'Henson Alternative' gives puppets adult voices in improv performance

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A performance of “Stuffed and Unstrung,” featuring Brian Henson, right, the son of Muppet creator Jim Henson. The show last appeared at the Pabst in November 2011. -Photo: Courtesy

Improvisational performers know when to get out of their own way and let their characters respond to situations suggested by an audience.

Throw into the mix a group of strange-looking puppets controlled by improvisational performers, and you get an additional layer of comic possibilities.  At least that’s the promise of out actor Patrick Bristow, co-producer and MC for “Henson Alternative: Stuffed and Unstrung,” which returns to Milwaukee’s Pabst Theatre April 13 for a night of adult puppet improv comedy.

A product of the Jim Henson Co., which produced those lovable Muppets for “Sesame Street,” “The Muppet Show” and other film and television series, “Stuffed and Unstrung” takes a decidedly racier approach to puppeteering in both theme and language. 

Drawing ideas from the audience, the actors create sketch comedy for their felt-and-faux-fur friends, known as the Miskreant puppets (there are no familiar Muppets in the show). They perform live on stage while a camera projects the act on a screen as it would be seen on TV. The results are funny, timely and risqué – and audiences love it, Bristow says.

“We don’t try to go blue, but we reserve that right,” says Bristow. “It’s really up to the audience.”

Bristow is a character actor perhaps best known for his recurring role as Peter, the best friend of Ellen DeGeneres’ character on the sitcom “Ellen.” He’s been with partner Andrew Nicastro since 1994.

“Stuffed and Unstrung” evolved from a show called “Puppet Up,” which Bristow created with puppeteer Brian Henson, son of the late Jim Henson and now chairman of his father’s company. During the Muppets’ early days, the funniest bits were often improvised before and after shooting a take for one of the TV shows, Henson says.

In 2005, he brought Bristow, who teaches improv comedy, to the firm’s Los Angeles studio to help the puppeteers recapture that spontaneous comedic edge.

“I suggested that we try it out in front of a live audience, so one was assembled at the studio,” says Bristow, an alumnus of The Groundlings, a Los Angeles-based improv group. “We were a big hit.”

Someone from the Aspen Rooftop Comedy Festival was in the audience and invited the troupe to perform in Colorado. In Aspen, a representative of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe saw them, and soon they were on their way to Scotland.

In Edinburgh, someone from the Melbourne International Comedy Festival caught the act and brought them to Australia. By 2010, they had taken the puppets to Broadway, where the show, now named “Stuffed and Unstrung,” earned a Drama Desk award nomination in the “Unique Theatrical Experience” category.

Although the show is largely improvisational and based on audience suggestion, the structure is always the same, says Bristow. Each performance begins with an opening and closing number and contains classic bits created by Jim Henson and Frank Oz for the original Muppets.

Beyond that, almost anything goes, but Bristow works hard to steer the troupe away from what some audience members might find unacceptable.

“If someone shouts out something dark or mean- spirited, as MC I will solicit other suggestions and then put them to an audience vote,” he says. 

Unacceptable topics include “affliction humor,” anything racist and anything that audience members might be there to forget, such as cancer. That leaves the door open to any of a number of adult themes.

“Someone always suggests bikini waxing,” Bristow says. “But we may have different casts that have gotten the suggestion, and they endeavor to make each scene completely unique. As improvisers we’re addicted to the new and exciting in what we cover.”

Improvising with puppets, which each have only one basic facial expression, is more difficult than “fleshy improv,” as the troupe calls it. It requires more structure by the actors and more dependence on the voice, since the puppets’ physical movements also are limited. Not all performers are up to the task, Bristow says.

LGBT themes come up – often as part of another topic. It’s not unusual for the actors to choose puppets of the opposite gender from among the 80 characters available.

“Our puppeteers are very good at playing gay characters from a place of fun without ridicule,” says Bristow, sometimes known as “the camp MC. “I’m their host and am not going to let them do anything offensive.”

That’s not to say Bristow is always in control. Once a sketch is underway there is not much he can or will do to stop it. But that’s part of the “Stuffed and Unstrung” experience and what makes the show special.

“This is very much a lean-forward rather than a lean-back experience, more of a party than a show – with a little element of circus thrown in,” Bristow explains. “The audience as a collective becomes a major character in the performance because they are in essence directing it.”

When you spend your life around puppets, a little human intervention, collective or otherwise, is necessary, he says.

On stage

“Henson Alternative: Stuffed and Unstrung” takes the Pabst Theater stage on April 13. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.pabsttheatre.org.