The first day of shooting “The Happytime Murders” started much as you’d expect for director Brian Henson, the son of Muppets creator Jim Henson and director of 1996’s “Muppet Treasure Island.”
The opening scene called for a burly actor playing a firefighter and a Dalmatian puppet.
Things devolved quickly, however, with the fireman strapped to a bedpost being comically whipped by the leather-clad Dalmatian in a massage parlor backroom.
“The actor that played the firefighter was so game. He was like, ‘This is the most ridiculous thing I have done,’ ” says Henson, laughing at the memory. “It was the first thing we shot, so for everyone it was like, ‘What are we doing for this movie?’ ”
Viewers have had the same line of questioning since the first jaw-on-the-ground, red-band trailer arrived in May, with the tagline “No Sesame, All Street.” Happytime Murders” features Henson’s puppets cursing, boozing, snorting drugs and visiting every kind of seedy joint.
It’s a long way from the family-friendly Muppets fare Jim Henson created for TV’s “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show.” Muppets don’t appear at all in the raunchy comedy (in theaters Friday), which instead features similar felt creations from the Jim Henson Company, called Miskreants.
“It’s a good thing shaking up what we do with puppets, taking them into this R-rated world. It’s healthy,” says Henson, 54, sitting in his office at Hollywood’s Jim Henson Company lot, where a hat-tipping Kermit the Frog smiles over the grounds while incongruously facing a topless club across the street.
“It will be controversial. There will be people who really hate me for it,” he says, pausing. “Hopefully not a lot of people … and they say it’s a fun, different twist.”
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Puppeteer Bill Barretta handles Phil, the detective star of the R-rated “The Happytime Murders,” next to director Brian Henson on the set.
Puppeteer Bill Barretta handles Phil, the detective star of the R-rated “The Happytime Murders,” next to director Brian Henson on the set. (Photo: HOPPER STONE/STXfilms)
“Happytime” follows Phil Phillips (puppeteer Bill Barretta), the first puppet to make detective on the human police department, only to get booted in disgrace. But Phil teams up with his equally foul-mouthed ex-partner Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to hunt down the killer brutally dispatching the stars of the beloved puppet sitcom “The Happytime Gang.”
Henson insists it shouldn’t be too earthshaking. “That it’s the Jim Henson Company is probably more controversial than the movie itself.”
He believes his innovator father, who died in 1990, would embrace “Happytime,” even with scenes of Phil engaging in puppet sex on an office desk, before a prolonged expulsion of Silly String – the trailer’s climax.
Jim Henson, the beloved creator of the Muppets, died in 1990.
Jim Henson, the beloved creator of the Muppets, died in 1990. (Photo: THE JIM HENSON COMPANY)
“My dad had a naughty sense of humor like this movie,” Henson says. “That Silly String thing is the kind of joke that would make him laugh so hard that he couldn’t talk.”
Company history bears this out. Even after Jim Henson made his Muppets a staple on “Sesame Street” in 1969, he looked to break out of the children’s box. His 1975 pilot “The Muppet Show: Sex and Violence” parodied the proliferation of taboo content on television, but it was never picked up.
“The Muppet Show” became a culture-altering family on ABC from 1976 to 1981, making mega-stars of Kermit, Miss Piggy and company. Off camera, Henson recalls, puppeteers would start blue banter.
“What the Muppets did before the director called ‘action’ and after the director yelled ‘cut’ is very similar to this movie,” Henson says.
He held off on formally taking the film in an adult puppet direction, even after seeing Todd Berger’s “Happytime” script more than a decade ago. After experimenting with uncensored humor in his puppet improv group Puppet Up, featuring the new Miskreant puppets, it became clear ribald was the way to go.
After years of false starts, “Happytime” took off with McCarthy in the lead. Puppeteer Drew Massey says the comedic actress did have pause – not for the humor, but for a scene where she had to punch his adorable, troubled puppet Goofer.
Melissa McCarthy as Detective Connie Edwards, trades barbs with puppet Phil, her former partner, in “The Happytime Murders.”
Melissa McCarthy as Detective Connie Edwards, trades barbs with puppet Phil, her former partner, in “The Happytime Murders.” (Photo: HOPPER STONE/STX ENTERTAINMENT)
“I told her I have an entire sofa wrapped around my hand. Just give him a good whack,” Massey says. “And she did. The more violent the hit, the funnier it is with puppets.”
Massey also was tapped for the office sex scene between Phil and his femme fatale client. His job was to shoot the Silly String, three consecutive bottles per take. To the critics who argue that it’s a comedic leap too crass, Henson shrugs.
“If it was slimy, goopy liquid, it wouldn’t be funny. But the fact is it’s Silly String, and we all know it,” he says.
Distributor STX Entertainment saw that test audiences loved it and asked Henson for more.
“It was like, ‘It’s a great joke. Just keep going,’ ” Henson says. “With every test screening, it would go longer. And longer.”
The makers of “Sesame Street” aren’t happy with Melissa McCarthy’s new puppet movie, “The Happytime Murders.” They’re taking the film’s creators to court for tarnishing the reputation of their family-friendly puppets. Wochit
After the first trailer, “Sesame Street” filed suit in New York to have the “No Sesame, All Street” tag removed from the movie’s “exploitive” marketing. A U.S. district court judge tossed the case out, saying the slogan is actually used in a “humorous, pithy way.”
“I was a little surprised about how strong ‘Sesame Street’s response was. But I certainly knew they were not going to be pleased,” Henson says. “It’s a tiny parody reference in the trailer. There’s nothing in this film in any way that can undermine ‘Sesame Street,’ particularly since the reference is literally that the movie is NOT ‘Sesame Street.’ ”
The solid R rating makes it clear that “Happytime” isn’t for kids, he says, but for older audiences looking for a “guilty pleasure.”
“It’s for people looking to see Henson-style puppets operate as if they were at a dinner party with eight of their best friends, where everyone’s had four drinks and starts telling really off-color stories, laughing hysterically. That’s the energy of this movie.”