While we’d never stoop to such journalistic depths as to describe the acting in “Team America: World Police” as wooden, the marionette stars of the new Trey Parker/ Matt Stone satire do force us to contemplate their hand-manipulated forebears. While the Academy continues to display a contemptuous prejudice against those great thespians who just happen to be constructed out of plastic, wood, latex, felt and Styrofoam, relegating them to “special effects,” we here at Rewind have decided to pay tribute to some of the more memorable puppet performances in cinema and television.
Most Heroic Puppet With Actual Human Hands: Captain Scarlet
Forget about those goody-goody Thunderbirds with their “International Rescue” and their Andy Rooney-like eyebrows and their airline hostess uniforms — the coolest Supermarionation hero is Captain Scarlet. World Army Colonel Paul Metcalfe was killed by the invisible alien Mysterons and then regenerated to serve their evil bidding. Metcalfe broke free of their control and now works for Spectrum as Agent Number One, Captain Scarlet! Not only is he indestructible, flies a swanky jet and sounds just like Cary Grant, he’s very popular with the ladies, most of all Destiny Angel, a puppet who was designed to look like Ursula Andress. No doubt the puppeteers on this classic ’60s British TV show fought over who got to manipulate that particular character.
Puppet Most In Need of Remaining In A Locked Steamer Trunk: Fats, the dummy from ’Magic’
OK, we’ll just admit up front that we’ve never even seen this 1978 entry in the “ventriloquist dummy assumes control of its owner” genre. So how can we speculate that Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Corky, the mediocre magician who attains success when he acquires Fats the dummy, is as terrifying as his Hannibal Lecter? Because we remember being scared to the point of pants-peeing by the trailer for this movie, which featured a close-up of the wide-eyed puppet reciting, “Abracadabra, I sit on his knee. Presto, change-o, and now he is me! Hocus pocus, we take her to bed. Magic is fun …when you’re dead!” in its screechy dummy voice. Brrr! Sorry, Chucky, you’re soft and cuddly in comparison to Fats.
Puppet Who Reminds Us Most of Our Uncle Ernie: Ernie from ’Sesame Street’
We’ve got a whole neighborhood in New York that’s half populated with puppets of diverse sizes, shapes and colors, and we love ’em all (except that annoying Elmo). But the one who most seems like he has a life outside of teaching kids the alphabet is Ernie (sorry, Bert). Simple, goofy Ernie with his rubber ducky and his love of the bath probably has some great dirt on the other Muppets. Like whether Big Bird is really that naive, and exactly what bug’s up Oscar’s butt. He probably also can tell how much resentment there is on Sesame Street toward Kermit, the only Muppet to break out of the ’hood and make it in the movies (damn frog). But mostly, Ernie is, to use current campaign vernacular, the puppet you’d most like to drink a beer with. Even if the beer would just kinda spill out the sides of Ernie’s mouth.
Puppet Most Likely to Steal Your Lunch Money: Randy from ’Pee-Wee’s Playhouse’
Pee-Wee Herman’s playhouse was fully stocked with wacky humans and nonhumans, including the most bad-ass marionette of them all. Randy was like Howdy Doody’s wrong-side-of-the-tracks cousin, a tough-talkin’ punk in jeans and a white T-shirt with red hair and freckles (or were they pimples?). While Randy always pretended to heed Pee-Wee’s many “lessons,” he actually seemed more likely to try to frighten Pterri or look up Miss Yvonne’s skirt than espouse the value of sharing. In fact, we’d wager that Randy was probably the one who ratted out Pee-Wee in that Sarasota, Florida, theater back in ’91. Punk.
Puppet That First Made Us Aware Of Mind-Altering Substances: Freddy the flute from ’H.R. Pufnstuf’
From the golden age of Saturday-morning kidvid, Sid and Marty Krofft’s “H.R. Pufnstuf” told the tale of young Jimmy, who was lured to Living Island by the evil Witchiepoo, who coveted Jimmy’s magical talking flute, Freddy. Jimmy befriends H.R. Pufnstuf, a big dragon with a Southern accent who governed the land where everything from the plants to the dinnerware was alive. No, really, man! As brilliantly satirized in the “Mr. Show” skit “The Altered States of Druggachussetts,” “H.R. Pufnstuf” (the title that launched a hundred head shops) caused many small children in the early 1970s to stare in bewilderment at the surrealism onscreen while their older brothers and sisters thought that perhaps they were still feeling the effects of their activities from the previous night’s party.
Puppets We’d Like To See Battle To The Death: Miss Piggy and ALF
Sorry, it’s true. They’re both nothing but annoying. Let’s move on.
Puppet We’d Least Like To Put Our Hand In: Talking typewriter/ cockroach from ’Naked Lunch’
David Cronenberg’s loose interpretation of William S. Burroughs’ classic semi-autobiography, “Naked Lunch” (1991), featured some puppets Geppetto probably never thought of carving. As exterminator/ writer Bill Lee (Peter Weller) falls under the hallucinogenic spell of his own pesticide, his typewriter morphs into a cockroachlike being whose wings spread to reveal a posterior opening through which the creature speaks his desires for lotions and narcotics. Isn’t it about time McFarlane Toys put out a line of action figures from this cut-and-paste madness? C’mon!
Puppet We’d Most Like To Go To The Movies With: Crow from ’Mystery Science Theater 3000’
No offense to Tom Servo or Gypsy, but Crow T. Robot not only had the best quips on the late, lamented B-Movie mockfest, but his basket head was the most capable of holding snacks.
Most Popular Puppet Put Out Of Work By Technology: Yoda from ’The Empire Strikes Back’ and ’Return of the Jedi’
Imagine you’re the most powerful Jedi knight in the universe. The future of the rebellion rests on how successfully you train the new hope. And you do a darn good job at it. The empire is defeated and how do you get rewarded? They throw a stupid party in the woods with some teddy bears and then you get replaced by a cartoon. When George Lucas and his pixel-happy crew at Industrial Light & Magic decided to make Yoda a CGI creation in the “Star Wars” prequels, Frank Oz’s puppet Yoda got tossed on the Lucasfilm scrap heap along with Mark Hamill’s acting career and Lucas’ heart. While the quasi-Muppet Yoda of “Empire” and “Jedi” was at times as obviously fake as some of the Beanie Babies in the “Star Wars” cantina scene, it still felt more real than the sterile video game leaping around onscreen in “Attack of the Clones.”
Like cartoonists, jazz musicians and calligraphers, puppeteers are constantly trying to prove that their art form is still valid and thriving in a world that’s ever more at odds with its “old fashioned” tools and aesthetic. With “Avenue Q” winning the Tony for Best Musical, “Being John Malkovich” proving that puppetry can be beautiful and involving, and “Crank Yankers” being, well, full of dirty jokes, maybe Frank Oz can dig that old latex Yoda out of the closet and convince Darth Lucas that sometimes too much technology is a bad thing. “Team America” may have bigger concerns (like, duh, saving humanity), but perhaps they can also convince the world to let those strings show!
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