Sammy J and Heath McIvor's puppetry for grown-ups

This article is from 2009

Sammy J & Heath McIvor

Twisted puppeteers may not be taking over the planet, but they’re making serious inroads onto our comedy stages. Emma Newlands hears from Australia’s Sammy J & Heath McIvor as they gingerly re-enter the Forest of Dreams

My favourite moments are when puppets break on stage,’ laughs puppeteer Heath McIvor, the man literally pulling the strings behind Sammy J in the Forest of Dreams, the cult adult puppet show which prepares to return to the Fringe this year. ‘There’s nothing you can do about it and it’s always piss funny. I was doing a school tour a couple of years ago and, mid-scene, the puppet I was operating lost an eyeball. It quite literally popped out of the puppet’s head and landed on the lap of a small child in the front row. The child was kind enough to walk up on stage and return the eyeball amidst the horrified screams of a room full of scarred-for-life school children.’

Thankfully, any puppet malfunctions in the Forest of Dreams show, a sell out word-of-mouth success last year which stars token human Sammy J (who co-created the show with Heath) and a cast of 14 Sesame Street-style puppets, just add to its appeal. The audience is taken on a journey through a fantasy world of magical forests, profanity-laden songs and a surprisingly touching story.

And sometimes musical comedian Sammy J is forced to do some quick – and infectiously amusing – improvising if there are any technical glitches. ‘Trying to get puppets to do human things is usually a recipe for laughter, because they can’t,’ he says. ‘In Edinburgh last year one of our microphones ran out of batteries and we had to send the forest creatures on an “expedition” to find some Double As.’ It’s moments like that where the pair are glad to have written a comedy show. ‘Then, pretty much anything can be incorporated into the story and conveniently cover for the fact that we should have put fresh batteries in!’ notes Sammy with a wry giggle.

So, will it be the same show as last year or has it been updated for 2009? McIvor believes that it’s a stronger set this time round. ‘We’ve had a bit of time to ourselves and in coming back to the show we’ve brought a freshness to it and rediscovered the pitch and pace and the subtlety with the delivery. That and it’s much sillier now.’

Explaining how they met, McIvor says: ‘Sammy and I were both performing on the same comedy night several years ago and enjoyed each other’s work. We were then approached by a club in Melbourne who asked us whether we’d like to team up and perform a weekly “wrap up” of the week’s news. So for a few months, Sammy and I would write a brand new show every week, and deliver it to a drunken but appreciative crowd each Friday. It was during this time we really got to know each other. It’s fair to say we find each other funny, which is the reason we love collaborating.’

For Sammy’s part, he tells of how impressed he was when he saw first saw McIvor performing. ‘It was some of the funniest stuff I’d ever seen. Heath’s great talent is being able to make the audience forget they’re watching a puppet; it just happens to be another character on stage.’ The duo are also each bringing solo shows to the Fringe this year, with Sammy’s offering 1999 billed intriguingly as The Wonder Years meets Wolf Creek. ‘It’s a musical memoir based on my time at school,’ he elaborates. ‘It follows on from Forest in that it’s quite theatrical and has lots of songs, but it’s also quite a lot darker.’

Musically, it extends the comedy song theme beyond the likes of Forest of Dreams tunes such as ‘Fuck You Disney’ and ‘I’m Learning How to be Less of a Dick’. ‘It’s an emotional, complex, layered piece of work, with heartbreaking songs such as ‘Please Don’t Get a Boner’,’ says Sammy who describes his main profession as a musical comedian who has always included a theatrical element in his shows. He first performed in Edinburgh in 2007, dressing up in army uniforms by day for Breaker Morant (which also starred fellow Aussie comedians Adam Hills and Brendon Burns) and performing his solo show by night, singing songs on piano. And then last year he kissed puppets onstage. As for 2009: ‘I’m looking forward to doing something entirely different again this year. Nothing like keeping people guessing, is there?’

McIvor’s show is entitled Randy’s Postcards from Purgatory, a comedy about ‘a life misled and a puppet unstitched’, starring a bitter anti-hero puppet. McIvor describes it as ‘the tale of an expletive-friendly puppet with a penchant for hard liquor and a tendency to fuck everything up. It’s a dark, theatrically-driven tale of heartbreak and redemption with enough hilarious flashback sequences, stupid songs and puppet-affiliated non-sequiturs to keep most audiences from hurling half-full pints of warm beer at the puppet while screaming something incomprehensible about “should’ve gone to see that Pete Firman bloke”.’

The concept of ‘adult puppet shows’ certainly seems to be a growing comedy genre, with Broadway hit Avenue Q winning Tony Awards for its bawdy but subversive Sesame Street parody, featuring a mixture of puppets and humans facing the harsh realities of the adult world through the medium of songs like ‘Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist’. And Jim Henson’s Puppet Improv: Adults Only has been combining traditional comedy improv with the uninhibited anarchy of live puppet performance, giving puppets words and actions that would make Kermit blush. McIvor and Sammy agree that they don’t see these shows as rivals, but what is it about puppets that we can’t resist? ‘We always just wanted to create the funniest show we could, and this one happened to involve music and puppets,’ says Sammy. ‘Our shows are incredibly different in terms of style and content. They’re just lo-fi, raucous comedy with two guys wreaking havoc on stage, which I guess has its own charm.’

McIvor has plenty to add on his chosen craft. ‘I’ve been a puppeteer for ten years now and it never fails to amaze me how easy it is to disarm an audience with a puppet. As kids, most people were exposed to Sesame Street and the Muppets or Basil Brush and Sooty or even Punch and Judy, and I think it’s really easy to slip back into believing that a bit of carved foam with some felt and ping pong balls strategically glued to it has a life of its own. Also, when that bit of carved foam happens to be swearing like a sailor or revealing its breasts and passionately kissing a skinny man in pantaloons, people get on board immediately. There’s nothing funnier than a puppet saying “fuck”. And I think people let you get away with a bit more when it’s a puppet dishing out the dirt.’

Having now toured the Forest of Dreams show extensively, including a successful run in London’s West End, how do they feel about coming back to Edinburgh this year? ‘I spent most of last year’s Festival walking around pinching myself and hollering “THIS IS FREAKIN’ AMAZING” in an inappropriately loud tone of voice.’ Chances are Randy would have put it a little more crudely.

Sammy J: 1999, Underbelly, Cowgate, 0844 545 8252, 8–30 Aug (not 17), 6pm, £9–£12 (£7.50– £11). Previews 6&7 Aug, £6; Randy’s Postcards from Purgatory, Underbelly, Cowgate, 0844 545 8252, 8–30 Aug (not 17), 7.20pm, £9–£12.50 (£8–£11.50). Previews 6&7 Aug, £6; Sammy J in the Forest of Dreams, Udderbelly’s Pasture, Bristo Square, 0844 545 8252, 14&15, 21&22 Aug, 11.45pm, £14.50 (£12.50); 24–30 Aug, 10.15pm, £12–£14.50 (£10–£12.50).

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Sammy J: 1999

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