$#*! Muppets Say

Jim Henson creations get to talk dirty in the improv comedy show ‘Stuffed and Unstrung’

April 18, 2012

When the director yelled “Cut!” on the set of “The Muppet Show,” it didn’t mean the Muppets stopped talking. The puppeteers would often stay in character for the benefit of the cast and crew.

“When the puppets were just hanging out, they would do all sorts of fun and shocking and violent things to keep the crew laughing,” says Patrick Bristow, the host and director of Henson Alternative’s “Stuffed and Unstrung,” an adults-only improv show that comes to the Howard Theatre on Wednesday.

Co-created by Bristow, 49, and Jim Henson’s son Brian, “Stuffed and Unstrung” gives the puppeteers the freedom to say whatever they want, with no kids around.

Explain “Stuffed and Unstrung.”
Our audience gets to see Henson-style puppeteering unmasked, as it were. You actually, for the first time, get to see the puppeteers manipulating the puppets, which, if you were ever watching “The Muppet Show” or “Sesame Street,” you’re not supposed to see. It’s all below the frameline of your TV.


“My role is to field audience suggestions for the improvised sketches and decide when it’s over. So I’m kind of a facilitator.” — Patrick Bristow, the host of “Stuffed and Unstrung,” on the duties of his job.

Are there any scripted portions at all?
We have a little opening number and closing number, which are set. You can’t expect a cast to improvise in unison, singing and dancing. We have two vintage re-creation pieces: One is a Jim Henson routine he created when he was 20 and one is a Frank Oz piece he created when he was 20. They had not been seen by live audiences in 30-some years. They’re pieces that were done on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and such.

Is the adult nature of the show just an excuse to hear Jim Henson creations saying bad words?
I wouldn’t say it’s an excuse, but we have that kind of caveat in there because you might get a scene that’s about, say, an acrimonious divorce and some words might be exchanged. And sometimes the situations and the character or even the made-up titles that I get from the audience can have double entendres or some naughty element to them.

What will surprise people who are fans of Henson’s work but aren’t familiar with this show?
The subversive humor. And I think they’re going to be surprised at times by watching how difficult the puppeteers’ job is. They’ll make it look easy, but occasionally we’ll see them having to work hard to create the illusion that a puppet is running or jumping or dancing or doing intricate choreography. Some of [the puppets] are unwieldy. We’ve torn down the puppet wall intentionally to show you that.

Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW; Wed., 8 p.m., $39.50-$45; 202-803-2899. (Shaw)
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Rudi Greenberg | April 17, 2012