Puppetman was a sitcom pilot produced for CBS, which aired on July 3, 1987 as part of "CBS Summer Playhouse," a weekly dumping ground for unsold pilots. The proposed series, developed by Jim Henson jointly with Bernie Brillstein's Brillstein Productions, was set backstage at a TV kid's puppet show. Fred Newman starred as Gary, the lead puppeteer, with veteran Muppeteer Richard Hunt as Gary's partner, whose puppet characters seem to have minds of their own.
Series Premise and Characters
For six months, station WGRF-TV in Madison, Wisconsin has been running the daily puppet series "Dragon Time," focusing on a group of dragons and their human friend, Lady Rita, a damsel in princess garb. The sole set is an elaborate, multi-turreted castle, with a large clock festooned with the "Dragon Time" logo as a major feature. The castle's puppet residents include Butane, the lead dragon; Earl, Butane's goofy sidekick; the loudmouthed, female Gertha; Cinders, a young girl dragon; Candle, a cute baby dragon; and the vamp Desiree. Clyde is a full-bodied dragon mailman who lives outside of the castle.
The puppeteers are almost as colorful as their characters, led by amiable Gary, recruited to the station for his puppetry skills and creativity, and performer of Butane, Candle, and Clyde. The eccentric Del is Gary's longtime partner; his two main puppets, Gertha and Earl, reflect conflicting aspects of his own personality. Holly is the common-sensical female puppeteer and performer of Cinders and Desiree. "Lady Rita" is played by the fiery-tempered Rita, "the only star who operates her own head," and who often insists on inserting her own folksinging into the program, unscripted.
The behind the scenes crew is led by harried producer/director Bud Stone, "a veteran of local television, and a man who'd rather be sitting on a fifty yard line," and who despite apparently having an affair with Rita, is equally dismayed by her showboating. Station head Mitchell Bennett, "a 30 year old yuppie station manager," is only concerned about the ratings. Bud's son Bud Stone Jr., more commonly known as "Little Bud," is a young, wannabe cool dude floor manager, and Dee is the unflappable female production assistant. Zack is Gary's five year old son, whose re-introduction into Gary's life is a focal point of the pilot, setting up a balancing act between the studio "family" and Gary's own family life. Additional humor is mined from the contrast between a squeaky-clean kids show and the sometimes salty behind the scenes behavior of both people and puppets.
Dragon Time Elements
The "Dragon Time" show-within-a-show would have featured prominently throughout, with footage and songs featured not only within the main plot, but dominating both opening and closing. The show's opening begins with a quick superimposed "Puppetman" title, followed by Gary and Del driving around in a "Dragon Time" van, over a cheery soundtrack. Following the brief opening credits shots of the show's stars, "Dragon Time" takes over completely, with a full performance of the show's theme song showcasing all six hand puppets and Rita, and the catchphrase "Time doesn't drag when it's Dragon Time!" The "Dragon Time" credits are shown within the episode proper (crediting "Lady Rita," followed by the puppet characters minus Clyde). The Puppetman closing credits end with the "Dragon Time" farewell theme, and slowly show the performers and crew wrapping up and abandoning the set, leaving props and puppets (including Clyde's seemingly decapitated head) behind.
Pilot Plot Synopsis
Tensions on the "Dragon Time" set between Del and Rita continue, and are heightened by a ratings battle against a rival station's "Eye on Madison" program, featuring a Milkmaid bikini pageant crowning "Miss Lowfat." Meanwhile, Gary receives a call from his ex-wife Beth in Chicago, sending their son Zack to stay with Gary for a week while she auditions for a musical in New York City. Gary worries about whether he can properly bond with his son, and the ratings battle and production problems cause him to compromise over his duties to Zack (a situation exacerbated when Beth is hired for a road company tour, and Zack becomes his responsibility indefinitely). Zack thus has trouble adjusting, and is hurt when his dad assigns Little Bud to take him on a promised farm trip instead. Both worlds collide during the next day's taping, when Rita quits in a huff, and Gary, still in costume as Clyde, rushes an ailing Zack to the hospital. In typical family sitcom fashion, Del reluctantly puts his differences with Rita aside for the good of the show, and Gary uses his puppets to express his true love for his son. In not so typical family sitcom fashion, "Dragon Time" wins the ratings war by default when one of the "Eye on Madison" milkmaids turns out to be a man. Cheese and dairy products in general are a running motif, as is extemporaneous puppetry (i.e. Gary turning an oven mitt and salt shakers into a breakfast pal).
Differences Between Script and Pilot
- As with many sitcom pilots, several cuts in dialogue are made throughout, including some that might have violated character (self-centered Mitchell behaving affectionately towards Zack).
- Several self-referential comments about puppetry and children's programming are cut, including Cinders' line to Butane, "My mommy said you're a bad influence with no socially redeeming value," and Bud's admonition to his son "Clean up around here. But don't touch the puppets, you never know where they've been." Additionally, some of Gertha's more acerbic or surreal quips were cut.
- In a scene which remains in the script, and which may have been filmed, Gary/Clyde's hospital visit is extended. While reading magazines and pacing in the waiting room, a Japanese patient, played by Tad Marino, enters, and then runs away, screaming "Godzilla! Godzilla!"
- The pilot was taped on April 17, 1987.
- In addition to casting real-life puppeteer Richard Hunt as Del, former The Muppet Show producer/writer Jack Burns played Bud.
- In a scene not in the shooting script, Zack amuses himself with a sock-puppet dragon, made with a plastic cup snout and felt scales. This dragon is almost identical to the "Dixie Dragon" puppet included in Cheryl Henson's 1994 crafts book The Muppets Make Puppets!.
- Julie Payne, cast as Rita, had previously been a regular on the short-lived 1984 series The Duck Factory (starring Jim Carrey), another "behind the scenes" sitcom, this time at the animation studio behind a popular Saturday morning series. Muppet writer Jay Tarses was a regular on that series.
- Fred Newman specialized in providing vocal sound effects, a skill integrated into the script and pilot, as Gary provides odd scat sounds during the opening credits and supplies every sound effect for "Dragon Time," from a cuckoo clock to assorted crashes.
- Fred Newman as Gary (and Butane, Candle, and Clyde)
- Richard Hunt as Del (and Earl and Gertha)
- Jack Burns as Bud Stone
- Julie Payne as Rita
- Lisa Waltz as Holly (and Cinders and Desiree)
- and Michael Carter as Zack
- Executive Producers: Jim Henson, Bernie Brillstein
- Produced and Written by: Mark Reisman, Jeremy Stevens
- Director: Alan Rafkin
- Executive in Charge of Production: Roz Doyle
- Music and Lyrics: Phil Ramone, Nick Glennie-Smith, Rob Mounsey
- Dragons Designer: Ron Mueck
- Muppet Production Designer: Michael K. Frith
- Dragons Created by: The Muppet Workshop
- Filmed at ABC Studios
- © 1987 Brillstein Productions
Though never commercially released, both the pilot episode and the script were donated by director Alan Rafkin to Syracuse University's E. S. Bird Library, as part of the Alan Rafkin Video Collection and Alan Rafkin Script Collection respectively. Both are available for perusal within the building upon advance request.
Puppetman is also available for viewing at The Paley Center for Media.
- Finch, Christopher. Jim Henson: The Works. New York: Random House, 1993.
- Jim Henson letter