Todd Berger on the Joys of Puppet Perversion in ‘The Happytime Murders’

We chat with the screenwriter about the untapped medium of puppets, and the many inspirations that feed his distortion of acceptable children’s entertainment.

Todd Berger

We chat with the screenwriter about the untapped medium of puppets, and the many inspirations that feed his distortion of acceptable children’s entertainment.

How do you feel about The Muppets? Does your heart bleed for Fred Rogers and the death of kindness for kindness sake? Did you Follow That Bird religiously? Your answer will probably determine your enthusiasm for The Happytime Murders.

My wife was appalled the first time she saw the trailer. While the film does not catch Kermit the Frog in a sex act or explode the head of Fozzie Bear, simply seeing Muppet adjacent puppets dragged into the depths of adult perversion was an affront to her childhood. If Sesame Street is sacred to you, avert your eyes.

For screenwriter Todd Berger, puppets are no different than animation. To confine them to youth is to rob film of another canvas. When he discovered Meet The Feebles in high school, a new aspiration took hold. Here was an empty playground for him to explore, and a medium ripe for satire.

Berger crams a lifetime of cinematic obsession inside The Happytime Murders. From his love of weirdo horror movies to L.A. Noir, the buddy-cop puppet comedy directed by Brian Henson and starring Melissa McCarthy is a raunchy send-up of everything nostalgia-hounds hold dear. Get on board or run away screaming.

I had a long conversation with Berger over the phone. We start things off by sharing our mutual admiration for Meet the Feebles and work our way to the various other inspirations behind The Happytime Murders. We discuss how he determined how far was too far when debasing puppets, and the arduous process of finding a laugh.

Bringing the film to local cinemas was a fifteen yearlong odyssey. Berger can barely believe The Happytime Murders will hit theaters this Friday. Soon he’ll know just how many like-minded maniacs are craving the depravity of sugar drug dens and hot dog eating hot dogs.

Here is our conversation in full:

My understanding is that you’ve had this passion for an adult take on the Muppets for a while. You were a fan of the Peter Jackson film, Meet The Feebles, right?

Yeah, I love Meet The Feebles. Like, when I was in, I guess, high school, it was one of those movies that got passed around. People were like, “Have you seen this?” And I loved Dead Alive, and I was a big Peter Jackson. And then I remember seeing The Frighteners in the theater-

It’s so good.

It was like, this is the greatest movie. And then I think my brother, or somebody was like, “Have you seen Meet The Feebles?” And I was like, “What is that?” And then I watched it, and I was just like, “What? What is this? You can do movies like this?” And then I went to college, and I went to University of Texas, and I met this guy named Dee Austin Robertson, he was like in class with me. And we kind of bonded over our love of Meet The Feebles, and we kind of came up one day, and we were like, “Have you seen Meet The Feebles? I’ve seen Meet The Feebles.”

That was the day back in the ’90s when you actually had to track down copies of things at video stores. And we bonded over it, and it came time to do a class project, and Dee and I were like, “Let’s do something with puppets. Let’s do a messed up puppet short inspired by Meet The Feebles.” And so we did. I wrote this script and he directed it. We built some puppets for it, and we built the keyboard player from Meet The Feebles to be playing the keyboard in the background as an ode to Meet The Feebles. And it was our class project, and it was really messed up. And everybody loved it, and then we both graduated, and we both moved to Los Angeles.

We were sitting around back in 2002, and we were like, “Hey, we should write a feature. We should come up with a feature idea. Maybe we’ll go make it.” And we came up with the story of the characters for The Happytime Murders.

I also was that guy. I hunted down a copy of Meet The Feebles. I had to drive several cities over to get a VHS copy of it. What is the appeal of transforming this children’s entertainment into obscene, adult humor?

When I was a kid I was watching Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and Gremlins, and Ghostbusters, when I was 5 and 6 years old, because I was the youngest and my older brother and my older sister were kind of like over it, over little kid stuff at that point. So I just kind of watched what they were watching. And so, I never saw Snow White or Cinderella, or Bambi, and I kind of skipped a lot of kid’s entertainment.

I always thought of, “Oh, entertainment for kids is stuff that older people can watch, but also children can watch.” So I actually never really had this deep adoration for Sesame Street, because I didn’t really grow up watching it. And by the time I got older I looked at puppets as the way that I look at animation. To me animation is not only for a Disney movie, for children, but it’s also like Heavy Metal. Animation is just an art form, animation is a medium, and puppets are a medium. Puppets don’t have to just be for children, right? Couldn’t puppets be in anything for anyone? Because I saw Labyrinth when I was a kid, and I saw Dark Crystal, and those movies didn’t seem like little kiddie stuff to me. And it just kind of all seemed like this is just a way to tell a story. And then when I saw Meet The Feebles, I was like, oh, you can also take this thing that’s usually known for being in children’s entertainment and you can use it as a way into a world to tell satire.

