4 Things I Learned Working With Rip-Off Muppets
Everyone with a soul has, at some point, fantasized about meeting The Muppets (if you haven't, sorry to inform you that you are a vampire). Well, reader, I not only met The Muppets but had the honor of working side by side with them for a year and a half. The only tiny caveat is that they weren't the The Muppets but a The Muppets, from a low-budget Muppet Show ripoff aired in a remote location I will not disclose for fear of screwing up any puppet-related work opportunities in my future. Also, because I don't want Fake Kermit to read this and decapitate me in my sleep.
Working with puppets every day was a surreal, disconcerting, and surprisingly R-rated experience, but I came away wiser in the ways of the world and its people (and its pieces of felt shaped like people). Nowhere else could I have learned that ...
The Puppets Themselves Are Wholesome, The People Behind Them Are NOT
The first words I heard from the human face of this all-ages Muppet Show-inspired television program (let's call him "Store Brand Jim Henson") were "You are bisexual." I'd just met the off-brand Muppets themselves and they were perfectly nice, by which I mean that they made no unfounded speculations on what motivates my boners. I have to clarify that I didn't walk into this local TV studio while lovingly holding a man and a woman under each arm, and I wasn't wearing a shirt that said "I enjoy both penises and vaginas" or anything of the sort. "Jim," a lifelong children's entertainer and devout Christian, had decided I swung both ways based on no relevant information whatsoever.
We'll circle back to this moment.
I got the job literally the only way anyone gets a job in entertainment: by writing a short film for a janitor. Actually, more like a custodian who also performed janitorial duties at my university. The janitor/custodian had a short film idea and knew that I 1) owned and knew how to operate a keyboard, and 2) was a sucker, so he roped me into turning his concept into a screenplay. I'm not sure what became of the film; for all I know it won the Golden Plunger at an all-janitor film festival in Belarus. The only benefit for me was that one of the teachers working at the university, a guy I'd never met, heard about my keyboard-operating skills and invited me to share 50% of the writing duties and 10% of the salary in some local TV show. I said "yes" immediately. (See: "sucker" above.)
After agreeing to the job, I was relieved to learn that I'd be writing for a puppet-based children's program and not, like, the weather report. I was also looking forward to creating some wholesome family entertainment surrounded by the sort of gentle souls who surely worked in the world of televised puppets. And then I met our "Jim Henson" and he informed me that I love dongs (the vagina part wasn't news to me).
The comment wasn't as random as I initially thought: "Jim" was good friends with my boss, the other writer, and liked to greet him via accusations of homosexuality (because a man being in love with another man is inherently hilarious or something). Therefore, when he saw me in the studio with my boss he thought it would be amusing to suggest I was his homosexual lover, but I guess I looked too poorly groomed to be fully gay so he downgraded me to bi. After pretending to laugh at his "joke," I introduced myself to "Jim" and told him that he knew some people I'm related to, at which point he gave me heartfelt condolences on the recent passing of my grandma. And now you know that this whole story is true because how the hell would I invent what I just said. How.
As it turned out, this interaction was only setting the tone for the rest of my illustrious career with Mr. "Henson" and his non-Muppets.
It's Easy To Get Carried Away And See Puppets As People ... Even Sexually
The human brain is a complex organ capable of incredible things, but looking at a piece of foam with eyes and a mouth and not thinking it's a sentient being isn't one of them. The moment the puppeteer is out of your eyesight, you will talk to the puppet as if it's a real talking frog or bear or dick-nosed blue alien. Even the real Jim Henson seemed to do it:
Our "Jim" did it too, but his way of interacting with female puppets was a lot less adorable and a lot more like workplace harassment lawsuit material. When a young and attractive intern joined the show as a production assistant, the puppeteers thought it'd be fun to make a puppet that sorta looked like her so she could play a background character. "Jim" immediately took a liking to this new imitation Muppet (let's call her "Sexier Miss Piggy") and requested scenes of the two together. At first it was fun to watch his playful flirting with "Piggy," but soon I felt like I was watching the emergence of a brand new sexual fetish. Kinsey could have written an entire bookshelf on this shit.
For instance, I remember "Jim" calling me to his office to dictate a scene in which "Piggy" is drawing a portrait of him, and it was like that sexy scene in Titanic as retold by someone currently undergoing extensive brain surgery. "And then she'd tell me to puff up my chest, like a lion, and she'd say 'now roar to me, my big lion,' and I'd roar to her like this, 'grrrrrrrrrrr, I am here for you my tigress' -- write this down. Are you writing this down?" I laughed, but he was dead serious. The more he spoke, the more convinced I became that he was describing an elaborate wet dream he'd had the previous night.
