When late Muppet co-creator Jim Henson was alive, he and puppeteer Frank Oz amused themselves and crew members by ad-libbing during rehearsals and between takes on TV and film shoots.
“I can’t be specific, but I can tell you that Frank has a naughty sense of humor,” Henson’s son Brian said during a recent visit to Chicago. “My dad had a really naughty sense of humor. So they were goofing around when they knew the cameras weren’t rolling.”
That’s how emotionally realistic characters were and still are born.
“When you watch Miss Piggy and Kermit and Fozzie and Gonzo and all of them, they’re very deep characters and you get the sense that they’re very deep,” Brian said. “And part of the way you develop that is by messing around in an adult way.”
Then there’s “Stuffed and Unstrung,” an adult-themed, puppet-starring comedy and musical extravaganza from Henson Alternative. Born almost by accident in 2005, “Stuffed” (under another title) debuted publicly the next year and opens locally Tuesday for a short run during the TBS Just for Laughs Chicago comedy festival.
Featuring a gaggle of 90 expensive and carefully maintained puppets dubbed “Miskreants” (only a fraction of which are used in any given performance), six rotating improviser-puppeteers (of 20 or so on staff), music, a puppet wrangler and a host (Patrick Bristow), “Stuffed” is largely composed of set musical numbers and improvised comedic scenes created by riffing on audience suggestions. Sometimes those suggestions are, as Brian might put it, “naughty.” Sometimes they’re not.
Perhaps most intriguingly, while their hollowed-out playmates appear on the ends of arms and huge video screens, Brian and his cohorts work in full view of the audience. No blocking, no stopping. And if things go awry, no hiding.