And so, I guess I never even looked at it as like, we’re gonna take something you liked as a kid and totally screw with it. It was just to me more like, we’re gonna take one of the many tools in the tool box of telling a story and we’re gonna come over here and use it to do this. The same way that eventually a lot of adult animation showed. And South Park is a show about children in a town, but it’s not for kids. I just thought that was interesting, because so many people do have this nostalgic fondness for puppets, or for animation.

It’s like, “No, no, no. That was my childhood. That is supposed to be for children.” And when you go in and you take people’s expectations of something and then subvert them, it’s really interesting to see how people respond to that. But for me personally, it’s not like I grew up being a huge die hard, Fozzie The Bear head, or something, and then I couldn’t wait to destroy what I grew up with or something.

It’s interesting, because I think I’m sort of similar to you. I never had that adulation for Sesame Street, but my wife, on the other hand, did. And when she saw the trailer for The Happytime Murders, she was really, really taken aback by it. Really disturbed. I remember seeing the trailer in front of Deadpool 2, and the conversation afterwards wasn’t about that film, it was about the trailer for Happytime Murders.

Great.

As you got closer to bringing Happytime Murders into a reality, when you were shopping it around, were you getting any significant pushback on the concept?

Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, there is definitely a large section of the population who is like, “What are you doing? That’s not an appropriate, it’s for children and then you’re desecrating it. And my philosophy is always, “What are you talking about ?” I don’t understand. It’s not like there are certain things that are just supposed to be for children and no one else is supposed to work in that medium, or play with those things. It’s not a movie for kids.

It’s a movie for people who grew up watching the thing we’re satirizing. It’s something you were familiar with because when you were a child it was something you were into. But now, you’re older, and so it’s for an older person. It’s aimed at an older person who’s gonna think it’s funny that the thing that they loved when they were a kid is now being twisted in this new way. It’s not like our intention is to make a movie for children, and it’s going to destroy the lives of all these children who are gonna go see it. We have been very particular in saying, “No, this movie is for adults. It is not for children. Please do not take your children to see this.” Look, I wouldn’t want my kids to see it, because it’s not for kids. But it’s funny for adults who grew up with this kind of thing, and now they’re older.

But I understand that there are people out there who are not amused. Who are like, “I don’t think it’s funny that you took this thing from my childhood, and now you’re twisting it and making fun of it, or satirizing it, or making me think about it in this other way. It’s a nostalgic place that I can go to forever and be happy.” And that’s fine. But I’m over here with the other people who are like, “Wouldn’t it be actually awesome if we took this thing that you kind of loved as a kid and did something new with it and put it in this whole new way.”

But it’s pretty wild that your screenplay eventually made its way over to Brian Henson and the Henson Company.

When I wrote it, Dee Robertson and I were like, “We’re gonna go do it.” Then we realized how sensitive that would be. And we never actually did it. But the way the Henson Company found it was because … It was the mid 2000s. South Park, and Avenue Q, and Team America, and all of these other comedic properties were being made where they were taking something from your childhood and making it for adults. And at that point, the Henson Company and Brian Henson, they had started a new division called Henson Alternative.

They were like, “Wait, there’s a huge audience out there of people who grew up loving puppets, who are now older and they want to see something for older people. So why don’t we develop a script that is aimed at adults that uses our vast creative resources that we have.” So they called my agency just looking for a writer to develop a project. And that’s when my agent was like, “Well, actually, you know, Todd Berger wrote a script for an R rated puppet movie.” And they were like, “Wait, what?” And I sent it over, and they’re like, “Oh, great. Yeah, let’s do this. Perfect.” But they were actively looking to do something in that realm, and then we just had already done it without them knowing it. The rest is history.

Was your screenplay always a cop narrative?

When Dee and I were first kicking around ideas for the script, I mean, this is like back in the early 2000s. I was a huge of fan of the movie Training Day. It was one of the only DVDs I actually owned back in 2002. And to me, we were looking to like, let’s take a classic Hollywood movie formula and replace one of the two characters with a puppet. And there was no more classic Hollywood formula than a buddy cop movie. And we both grow up in the ’80s loving Lethal Weapon and all of these buddy cop movies, where you pair up two guys who don’t get along from different sides of the tracks. And we were like, what if we did a buddy cop movie, but it’s a human and a puppet and they live in a world where it’s humans and puppets cohabiting with each other, and puppets are kind of the more underclass of society? Kind of like Alien Nation. Remember Alien Nation?

Oh, yeah.

