Maybe it’s because I’m a child of the Henson generation, but I just love puppets. So much. They’re an easy and cheap way to instantly increase the awesome of pretty much anything that sucks: Musicals. Birthday parties. The Renaissance Fair. Therapy. Some people are freaked out by puppets. These are, in my experience, the same people who are terrified of masks, clowns, and circus performers. Oddly, all things I find endlessly fascinating. Which is not to say that I revel in other folks’ silly little phobias, but I do tend to go on and on about things which, for me, provide a certain degree of whimsy. Said conversations (or monologues, usually, if I’m being honest) serve only to bug out my friends and loved ones. Sorry about that. But think about how many great things had puppets! MST3K, Alf, Mr. Rogers, Sifl & Olly, anything with a Muppet in it.
Why am I talking about puppets (again)? Let’s back up a second. Last year YouTube started supporting original programming and created a bunch of content-specific channels. I’ve talked about this before when I heaped much praise on Geek & Sundry. One of these channels got bequeathed unto Chris Hardwick, creator of Nerdist Industries and target of much vitriolic internet hate. I really can’t figure out why so many people dislike Hardwick. I won’t say he’s the funniest comedian ever, but I quite enjoy his podcast and his book was pretty alright. Anyway, Hardwick has tons of cool friends and he gave some of them webshows. Because that’s just what you do when you’re building a media empire, right? Use your resources. Especially when your resources include Weird Al Yankovic, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, the Sklar brothers, Rob Zombie, and The Kids in the Hall. So, the Nerdist channel is partners with the Henson company, and Chris Hardwick is friends with Neil Patrick Harris, and Neil Patrick Harris is a puppet enthusiast (he’s also a magician – who knew he was so talented in such quirky ways?). All of this adds up to Neil’s Puppet Dreams.
It’s weird shit. Really weird. But hilarious. And kind of hypnotic, actually, with its trippy dream-state aesthetic. The basic premise is that NPH has this disorder which seems like a bizarre type of narcolepsy – he falls asleep all the time and dreams exclusively in puppet form. In the realm of the delightfully fucked-up, this is my new favorite thing. I never knew one could come up with so many puppet-centric double entendres and sexual innuendos, but Harris manages to cram a ton of them into each short episode. Apparently hand-up-your-butt jokes are way funnier when you’re hanging out with puppets. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
After Doogie Howser we didn’t see much of Harris on television, with the exception of a couple of (awful) made-for-tv movies. We sort of forgot about him (unless you’re into theater). Thing is, I knew he was funny, but I didn’t realize he was this kind of funny. Once again, I blame Joss Whedon. I loved Dr. Horrible so, so much, but I think I attributed all the humor to Whedon’s writing. I’ve got to stop doing that. Also, I’ve recently started watching How I Met Your Mother, in which Harris’s Barney Stinson is by far the funniest character. It’s another dumb sitcom, but the writing’s actually pretty great if you can get over the repetitiveness of that I’m-in-my-late-twenties-and-the-dating-scene-is-really-hard-and-I-just-want-to-find-true-love blah blah bullshit that every show seems to be about. If you’re going to feed your brain junk food, it may as well have good writers. Actually, I think I’m missing out on a lot of NPH-related awesome because I do so loathe musical theater. With the fiery passion of a thousand suns do I hate musicals (except for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but that’s a movie and the book is by Roald Dahl so that doesn’t count). So that’s my fault.
My point is that Harris has good writers and show runners around him. But they answer to the network, right? So now he can stretch some comedy muscles in a new and exciting way. This YouTube channel situation gives content creators the room to say any damn thing they please. That has to feel good, doesn’t it? To not have censors and executives and whatnot watching your every move? To get to make jokes that are your jokes? Finding your own audience on your own terms? I know I’m preaching to the choir here, and I’ve said this a thousand different ways but: Art for art’s sake!
But here’s the even bigger question: puppets making satisfyingly dirty jokes works for webshows but would not, sadly, make it on American prime time. Why is that? We keep them relegated to kids’ shows in the morning or adult shows late at night. I guess there was Alf, back in the day, but that was the 80’s when every show was squeaky clean. I think our sense of humor has changed pretty dramatically since then. I mean, that was twenty-five years ago. Twenty-five. That’s a whole generation. Think about that for a second, you guys. The difference between Alf, Full House, and all those horrible TGIF shows and what’s on now? That’s the same as the difference between I Love Lucy and Saturday Night Live. Big jump. Not that we can’t still appreciate any of that old stuff, but the change in what’s acceptable is really interesting. I think webshows have had a big hand in that, even if it’s only kind of sideways.
So check out Neil’s Puppet Dreams (and the rest of the Nerdist shows on YouTube, while you’re at it). I think this episode is my favorite, but that might just be because it’s got Nathan Fillion in it. It is weird, puppety goodness. And I love that I get to use that sentence. Thanks, internet.