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Puppets Are Back: The Reemerging Popularity And Relevance Of Inanimate Objects

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If you have any doubt that puppets are playing an influential role in our current culture, just take a look at what happened last week, when they were implicated as communists in a liberal, anti-corporation plot.

On Fox Business Channel's "Follow The Money," host Eric Bolling said that the Muppets -- beloved puppet entertainers who have been making both children and adults smile since the 1970s -- were pushing a political agenda, since their most recent film cast a wealthy oil baron and his two puppet sidekicks as the villains.

Never mind that the evil oil baron was played by a singing and rapping Chris Cooper, and that his sidekicks were a shrimp or squid-like creature and a bear. They made a tangible impression on Bolling, to the point that he appeared to be affected by their plight in a very real way.

Perhaps this is due to the Muppets' ethos, which has always been based in reality, without winking at the audience. Jason Segel, a self-proclaimed lifelong fan of puppetry (see the Dracula puppet musical at the end of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall), took creative reigns on the newest Muppet film, co-writing, producing and starring in it. But before he was allowed to enter the Muppet kingdom, he was given a strict rulebook by the puppeteers.

"‘The Muppets’ is just the name of that band of performers," Segel told the National Post. "A human can be a Muppet ... Kermit is a frog. Miss Piggy is a pig. In this reality.”

The film opened to strong box office returns over Thanksgiving weekend, earning $40 million in its first 5 days, and brought the Muppets back into the national consciousness.

But they are not the only inanimate objects turning heads, hearts, and a profit these days. In midtown Manhattan, a play called "Hand to God" has became the talk of the Off-Broadway theatre community, in much the same way the now mega-successful and puppet-driven "Avenue Q" did almost a decade ago when it first premiered.

"Hand," written by young playwright Robert Askins, follows an afterschool church program in the south that uses puppets to teach religious lessons. Soon, one naive teenage boy's sock puppet -- his name is "Tyrone" -- begins to turn demonic, releasing spills of vitriol and violence on anyone he comes into contact with.

Scott Brown of New York Magazine called the show a "daffily devout black comedy," which is "just the sort of juicy little morsel the hard-bitten theatervore hopes to find, and seldom does, Off Broadway." The New York Times also raved, singling out the manic and double-sided performance of Steven Boyer, who plays both the innocent boy and the Satanic sock puppet who possesses him.

Other big-name members of the theater community, like Bobby Cannavale, Richard Kind, and Dylan Baker, have loved "Hand to God" so much that they recorded YouTube testimonials praising it. It recently received a month-long extension from the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where it will run until December 18.

The puppet, though, is the star. Tyrone, the googly-eyed grey sock with bright red hair is the face of the show on Facebook and other promotional materials. He even appeared as a guest on Leonard Lopate's radio show on WNYC. He's a resentful misogynist and a genuinely evil presence, yet he still somehow remains childish and slightly nonthreatening at the same time. Askins, the playwright, takes the "reality" of the Muppet world a step further, pushing the line between what the audience assumes about puppets and what they're willing to believe.

"One of the things that amazes me in Hand to God is the puppet sex scene," Askins said, referring to a scene where Tyrone and another sock puppet, on the arm of a teenage girl, engage in some love-making. "Families can actually sit and watch the sex onstage together and laugh and be shocked, but it's also OK for them. Like, I'm watching this kid who's maybe 16 sitting there with his mom who is just losing her shit over this gratuitous thrusting. And then we've got board members in their 50s or 60s bringing their grandkids to the show. If a real human being said or did some of these things, they wouldn't be allowed back at the party."

We take Tyrone seriously, Askins said, because the play is set in reality, but we also understand that he is attached to the arm of a human being, who is clearly controlling him.

"My body is designed to sense things that might be a threat around me," he said. "When it sees a set of eyes it becomes alert, while my mind says: 'That's a puppet at the end of that guy's arm."

Askins has a complicated relationship with puppets, himself. His mother and aunt both made puppets in Texas, where he grew up. He also remembers being held back between kindergarten and first grade, placed in a special class called "Transitions" that was run by the school counselor. On certain days, the counselor would put his hand in a dolphin puppet named Deuce-O. But if the kinds wanted to coax Deuce-O out of the school counselor's desk, they were told to sing a special song. Then they would tell Deuce-O their problems.

"Putting things in a felt-covered cartoon world distances them, neuters them, but also makes them palatable," Askins said. "They become animals and thinking creatures, this multifaceted mix."

It's that same multifaceted mix that has made "War Horse" one of the most popular plays on Broadway for the past year, and just as big a hit in London, where it's been running since 2007. The show won the Tony Award for Best New Play this year.

"War Horse" also stars puppets, albeit of the far larger, more intricate variety. Operated by multiple puppeteers, whose legs the audiences can see, these horses were designed out of cane, leather, and aluminum by the Handspring Puppet Company in South Africa Controlled by skilled puppeteers, the horses are made to behave realistically; when they sneeze or look at the human characters a certain way, the audience reacts. The smallest movements elicit emotional responses.

Matt Acheson, the puppet director for War Horse and a professional puppeteer himself, says that as human beings, we respond to seeing this "tactile and visceral" object, so intricately crafted, yet you still "somehow feel this extremely emotional experience."

"It makes you more active and engaged and you're asking all these questions of the puppets," Acheson said. "And you realize you're reacting to a completely inanimate object. But somewhere in there there's a soul. It's so simple and so handmade, yet it still makes you feel so much."

Acheson said a puppet scratching its face simply holds more weight than a human scratching its face. It's more interesting to watch, he said, though he can't fully explain why. But other companies and artists are catching on. More and more people are coming to Acheson and asking for help using puppets in their projects.

"These puppets are really powerful," he said. "The puppet never stops being exactly what it is. They're never anything except for exactly what they are."

For Bolling of Fox Business, the puppets were communists. For others, they're simply providing a multifaceted mix of surprising entertainment.