The creators of “Sesame Street” are suing over a new movie trailer that they claim suggests certain puppets live depraved, brutal lives when offstage — snorting hard drugs through licorice straws, selling sexual favors to humans and succumbing to gun violence.
Set for release in August, “The Happytime Murders” does not actually feature Big Bird, the Cookie Monster or any other resident of 123 Sesame Street, where puppets have been teaching children basic math and decency since 1969. But the movie is directed by the son of the late Muppets creator Jim Henson and is set in a fictional Los Angeles, where former stars of a children’s puppet show are being gunned down for unknown reasons.
“What really goes down when kids aren’t around,” promises the movie’s official trailer, which prompted Sesame Workshop to sue STX Entertainment in federal court on Thursday, claiming the production company has “diluted and defiled” the beloved Muppets’ reputations.
The trailer is embedded below. It’s R-rated, and includes scenes in which:
● A puppet in a spiked collar, vaguely resembling an emaciated Fozzie Bear, offers to perform oral sex for 50 cents on the movie’s star, Melissa McCarthy.
● A squid puppet and a llama puppet are both decapitated by shotgun blasts.
● Two puppets have sex “that culminates in [a] scene where a puppet is depicted copiously ejaculating for an extended period,” as the lawsuit describes the trailer, accurately, though the ejaculate appears to be silly string.
Such scenes have been paired with the trailer’s tagline, “No Sesame. All Street,” and examples of director Brian Henson’s previous nonsexual work, such as “The Muppets Christmas Carol.”
Taken together, Sesame claims, STX “seem intent on seeding confusion in the mind of the public as to the association between the movie, Sesame Street, and its beloved Muppets.”
The PR campaign has even gone too far for the Jim Henson Co., which co-produced the movie with STX, according to internal emails submitted with the lawsuit.
“I am speechless that we were not consulted and asked for approval of this,” Sesame Workshop president Jeffrey Dunn wrote to his counterpart at the Henson Co. last week. “The trailer is practically pornographic.”
In her reply, Lisa Henson apologized but said she and her brother were powerless to stop STX from marketing the film as it wished.
“The ‘Happytime’ concept is an original world where all kinds of puppets live alongside humans as an underclass in society ala ‘Roger Rabbit,’ ” she wrote. “We resisted creative suggestions to make some characters look more like Anything Muppets or Muppet monsters, because that was exactly wrong for the movie. Trading off the famous Muppets to sell the film is exactly what we did not want to have happen.”
But executives at STX did not appear to be nearly so concerned. They refused Sesame’s demand to voluntarily alter the ad campaign, removing the Sesame tagline.
After Sesame Workshop sued on Thursday and demanded a judge force their hand, STX responded with a public statement attributed to “Fred, Esq.” — a puppet lawyer.
The trailer does not infringe on any trademark, and merely depicts “the untold story of the active lives of Henson puppets when they’re not performing in front of children,” reads Fred’s statement. “While we’re disappointed that Sesame Street does not share in the fun, we are confident in our legal position. We look forward to introducing adult moviegoers to our adorably unapologetic characters this summer.”
Behind the scenes, STX’s actual human lawyer has taken the legal threat somewhat more seriously. David Halberstadter wrote Sesame a long letter last week, in which he sounded incredulous that anyone could possibly confuse the wholesome world of Big Bird and Cookie Monster with the puppet dystopia of “Happytime.”
Halberstadter also reminded the humans behind Sesame Street that they have a long history of parodying other people’s intellectual property, including “Twin Beaks,” “A’s Anatomy,” and “Orange is the New Snack.”