A New Addition To The Long Tradition Of Puppets Behaving Badly

Aug 24, 2018
Originally published on August 24, 2018 10:07 am

The Happytime Murders is packed with violence, foul language and graphic felt-on-felt sex. There's also a scene with an octopus that is — well, you need to see it for yourself.

The new movie stars Melissa McCarthy as a human detective trying to solve a string of puppet killings. And yes, many of its characters are puppets.

But it's definitely not for kids.

It's hard to demonstrate just how raunchy The Happytime Murders is — the prime bits are inappropriate for both children and public radio. Suffice it to say the producers are warning parents against taking their children to see the film, which has an R rating.

"This is really the raunchiest I've ever gone with puppets," says director Brian Henson. "I thought: Well, maybe I should do something that's sort of PG-13. But I didn't want to accidentally invite a family audience into this movie. I wanted to make sure it was very, very clear that this is for adults only. So in a lot of ways that also became a license to go even further than our instincts were to go."

Brian Henson is the son of the late Muppets creator Jim Henson.

"My dad would probably have said, 'Oh my God, that's outrageous, Brian,'" he says. "But I also think he would have enjoyed it."

The Happytime Murders is the latest recent example of adult puppetry that leans heavily on the scatological.

In the early 2000s, Comedy Central had a hit cable show called Crank Yankers, which featured puppets lip-syncing to recordings of lewd and crude crank phone calls. The creators of South Park produced a movie with an all-marionette cast called Team America, about an elite group of commandos that vanquish both terrorists and good taste.

Of course, puppets behaving badly is not exactly new. Historically, raunch has been the rule, not the exception.

"Puppetry around most of the world, until the 19th century, wasn't for children," says Eileen Blumenthal, theater professor at Rutgers University and author of the book Puppetry: A World History. "In fact, a lot of it was pretty shocking. ... In the Middle Ages, one specialty of puppets became sex and violence. "

The classic Punch and Judy puppet shows were topical, political and very racy. It was a good way, in the 17th century, to poke fun at the crown and the church without getting your head chopped off.

"Puppets have always been able to get away with things that live actors can't," Blumenthal says.

Thinking of puppets as something for kids is a recent phenomenon. A lot of it is rooted in the late 1960s and '70s with the huge success of Sesame Street.

But Jim Henson always considered himself as an adult entertainer. Brian Henson says his father created The Muppet Show as a way of escaping the kids' show pigeonhole.

As for Brian, he looks forward to seeing what he can get away with in the future. Just don't tell the kids.

"This is a direction that I'm experimenting with, but it's not at all exclusively where I plan on being," Henson says. "But people really sort of delight in puppets going really too far."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So what do you do when bad things happen to good puppets? Well, that's what Melissa McCarthy is investigating in a new movie called "The Happytime Murders." She plays a detective trying to solve a string of puppet killings.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS")

BILL BARETA: (As Phil Philips) This wasn't a robbery. This was a hit.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As unidentified character) What the...

BARETA: (As Phil Philips) Someone out there is killing puppets.

GREENE: Oh, my. "The Happytime Murderers" - it is rated R, and, in this case, the R might stand for raunchy. It's inappropriate for both children and morning radio. So just a fair warning - this piece contains some clips that some listeners might find very disturbing. They certainly disturbed NPR's Barry Gordemer.

BARRY GORDEMER, BYLINE: "The Happytime Murders" is packed with violence...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What the...

GORDEMER: ...Foul language...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS")

MELISSA MCCARTHY: (As Connie Edwards) Well, if the shoe fits...

BARETA: (As Phil Philips) [Expletive] you.

MCCARTHY: (As Connie Edwards) Yeah, [expletive] you, too.

BARETA: (As Phil Philips) [Expletive] you more.

GORDEMER: ...And graphic puppet sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS")

BARETA: (As Phil Philips) This is not a good idea.

DORIEN DAVIES: (As Sandra) What's it going to be, Phil?

GORDEMER: The problem is I can't play any clips that really demonstrate just how raunchy this movie is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) When did you get so squeamish?

BARETA: (As Phil Philips) I'm not squeamish.

GORDEMER: Brian Henson, what would Jim Henson say about this movie?

BRIAN HENSON: I don't know. My dad would probably have said, oh my God. That's outrageous, Brian. But I also think he would have enjoyed it.

GORDEMER: That's Brian Henson, son of "Muppet" creator Jim Henson. Brian directed "The Happytime Murders."

HENSON: This is really the raunchiest I've ever gone with puppets. I thought, well, maybe I should do something that's sort of PG-13, but I didn't want to accidentally invite a family audience into this movie. I wanted to make sure it was very, very clear that this is for adults only. So in a lot of ways, that also became a license to go even further than our instincts were to go.

GORDEMER: "The Happytime Murderers" is the latest example of adult puppetry that leans heavily on the scatological. In the early 2000s, Comedy Central brought us "Crank Yankers" where puppets lip synced to lewd and crude crank phone calls.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CRANK YANKERS")

UNIDENTIFED PERSON: Thank you for calling SST Towing. How may I help you?

WANDA SYKES: (As Gladys) I just picked up my '92 Accord from your lot, and there is a huge turd in the back seat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And there's - there's what in the back seat?

SYKES: (As Gladys) A turd.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ma'am, if you want to bring that car back, we'll take a look at it.

SYKES: (As Gladys) Oh, you want to take a look at it.

GORDEMER: The creators of "South Park" brought us the all-marionette movie "Team America" where an elite group of commandos vanquish terrorists and good taste.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE")

DARAN NORRIS: (As Spottswoode) All right, I'll trust you. But only if you [expletive].

TREY PARKER: (As Gary Johnston) You can't be serious.

NORRIS: (As Spottswoode) Oh, I am serious. This is my serious face.

GORDEMER: Puppets behaving badly isn't new. In fact, over the centuries, raunch has been the rule rather than the exception.

EILEEN BLUMENTHAL: Puppetry around most of the world until the 19th century wasn't for children. In fact, a lot of it was pretty shocking.

GORDEMER: Eileen Blumenthal is a theater professor at Rutgers University and author of the book "Puppetry: A World History."

BLUMENTHAL: In the middle ages, one specialty of puppets became sex and violence.

GORDEMER: The classic puppet show "Punch And Judy" was topical, political and very racy. It was a good way in the 17th century to poke fun at the crown and the church without getting your head chopped off.

BLUMENTHAL: Puppets have always been able to get away with things that live actors can't.

GORDEMER: Brian Henson looks forward to seeing what he can get away with in the future.

HENSON: This is a direction that I'm experimenting with, but it's not at all exclusively where I plan on being. But people really sort of delight in puppets going really too far.

GORDEMER: Just don't tell the kids. Barry Gordemer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.