Yeah, so it’s almost like, what if it’s Alien Nation, but with puppets? And also, we loved Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And the idea of a detective story set in a world where there are living breathing animated characters is always awesome. So, we were like, what if we did the modern day kind of gritty Training Day version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? A buddy cop movie with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, but the Mel Gibson character is a puppet that’s teamed up with a human? And that’s kind of what inspired us, because we’ve both just moved to L.A. and we’re really getting used to it, and we just kind of loved that whole genre. I love L.A. noir, not only just going back from L.A. Confidential, but also To Live And Die In L.A. and all the modern day gritty L.A. noir movies, buddy cop movies.

I imagine once you settle on that hook, the screenplay comes together pretty quickly.

Yeah, I mean, you watch a lot of movies and you start to figure out there’s kind of a formula that you can just follow, especially if you want to set an L.A. crime movie in the world of Hollywood, or in the town where media is made. Of course, in a L.A. crime noir there’s gonna be interactions with the movie industry. In this world there’s gonna have been puppet actors and puppet television stars. That easily leads over to, “Oh, well, what if there’s a crime story involving the actors that were on a very popular puppet television show, and then kind of using that as a jumping off point?”

We were big Seven fans. That was also the era when there were a lot of good serial killer movies, where a serial killer was killing someone based on something like, “Oh, he’s knocking people off based on X, Y, or Z.” And so, we combined all of these things with what if there’s a killer who’s killing off the members of your beloved puppet television show one by one?

Was there a particular classic trope, or scene that you knew you had to work in to this script?

Oh, well, yeah. I mean, you had to have the lieutenant chewing out the two of them and talking about how they used to be the best partners, but then they had their differences, because there was an incident that tore them apart. And you needed a flashback to the incident to learn where it all went wrong. How can we take the incident that pulled these partners apart and revolve that around the fact that we had a puppet underclass, and the fact that there’s a large population of the city that is puppets, was a fun sandbox to play in with a lot of these tropes.

When they have to go to the bad part of town or the puppet part of town with the puppet cops. It’s just like any given buddy cop movie, where the straight-laced cop has to go to the bad part of town and the street cop’s like, “Let me do the talking. This is my hood.” You know?

Right.

We were able to play with a lot of those tropes.

What I appreciate, even within the structure of the trailer, is being introduced to this world and then suddenly realizing it’s going to go these … for lack of a better phrase, to a Meet The Feebles level of atrocity, of puppet atrocity. It escalates to this sex scene where our hero ejaculates all over his office. That moment destroys an audience. They just completely lose themselves and it takes time for them to recover. I feel sorry for the trailers that follow it.

You never when people are gonna laugh, or what people are gonna find funny. When I was writing the script, we focused on the characters, the characters doing fun stuff, the plot and the twists and turns of the story, and then the set pieces and what action sequences are there. What are the crazy sequences? As I was saying earlier, you have this sandbox of puppets to play with because the Henson Company literally has a room filled with puppets, and you can litter this world with them.

Going through the script and thinking about, “Well, okay, there’s this scene where the characters are buying hot dogs at a hot dog stand.” We can actually make the hot dog vendor a hot dog, like selling other hot dogs. And that’s really weird, but it’s like a thing that happens in this universe. We can start to really dive into making this world really weird and really strange and really funny. It’s not until later where you really start to show it to other people and realize what people think is really funny and what people think is not funny.

And then you can do your best to dole out where you think the funny parts are and create this rollercoaster of laughs. But really it’s not until the movie has been shot and you go see it with a test audience for the first time do you realize what people actually find funny and what they didn’t find funny. And when I went to the first test screening of Happytime Murders, I thought people were gonna laugh at the puppet sex scene with the silly string jizz, but I didn’t realize people were gonna lose their goddamn minds like they did. And then there were other parts of the movie that I thought was really funny and no one really cared.

People were like, “Yeah, that’s funny, I guess.” And I was like, “Oh, I thought that was gold.” When you get into the editing process you realize what does and doesn’t work. Then you actually hone the laughs. Just like the Marx Brothers used to do where they would sit in the back row and they would time out how long people would laugh and make sure there’s room to breathe after a joke before the next joke comes. That’s how nitty gritty we would have to get just to make sure people could laugh in the right places and then have time to catch their breath and then even think of new ideas to add in, whether through ADR, or dialog, or whatever to help control the rollercoaster of laughs that was the movie.

So when you’re writing it, you’re never worried about, “This is too much.” Or self-editing for taste.

