In 1989, Matt Groening changed the face of television — literally — by figuring out that there are certain types of humor you can get away with much more easily if they come from precious-looking animated characters. Eight years later, Matt Parker and Trey Stone took the humor one step further (and the animation one step backward) with South Park. That worked out pretty well, so they decided to try their hands at puppetry with 2004’s Team America: World Police, which arrived on the coattails (ahem) of the Broadway sensation Avenue Q.
Of course, for centuries before cartoon animation, people had been using puppet shows for staging bawdy humor and mocking authority, and now San Antonio adds its own chapter to this illustrious tradition with Shock Puppets, the new sketch comedy show at the Rose Theatre.
The program proclaims in bold print, “for mature audiences only,” but the biggest laugh some people may get is a mild chuckle over our society’s perversion of the word “mature.” The impetus for the production, as explained by co-writer/director Chris Manley before the show, was the opportunity to “do all the fucked-up shit we normally can’t do because there’s kids around.” (I’m paraphrasing.)
The production was indeed a far cry from the children’s theater workshops that the Rose is known for (I hope), but it would be difficult to describe this as “adult” humor — it’s not childish, but it’s juvenile, at best. And that’s not the only aspect of the show that isn’t quite as advertised. Based on the Rose’s website, I was expecting the puppets to be the main attraction, but this is basically a series of SNL-style sketches, most of which have nothing to do with the puppet characters. This reference may be sadly lost on many readers, but the structure is reminiscent of The Carol Burnett Show and Laugh-In. The puppets’ scenes are interspersed among the skits, with the puppets popping in and out of the rudimentary set, mostly to tell racial jokes and yuk-yuck one-liners.
The main character, Tori, suffers from Tourette syndrome, a conceit that provides an easy excuse for pointless obscenities. The puppet scenes are actually the weakest of the bunch, but the actress playing Tori distinguishes herself as an exceptional physical performer. Her speech and hand movements are well synchronized, and you can even detect different facial expressions, which reflects a good amount of skill and practice.
The majority of the show consists of the Dawnview Crew acting out scenes that pretty much fit the description given by Manley; you can imagine how many of the skits came from conversations that began with, “Dude, wouldn’t it be funny if we …” The problem with many of the sketches is that they don’t have a gimmick other than adding cuss words to a familiar reference, such as commercials for Jim Adler (the Texas Hammer) and Dateline’s To Catch A Predator. The latter of those two examples works, however, thanks to the deadpan delivery of the actor playing Chris Hansen and the good old comedy rule of three.
In addition to the live skits, the performance is interspersed with pre-recorded videos, in which the sock puppets spoof well-known movie scenes. In the case of these, it turns out that it’s better not to have a gimmick. My biggest laugh of the night came from watching a black sock puppet, with a chain made of gold paperclips, playing Jules from Pulp Fiction in the classic Ezekiel 25:17 scene. None of the dialogue is changed; it’s just a close-up of a guy being berated by a sock. Instead of Samuel L. Jackson, imagine a biblical beat-down by Kermit T. Frog.
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