It’s a hilarious whodunit that is decidedly No Sesame, All Street.
An innovative film that incorporates influences from multiple genres to create a hilarious hybrid of film noir, crime drama, and cop buddy picture — with a healthy dose of R-Rated profanity and humor — The Happytime Murders focuses on a pair of estranged police detectives who must set aside their mutual animosity toward each other and work together again to solve a series of puppet murders in Los Angeles.
The Happytime Murders is many things: a murder mystery, a crime drama, a buddy cop story, a tale of diversity and inclusion, and a fallen hero’s redemption. What it isn’t is safe for children in any sense. This is the most outrageously NSFK (Not Safe For Kids), R-rated comedy of the summer, showing how puppets behave behind closed doors without kids around. It’s a hilarious whodunit that is decidedly No Sesame, All Street.
It’s hard to imagine that a visceral thriller like David Fincher’s Seven would be one of the influences for a puppet murder mystery movie, but watching The Happytime Murders, that comparison doesn’t seem that far-fetched.
Screenwriter Todd Berger (Cover Versions) conceived the story with Dee Austin Robertson in 2001, taking cues from L.A. Confidential and Training Day, as well. “We were big fans of Seven, and I was huge Fincher head. So, we came up with this plot idea of this serial killer picking off puppets. Then taking it further, the puppets were specifically the cast of a children’s television show,” explains Berger. “It’s set in a world where puppets actually exist; they are a species and they coexist with humans. Puppets have always been an underclass; they have their own economy, their own restaurants, they even have their own strip clubs. It’s ‘what would society look like if puppets were real?’”
Berger began writing the script, exploring what happens when child performers grow up and the cameras aren’t rolling anymore.
“What if you were a puppet children’s performer and now it’s years later and you’ve gone and done different things with your life? Maybe some have gone on to better things, greener pastures, and maybe some haven’t; their lives have fallen apart,” says Berger.
“Our intention was ‘we’re going to go make this. We’re going to raise a million dollars and we’re going to go make this epic crime story in Los Angeles with puppets.’ We very quickly realized that was insane, because people read the script and were like ‘what is this? It’s a puppet murder movie with sex and violence and cursing, that’s insane!’ And ‘you two realize this will cost way more than a million dollars, right? Have you guys ever made a puppet movie before?”
Defeated, they put the script on the shelf, occasionally showing it to people for fun.
A few years later, Berger had moved to L.A. and was a working writer when he received a phone call that would change everything. “My agent calls me and says, ‘hey what’s up with Happytime Murders?’ I said, ‘nothing —it’s literally sitting on a shelf in my office gathering dust.’” His agent had received a call from The Jim Henson Company, which was growing its new division, Henson Alternative, and they were eager to create more R-rated content with a darker, more adult theme; specifically, they were looking to develop an R-rated puppet movie, so they were thrilled to learn that Berger had already written one — and they decided to option The Happytime Murders. That was 2007.
Over the course of the next decade, Berger and director Brian Henson continued shaping the script, all the while looking to secure financing and the perfect cast to bring this unique project to life, enduring disappointments along the way. “Every time we would think it might happen, it wouldn’t, and I would always tell everyone, ‘you know, when I’m sitting on set, I’ll know it’s real,’” recalls Berger. “And guess what guys? I’m here. I’m in one of those chairs and it says The Happytime Murders on the back.”
Director Brian Henson has spent a lifetime and career around puppets.
Son of the legendary Jim Henson, he grew up visiting the set of “Sesame Street” as a child and thinking, “Even with the Muppets, you know once they yell cut, and before the camera starts rolling again, there is some very adult humor spoken. I saw this as a kid when I used to watch my dad work. I loved this delicious naughtiness between takes,” recalls Henson.
Most people know The Jim Henson Company’s legacy of puppets, thanks to “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show,” but its television lineage has long explored the comedy of puppets for adults dating as far back as the 1950’s.
The late Jim Henson actually started in late night television; his first show was on after the “The Tonight Show” and it was made for adults. As he evolved as an artist, Jim Henson also had puppets that were featured in the first season of “Saturday Night Live.” Says Brian, “This film is not far from our roots, and we are actually going back to the foundation of the company, a very irreverent, adult side of humor. The Jim Henson Company is considered a very family friendly brand, but at the same time, can be a little bit naughty. ”
Henson acknowledges the impact of such films as Team America and Meet the Feebles but is quick to differentiate The Happytime Murders: “We are not first. This film is more in the vein of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? — but with more bad language and suggestive situations. I want to make it clear — this is for adults. If we did it PG-13 and just skated the edge, I would still have an audience filled with five-year olds.”
