Monday, September 5, 2011

Ge Ett Handtag

Muppets generally come in three varieties:

- The Hand-Rod Puppet, in which the puppeteer's dominant arm would be the main body and mouth and their other arm controlled the character's limbs with rods,

- The Full-Body Puppet, in which the puppeteer donned a suit and could control the face and arms from within the puppet,

- And the Live-Hand Puppet, in which one arm would control the head and two arms would control the character's hands like gloves.

Obviously, the average person does not possess three arms, so a second puppeteer is necessary to achieve the full effect of the Live-Hand Puppet.  Since the puppeteers usually voiced the puppets they were manipulating, the main puppeteer would control the head and one of the arms.  New puppeteers in the Henson company often start out as "right-hands" because it teaches them about difficult control and cooperation.  The right-hand must completely support the main puppeteer and not ruin the character that has been created by accidentally moving inappropriately.

Characters like this have been with Henson from early on, with Rowlf the Dog, Cookie Monster, and Fozzie Bear all being examples.  However, Jim decided to create a character that would change the game a little bit.  Jim Henson's main partner throughout Muppet performances would be Frank Oz.  The two of them would often pair their characters together, making for memorable comedy duos.  Kermit and Miss Piggy and Bert and Ernie got to be as popular as they are thanks to the natural chemistry between the two performers.  So for The Muppet Show, Henson designed a character that the two could perform together.  For a while, he had the idea of a funny foreign chef to go with a mock-Swedish voice that he had been working on.

Børk, børk, børk!

In order to pull off a character like this correctly, he needed an added level of strangeness.  The Muppet cast was already full of gibberish speaking monsters and animals.  Here was a clearly human puppet who talked funny, but due to the nature of his cooking show, he was going to have to perform mostly physical comedy with his ingredients.  Unlike the Live-Hand Puppets that came before him, the Swedish Chef would require both arms to be performed by the same person to make the food "correctly."  The positioning of the two puppeteers would be more difficult to handle than usual.  Normally, the puppeteers will be watching live-feeds of their performances on screens in front of them, but now Jim would have to be obstructed by whomever controlled the arms, leaving him entirely within their control. Frank Oz was the puppeteer Jim trusted the most, and thus we received the first Muppet persona truly created by two people working in tandem.

As you watch the Chef prepare his meals, you'll notice that his hands are very active (and real! There is no fabric disguising Frank's hands.).  The head has no idea what the hands are doing (besides what was rehearsed) and tries to follow along as the hands grab and play with random props.

Reportedly, Frank enjoyed improvising during rehearsals, making Jim have to react to whatever crazy items he started playing with (much like the Helping Hands game from Whose Line is it Anyway).  Apples, knives, and chickens would constantly be tossed haphazardly whenever the Chef prepared his kitchen.

The scenes that made it to the air, however, still retained that playful spirit and made the Swedish Chef the world's most-beloved, completely-inaccurate, cultural stereotype.  And while his voice and garbled language are instantly recognizable, it is his fluid-yet-disjointed movements that make the Chef stand out in the culinary puppet world.

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