And they had a tiny TV next to them. I’ve seen them in barrels, I’ve seen them in pits dug in the ground, I’ve seen them embedded into furniture, squatting in the bottom of cars doing their art. And they’re very up for it.

They know that’s part of the gig. They can compare war stories: “Oh, you think that’s bad, you know, I was in a working refrigerator once.” Or whatever you their horror story is. They do have a camaraderie.

You’ve seen audiences react to the show for so long. Do they watch the monitors to see only the puppets more than they watch the whole thing that’s going on with the puppeteer below the puppet?

It’s a 50/50 split. Over the years, it lives in that area. It could be 40/60. I haven’t done a mathematical analysis. However, you see people going back and forth. They’ll be watching just the monitor just to see the puppets. Then if the puppets start doing something like ice skating or wrestling, they look below immediately to see how the puppeteer’s doing that. How are they achieving that?

Then they’ll check back in if something goes wrong in the improv, and like I said earlier, one of our players calls out the other player for making a mistake, in a gentle way. They’ll look down to see the player who’s been called out, to see their reaction, and see that person try not to laugh or shake their head.

The audience is watching two people as the same character? Two playing the same role at the same time?

In a way, two sides, two sides of the persona, if you want to get really psychological about it right now.

I asked because I think that’s part of the fascination of what puppetry is all about, and nobody has ever done a puppet show before like this in Las Vegas, “Avenue Q” aside.

I didn’t know we were such pioneers. Obviously there has been a lot of puppet and ventriloquist content in Las Vegas entertainment over the years. I think what we’re bringing that’s different is the unique Henson sensibility, which is intelligent nonsense. We will be stupid and idiotic, but we would like to also bring a little informed, referenced tone to the comedy.

When we get a really base suggestion, we’ll deliver that. But we try to take a high road to get there to balance it. That’s the challenge for us. Not to just go straight into potty humor, but we’ll do hopefully sophisticated potty humor.

The Disney Co. owns Jim Henson’s familiar Muppet characters, but will we recognize some of these from olden days?

Not many because a lot of our older puppets were from shows that were 30 years ago very few people would remember. They were in the stock from the show that ran nine episodes Saturday morning. You have a lot of those.

The entire Muppet university of characters was bought by Disney years back, and they own every single Muppet character and actual physical puppet ever used in Muppet creations. Jim Henson’s company retained things that existed before that.

We have some of those, but many other Jim Henson beautiful creations, funny puppets, have been created over 60 years. We have quite a stock and vocabulary of styles.

I think of The Muppets as strictly family entertainment, and what your characters become are adult entertainment?

Yes, only. So if you think of The Muppets of being America’s Sweethearts, we’re their cousins who they’d rather not talk about. We’re the ones that if they say we want to visit you, we’re out of town that weekend. I think miscreant puppets is what we call our stock of puppets. They’re the poor relations, they’re the black sheep, they’re the ones who have been bailed out.

They’re the guy at the end of the bar on a bad Saturday night?

Absolutely, and the one who you don’t see passed out right beyond him on the floor in his own sick. And the one who’s going to have to clean it up.

These vignettes you’re filming are for TV commercials?

This one we are shooting is for social media — fun, little sketches. Then we’re shooting stuff without sound that will be in transitions between pieces in the show at the Venetian. We’re going to have videomontages of the puppets in Las Vegas doing crazy things. That’s one of the additional production values that the Las Vegas show will have that our previous show did not.

We’re going to have laser animations, great lighting, these videomontages, fabulous music, so whenever one piece ends, and we’re in that applause zone and going into the next piece, the room is going to be very alive. It’s going to be more — it’s going to be a ride.

It’s really going to be a ride as opposed to just a show, very immersive and a lean forward kind of experience. I think it’s a rocket ride! I think it takes off and gets steeper, then gets to where rockets go.

What’s the most attractive thing that we’re going to see in the Las Vegas show of “Puppet Up! Uncensored”?

In addition to it being a body show and everything, it’s going to have some moments of poignancy and beautiful puppeteering. Some gorgeous Henson puppets being moved by people who are trained in ways to make them look like they are living, breathing things.

And our vintage re-creations in the show are actually touching. We can be smutty, smutty, smutty, then have this moment of, “Wow, that really of moved me.” And then we’re back to the smut.

What’s the most off-color thing we’ll see?

That is up to the audience because they suggest the off-color things. I might say we’ve had too much bad stuff, but when the audience suggests something that’s off color, if the rest of the audience goes, “Yeah, we want to see it,” my job as the MC and director is to go, “I will deliver that to you.” And our puppeteers will nail it.

There are no rules? No off-limits red line in the sand?

The audience determines it. Where it happens, it’s like a party where you know everyone’s saying, “Hey, well, why don’t we play this, or why don’t we do this?” And if someone goes, “Well, why don’t we do this?” and the rest of the audience goes “Whoa, no, no, no, we don’t want to see that” because it’s too dark, maybe too sad? Then we move on and get something else. We don’t make that person feel bad for suggesting it.

How do you deal with people cringing in the audience that you’re going to come and pick them out … to get dressed up and put a mask on?

They do that everywhere. If I see somebody who’s not cringing, who’s eager, I can’t pick that person because they’ll turn into an audition. Then the audience doesn’t like them, and they feel embarrassed. The person who wants to get on that stage for audience participation is not the person to bring up.

You want the one who lives in the spectrum between eager and giving me the eye of, “I’ll kill you if you come to me.” When I get the person who’s, “Oh, please, don’t pick me, but I’ll do it if you make me,” they’re the one, and they end up doing great. The audience loves them, they end up having a great time.

They’re so glad that they got picked. I’m going to learn a lot in the first preview shows. I have to make the audience comfortable as much as I can so that they go home and tell all their friends what fun they had at “Puppet Up!” in Las Vegas and that we’re just as important to see as a Cirque show.

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich and 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.

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