Picture a mash up of “The Muppet Show” and “Whose Line is It Anyway?” and you’ll have an idea of what to expect from “Puppet Up! - Uncensored,” an improv comedy puppet show returning to San Francisco, Nov. 13-23.
“Puppet Up! – Uncensored” was co-created by Chairman of the Jim Henson Company, Brian Henson, who will be puppeteering during this run as well. After years of performing in movies like “Labyrinth,” producing shows such as “Farscape” and directing fan favorites like “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” Henson said he was searching for a new comedic voice for puppets.
“I was quite ambitious. I wanted to find the funniest angle for puppets for a discerning audience,” Henson said.
“The Muppet Show” arrived on the tail of such TV sketch comedy classics as “Laugh In” and “The Carol Burnett Show,” and all three owe something to vaudeville. While much of that humor is timeless, Henson’s ambition had him seeking something a little different.
“I wanted something that had a newer feel to it,” Henson said.
His then-girlfriend-now-wife, Mia Sara, suggested consulting with an improv comedy pro, and former Groundling, Patrick Bristow, came highly regarded. Henson said Bristow wasn’t sure that puppets and improv would be a good mix, as improv comics rely on constant eye-contact with each other to progress a scene, whereas Henson-style puppeteering has performers with their eyes locked to monitors.
Somehow, though, it worked to the surprise of Bristow. He suggested adding an audience, to bring the comedy to the next level. Among the friends and family at the first show were producers from the Aspen Comedy Festival, who insisted the new show have a slot there. It was so successful in Aspen, that the Edinburgh Comedy Festival came calling.
“I said, ‘Patrick, I think we’ve got a show,” Henson recalled. “We came back to L.A. to work the show and make it bigger and more robust.”
The run in San Francisco will feature Bristow interacting with the audience, getting suggestions for scenes and characters, while Henson and his improv puppeteers wait to grab one of 90 puppets and do one-of-a-kind sketch pieces and songs.
“It never goes where you expect,” Henson said. “As a performer, I'll often be off-stage with my puppet, and I’m thinking I’m going to come in as Brooklyn street guy, like a construction worker who’s angry. And, I’ll open the puppet’s mouth and all of a sudden, I’m doing a German mad scientist. I didn’t know I was going to do that.”
Henson said they didn’t intend to do an adults-only puppet show, but improv will go where it wants to go, and sometimes that’s into blue-humor territory.
“I have a dirty sense of humor when I’m in the right mode. I love it,” he said. “Occasionally, some of the performers and even me have gone a little too far, and we’ll talk about it.”
Another treat for longtime fans of Henson puppetry is the addition of two classic Henson company sketches. “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Your Face” goes back nearly 60 years. Jim Henson performed it on early television programs including “The Steve Allen Show.”
“My mother said they performed that more than anything,” Henson said.
The other, “Java,” featuring colorful, tube-like puppets dancing, was originally performed by Jim Henson and Frank Oz.
“I know my dad was a huge fan of doing that one with Frank. I remember they did it for ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ when I was like 7,” Henson said. “I had to do the fire extinguisher at the end, and I remember being just terrified.”
“Puppet Up! – Uncensored” performers include Ted Michaels, Colleen Smith, Peggy Etra, Michael Oosterom, Grant Baciocco, Donna Kimball, Drew Massey and Victor Yerrid.
Visit shnsf.com for tickets and more info about “Puppet Up! - Uncensored.”
Corey Andrew has been interviewing comedians and writing about comedy for the last decade and a half. He recently published the book, “Laugh Lines: Conversations with Comedians.” Corey was a writer and performer with Midwest sketch troupe, The NonProphets, before moving to the Bay Area with his family several years ago. If you have ideas for future columns about comedy, you can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/coreywrites.