Henson first saw the Happytime script fourteen years ago, when he received a copy of it from screenwriter Todd Berger.
Henson had always dreamed of making a film set in a world of humans with a minority puppet population and, although he loved the idea, he felt the script was a little too R-rated and ultimately passed on the project, wishing Berger luck.
Eventually, Henson created Puppet Up! – Uncensored— a live, irreverant show combining puppetry with improvisational comedy, which he developed and toured. “Puppet Up! is very R-Rated. I finally felt like we found a contemporary voice for puppets, and this was the next step for the company and hand puppetry,” explains Henson. The show’s success prompted him to reconsider The Happytime Murders. “I felt like it was good timing to revisit Todd’s script,” says Henson. “This is the funniest film I have ever developed. It’s basically a spin-off of our work with Puppet Up!. I finally found in Todd’s script a story that would allow the puppeteers to let it rip!”
Although it delivers huge laughs, the film also explores some very current themes, including prejudice and acceptance. “In The Happytime Murders, the puppets are such have-nots in this world, the best they can do is exist in a world that has been made for human beings — and complain about it all the time. That makes me laugh just thinking about that premise,” muses Henson. “There is a lot of prejudice in this world in the film. Don’t ever call a puppet a sock — that’s a real nasty thing to say. And conversely, when puppets are mad at humans, they call them meat sacks.”
As Henson and Berger developed the script, they discovered more than just the NSFW adult comedy. “What you think you have is a shock comedy where puppets are doing what you never thought you would see, when actually it is a really compelling story with deeply developed characters. It’s a one-two punch.”
As Brian Henson spent the past five years trying to find the right cast for his film, the puppet part proved to be a breeze; he already had immediate access to the best puppeteers on Earth, and he was confident that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop would be perfect to create the puppet population in the film’s world. However, finding the right human actors to convincingly marry the two worlds of humans and puppets through their performances proved to be a challenge — especially when casting the lead role of Detective Connie Edwards.
As fate would have it, the Happytime script had been sent to Melissa McCarthy and her husband and producing partner, Ben Falcone, by Adam Fogelson at STXfilms, who loved the script and thought Melissa might be the right fit.
Falcone read the script first and felt it had some important points to make. “This was a world where puppets and humans live together and puppets are the outcasts of society. It’s a cop movie, a solid buddy movie about their friendship reconnecting thru hard times, but at the core there is a message in there to treat people with equality,” says Falcone. Once he finished the script, he passed it on to Melissa.
“On page two of reading The Happytime Murders, I walked out and I said to Ben, ‘I think I’m in’, and Ben said ‘go read it some more and then come back out and tell me what you think.’ And on page four I went back outside and said to Ben, ‘I’m just saying I think I’m really in,’” says McCarthy, who was drawn to the project for more than just the comedy. “The social undercurrent of the script was really smart and saying something without preaching about it. It is what I dreamed it would be. A good gritty crime movie that happens to be really funny — and there is a side note that puppets are in it.”
Interestingly enough, the role of Edwards was originally written as a male. “Edwards and Phil were written quite similar, and Todd and I discussed that they would be in a testosterone pissing match. One was still on the force, and the other had been kicked off the force,” says Henson. “Then Melissa came aboard and her approach to playing Edwards was also as a tough cop who broke the rules and was in a testosterone pissing match with Philr, which was really wonderful.”
With McCarthy and Falcone onboard, The Happytime Murders was moving forward, and Detective Edwards’ character evolved as McCarthy embraced the role. “Edwards has cranky moments. She’s hard on rookies. She’s hardboiled. She’s been on the job long enough and that, combined with her over the top issues — one of them being her sugar problem — is a constant barrage of humor,” says McCarthy of her character. She was interested in what made Edwards tick. “How is Edwards broken and how is she different? Those are two things I was wrestling with as I delved deep into writing the script, which was so good to begin with. My pass was just ‘how would I identify with Edwards?’”
The film explores some pretty dark issues such as bigotry and addiction. “There are dark areas in the story, there are goofy areas. The puppets are second-class citizens. Sugar is heroin for puppets. If you can make your point and make them laugh, people take it a little better,” she explains.
Such character development pays off. For example, Edwards struggles with a sugar addiction so severe that she’s graduated from candy bars and sweets to having a fridge stocked with maple syrup and Red Bull. The puppets take it even further, snorting what they refer to as “Grade A sucrose” through red licorice straws. Explains Henson, “In the film we imply there is a type of sugar so strong that only puppets can take it – and if a human ingested it they would go into sugar shock.” Throughout the film, Edwards proves she’s able to handle the hard stuff — and then some.
