'Stuffed and Unstrung': Improv with puppets

However many times you may have tuned in to Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog, you never saw the funniest bits of "The Muppet Show." That's because the really good material was performed before the cameras rolled.

"That was always the really funny stuff," Brian Henson, son of the late, great Jim Henson, said over lunch in Chicago last week. "Frank (Oz) and my father would just improvise. It was very blue and totally unairable. But it was in those moments that the characters of Kermit and Miss Piggy were developed. That uncensored, spontaneous material was just made safe and then put on the air."

In 2003, Brian Henson and his sister Lisa bought back their father's company, Jim Henson Company, from its corporate owners and took control of his remarkable creative legacy. Henson, who had been a kid around The Muppets, wondered how he could make his current puppeteers funnier and maybe re-create some of the anarchic brilliance of the golden years of "The Muppet Show." "The spark seemed to have been lost," he said.

So he hit on the idea of bringing in an improviser to work with his puppeteers, and he came up with Patrick Bristow, a teacher long associated with The Groundlings in Los Angeles. As Bristow describes it, this was not an easy assignment.

"Eye contact is a big part of improv, as I know you know," Bristow said. "You even learn to sense when someone is about to draw their breath, so you don't step on their line. But puppeteers are always watching the monitor."

Indeed, in traditionalist improv circles — and Chicago is full of traditionalist improv circles — anything that comes between the audience and the performer is typically regarded with suspicion. Any stuff (and puppets are stuff) can cause weird delays, and weird delays can kill the truth and the laugh. So this was tough. "People generally think working with puppets is too complicated for improv," Bristow said.

But that was Henson's assignment — and Henson grew up around arguably the greatest puppeteers American television had ever produced, puppeteers who could improvise.

So, with the aim of finding some way to get to that Holy Grail of the profane, spontaneous frog and pig, Bristow persevered. And he found one useful common feature of great puppeteers: Since they can't see much with their eyes glued to monitors, they tend to quickly learn how to be very good listeners. And that's a crucial skill for improvisers.

After a while, Henson, who had his eye on selling puppet improv as a TV show, set up some workshops for his puppeteers on the Henson lot in Los Angeles and invited friends. The insider-oriented show — which would eventually become "Stuffed and Unstrung," which played the Aspen Comedy Festival and off-Broadway and arrives in Chicago on Tuesday — became a kind of cult attraction for those in the know in Los Angeles. As the show came together, it was decided that the best way to go was to throw a bunch of random puppets on the stage and let the improviser-puppeteers pick them up and play with them.

"Some of the puppets we used were made for pilots that never got picked up. Some are background puppets that no one remembers," says Henson. "Some are highly abstracted creatures, some humanistic people puppets and some realistic animals. This was totally the opposite of anything the Jim Henson Company, which paid very careful attention to building its puppets, had ever done before."

In essence, the puppeteers pick up their random puppet (there are 90 on the stage with about 30 used in a typical show) and play short-form improv games, with screens allowing the audience to simultaneously watch the puppeteering and the "show" in which the puppeteers are not seen.

"There is something rough about the edges with this thing," Henson said. "And that seems to make it feel more adult."

That has been made clear from the start. "We have always been very scared that people would bring their kids," he said.

The idea never made it to TV — improv invariably terrifies network suits, who get no scripts to sign off on. And improvising puppets are even more frightening. So "Stuffed and Unstrung" remains a live show, which was probably what it wanted to be in the first place, even if the whole idea all came from those precious moments when great puppeteers were performing mostly for each other.

For the first few nights in Chicago, Henson is performing himself.

'Stuffed and Unstrung'

When: Tuesday through June 17

Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.

Tickets: $25-$60 at 800-775-2000 and

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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