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Brian Henson on His New ‘Adults Only’ Puppet Show, and Why Disney Is the Right Home for Muppets

Do you find yourself watching old Muppet Show episodes and thinking, “This ‘play the music’ and ‘light the lights’ stuff is all well and good, but I really wish they’d do more bawdy improv.” Then Stuffed and Unstrung, the Henson Company’s new live “adults only” improv show that starts a ten-week run tonight at New York’s Union Square Theater, could be the ideal entertainment for you. Working under the new “Henson Alternative” banner, puppeteers take audience suggestions and act them out with any of the 80-plus puppets hanging on a wall behind them, which range from aliens to talking hot dogs. (Alas, you won’t get to see Beaker talk wife-swapping with Fozzie: rights to the original Muppets have been sold to Disney, but all the new puppets have that Henson look and feel.) The show was created by Brian Henson, 47-year-old son of legendary Muppet patriarch Jim. We talked to Brian about the perils and fun of unscripted puppetry, the new Muppet movie, and his big plans for a “balls-out” puppet detective movie.

How did this show come about?
It was initially just a workshop more than three years ago to sharpen our puppeteers' comic ad-libbing skills; we had lost some of the zaniness that had been such a part of the company. I brought in Patrick Bristow [the show’s stage director, who takes all the audience suggestions] to train them in improv. Puppeteers want scripts so they can prepare; this was terrifying to them. So I said I’m going to do it with you, even though I think of myself more as creator and director of movies and TV now. I discovered it was terrifying to me, too.

How did that lead to an Off Broadway show?
Everyone found it so liberating that we invited an audience in Los Angeles. Then we were asked to different comedy festivals. We started thinking about this as a TV show, like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, but realized it’s much more fun with a live audience. We haven’t done live theater, so it’s a new platform. My dad never did stage shows because he’d say the hand puppets were too small. But we use cameras and big screens so people can see the puppets act. The audience goes back and forth between watching the puppeteers and just the puppets.

Why bill it as "adults only"?
We want to be able to follow the audience each night. That’s where our content comes from. Some are bluer than others. One night’s suggestions might be about picking your nose and littering, while the next night we might get the most raunchy, pornographic suggestions and we’ll take those, too — even though we want to do a classy show that’s not just going for shock with puppets. If someone brought older children, that’s fine, but we need to be very clear that it’s for adults because we don’t want someone to say, “My child is a fan of Fraggle Rock” and to come expecting that. This is also close to the roots of the Henson Company, although it’s edgier. My dad and mom started on television in late night in Washington. It was more censored than it is today, but it was still aimed at adults. We have two of those bits in the show, and they are so charming and innocent yet irreverent and naughty. We will rotate other ones in as well so people that come back won’t see the same ones.

Do you worry that people will say that by having foul-mouthed puppets, you’re just copying Avenue Q?
Avenue Q is its own thing — it’s a very specific show and ours is quite different.

None of the familiar Muppets are in the show, but there’s definitely a wide variety of creatures, ranging from a nerdy middle-aged man to a giant fish to something that looks like an angry Tribble. Where did they come from?
The puppets were pulled from all sorts of shows from our past that are not known by the audience — shows from England or Germany, for instance. The hot-dog puppets were from a show called City Kids that ran fifteen years ago on ABC Saturday Morning. The more mixed-up and absurd the mix of puppets for each bit the better, like when that aggressive-looking furry ball is acting in a “movie scene” with a guy in a beret and the “movie’s” director is an alien.

There’s a new Muppet movie in the works, but Henson doesn’t have anything to do with it since the Muppets were sold to Disney. Do people know that it’s now Disney and not the Henson Company, and does it matter? Are there any regrets or concerns?
It was my father’s dream to put the Muppets in the Disney theme parks — that’s how he thought they would stay alive forever — so the deal was done to complete that vision. As for the movie, Disney is very protective of the Muppets and they move slowly and carefully. They intend to respect and maintain the Muppet tone so they will live on wonderfully. I may consult on the movie, but I won’t be on the set. I act a bit as a technical adviser and tell them whom to hire — they’ll work with a lot of people my dad and I worked with.

There are also reports of a biopic about your dad called Muppet Man that seems to be a joint venture between your company and Disney. What is that project’s status?
I can’t really comment in detail on that. There was a spec script and we optioned it, but while discussions are going on it is not active right now.

What other projects are there in the works for the Henson companies?
We’re trying to make a Dark Crystal sequel, but that will take a long time. As for Henson Alternative, we have a few puppet shows for late night that we’re developing, maybe for someplace like Comedy Central or HBO, and two or three movies as well. One movie is really far along in development. I can’t discuss the studio, but the working title is The Happytime Murders. It’s about a puppet private eye in Hollywood in a world in which puppets are a minority population and treated badly. It’s a gritty crime thriller and a satire of the genre and a balls-out comedy. And it’ll be rated R.