Puppetman pilot (1987)
Alex Guttridge – Thanks to the always brilliant Henson Rarities on Youtube we now have the chance to view a fairly good quality copy of the 1987 sitcom pilot Puppetman (including original adverts, I love when they’re included). Set behind the scenes of a local TV station’s children’s program called ‘Dragon Time’, the show is about the life of lead puppeteer Gary and his interactions with those around him
Shown only once, as part of CBS Summer Playhouse, a dumping ground for unsold pilots. Puppetman is somewhat mythical, as a dead end that Jim Henson went down, it led nowhere and, for the longest time, was unavailable to fans so we were unable to judge for ourselves if we were robbed of a classic Henson show. Finally getting to see it I came away feeling deflated, a sort of ‘That’s it?’ feeling. I wanted to love it and feel indignant that it wasn’t picked up but it’s a show that, really, went off the rails and became something both too familiar and too weird that didn’t gel together. It’s like someone took Mopatop’s Shop and crossed it with a low rent family sitcom like Full House, but left cracks where you could see that there was a great idea buried at its core. The opening titles had me immediately worried, they are hideous! It feels like someone decided to use all the ‘new tricks’ that video editing could do, so we get a ‘cool’ posterized look, characters introduced by freezing their face in a colour circle (with the action continuing in black and white behind them, very technical) and plenty of ‘radical’ bright pink graphics. This would be bad enough but there is so much overacting and forced expression during the titles that it is, quite frankly, embarrassing.
Thankfully the show itself is much more competently made and the acting is better, with one notable exception, making it, at least, watchable. The plot centres on Gary, the lead puppeteer in a fairly new children’s TV program called ‘Dragon Time’, on local station WGRF-TV in Wisconsin. His fellow puppeteers, goofy Del who’s cant stop interacting with his puppets even when not filming, and Holly, a dependable voice of reason, are also his friends. Making his life slightly harder are the others who work at the station, Rita, the human star of ‘Dragon Time’ who Del barely tolerates, Director-Producer Bud, his son, floor manager Little Bud and Mitchell the yuppie station manager.
The plot of the episode introduces Gary’s son, Zack, visiting his dad for a week. He then complains that his dad has to work, feels sick which results in a trip to the hospital, finding out it was just indigestion, from too much ice-cream, and saying he wants to stay with his dad, setting him up as a regular for an ongoing series. I bet you can’t guess my least favourite character in the show can you?
The main problem with the pilot is that it’s just not that funny. The concept of the creation of a show as the backdrop for a sitcom goes back to shows like I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, through The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Newsradio right up to 30 Rockand, hopefully, 2015’s The Muppets. It’s a rich tapestry to mine and all those series used the show they were producing as either a starting point or a catalyst for story telling, the place for great comedy set pieces, making it integral to the identity of the show. The bulk of the comedy, however, revolved around the interpersonal relationships stemming from the characters that worked there. Puppetman doesn’t have the strong enough characters or good enough comedy, to be able to do that, leaving the enjoyable bits of the show (unsurprisingly) the puppet based parts. These are the parts that feel most like we lost something that could have been good, with the performers seeming much more at ease bringing a puppet character to life than trying to be a ‘real’ character, and the few laughs of the pilot stem from here.
I hadn’t heard of Fred Newman, his unnaturally white hair or his annoying sound effects, before. He appears to have found the right career now as a voiceover artist, as his performance is much better in the episode when he isn’t seen on screen. Performing Butane, Candle and the full body puppet Clyde, he does a good job but he’s not up to the standard of any Muppet performer. He is serviceable in the rest of the show, if a little broad (which is a problem the entire production has), but it’s no standout performance. Jim clearly had a great affinity for him and, from what I have read, was reminded of his younger self by Fred’s enthusiasm and interests, wanting Newman to play the character, originally conceived as a Henson surrogate.
Richard Hunt is so difficult to judge, being a Muppet fan you bring a love of him into the show. It’s like watching your child in a school play, you want him to do well, you want the character to be brilliant but, hand on heart, when he’s not with a puppet he’s not great. If the show had gone to series maybe he would have grown into the character but in 23 minutes he doesn’t get the chance. The moment he is operating a puppet, however, it’s like watching magic happen on screen (thankfully he is very rarely without a puppet in the show). He’s such a skilful performer that even with him in full view the dragons he’s controlling, Gertha and Earl, come to life and have a presence that demands your attention much more than anything else in the show.
The puppets are all, naturally, exceptionally well designed, they could slot into the background of The Muppets: A Celebration of 30 Yearsand fit in perfectly. There’s not enough time to really get to know the personalities of each dragon beyond a few lines. Which is a shame as they are far and away the best characters in the show and the moment they are on screen it becomes clear there is a great idea that got lost somewhere along the way.
The rest of the cast, including former The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie writer Jack Burns, are fine and do what is asked of them without any trouble, with one huge exception. Michael Carter, playing Gary’s 6 year old son, is nearly unwatchably bad (your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing). It is quite rare to find an actor that age who can give a particularly good performance but I really didn’t like him and the moments the focus shifted to him I lost interest and just wanted them to be over.
