Faster puppet! Kill! Kill!
By Sean Davidson

One of the strange things about season one of Puppets Who Kill — apart from, you know, the sight of Al Waxman's brain in a jar, or of comic Dan Redican putting the homoerotic moves on a stuffed bear — was that, despite the title, the show didn't have a very high body count. Higher than most puppet shows, sure, plus plenty of sex, black magic and castration. But lacking in actual homicides or puppicides.

Viewers said as much to makers Shawn Alex Thompson and John Pattison, and the show, about sociopathic puppets stuck in a halfway house, has been tweaked accordingly.

"There will be more killing this year," says Thompson, on a break from shooting, promising that the next 13 eps, debuting Jan. 30 on The Comedy Network, will push the comedy limits even further than season one.

So I guess that explains some of the new script titles? Like "Rocko Gets a Lung" or "Prostitutes for Jesus" or "Dan and Necrophilia"?

Thompson smiles mischievously. That last one was "really fun" to shoot, he says. "This year our scripts are more about picking up on genres. We have one that's a horror, a courtroom drama, we've taken genres and played with them a bit."

"The best thing is to play it straight," he adds. "I tend to look at each script individually and ask, what kind of filmmaking approach best lends itself? How filmic-ly can I play it as straight as possible?"

Thompson soon runs back to work, shooting a scene for episode 203 in which the aforementioned bear, Buttons, is trying to marry a rich old woman before she expires. Elderly extras and a priest are huddled around the living room couch, on which guest star Helen Hughes is playing near-dead. Four puppeteers are hidden behind and underneath the furniture, two of them working Buttons, who is pounding on her chest.

"Hellooo?" the bear yells in her ear. "Wake up, you bitch!"

They've already done several takes, and people are still trying not to laugh. The priest manages to say something serious and consoling about "God's greater plan."

"Oh yeah," Buttons shoots back, "God has a plan for fucking me out of $25 million."

Puppets took the Gemini Award for best comedy writing last year, plus best comedy series at the Canadian Comedy Awards and a Bronze Rose at the very la-di-da Rose d'Or festival in Montreux, Switzerland. Thompson (An American in Canada) is again directing and produces with Pattison, who created the show out of his 1995 stage act. Redican (Groundling Marsh, Four on the Floor) is also back as Dan, the hapless social worker, and appears along with the handiwork of puppeteers Gord Robertson (Zoboomafoo), Jim Rankin (Groundling Marsh), Bob Martin (Torso) and Bruce Hunter (30 Years of the Muppets). John Leitch and Marianne Culbert exec produce for Toronto's Radical Sheep Productions.

The Rose win opened a lot of doors for the show, according to Pattison, who hopes season two will boost sales. Puppets has so far only sold in Australia, although Comedy's parent, CTV, is said to be interested.

Like Trailer Park Boys on Showcase or the equally white trashy Kevin Spencer on Comedy, Puppets has enjoyed great freedom to murder and cuss and make all-around R-rated mayhem on The Comedy Network, and has drawn respectable numbers to its Friday 10 p.m. timeslot, averaging around 100,000 viewers, comparable to reruns of The Simpsons, South Park and the glory days of Tom Green. Thompson thinks these specialty shows are the new wave in Canada.

"When you have an environment like this, it really frees everybody up, rather than something that's homogenized by a network and 'standards and practices' and all the rest," he says, pointing to Greg the Bunny, the similar, short-lived puppet show on Fox. "Being on a specialty, it gave us a lot of freedom to do what we wanted to — what we weren't seeing on other networks or stations. They didn't put any restrictions on us and they still don't."

In fact, they got more money. Comedy almost doubled the season-two budget to roughly $270,000 for each half-hour, allowing for extra sets and more exterior shoots. Puppets spent twice as much time on location this year, shooting 12 days around Toronto during its production run through November and December.

"That made a significant difference in the show's look," says Thompson. "It's about puppets in the real world, so we want to get them out into the world."

To leverage its success with Puppets, Comedy recently talked the CRTC into lowering its Cancon requirements, so that it can put more money into fewer hours. "In the early days it was fun, we took risks, but now to survive we need audiences and to get audiences we need better quality shows," says director of programming Brent Haynes. "There will always be low-budget shows like Buzz or Tom Green which hit a niche and are fun to do. We'll always do that, but these bigger shows need to attract audiences."

Comedy must now be only 65% Canadian during primetime, down from 72%, but will put 44% of its revenue back into production, up from 41%. That works out to a little more than $10 million a year.

"It means being more selective. It means doing fewer shows and doing the ones that are going to do something," adds Haynes. He hopes to develop 15 to 20 shows a year, of which maybe 10 will make it to air, one or two of which would be narrative comedies ("narcoms") like Puppets or, in the U.S., Scrubs and Malcolm in the Middle.

Does he ever worry about the... er... explicit material? Apparently not. "I like it when shows scare you a little bit. If it fits the story and it's funny, you can't pull back."

February 2, 2004