Puppetry is hard, ya’ll. I’ve been an amateur puppetdoinger (a cool word for puppeteer) for about 15 years, just doing a few silly videos with my friend Michael Lanzer, but this year I’ve been able to do some actual real professional puppetry jobs for actual real clients. In February I got to do a series of ads that are airing here in Australia for the car servicing company Midas, featuring Frank. While Frank doesn’t have my voice, I did puppeteer him. Take a look.
Now, that looks like a pretty straight forward job. For many of them I sat on a little stool, sometimes on an apple box, and performed Frank into a camera while looking at a monitor. And yet these 5 ads (you can see some more here) took us a full 12 hours to film. And it was TOUGH. By hour 3 my shoulder had hit my pain threshold. By 6 hours I was covered in car grease that was on the functioning garage’s floor. My knees were bruised from the uncomfortable keeling I had to do while Frank’s face got smashed into a car window. Don’t get me wrong, I was having the time of my life, but it was physically taxing. There was a certain rush to sitting underneath a suspended sports car, crammed behind a tool chest doing silly lines (Fun fact: I improvised that ‘No? Nothing?’ line) that made me okay with the fact that my entire body ached. Max, the director, was wonderful about letting me stretch my legs and rest my arm, but we were also on a schedule, so I had to push through, and the next three days had me laying on the couch moaning when I’d move.
A few months later I was contacted by ToughPigs’ own Kynan Barker about a puppetry gig for an Australian comedy series called ‘The Weekly’. It was a Sesame Street parody, set on a stoop, and I’d be playing all three characters. Once again, I didn’t voice any of the characters, but performed the puppetry for all three in their close ups, aided by Michael again for group shots.
While this shoot was even more fun than the Midas ads (Luke McGregor is a well known comedian here in Australia, and his series Rosehaven is well worth a watch if you can find it) it was even more taxing on my body, largely due to the stoop that the first two characters sit on. The set designer worked with me to ensure I could access the holes the puppets would go through, but the stoop was designed so I had to sit cross legged with my neck to the side to watch the monitor. In fact, I took a photo of it;
I can’t even complain too much, in the full group shots I’m performing the brown puppet behind the stair rail, and Michael was going above and beyond performing two puppets at the same time, kneeling in an awkward position that I tried and couldn’t achieve for the life of me. But again, for the next few days I was in a lot of pain from being pretzeled into weird positions.
So, I hear you ask, what the heck does this have to do with The Muppets, Jarrod? Good question! Doing these couple of gigs has given me such an appreciation for what it is the Muppet performers go through every single day. These performers will bend themselves, often right next to each other, in strange and awkward positions for hours on end, all while giving a fantastic performance and giving us the characters we know and love so much. Think about some of your favorite Muppet moments? ‘Moving Right Along’ is one of the all time classics, and it’s easy to forget that underneath Kermit and Fozzie are at least three puppeteers crammed into a very real moving car. ‘Upside Down World’ from Follow That Bird has Jim and Frank folded into a plane, sometimes upside down! Even things like the Statler and Waldorf moments have two puppeteers standing incredibly close to each other.
So next time you’re watching a Muppet production, have a think about how the puppeteer is achieving that performance. Think about how their body is shaped, how comfortable they are, how much their arm hurts (less than mine, because they’re professionals who probably lift weights, Matt Vogel has guns for days probably). Because take it from me, even though you know it’s difficult, it’s still nowhere near as easy as you think.
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By Jarrod Fairclough – Jarrod@ToughPigs.com