And then there was the time we were at a table read and the director of programming dropped by to congratulate us on our ratings on the coveted 5:00-5:30 am time slot. We were all celebrating the fact that our show was more popular than the rival station's ShamWow infomercials when "Jim" told us a funny anecdote: he was at a motel with his wife late one night and "was having trouble getting it up, until came on screen and boom, rock hard." I don't think the director of programming ever visited us again. And, again, you know this story is true because if I was making it up, I'd claim he said "my Big Bird" or something instead of simply "it."
The really weird part is that once the intern left and the "Sexier Piggy" character went to an older and homelier-looking puppeteer who usually voiced less arousing Muppets (think Statler and Waldorf), "Jim" remained just as horny for her. "Things happen to me when I look at that puppet," he once admitted to me. I have to stress that "Jim" never acted inappropriately toward the puppeteers themselves, to my knowledge. Like I said, he was a good Christian! But that aspect of his personality did cause other types of issues ...
Mixing "Muppets" And Religion Is A Terrible, Terrible Idea (Trust Me)
As you might have gathered, "Jim" was not a conventional religious guy. He said the word "damn," openly talked about sex stuff (perhaps too openly), and subscribed to the casual "I can say that because I have gay friends!" style of homophobia, not the hardcore "BURN IN HELL" one. That said, he was very strict about one important subject: the Easter Bunny. Oh, and abortion. Two subjects. One time, he seriously objected to a puppet saying the word "aborted" during the phrase "mission aborted," forcing me to compromise my artistic integrity and change it to "mission cancelled."
Anyway: the Easter Bunny. With Easter coming up, my boss and I came up with a story about the puppets searching for hidden eggs, a groundbreaking concept in children's entertainment. Unfortunately, during the table read "Jim" informed us that he refused to take part in that episode because the whole concept of the Easter Bunny is filthy atheistic propaganda. Easter isn't about something as ridiculous as a bunny scattering colored eggs around your backyard -- it's about God's son rising from the grave three days after being brutally nailed to a cross and bled out. Perfect material for a kids' show!
We tried to come up with an Easter egg-related premise that didn't involve bunnies at all, but "Jim" wasn't satisfied. The eggs themselves were too Satanic, apparently. OK, what about some fun way to let the puppets learn about Jesus' resurrection? Nope, because you can't joke about Jesus. In fact, the very idea of these Fake Muppets so much as saying the word "Jesus" seemed offensive and unholy. After much back and forth, the episode ended up being "Jim" sitting in the middle of the set and talking about the Lord to the kids at home for 13 minutes. Gotta admit that's more original than "they look for eggs."
And that wasn't even the worst show we did ...
There's Only So Much Ripping Off You Can Get Away With
In the end, the show fell victim to its own success. My boss and I liked doing themed weeks, because coming up with one idea and stretching it for five episodes was easier than coming up with five ideas. One week during my second year, we pitched some episodes in which the puppets hosted different types of programs (sports, talk show, news, etc.). The station loved the idea ... a little too much for its own good. We were writing the following weeks' regular episodes when they told us to drop that crap and just do TV show parodies from now on. This was the new format, forever.
So now we were a ripoff Muppet Show about ripoff Muppets ripping off other shows. Problem was, there are only so many TV show formats out there, so pretty soon we started repeating ourselves and reusing old ideas, adding a layer of self-plagiarism to this orgy of unoriginality. I think our faithful 5 am viewers must have said "Oh, it's a rerun, let's see what the ShamWow guy is doing ..." because our ratings fell. We reached a ripoff singularity that collapsed into a ripoff black hole. Meaning, we got cancelled.
So when I say that "there's only so much ripping off you can get away with," I mean that in a cosmic, karma-related sense. Legally, no one ever gave a shit about what we were doing. Sometimes I'd request a background song "in the style" of some famous band they'd just use the original ones, because who cares. Maybe that explains why there's no trace of this show on YouTube -- anyone who tries to upload it gets ten copyright strikes within seconds. Alternatively, no one's tried to upload it because, you know, it was terrible.
Overall, working with unlicensed Muppets was a positive experience: the puppeteers and crew were all fun to be around, the station's vending machine was well stocked, and by the end, they were paying me almost half minimum wage. I also got to let over a hundred bad rookie scripts out of my system in a place where absolutely no one saw them. As for our "Jim Henson," we actually got along great but I haven't kept in contact with him. Is he doing stage shows now? Children's birthday parties? Did he leave his wife for a sock? I don't know, but I sincerely wish him the best. Sorry I wasn't actually bisexual!