Sunday, March 29, 2009

Day four hundred and fifty three ... Larger than life.

Oh, how we inflate the unknown.

I remember, as a kid, understanding the world of celebrity in an unorthodox way. 

Anyone who grew up in the Seventies knows that, besides Star Wars, the biggest celebrity swarm involved a few hundred inventively cut swaths of fleece, adorned with ping-pong balls, foam rubber and fake fur: The Muppets.

The two titans of this group were Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie ... 

... now that was a revered pair of icons. I seem to recall there being a short period of time in my life before I realized they were puppets--when I actually thought the world contained creatures that existed as they existed; it didn't last long. I kind of remember wondering if I was ever going to get to spend time with them in their world, on their block, like the lucky children I saw on TV who got a chance back in the 1970's. That was when the show was new, fresh, and exciting. Back then, the world felt to me as if a can of day-glo paint perched above the threshold drenched my existence daily as the TV warmed up ... and the door opened in.

But there was a certain disconnect with it all. Because while I knew Bert and Ernie weren't real people, they were real celebrities. Lunch boxes,  sippy-cups, and any number of toys I remember as a child sported the classic odd couple. Jim Henson and Frank Oz would eventually become household names (Henson more than Oz until Yoda came along) but they were more or less names on the back of record sleeves and at the end of TV shows. They were the genius, but I wasn't immediately aware they were the genies, too.

Things changed as I got a little older and became a puppeteer myself. I understood the way a simple hand movement can signify a grand gesture. I realized that the reason that The Muppets made it before a host of other puppet-related shows was because Mr. Henson understood the importance of anatomy and the process of movement and physical communication better than his competition. When a person speaks they don't move the top of their head up ... they move the bottom down. In other words, to become more realistic when simulating speaking one must move their thumb down rather than the flattened fingers up. This is simple anatomy. It's harder to achieve when you are just fooling around with a sock puppet, flapping your hand open and closed, but, done right, it is a truer representation than some of the more pedestrian children's shows.

That said, it's still just a guy with a hand wrapped in fleece.

It interested me to no end to watch the "making of" shows where you got to see rare glimpses of Mr. Henson and Mr. Oz performing their craft while the cameras rolled. You could see them staring at monitors in front and to the sides of them while the Muppets, overhead, traveled in a sort of alternate reality, disregarding the fact that their puppeteers were not only not looking at each other ... they weren't even looking up.

And then came Muppets on Ice. 


What a ruse! This was, to me, the epitome of incongruity. This represented the shift in trust between creator and audience that I felt was grossly corrupted. 

This was a travesty.

I mean, think about it. You watch television and you see the Muppets and children interacting on the set. The selling point seemed to be that the Muppets, for the most part, were equal size or a tad smaller than their real-life children actors. This made sense for so many reasons. It was malleable for purposes of interpretation, but it more or less ran by a pretty consistent rule book: 

Kermit, Robin, Roosevelt Franklin=small.

Oscar, Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, Grover=equal size to a 7 year old.

Big Bird, Snuffy=gigantic--larger, even, than the tallest adult.

And then, we are expected to believe that somehow, when you throw a pair of ice skates on these guys each and every one of them are now not only bigger than the children they had previously cavorted with, they are gigantic!

Some may call this nitpicking; I just like to follow the laws of physics when I can, even when discussing fictional, fabricated, anthropomorphic creations.

This same breech in trust can be said for Disney. Are we to believe that Jimminy Cricket--when introduced into the "real" world of Disney theme parks--is the same size as Goofy or Donald Duck? I mean he's a freaking cricket for christ sakes! But put him back behind the lens of the animator's camera and he is shrunk down to ten times the size of his largest animal character.

And worse than that--worse than the inconsistency that comes with dismissing the rules of perspective stature--is that the people inhabiting these iconic characters are so far removed from the creator that any actor with intermediate skating ability can put on the costume and go out and attempt to convince the average second grader that they are the real deal.

They are so far away from the real deal that only Santa Claus could hope to compete for blind faith as strong as this.

And it is in this gross misrepresentation of an initial idea that I find more than a few connections that help me stay sober.

You may call this a stretch, and if you've gotten this far I thank you for keeping up with my train of thought ... I swear I can explain ...

You see, I fell in love with something that was once my size or a little bit smaller.

It was friendly, it was funny, it was exciting, and it led me into situations and surroundings that I had only heard tell of. I became connected to it on a very basic and fundamental level.

Sure, there were times when it got a little bit bigger than me, but I managed to remain in control of it for the most part. I let its unusual voice project from my body. I let its eyes see for me while I monitored my progress by looking away. I shared its character.

And this worked for a surprisingly long time--twenty plus years. And then, almost without warning, the laws of physics and convention failed and I suddenly became wrapped in this character. This once desirable iconic aura of the wild one--the Joker--seemed to overtake its creator and I quickly began to act not as an operator, but as a full-blown, larger than life puppet--a caricature--my most striking features unflatteringly blown out of proportion so even those in the cheapest seats could see my every twitch. And though on the outside I was instantly recognizable to even those who only knew of my reputation, it became clear to me that the person on the inside was not only becoming increasingly unnecessary but was also beginning to fail to perform even the most cursory of functions with any level of success. 

I couldn't see through my eyes anymore because they weren't really mine; they were my character's.

Luckily, the time came when I realized that what represented a figure who had once possessed a place and a time of relevance and productivity was now moving on a plane of existence where the laws of convention did not apply. It was confusing even to me. And the people who once shared time with me were now uninterested. I would have to bring the show on tour--to leave and find a new audience--if I wanted to maintain a level of what was then my definition of happiness.

Or I could take off the costume and pack it away. I could unzip and remove, for the last time, the body and head that had needed to be fabricated larger than life (while disregarding the esthetics that had facilitated its creation) and stepped out and into the light as who I really am.

And when I did I realized that I was still recognized as an entertainer. I had retained my skill for attracting attention. I couldn't have shaken that part of me if I tried.

Because it was all my idea to begin with. And, that being the case, there would always be a connection. 

Everyone who sees me now tells me how happy they are that I am back in control.

But I can tell from the look in their eyes that I wasn't ever really fooling anybody but me.

Thanks for reading,


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