As a note of context, I always try to watch any production in the framework of the time it was made, taking into account the cultural landscape of the period. Sometimes it can transcend the time it was made and become classic, timeless, TV, The Muppet Show is a great example of this. Sometimes it can be really great for the time it was on but look a little dated and cliché now, Muppets Tonight would be an example of this. Looking at the top performing sitcoms of the day gives us a glimpse as to where the show went wrong. In 1987 there were seven sitcoms that made it into the top 20 ratings for the season, ALF, Cheers, The Cosby Show, Family Ties, The Golden Girls, Night Court and Who’s the Boss. If we take Cheers out of the equation, as it is a show that transcended it’s time to become a classic sitcom, we are left with five sitcoms that were great for their time and ALF. Puppetman‘s production values don’t appear that much different from any of them, being shot on videotape gives most shows from the later 80’s a look that now appears cheap. ALF is the best comparison, it isn’t a particularly good sitcom, much like Puppetman, and has really sharp, funny, writing for the strongest element of the show, its main puppet character. The difference is, even in its pilot, ALF is the star and everyone else becomes a backdrop for the next ALF gag. It feels like Puppetman wanted to emphasise the father/son home relationship and use the puppet show, the funniest element of the production, as a backdrop to that. It means you spend the episode wanting to get back to the puppetry and behind the scenes action but the show keeps giving us horrible scenes that really could exist in any bland family sitcom. This is the true problem with the show, the setting is unimportant to the story, the plot would be the same if the main character was working in an office or a school. It can’t be a show about the workings of a children’s TV program as they never explain how it actually works. Puppeteering is much too specific of a job to just gloss over in the way they do and that can cause an audience to disengage with what is happening, not really understanding it.
I think the thing that went wrong happened between Jim Henson’s synopsis and plot ideas and its evolution into this script. Mark Reisman and Jeremy Stevens, both former writers for Saturday Night Live, scripted the show from the initial idea so, in my opinion, should shoulder the brunt of the blame. They appear to be uninterested in the backstage stories of ‘Dragon Time’ and more interested in churning out another family sitcom, hoping for a hit. They also seem to have confused the fact that it was centred around a children’s program to be mean the sitcom should be childish and it absolutely shouldn’t have been. It needed to have the characters and interactions of a show like Cheers, making the contrast of children’s TV stand out even more. It’s also a problem with the performances, they are pitched as if it’s a children’s show, slightly too broad and exaggerated, further diluting the comedy.
Should it have been picked up as a series? Probably not. There just isn’t the focus, comedy or characters for a long lasting show in this pilot. The weird divide between a behind the scenes that is too alien for a casual viewing audience to just accept without some explanation and a family sitcom that is overfamiliar to them derails the entire show. And yet, and yet, there is the germ of a great, brilliant, idea that could have been classic TV. Butane and Earl could easily have become classic, merchandise spinning characters and ‘Dragon Time’ could have become a cartoon spin-off of the show. There was, however, no way to get to that from this script, the show would have needed to change beyond recognition, to become effectively a different show, and that would have never happened if it had been picked up.
I’m glad I finally got to see the mythical Puppetman although it definitely isn’t what I wanted it to be. On www.henson.com it has this description of Jim’s original idea:
His original concept, written in the summer of 1986, set a show in Providence, RI with a young puppeteer appearing with his characters on a local live afternoon magazine show, much like the one Jim started on in Washington in 1955. The potential stories he described centred on the human interactions, flirtations between performers, directors and comely programming executives, competition for screen time, and humorous exchanges with celebrity guests. Along the way, viewers would get to, “…watch some wonderful puppet segments from backstage, not only seeing the ingenious way that it is being done, but also seeing the interaction of the puppeteers, which might be just the opposite of the puppets that they are performing.”
This is the show I wanted to see, this is the mythical show that I am bitterly disappointed we never got.
– I know it’s a sitcom but really, you can’t just go into a hospital and give your child to a nurse and hope for the best, you should really be explaining a lot more about the situation.
– Also, I know it’s a joke but you can’t set up a ‘comedy’ scene by saying there isn’t time to take a full body dragon costume off as it takes half an hour then later in the show have a character take the entire head/arms/body section off in less than 10 seconds.
– Not to really stick it to one specific scene but in the script, whilst Gary was in dragon costume waiting at the hospital, a Japanese man was supposed to come in, see him and shout ‘Godzilla’ before running out. Now there’s a scene that would have saved the opening titles from being the most embarrassing thing in the show!
– Two of the dragons would go on to have a further life after the show – Gertha would go on to be seen in The Ghost of Faffner Hall and The Jim Henson Hour. Earl was also in both of them but can additionally be seen in Bear in the Big Blue House, Mopatop’s Shop, Sesame Street and The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss.
– During the commercials there was an apparent audience reaction to the two pilots shown the week before, with percentages of people who liked/didn’t like the show. I’d love to see the numbers Puppetman got, if anyone has that information please let me know.
– If you decide to watch the pilot, stick around for the second pilot of the night that Henson Rarities thankfully left on the presentation. The show is a lot better made and filmed but is much less funny. It wasn’t a good year for pilots.