How the Muppets inspired my current work-in-progress.
Last year I checked out the DVDs of “The Muppet Show,” first season, from the library. I hadn’t paid much attention to the show when it first aired, but I had the urge to revisit it. The DVDs have a fun feature that the viewer can turn on to allow little pop-ups of trivia and fun facts about working the Muppets.
As I watched the show, I thought how my series character, Sandy Fairfax, would have made a terrific guest star. He can sing, dance, and act. He’s easy going and has a great sense of humor. He’d fit right into the wacky world of the Muppets.
This year my publisher put out a call for submissions for an anthology of short stories by the various Cozy Cat Press authors. That sounded like just the ticket for another Sandy mystery, this time as a guest start on a kids’ TV show with its own nutty set of possibly murderous puppeteers.
To research the art of puppetry, I drew on my own experience. In the early 1970s my school district built a brand new high school (which has seen been replaced by an even newer facility). This school had a working television studio. The senior TV production class, which I took, produced a program that was aired to the local elementary schools via closed circuit TV (which nowadays would probably be uploaded as streaming video).
At the time “Sesame Street” was still new and all the rage, so our studio had a small puppet stage that we used in our shows. The puppets resembled the basic Muppet form: a foam head with a cloth body and thin, flexible arms.
When operating the puppets, we wore white cloth gloves to product the puppet material from our skin oils and sweat. But in my research on how the Muppets are worked, I didn’t find any indication that the puppeteers wore gloves. My guess is that with the long hours of taping a TV show, the puppets were of and off their hands so often that dealing with gloves all day would be cumbersome.
Like “Sesame Street,” we had rod-arm puppets, so called because a long black plastic rod was attached to one arm. We put one hand inside the puppet’s head to work the mouth and use the other hand to manipulate the arm with the rod. That gave the puppet a more realistic look than to have both arms hang limp.
I believe the school had one or two human hand puppets. These puppets had arms/hands that resembled sleeves and gloves. Puppeteers could put one hand inside a puppet arm and use their fingers to make the puppet pick up objects, write, and make more natural hand movements. Obviously these puppets are more difficult to operate.
Rowlf the dog and the Swedish Chef are human hand puppets. Jim Henson moves the mouth and provides the voice of both moppets and another puppeteer (Frank Oz for the chef) works the hands. This requires tremendous coordination between the two persons and the ability to work closely together.
How do the Muppeteers see what their puppets are doing when they’re standing behind a solid wall or cramped inside a sofa or box? Jim Henson developed a solution to this problem with tiny black-and-white TV monitors placed on the floor behind the stage. The puppeteers keep their eyes on the monitor, not the puppets. Thus they can watch their performance in real time, exactly how the home viewer would see them.
I learned a trick in working a puppet’s mouth. The natural tendency in making a puppet “talk” is to move the four fingers inside the head. But this makes the puppet’s head jerk back and appear to have whiplash. The correct method is to hold the fingers level and move only the thumb. This drops the jaw, the same way humans speak. You’ll see this jaw-only movement in the Muppets, except when Kermit gets agitated, in which case he flails his arms around and his mouth opens all the way, flinging his head back for comic effect.
What I remember most about the TV class is that it led to my first piece of published writing! The company that sold the puppets to the school put out a newsletter with scripts the customers could use. I wrote a short, silly sketch about puppets waiting for the school bus to arrive. My script was published and my “payment” was a free puppet. The school kept the puppet, but I picked it out—a bunny.
In writing my short story I read books about how “The Muppet Show” was made and a well-illustrated bio of Henson. Some of this information I incorporated into my story, although I should make a disclaimer that all of the Muppeteers are fantastic people and would never stoop to do the evil deeds committed by my characters. But my story wouldn’t be as fun if my characters were all as nice as Kermit the frog.