No. Part of what was funny to me, and to Brian Henson was that what was going to be really funny about this movie is how seriously the characters are gonna take everything. When a puppet gets its head blown off, it’s horrific to the characters. They’re like, “Oh, my God.” It’s not funny to them. And the reason it’s funny to you, the audience, is because it’s horrific to the characters. When the detective is walking into a crime scene and there’s an adorable little bunny who’s head has been blown off and there’s stuffing everywhere, they’re like, “I gotta step outside. This is gross.”

That’s really funny, the more seriously that we try to have characters react to these absurd situations. Like, when puppets have sex it’s not like they’re having an overly crazy sex scene. It’s like, no, that’s just how puppets have sex. That’s how it goes every time. Like, every time, that’s just how it is. And the human characters in the movie are reacting as such. When they go to puppet bars, or go to see puppet gang hangouts, you get to interact with the puppet world. That’s just how it is for them. These human characters have to then react as such.

When I was writing it, when Brian and I were developing it, we tried to think of just like what crazy lifestyle do puppets lead? Because there are puppets that are addicted to sugar called Sugar Smacks that are in these sugar dens. We just tried to think of the craziest stuff that puppets would actually be doing in their subculture? And then if we get to a point … Someone at some point will tell us we’ve gone too far, right?

Sure.

Like if something is too crazy, someone will tell us.

I guess that kick-started the editing.

Yes, exactly. And there were things in the original cut of the movie, I remember, that even test audiences were like, “No, you can’t do that. You got to tone that down.” And we’re like, “Okay. So I guess that is the bridge too far, right there.”

When do you listen to your test audience, and when do you go, “I have faith in that original joke?”

That’s a great question, and that’s something that I was talking to Brian about, and that’s something that even having made films over the years myself. If someone finds something not funny, or, “That was just gross. That wasn’t funny.” That’s one thing. But if it changes their feelings about characters within the movie because if we treat a puppet character with reverence and then we have him impaled with a chainsaw and ripped apart, the audience actually felt bad for that character.

They didn’t think it was funny. “Actually, I felt really bad. I didn’t find it funny, because you had built up my love for this character that you then destroyed with a chainsaw.” So, we started to realize, “Oh, right. People actually see puppets as characters, because there are these amazing puppeteers that bring life into them. You have to treat these puppet characters like human characters.

So if there’s a goofy side character that gets introduced for one scene, and that guy gets ripped apart by a chainsaw, you’re like, “That’s kind of funny.” But if it is someone that you’ve gotten to know and love over the course of an hour and then you rip that guy apart with a chainsaw, the audience would actually get upset about it.

That’s the danger of playing it straight.

Exactly.

It ups the laughs but also ups the empathy for the situation.

Exactly. Which is the trickiest thing to figure out with the tone when you’re writing the script and doing the edit. It’s the line you’re walking of creating a world and creating a tone and keeping everyone on the same page about what’s funny and what’s serious, and what’s empathy and what’s sympathy. Even with score, the way you score a scene makes you feel a different way about it. If there is a murder scene with one kind of score that’s gonna make you feel differently than if there’s a murder scene with another kind of score.

You forget there’s a puppeteer playing this character. You think it’s a thing. You think Phil Phillips is an actual character and you forget that someone else is playing him by the end of the movie. You feel really bad for this guy, this puppet, and what he’s gone through. When you learn his story and his heartbreak, you actually feel for him. That’s what I think is really cool about the movie. It’s not just, “Hey, we’re going to make puppet dick jokes for 90 minutes.” It’s like, “No, we actually wanted to create a bunch of cool new interesting characters that are in this world that hopefully people actually care about and are interested in.”

It’s a long process to bring a film into reality. How does it feel to finally be promoting Happytime Murders, and sitting in with test audiences?

I’m still skeptical. I still think I’m gonna get a call any day now that this has all been a ruse, and I’ve been on some kind of prank show and none of it is real and people were just kidding. I was driving in the streets of Los Angeles today, and I saw a bus ad for Happytime Murders and for the first time… I was just like, “Oh, no, it’s really happening. It’s really coming out.” For so many years, for 14 years, it would start and then it would stop and then something would happen.

For me, it was always just like the white whale of that project that I loved so much, but it’s never gonna happen. When I got the call that Melissa McCarthy was on board and wanted to do the movie and it was going into production, I was like, “I’ll believe it when I’m on set.” Then I went to set, and it was that mixture of, “Wow. Those are the characters that Dee and I created come to life 15 years later and we’re on the set of the Sugar Smack den, which is something that we came up with 15 years ago probably while drunk at a bar.” But still part of me was like, “I still think something’s gonna go wrong, right? Like, the set is going to burn down, right? They’re gonna take the movie down, right?” And so, I still for some reason have this sense of skepticism, but every day it’s going away more and more because it’s actually happening and it feels pretty awesome.

Red Dots

The Happytime Murders opens in theaters this Friday.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.