A Priest, a Rabbi, and a Puppet Walk Into a Bar…

Avenue Q “Everyone’s a little bit racist. It’s true. But, everyone is just about as racist as you.”

If you haven’t seen the hit musical Avenue Q by now (Geez, we’ve had like a dozen local productions lately), I’ll give you a quick rundown. It portrays the world in which puppets and humans live side by side. Like Sesame Street, but decidedly more realistic and adult. It features songs like the aforementioned “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” “You Can Be As Loud As The Hell You Want When You’re Making Love,” and “What Do You Do With a BA in English?”

The basic plot is a young puppet, recently graduated from college, is trying to make his way in New York City. But not in the entertainment industry. He has a BA in English - hence the song - and just wants to find steady employment. In search of a cheap apartment, he finds himself on the titular street where he rents a small efficiency unit from one of the few human characters, Gary Coleman. Yes, that Gary Coleman. Usually played by a woman.

Arguably, if this were just a human story, it wouldn’t be as good. Sure, it aims for biting satire of modern society, but there’s something about the fact that most of the cast is puppets that allow them to approach delicate subjects that humans find to be more of a minefield. Subjects like race and sexuality are handled in hilarious - yet cathartically educational - songs. And themes like trying to find one’s purpose in life, that usually come off as hokey, are called out for their ridiculousness without seeming cruel and heartless. And it’s all okay because the characters involved are puppets. Hence, they’re not real.

Greg the BunnyThis is hardly the only example. Another instance of puppets and humans sharing the world came in the form of Greg the Bunny, the IFC hit that eventually became a short-lived and vastly under-appreciated sitcom on Fox in 2002. That show is all on YouTube now, so I’ll wait here while you go watch it real quick. Back? Funny, right?

In the Fox version of Greg the Bunny, featuring Eugene Levy, Seth Green (more on him in a sec), and Sarah Silverman in human roles, the puppets actually are in the entertainment business as characters on a children’s TV show that also stars Bob Gunton and Dina Waters in more human roles. Gunton is especially great. But, once again, by making a majority of the characters non-human, they’re able to approach sensitive subjects like racism, interracial relationships, addiction, etc. with a deft comic flare.

The Simpsons BookAnd there are so many more examples. The Simpsons is the Godfather of animated or non-human comedy at this point. There are entire academic books written about its greatness. Really. Then, Family Guy picked up the torch and later gave birth to two lesser shows. The Simpsons actually gave birth to a - in my opinion - superior show in Futurama.

Then, there’s the entire phenomenon that is Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block that features/featured Sea Lab, Harvey Birdman, The Venture Brothers, Rick and Morty, and Green’s dark, stop-motion cultural commentary, Robot Chicken. And, then there’s FXX’s Archer, another favorite of mine.

All of these shows feature adult content in one way or another. But one thing that stays pretty consistent is that these shows have approached subjects - with varying degrees of comedy/seriousness - that are, at the very least, much more difficult needles to thread with human characters.

So, why? I’m not the first person to notice and write about this, but it’s still a subject that isn’t talked about much. It should be, though. I think there’s something to learn in this. Why is it so easy for puppets to have a scene about racism, but when humans do it on a sitcom, it becomes a “very special episode”?

It’s all about, like, reality, man. Puppets and cartoons, no matter how close to humans they look, aren’t real. So, that distance somehow makes it more okay to talk about why we still harbor some less than OK stereotypes about other people. As Avenue Q teaches us, we all do it.

How do we talk about it in a comedic sense, then? It’s a tough nut to crack. Amy Schumer recently came under fire for how she talked about race in her jokes. This, naturally, was in the context of her sleeping with black guys. Still, though, people took offense at how casually she seemed to play with stereotypes. Even a very talented comic like her couldn’t get out of it unscathed.

But, besides not real, puppets are also silly. They’re absurd. So are the cartoons, but let’s focus on the puppet examples. Now, humans can’t help but be human. Even in a big costume, they’re still human, and we all know it. So, we can’t attain the unreality of “Fabricated-Americans” (to borrow a term from Greg the Bunny), but we can use absurdity.

A sketch I admittedly keep coming back to - because it really is genius on so many levels - aired during the last episode of Key & Peele. The “Negrotown” sketch is a perfect application of absurdity to talk about a serious issue, the disparate targeting of young African-American men by mostly white police forces. Instead of making the passively racist police officer the butt of the joke, the comedy duo went in a completely fantastical direction, as Peele’s homeless onlooker transformed into a garishly suited “magical negro” - an old stereotype that still enjoys a robust life in modern cinema in the guise of Morgan Freeman, and a great example of how we white people are, at the very least, still passively racist - that transports the recently arrested Key off to a magical world full of only black people. The residents of this magical Negrotown then sing a song about how they can wear hoodies without getting shot, qualify for bank loans, and their culture won’t get re-appropriated by white people.

Basically, it cranks the conversation up to 11. No room for subtlety. Just pure fantastical absurdity.

So, does this have any application to comedy, and more specifically, improv? I think it can.

I’ve seen people try to broach sensitive cultural subjects in improv. Many time, it relies on the unspoken agreement that we’re all on the same side, and that by making jokes about these issues we’re taking power away from them. But that results in subtle digs that are easily misunderstood. So, take it to an unrealistic place.

Another good tip is to always turn the lens on yourself. Be the absurd version of your own character.

Of course, the natural reaction is to say, why don’t we just avoid sensitive subjects and stay with safe stuff? Well, because it’s not as funny. As I’ve written before, the funniest jokes are the ones that push the boundaries and poke those uncomfortable places. And the comics who figure out the right balance are the famous ones like Pryor, Carlin, Murphy, CK, Schumer, Key & Peele, Jeselnik, etc.

