By SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE
Times Staff Writer
Henson Alternative's Stuffed and Unstrung, the bawdy, naughty puppet show created by the son of pioneering puppeteer Jim Henson and a veteran improv actor, started out as a workshop exercise, but it was just too good to contain.
The little experiment to exercise puppeteers' comedy muscles did a performance for friends that got noticed by the Aspen Comedy Festival, which got noticed by the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which then turned into an off-Broadway hit that was named one of the top 10 "Best Stage Shows of 2010" by Entertainment Weekly.
"It's about the most organic project I've ever worked on that came purely out of the creative process," said co-creator and host Patrick Bristow, who has been teaching improv for 20 years in between his many roles on TV and in movies.
Brian Henson, the son of puppeteers Jim and Jane Henson, who now runs the family's namesake entertainment company, got the idea for improv training because he remembered how his father and partner Frank Oz used to crack up the crew when the cameras were off. (Google "Emmet Otter outtakes" for a video of Oz and Henson riffing on the crew and director during a 1977 Christmas special. Nothing kills like a Muppet with a mouth on her.)
With a cult following, Stuffed and Unstrung now does a couple of 10-city tours a year, coming to the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg tonight.
Not your moppets' Muppets, the cast is directed on stage by Bristow, who takes suggestions from the audience for themes, places, job descriptions and celebrities to be incorporated into the show.
"It's like Who's Line is it Anyway? meets The Muppet Show," said Bristow in a telephone interview. But since Disney owns the Muppet line, Bristow just calls these "miscreant puppets" who are likely to warn a fellow puppet, "You have a hand up your a--!"
There are giant screens on stage so the audience can watch the show as it would appear on TV or a film. Meanwhile, the puppeteers race around below, giving viewers an up-close look at the mechanics of their trade.
It isn't as polished as Avenue Q, which first broke the ground for an adult-oriented puppet show. But that grittiness is part of the appeal. There are piles of random puppets on the stage, more than 60 in all, and the improviser-puppeteers pick them up and play with them.
And the audience plays a part, too.
"We don't endeavor to be blue or smutty, but the minute you have an audience of adults and they get to tell the puppets what to do, well ..." Bristow said. "We'll ask for a situation and they'll say things like 'That one has a restraining order,' or 'They are getting a bikini wax.' We can't completely control what they come up with, we just roll with it."
Bristow has been a part of some of the biggest shows in TV history: Seinfeld, Mad About You, Friends, Ellen DeGeneres' gay friend in her coming-out episode of Ellen.
"Back then it was something of a ground-breaking thing," Bristow said. "I was one of the first gay characters that were not apologetic, and also liked by other lead characters."
Then there's that other comic masterpiece: the accidental comedy Showgirls.
"It's the gift that keeps on giving," Bristow says of his part as the choreographer who screams "Come on, thrust it!" at Elizabeth Berkley as she rehearses her Vegas dance number. "It's the best conversation piece on my resume."