The Happytime Murders: the Muppets get soaked in sleaze
Director Brian Henson on the puppet sex workers, drugs and ejaculation
Miss Piggy has long nursed a mischievous glint in her plastic eye, but the “filthy comedy” of Brian Henson’s puppet-staffed new crime caper, The Happytime Murders, looks set to leave the fuzzy adult-oriented casts of Meet the Feebles and Avenue Q in the shade.
Not everyone is happy that the Jim Henson Company has gone in this smuttier direction. Last May, the creators of Sesame Street launched legal proceedings against the film company STX Entertainment, arguing that the sweary marketing campaign for The Happytime Murders tarnishes the Sesame Street brand. Court papers asserted that the trailer for the film was “indescribably crude”.
That is, however, precisely the point of Brian Henson’s film. It’s a bold move from the director and son of the late puppeteers Jim and Jane Henson, who created the much-loved children’s television series The Muppet Show.
“The reason I made the film was because it was a hard R-rating,” says Henson, who previously directed The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. “I wanted to do something with puppets that hadn’t been done before, that we haven’t done before. I kind of wanted to shake it up. And because the target audience is adult, I really felt only comfortable doing it as a feature film. I wouldn’t want to do this on television.”
“Todd wrote it initially almost like a writing sample,” says the puppeteer, director, producer, technician and chairman of the Jim Henson Company. “I mean it was a movie he wanted to make, but when I first saw it, it was very big and a little bit unwieldy. So Todd and I worked together – we probably did 15 drafts – to tighten up the story and tighten up the characters. Mostly, it went from being a little bit more of a parody to being an actual movie telling a real, character-driven story. That was the biggest shift and that happened over those many, many drafts. And then before shooting, other writers were also involved. Melissa [McCarthy] rewrites everything she says for the most part, so she had a pass at her character completely.”
McCarthy’s character was originally written as male. But the star of Spy and Bridesmaids insisted on keeping it butch.
“I’ve had the opportunity to make this movie in the past but just never with enough movie,” says Henson. “I had to keep passing. But Adam Fogelson at STX loved the project and wanted to solve the problem by getting the right cast to justify that budget. And we were still looking around at core cast options when Melissa read it. It wasn’t even officially submitted to her but her team read and then passed it on and she loved it. She didn’t want to change her character. She rewrote for comedy but she didn’t feminise the character at all. So it’s really kind of funny because you have an actress and a puppet trying to out-testosterone each other for an entire movie. I think she’s the only person that could have pulled that off.”
Appetite for rudeness
The deviant comedy and cast of puppets in The Happytime Murders were partly inspired by Henson’s experiences on the live and uncensored series Puppet Up! That show, the brainchild of Henson and Groundlings performer Patrick Bristow, debuted in Hollywood in 2007 and has subsequently made its way to Las Vegas, Australia and Edinburgh.
“I had quite a lot of puppets that we had created for Puppet Up!” says Henson. “And those live theatre shows pointed to a new direction of comedy. In an improv setting, when you have the audience making suggestions for what they want to puppets to do, I quickly realised that the audience really want us to be rude. They really want us to go R-rated. The hardest aspect of making the movie was that I wanted to mix improv comedy with puppetry and that was a brand new thing for me and our company. Puppetry is an incredibly technical process. With Muppet movies every set, every line, every moment is carefully planned and executed. So to bring that looser, improv energy into that process was difficult.”
The Happytime Murders is set in the sleaziest boroughs of a Los Angeles in an alternate reality where puppets co-exist with humans. When a serial killer targets the former cast of a hit 1980s TV show, it falls to puppet gumshoe Phillip (voiced by Swedish Chef and Rowlf the Dog regular Bill Barretta) and his ex-partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to track down the perpetrator.
The taste-breaking film is festooned with puppet sex workers, drug-snorting, a pornography outlet that sells copies of Felt Fetish Fur Burger while working on puppet-cow and puppet-octopus content, and an epic ejaculation scene ... No one is going to mistake it for Bear in the Big Blue House, which Henson executive-produced.
Henson laughs: “It’s kind of ridiculous and outrageous. Because if you’re doing a sex scene, you still have to build a rig for it and go through it shot by shot.”
Brian Henson and his four siblings have been around puppets for ever. As a kid he built the very first Muppet penguin, which was used by Frank Oz on The Muppet Show. He was still a teenager when he assisted his dad on The Great Muppet Caper (1981).
“During my childhood I did not think I was going to go into puppetry,” he says. “But by the time I was 17 I had caught the bug. And I knew I was going to go into show business. Puppetry has absolutely always been part of my life. My dad and my mom started The Muppets in the 1950s and I was born in 1963, so puppets were always around.”
During the 1980s, Henson performed Jack Pumpkinhead in Return to Oz (1985), the reindeers for Santa Claus: The Movie (1985), Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and Hoggle/Goblin in Labyrinth (1986) alongside an unexpectedly cheery David Bowie.
“I loved making that film,” says Henson. “It was fun and really hard work because we had animatronics. That adds a whole other level of difficulty to puppets which are already difficult. My dad had made The Dark Crystal and people were saying it’s a little bit heavy, it’s a little too dramatic; why don’t you try to do some of the comedy and the singing and dancing that you do in The Muppets? I think he felt that he did that with Labyrinth. But it didn’t perform particularly well at all when it first came out. It didn’t perform at all. I don’t know why people didn’t get it. I think the studio didn’t really get it so they didn’t market it right. But it has made more money every year since it came out and has a really strong following. I wish my dad was still alive so he could have seen that.”
When Brian’s father, Jim, died unexpectedly aged 52 in 1990, it fell to the younger Hensons to run the family company.
“My sister Lisa and I were already working in the business,” says Brian. “She had an executive career at Warner Brothers. And I had experience with the craft and production. So my family sat down and – I don’t know – decided I should run the company. It was terrifying at the time. I was 26. I guess I felt I had no choice. Making The Muppet Christmas Carol was probably the most terrifying thing, because I tried so hard to get other people to direct that movie. And they would all say, no, you should do it. And that was scary because, really? I’m already running the company. But I’m really glad that I was pressurised into it. We’ll see how I feel about The Happytime Murders in time. But until now, Muppet Christmas Carol is probably my favourite thing that I have ever done.”
“It’s a prequel set many years before the movie and it’s absolutely gorgeous,” promises Brian.
As ever, the family brand remains wedded to the medium of puppetry, eschewing CG joins wherever possible.
“I think that the strength of puppetry is a very specific thing,” says Henson. “People take an inherent delight in the idea of giving something that’s clearly inanimate a human personality. It’s not about people believing they are alive. Even their eyes are telling people they absolutely are not alive. And I think that’s the real magic. People have loved that since the beginning of time. I mean puppetry is such an old art form nobody knows where or how it started. You just can’t do that with CGI.”
The Happytime Murders opens on Monday, August 27th