So, next time you’re doing a scene, try a hyper-unrealistic caricature. Be a puppet, essentially, and try to approach those weird places we don’t like to talk about with a new, fuzzier, perspective.

My Top 5 comedies featuring non-human characters:

  • Futurama
  • Avenue Q
  • Greg the Bunny
  • Robot Chicken
  • Rick and Morty
  • Archer

So, sue me. I get to change the rules of my own lists. Have a good week.

Kris Noteboom is a Level 2 student at DCH. He is working on his PhD, with a focus comedy. He went on a mini tour this summer performing his comedic one-man show, And Then I Woke Up.

Q&A With Puppeteer Sarah Nolen

Puppets mean Muppets for most people. But Fozzy and Kermit and Gonzo are only recent additions to an art form that's been around for 30,000 years. Puppetry is a tradition that is found in all societies around the world, where people have used anything from socks on their hands to elaborate life-size constructions to help tell stories and entertain. Sarah NolenWe here at the Dallas Comedy House have a resident puppeteer, Sarah Nolen, who is conducting a puppet workshop that runs for four Saturdays starting January 7.

Curious about puppets and the workshop? So were we, and Sarah was happy to answer a few questions.

What is your puppeteering history? How did you get interested in it? How long have you been doing it?

I have been fiddling with puppets since I was in grade school. I performed my first show at the age of 9, for my parents. It was a rendition of "Rapunzel" performed by toilet paper rolls…with clothes made of paper. The interest started, I'm sure, from watching and loving puppets on TV shows like The Muppet Show, Beakman's World, Muppets Tonight, Puzzle Place, and others. Moreover, I am fascinated by objects and textures. In high school, I gave up puppets because they weren't very cool at the time. Going through puberty and introducing people to an old sock with buttons for eyes didn't make sense. I picked up videography instead. But senior year, I filmed my first short video with puppets. I filmed two puppets made from soap boxes singing along to "The Magic Flute." It was a soap opera--and it cracked me up. That's when I realized I had to keep doing it. In college, I studied film and all my shorts involved puppetry of some kind. Summer my junior year, I traveled to Connecticut to partake in a three-week long workshop held by Sandglass Theater. They call it "puppet boot camp," and Eric and Ines-Zeller Bass teach you everything from manipulation to breathing to conceptualizing. You learn about the life of objects. It was the most inspiring thing I have ever done artistically, and I've never thought about puppets the same way.

What are some of the most difficult aspects of working with puppets? How do you overcome the difficulties? 

One of the most difficult aspects of working with puppets is separating yourself from the puppet. You are lending life to any object you manipulate, so you cannot think of that life as your own. That's kind of hippy-dippy, but as far as Muppet-style puppetry goes, the most difficult thing is giving an emotion to something expressionless, something inanimate. Through that limitation, though, you can learn a lot about what gives something life other than it's face. Technically, a very difficult thing is matching the mouth movements with your own. But the prescription for that is practice!

What are some of the most rewarding aspects of working with puppets? 

I think the most rewarding part of puppetry is discovering some sort of alien in the palm of your hand. Getting people to relate and care for these little aliens is really terrific. One of the coolest moments for me was when one of my puppets died on stage suddenly, and the whole audience felt it and panicked a little. After she died, I reached in my pocket and had a bunch of snow (it was a Christmas show), and smiled, throwing it everywhere for the exit. It was a little reminder that--hey, it was never really alive. But it's a lot of fun, when you create something that people care about. That moment where you realize that the audience has forgotten you is pretty fantastic.

How can taking a puppet class help with other forms of improv? 

This puppetry workshop will focus on learning Muppet-style puppetry for the improv stage. Taking a puppet class will definitely help with communication, characters, and expanding skills. As a puppeteer, you learn how to make different characters on the fly with just your voice and hand movement. You learn to play different characters in the same puppet. You become finely aware of what changes in gesture, voice and pacing can express. With puppets, as with anything limited, you will also be exercising the idea of "if this, then what?" For example, if my puppet is a monkey, then maybe it has a bad case of fleas. He's got an itching problem. You are literally given the "if" with objects.

What is your favorite puppet (either one you work with or throughout history) and why?

One of my favorite puppets was a marionette puppet I saw performed at a the Puppet Incident puppet slam in Austin. Puppeteer Marta MacRostie had made this thing on strings that laid flat, and you couldn't tell what it was. When it finally got up off the ground, it was a giant human hand marionette! It started walking around like a dog, and flicking things on the ground, and tapping. I don't think I've ever giggled so much. As far as Muppets go, my favorite is Rowlf. I love his floppy ears when he plays the piano. And his puns.

What do you say to people who think that puppets are only for kids?

I stick out my tongue at them! The most amazing thing about puppetry is that it uses our ability to personify anything. We can relate to a drunk trash can, we can still laugh at a dog ballerina, and as adults, we can finally empathize with how hard it must be for Kermit to get all the Muppets to work together. What's amazing about puppetry is that even as an adult, we can forget that there is a puppeteer, and see these inanimate things as alive, like when we were a kid. That is magic.

What do you hope people will walk away with after taking your workshop? 

I hope people will walk away with a broader perspective of puppetry. I hope they are reminded of how to imagine, act zany and that playing is not just for kids.

Thank you, Sarah, for taking the time to answers our questions. Remember folks, registration is open until Jan. 6 for the puppet workshop.