Stuffed and Unstrung's Patrick Bristow, the Michael Jackson of improv puppets

A chat with the star about puppets vs. Muppets and a little cult classic about showgirls.

I have been a huge Jim Henson fan pretty much my entire life. I also am a big Improv geek having studied it myself for two years at Second City Los Angeles.

So, recently talking to Patrick Bristow, a huge force in the improv community as well as being, the co-creator, director and host, of the adult touring show Henson Alternative Stuffed and Unstrung, was more exciting for me than talking to (insert some really famous celebrity here).

Stuffed and Unstrung, which will be at Mahaffey Theatre, Thurs. Apr. 18, is a two hour whirlwind of short form improv using Henson style puppetry that asks for suggestions from the audience, as well as some vintage Frank Oz and Jim Henson skits that haven’t been on stage in nearly forty years.

Bristow, a Groundlings alumnus, is probably most familiar for his role on Ellen, the sitcom not the talk show. He also had roles on, to name just a few, Seinfeld, Curb your Enthusiasm and the so bad it’s bad cult classic Showgirls. Like most improv professionals he did a stint on Whose Line is it Anyways as well as directing many improv and comedy productions throughout Los Angeles where he also currently owns and runs his own improv school Improvitorium.

Bristow took time out of his busy schedule to talk with me about how he got involved in Stuffed and Unstrung, the difference between a Muppet and a puppet, and Showgirls.

CL: I’m a Muppet and improv nerd so you’re like the Michael Jackson of my world.

[Laughs loudly] That’s hilarious.

How did you get involved in the Stuffed and Unstrung?

It started out really as an improv class that Brian Henson sponsored for some of the puppeteers that he hired on a regular basis and I was brought in to teach them improv and to kind of adjust to the traditional style of improv, to the limitations and requirements of Henson style puppeteering. And so I taught about six weeks of class and the puppeteers were doing so well I thought the next step for them would be to actually do it in front of a friendly audience and work with suggestions coming from someone other than themselves. Brian set up an invitational … demonstration on the Henson lot and we had a great response, a standing ovation. It wasn’t really a show at that point; it really was just a demonstration of Henson puppetry and improv. We do short form improv so they’re improvised sketches basically. People from the Aspen Comedy Festival were there and they said bring it up to Aspen and we were like uh, ok … and then people from Edinburgh were at Aspen and they said bring it to Edinburgh…and then we took it Edinburgh then Sydney and Melbourne and started doing more gigs here in L.A. and it really evolved into a show called Puppet Up then. Over the years it has just got more sophisticated, more dimensional. It has become just a fuller theatrical experience.

Did you have you have any experience with the puppeteering side before or just the improv side?

No, I made a sock puppet when I was 10 years old; that was the extent of my puppeteering. Of course, now I am quite immersed in that world. I am not a puppeteer but I have been so immersed in it by osmosis I have learned a lot.

The Miskreant Muppets, are they the same sort of characters for each show, just improvised?

Actually the term Muppet, relay only applies to the characters that are owned by Disney. The Muppets as you know them the ones you see in The Muppet Show and the Muppet movies. But the Henson Company has a huge stock of other puppets from different shows over the years and ones that are custom built for our show. So, what we have is 80 beautifully built Henson puppets in a variety of styles: human, animal, some realistic, some are surreal and whimsical, and we mix them up and mash them together to create this eclectic puppet population that we call Miskreant Puppets because they are all kid of mischievous and naughty and bad and they don’t fit anywhere else they are kind of misfits. But they are all gorgeous works of art in their own right.

We travel with our entire stock of 80 puppets. They are on stage the entire show these racks they actually become part of the set dressing. When I call a couple of improvisers up to do an improve they will go over to the rack and grab whatever puppet they want and we’ll get suggestions from the audience and take it from there.

Do the Miskreant Puppets ever get in fights with the Avenue Q puppets?

No, (but) I think there have been a couple poison pen letters. The puppet community is pretty tight; there is a lot of back and forth … so it’s not as competitive as you would think between the two shows.

One last question that is off subject: Are you amazed or ashamed of the cult following of the movie Showgirls?

I would like to say both. It’s that kind of thing, you know you do something and you sense it’s not quite right but you just trust the people that are involved in it are going to make it work then of course it’s the biggest catastrophe in the world and all you can do is step back and laugh and enjoy the car wreck that it is. Really, it is the best conversation piece on my resume. I have gone to many Showgirls-related events. I have even seen a sock puppet version that someone did years ago and there’s a musical that will open in the Village in New York I think next month or something. And watching other people yell “Thrust it! Thrust it! Thrust it!” which was one of my lines from the film and do varying imitations of me is pretty hilarious. So honestly, it really has been a gift. It’s a lot of fun.

Mahaffey Theatre, 400 1st St S., Thurs., Apr. 18, 7:30 p.m.; $24 -$45;

About The Author

Stephanie Powers

Freelance contributor Stephanie Powers started her media career as an Editorial Assistant long ago when the Tampa Bay Times was still called the St. Petersburg Times. After stints in Chicago and Los Angeles, where she studied improvisation at Second City Hollywood, she came back to Tampa and stayed put.She soon...
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