By Trisha Lavoie
Puppets, not unlike animation, have gone hand in hand with children’s programming since its inception, no doubt due to the limitless possibilities of the medium and its power to capture the imagination of young minds. While puppet narrative interludes or significant puppet characters (i.e Casey & Finnegan on Mr Dressup) became the norm for kid’s tv, the format remained fairly conventional in its approach. Of course, the advent of Sesame Street and Jim Henson’s other (and dare I say better) offering, The Muppet Show, would change the nature of children’s programming and popular conception of puppets indelibly. Larger puppets, humans as secondary characters and the populist notion of a program for children that adults could also enjoy were the cornerstones of what made Henson’s work so revolutionary.
That all being said, there was another kid’s show that I feel deserves mention, one which is also iconic and beloved (by some) and quite radical for the genre for many reasons and is one that I have drawn inspiration for this project from. Broadcast between 1986-1990, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse had all the boxes of children’s television programming neatly ticked off but in a “lunatics running the asylum” kind of way. A simple premise of a charismatic irreverent host, Pee Wee Herman, an ageless, timeless man child, who visits his Playhouse daily and to fraternize with its inhabitants, play and dispense a soupcon of what could be described as educational content. Based on a stage show developed by comedian Paul Ruebens, now forever conflated with his creation Pee-Wee, the television show had all the bench marks of hip—puppets and set decoration by artists such as Wayne White and Gary Panter, theme music by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and Pee-Wee’s friends were portrayed by the likes of Phil Hartman and Lawrence Fishburne. Beyond all of its cred though was the incredulous nature of the show- a crazy, kooky and often loud over-the-top romp through a playhouse that was a cross between a Pop Art Gallery and a Rube Goldberg fever dream that leaves people still to this day asking: “wait—is this really a kid’s show?”
Before I veer too far off into discussion of whether or not this archly camp wonderland was intended for the enjoyment of children or adults high on drugs (or frankly both) I want to get back to the meat and potatoes of what interest and inspires me about the show in relation to this project. Which, actually, is the meat and potatoes. They, like practically everything else in the Playhouse, are anthropomorphized and can be seen dancing around the fridge in any given episode of the show. Not content to simply have a usual array of puppet characters, the Playhouse is literally alive with puppets that not only are characters but sometimes also a functional piece of furniture or the building.
Pee-Wee often goes to check in at “PuppetLand” the charming grotto nook where his beatnik jazz band are playing (obviously a reference to “Birdland”, the famous jazz bar) but the entire Playhouse fits that description, with its talking clocks, globes, chairs and windows. And why not? If the imagination can allow for conversing with a giant yellow bird or his elusive doe eyed Wooly–Mammoth-minus-the-tusks-type creature that is his friend, why can’t we concede to getting a weather update from the kite flying outside?
It is with this spirit in mind that I am creating some of my puppets for this upcoming show. My list of possibilities grows daily and is boundless in its limitations (and always subject to veto) from “Molly Ringwald” to “Bahn Mi”, thanks to my misspent teenage years watching Pee-Wee’s Playhouse which taught me that a chair might not just be a thing to sit on and that when you do, it might tickle you.
And with that very thought in mind I leave you with my tribute— Chairry as a finger puppet.