The One Type of “Comedian” Who Can Get Away With Anything
How many comedians could get away with humping Heather Locklear?
The answer is approximately zero. That is, unless the comedian is a puppet. Then no subject -- not even the pubic grooming habits of members of Bon Jovi -- is off-limits. From Jeff Dunham’s racist friends to the full-frontal puppet nudity of Broadway’s Avenue Q, felt comedians appear to have free rein to say whatever they want, do whatever they want, to whoever they want.
Which begs the question: Why?
The easy answer is that puppets look like children’s toys. More specifically, in cases like Happy Time Murders or Meet the Feebles, they look like our childhood friends from Sesame Street. That makes the incongruous filth that spills out of their mouths all the more shocking, hilarious, and possibly, just possibly … harmless?
But puppets have been getting away with murder long before Jim Henson stuck his hand up Cookie Monster’s behind. Charlie McCarthy, the wooden boy pal of Edgar Bergen, used to get a free pass for risque talk even in the early days of radio. In 1937, he flirted with Mae West, who proclaimed Charlie to be her perfect man --“all wood and a yard long.” This after confessing that their last get-together left West with splinters that she still hadn’t entirely removed.
West got banned from radio until 1950. McCarthy walked away scot-free. You know why? BECAUSE HE WAS A DAMN PUPPET!
Here are four more examples of how puppets are the only comedians completely immune to being canceled.
Let’s see here. What did the marionettes of Team America get away with that would have ended the career of any live-action comic?
* A puppet appears in “brown face” to disguise himself as a Muslim terrorist, complete with racist gibberish.
* A Kim Jong-Il puppet talks in the most offensive Asian accent since Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's, lamenting in song that he’s “so ronery.”
* Two puppets engage in sex scenes that no humans outside of Pornhub could commit to film, including a scene on the DVD where one defecates on the other’s feverishly aroused forehead.
OK, OK -- censors made the filmmakers cut that last one for theatrical release. But the MPAA apparently had no problem with puppets that blew Janeane Garafalo’s head off, cut Helen Hunt in half with a samurai sword, kicked Samuel L Jackson’s skull into two distinct pieces, and set a wailing Tim Robbins on fire. Comedy!
It’s the same trick that Matt Stone and Trey Parker pull off in South Park, creating “kid characters” that say and do things real comics cannot. You’d think they’d be doubling down on the puppet play, if for no other reason than unbridled creative expression. And they probably would if manipulating the puppets’ actions weren’t so much dang work.
“No way,” says Matt to a sequel. “It’s the hardest thing we’ve ever done in our lives.”
Crank Yankers enjoyed a few seasons of rude, reckless comedy back in the 2000s, but they’re back again for a new season in July.
Creator Jimmy Kimmel understood the inherent comic tension between mean pranks and cute creatures. “I wanted the puppets to be very wholesome, like Sesame Street.” One-time Comedy Central programming exec Lou Wallach remembers Kimmel pitching the contrast -- sweet, innocent things that were engaging in pure telephone torture.
Somehow, Crank Yankers got away with Special Ed, a mentally challenged character who wore a helmet and yelled “Yay!” a lot. And by “got away with,” we mean created a breakout character whose “Yay!” catchphrase was played as a sound-drop in football stadiums. At least he got beat up by Eminem at an MTV Awards Show, continuing a strange series of Eminem/puppet feuds (see Triumph the Insult Comic Dog below).
Many of the bits were improvised based on scenarios that couldn’t exist on other shows. For example, Jim Florentine, the voice of Special Ed, offers up a typical premise:
The puppets-and-kids foundation of Wonder Showzen created possibly the most contemptibly hilarious show of all the ones listed here. You can’t say Wonder Showzen didn’t own it. Each show began with a disclaimer that what you were about to watch “contains offensive, despicable content that is too controversial and too awesome for actual children. The stark, ugly, profound truths Wonder Showzen exposes may be soul-crushing to the weak of spirit.”
Once again, a puppet (Clarence) led the offensive charge, accosting people on the street in a way that would get a human Impractical Joker stabbed in the ribs. To be fair, that almost happened to cuddly Clarence.
“We got kicked and punched a lot,” says co-creator Vernon Chatman. “We got knives pulled on us twice in one day.” Afterward, a young employee would have to run back to the scene of the almost-crime and convince the would-be assailant to sign a release so they could air it on TV.
When Clarence wasn’t being beaten, people were grabbing his mouth and holding it shut, apparently not understanding the Universal Law of Puppetry Sound Transmission that explains a human is the one actually providing the voice.
Together, the kids and fuzzballs encouraged viewers to “smash your TV and have adventures.” While Wonder Showzen got away with murder for two seasons, it almost didn’t make it. One apocryphal story went that network head Barry Diller got a few minutes through a tape of the pilot and declared: “Not only are we not doing this show, we’re not doing comedy anymore.”
Triumph the Insult Comic Dog
Triumph predated the celebrity roast craze, debuting on Late Night with Conan O’Brien in 1997. Because Conan was such a notoriously nice guy, Triumph could be counted on to zing celebs and nerdy normals when the host just didn’t have the heart.
Imagine someone like Chris Rock asking Jennifer Lopez if he could sniff her butt and you get an idea of what Triumph gets away with that no human ever could.
Triumph voice and comedy writing legend Bob Smigel knows how good he and the dog have it. “He’s got so many things to protect him and to protect the person he’s insulting so they know that it’s all just nonsense,” Smigel says. “He’s not real, and there’s a whole layer of irony attached to this guy, like a bow tie and a cigar. He’s mocking a kind of Borscht Belt schtick that’s fairly unthreatening at this point, and he’s almost like a low-status court jester who can just get away with saying stuff because he’s inherently ridiculous already.”
It also allows Triumph to throw haymakers at politicians like Ted Cruz. The Texas pol thought he’d nailed Triumph with his barb, “Just remember! It was the Democrats who had you neutered.”
“He’s literally giggling like a little schoolgirl because he made a funny,” remembers Smigel. “I was just like, ‘Yes, I support spaying and neutering, just like Trump did to you.’ He literally went “d’oh” just like Homer Simpson.”
Triumph says what we’d all like to say, but only the damn puppets are allowed to actually do it. At the end of the day, we lowly humans are just here for the puppets to poop on.
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Top image: Funny or Die