Puppets have been telling stories longer than anyone or anything. We’re being cheated by our technologies today. We get stories told to us in more ways than ever before; Facebook, YouTube, Hulu, there’s too much quantity and not nearly enough quality.
We are spoiled by the stories that we see on our computers, our laptops, our various devices. Before this more recent technology we were cheated by the stories we saw on our televisions, and dare I say we were even cheated by books.
Before books and the written language itself, we had puppets tell our stories and bring them to life. Not too many people realize this, but the art of puppetry is almost as old as storytelling itself. Puppetry dates back to civilizations and families gathering around a fire and passing on canon from one generation to the next; whether it be historical, fictional or even religious.
And it’s in the same rich tradition that puppeteers continue today to move our audiences both emotionally and affectionately using the puppet tool which again I argue makes the most successful fictional characters in all of history. Now when talking about puppetry it usually helps to immediately point out the elephant in the room or since we’re talking about puppetry maybe the Snuffleupagus in the room.
It’s very difficult to talk about puppetry today, at least in the contemporary setting in America without also talking about the Muppets. They’ve kind of become the gold standard by which we judge a lot of our contemporary puppetry today, and there’s a very good reason for this.
The Muppets did a lot of things right. Jim Henson and Frank Oz; the guys who created it back in the 50s. But so much of what made the Muppets successful is what made puppetry that came before the Muppets successful. The Muppet characters are just the most recent examples in a very long lineage of successful puppet characters. The Muppeteers are just the most recent descendants in a very long line of this great history.
Puppets are real.
Now I don’t mean this in any kind of weird or schizophrenic way. But it’s true. Puppets are real, they are physical. They’re tactile. You can reach out and touch them.
This fact alone registers with us as an audience on some kind of subliminal level. When a puppet is performed we’re all able to sit back and relax with a sigh of relief because we’re seeing something that hasn’t spent hours in a render farm.
If you were going to have a conversation with someone, what would you do? You sit down with them? You look them in the eyes. You talk back and forth for a while, then and at the end of the conversation you either shake their hand or give them a hug depending on how well you know the person.
You can do this with a puppet.
In contrast, think about the fact that the Tonight Show is an opportunity for celebrity guests to come on plug whatever tv or movie thing they’re doing. For example, if Toy Story 4 was going to come out next month, who would sit on the Tonight Show couch with Jimmy Fallon?
Would it be Woody the cowboy? Or would it be Tom Hanks? If history serves, it would be Tom Hanks because he is the celebrity, Woody the cowboy is just the character that Tom Hanks performs.
If there was some kind of segment where the computer animated Woody came on to the Tonight Show, things wouldn’t feel quite right. We know that woody is just computer data. Things would feel kind of stiff and the performance would feel stale.
In the same way we all exhale when we see a real puppet in our space, when we see an animated character in our space there’s an awkward disconnect because we know at least on that subliminal level that it’s not real. We know Woody is not a tangible object in that situation.
Animation is a really easy target in this argument, so let’s switch our focus to live action specifically. Batman. When the new Batman movie comes out, who’s going to sit on the Tonight Show couch? Will it be the Dark Knight? Or will it be Ben Affleck?
It will probably be Ben Affleck, because Affleck is the celebrity. Whether it’s Batman or whether it’s Argo or whether it’s any other movie that Ben Affleck is starring in; when those movies end and the credits finally roll, We are given closure. We don’t need to see Ben Affleck again. At least until the next movie when Ben Affleck gets replaced by another actor who will inevitably disappoint Twitter.
But for now Ben Affleck is the guy who can answer all of Al Roker’s questions. Like, “Who’s the biggest diva on set?”, “How’s life with Jennifer Garner?”. Affleck is the hard-working trained actor who brings the fiction to life.
Now using this exact same logic and not changing a single thing, when the new Muppet movie comes out, we’re all going to be really really excited to see Eric Jacobson on the couch right?
Nobody’s ever heard of Eric Jacobson, Matt Vogel, Bill Barretta, Dave Goelz, or David Rudman. Of course not, because nobody cares who David Rudman is except for me and like two percent of crazy Muppet fans out there and maybe David Rudman’s mother.
We don’t care how hard it was for Steve Whitmire to keep his arm up in the air for 12 hours a day. We want Steve Whitmire sewn into the Tonight Show couch with his arm through the cushion performing Kermit the celebrity who we all know and love.
It’s Kermit we could ask our questions to, about his 12 hour days on set, about how much of a diva Miss Piggy is in real life.
And this is crazy. We’re talking to a green sock about a block of foam in a bad wig. But this is what the Muppet nerds want. That’s what all puppeteers want.
That is the power of puppetry.
Puppets give us an excuse to believe in a fantasy that co-exists with us in our real world. This is what allows me to argue that puppets make the most successful fictional characters in all of history.
Now I’ve been talking a lot about what the Muppets have done and what makes them real, but this argument extends out to the whole world of puppetry because all puppets are real.
If all puppets weren’t real a German puppeteer wouldn’t have been pardoned for a performance full of heresy simply by contending “it wasn’t me my puppet said it”.
If all puppets weren’t real, when I went onto local television to promote a puppetry festival that I hosted through Daemen College, the studio’s technical director wouldn’t have tried to put a microphone onto my puppet instead of me.
I ask you to believe in the fantasy that puppet characters play in your lives. The magic and the wonder and realize that they have a real lasting sustainable good that will last with them for a lifetime.
That is the power of puppetry.