Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Nobody Knows What It's Like to Be the Puppetman

It's strange how different life would be had things gone slightly differently.  For example, had Jim Henson's 1987 pilot for Puppetman been picked up, we may have a completely new perspective on the man and his craft.  The premise behind the show was showing what goes on behind the scenes of a children's puppet show called Dragontime.  Unlike other youth-oriented Muppet programs like Sesame Street or Fraggle Rock, Dragontime was a very basic, non-creative juncture in which a group of dragon puppets would spout life lessons like "wait your turn" or "eat your vegetables" in between singing fluffy songs.

Purposeful, mindless drivel.

The fun would come from seeing the actual behind-the-scenes action, both in showing how the Muppets pull off their stunts and in focusing on the adult nature of the cast and crew's weekly problems.  As a sitcom, it seems to blend into that typical, bland '80s fare.  And it was very '80s.  Just check out that opening:

The show revolved around the lead star Gary and his balance between work, single parent life, and obnoxious sound effects.  But despite the stereotypical characters and plotlines, this show had one major thing going for it: Richard Hunt.  Yes, our beloved creator of Scooter and Beaker played two of the characters in the show-within-the-show, Earl and Gertha via the character of Del Zivic.  And, in true Richard Hunt fashion, he would keep the puppets on even when the camera's weren't rolling.

Gertha told me to never let her go.

Via the dumb, but observant Earl and the sharp-tongued Gertha, Del would interact with his coworkers, using the puppets to say thing that he probably wouldn't be able to get away with normally.  The reactions by the other characters imply that they either believe these puppets to be alive and interacting with them, or their just so used to Del's personality that they would go along with the illusion because it was easier that way.

That makes for a compelling story and had the potential to reveal Del to be a quite tragic character, avoiding reality via the puppets.  Because we only have the pilot, it is unclear whether the writers intended to go down this dramatic path, but I'm sure it would have been explored at some point.  As we saw earlier, this was a habit that Muppet puppeteers often fall into, with entertaining yet heartbreaking results.

I am just a mask used to hide from the world.

Richard Hunt himself was known for this kind of behavior the most, making him somewhat more of a mystery than his companions.  This show would have given us the opportunity to learn more about him, before his unfortunate passing in the early '90s.

A show of this ilk wouldn't be seen again until Fox's short-lived 2002 sitcom Greg the Bunny (although there, the puppets actually were alive).  Puppetman, while nothing great, was a unique premise that would have been a wonderful part of the Henson library.  The dragons have since been recycled into other Muppet productions and the footage is rare, so it's best we enjoy what little we have of this labor of love and canned laughter.

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