McCarthy has a simple explanation for the uncomfortable dynamic between Phillips and Edwards. “Both Edwards and her ex-cop partner, Phil, are damaged goods. The story can be very dark and complicated, but at the same time you still see brother/sister love between Edwards and Phil. They are best friends, and you can only fight like that with someone you love.”
Regarding the film’s realistic interaction between puppets and humans, McCarthy is matter-of-fact. “We all grew up with puppets, and then when they are inhabited in such a realistic way, it is that little voice in the back of your head that says, ‘I knew they were real!’” She is quick to reinforce that it’s decidedly NSFK (Not Safe For Kids). “There is nothing childlike about this film. It’s a straight-up gritty comedy that happens to have puppets. It’s a grown-up movie 100% — and I buy it 100%.”
As for the film’s leading lady, director Brian Henson has this to say: “What Melissa brings is a loose, spontaneous style that grows out of a lot of improvising on set. When it comes to comedy, she can do no wrong. She’s the best there is.”
“There is something about a puppet that takes you out of your subjective self and puts you in a more objective place. When a puppet appears on screen, you don’t assume anything about them or their sexuality, you wait and you learn like a child does,” explains director Brian Henson.
Few men can hold their own next to a comedy heavy-hitter like Melissa McCarthy, so it’s a good thing that the male lead of The Happytime Murders is a puppet. Still, finding a co-star capable of comedic sparring with McCarthy was no small task, so Henson turned to veteran puppeteer, Bill Barretta to bring the character of Phil Phillips to life.
Henson and Barretta met in 1982, when they were both eighteen, and Barretta began as a puppeteer in 1990. It was an added bonus that his father was a cop from Philadelphia, and his grandfather was a junk metal trader, which gave him tremendous insight into his character. “When Bill accesses his roots for the performance of Phil, it’s really authentic. Bill transforms Phil into a real salt of the earth character,” says Henson.
Phil and Edwards are cops who came up through the force together. He was the first puppet police officer and, in addition to being the most decorated partners in the department, they were also best friends who were inseparable — until an incident in the line of duty led to Edwards almost dying and created a rift between them. Phil was discharged from the LAPD, leaving the force in shame and scandal, and he re-invented himself as a private investigator, fighting bigotry and crimes against puppets. Phil is also something of an equal opportunity ladies’ man, romancing both flesh and felt in the film.
McCarthy and her husband and producing partner, Ben Falcone, were surprised at how quickly she and the other human actors became accustomed to Barretta and the other puppeteers on the set. “I thought it was going to be weird, like looking at a tennis ball because there is not actual eye contact with the puppets, but fifteen minutes in, I bumped into Phil and apologized,” recalls McCarthy. When she met Bill, he was only talking to her while performing Phil and any weirdness went away, and suddenly she was having a full-on conversation with the puppet, even when the cameras weren’t rolling.
It was a true partnership, on screen and off. “Bill and I really see things similarly, and his performance is no different than a human actor. You forget Phil is a puppet. How he walks is unique, his gestures are so real, and when Phil is upset, everybody feels it. You get all this emotion and humor. It’s a great magic trick. Bill has such a good feel for it and if something is not right, Bill and I can sit with it for a few moments and work it out. We were really in sync, which was a delight,” says McCarthy of their collaboration. “Bill Barretta is a dream boat. He’s such an incredibly grounded actor giving a really good, solid character performance as Phil in this film. I can’t imagine anyone else in this role. He is a real wizard at what he does,” says Melissa McCarthy of the actor behind her blue felt co-star.
However, McCarthy wasn’t the only human co-star to sing Barretta’s praises — two other lovely ladies with whom Phil shares chemistry gave him high marks, as well. Maya Rudolph plays Bubbles, Phil’s loyal and devoted secretary. “I didn’t work for two weeks on set and I missed Phil and working with him. It was the strangest thing. I kept thinking about him. His big eyes and blue felt skin. I completely forgot he was a puppet,” says Rudolph. In the film, Phil carries a torch for his ex-sweetheart, Jenny, played by Elizabeth Banks. “Jenny and Phil had a romance. Soft, sensual, felt, velvety love. His low-key charisma was something she couldn’t get enough of and could depend on,” declares Banks.
Producer Ben Falcone agrees that Barretta’s embodiment of Phil is key to the film: “This movie has great heart reflected thru the script and Melissa’s and Bill’s performances. Hopefully, when people are watching the film and are shocked by this or that, our good heart is going to come thru.”