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‘The Happytime Murders’ and Our Love of Making Childhood Things Naughty

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Melissa McCarthy puppet comedy

Early on in The Happytime Murders, a puppet turns toward the camera and yells, “Fuck you!” This, in a nutshell, is the film’s one joke: We expect puppets to be sweet, adorable and kind — the personification of innocence — but these puppets are crass, horny and terrible. Surprise! Wasn’t expecting that, were ya??!?

Actually, yes. As long as there have been puppets — or, at the very least, Muppets — there have been people who have pondered making them do unspeakably inappropriate things. Avenue Q won Tonys portraying puppet characters as candid, insecure twentysomethings grappling with careers, sexuality and depression. Henson Alternative, an edgier division of the Jim Henson Company (which brought the Muppets to the world), has even gotten into the act, producing shows like Stuffed and Unstrung, which blend the signature Henson puppetry with swearing and mature themes. The Happytime Murders also comes from Henson Alternative, furthering the company’s mission to find a way to cater to adults who love puppets but also can’t get enough sex jokes.

There’s something powerfully, hopelessly juvenile about some people’s fascination with making childhood things naughty. How many cars have those Calvin-peeing decals on them? When Incredibles 2 hit theaters, so too did tons of Incredibles-themed porn. In college, I had a classmate who would kill time drawing stunningly accurate pictures of the Simpsons family performing all kinds of sexual acts on one another. (He ended up getting a job on the show.) And from South Park to Team America, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have crafted an entire career out of our collective obsession with finding sweet things doing awful things hilarious.

I don’t exclude myself from this fascination. I think South Park and Team America are funny, and I really enjoyed Sausage Party, the naughty grocery-store animated comedy from writers-producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. But The Happytime Murders is what happens when filmmakers try (and fail) to capitalize on the desecration of childhood innocence. Rather than letting us revel in the violation, the movie just comes across as mean-spirited and lazy. With these types of comedies, there’s a fine line between tasteless-bad and tasteless-amazing. The Happytime Murders is so profoundly on one side of that line that future degenerates should study it so as not to make the same mistakes.

It’s easy to assume that someone who doesn’t like The Happytime Murders objects to the idea of seeing puppets swear. Or have their heads blown off by gunfire. Or have lengthy orgasms in which their semen covers the walls. The idea is that those who hated the film must be prudes. And while I’m sure there are some critics who blasted The Happytime Murders simply because they found the humor to be in poor taste, that kind of defense of the film’s crassness lets its creators off the hook. It’s not that the humor’s in poor taste — it’s that the humor is really desperate.

GIF by The Happytime Murders - Find & Share on GIPHY

Here’s the analogy I’d use: We all had that one friend in junior high who discovered that if he swore, he’d get big laughs. And so he just kept swearing, hoping to make those laughs grow and grow. But, eventually, they stopped — soon, it became clear to all those around him that he was swearing not to be edgy but out of a neediness. And neediness isn’t funny.

It’s the same reason why Jerry Seinfeld decided early in his career not to swear in his act: When he noticed that a joke didn’t get a laugh without cursing, he knew that the joke wasn’t funny. But it’s also why comics like Chris Rock object to the suggestion that it’s really easy to be funny by swearing a lot: If any of us tried to go on stage and just curse, we’d quickly realize how much more to comedy there is than that.

You’d think the people that made The Happytime Murders would know this, too. Director Brian Henson is the son of Jim Henson, a warm-hearted but also very funny and subversive artist. The screenwriter, Todd Berger, made the amusing 2012 indie comedy It’s a Disaster, about a handful of insufferable couples having brunch together, unaware that the end of the world (in the form of nuclear war) might be underway. And the film features Melissa McCarthy, Elizabeth Banks, Maya Rudolph and Joel McHale — talented actors who have been funny. The Happytime Murders’ pedigree only makes its awfulness more depressing. There are few sadder sights than funny people being unfunny.

As juvenile and sophomoric as Sausage Party or South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut get, they never lose sight of the fact that there’s some greater purpose to their comedy beyond dropping F-bombs. The Happytime Murders’ conceit is that, in the movie’s universe, puppets are as flawed as humans, but nobody involved with the film decided why that mattered or what that observation really means. Comedy is about confidence — assuring the audience that the filmmakers know what they’re doing — but The Happytime Murders mostly flails around in its own flop sweat. It wants you to enjoy its lewdness, but because you don’t feel like you’re in sure hands, you just feel bad for the movie and everybody involved in it.

This is one of the key components to any irreverent comedy: Whether it’s The Happytime Murders, Monty Python or Blazing Saddles, they have to sell you on the fact that it’s okay to laugh at such base, inappropriate material. The best comedies succeed brilliantly at this. The Happytime Murders, on the other hand, is such a sour experience because it doesn’t believe in its own outrageousness. It’s totally fine to laugh at horrible things, but don’t make us feel bad for doing it — and definitely don’t make us feel bad for the people making the movie.

Here are a few other takeaways from The Happytime Murders. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. We have failed Maya Rudolph.

One of the ongoing mysteries of the entertainment industry is why Rudolph isn’t bigger than she is. She’s a star, obviously, thanks to her work on Saturday Night Live and Bridesmaids, but I’ve always felt that audiences haven’t fully appreciated what a talent she is. Put her in anything — she often plays the supporting role — and she’ll automatically make your project better. Yet she’s never quite broken through in the way that other actresses of her generation, like Kristin Wiig or Melissa McCarthy, have.

When she was on SNL in the early 21st century, she separated herself by being a great impressionist. She could do a killer Beyoncé and a mean Whitney Houston — perhaps, in retrospect, too mean, since it’s now hard to look back at old clips of Rudolph in the role following Houston’s death. Still, she had a fearlessness that’s enormously compelling — she didn’t just play real people, she had a strong, specific take on them.

On the big screen, she’s been in everything from Idiocracy to the relationship drama Away We Go to the Grown Ups films. Her most successful movie was Bridesmaids, although she doesn’t tend to be the person you think of first from that comedy. Maybe Kristen Wiig comes to mind — or Rudolph’s Happytime Murders co-star Melissa McCarthy. Rudolph’s bride character Lillian is more of the straight woman amidst all the funnier characters surrounding her. But next time Bridesmaids pops up on cable, keep an eye out for Rudolph. She’s really touching and charming — she grounds the film in a smart, understated way.

In The Happytime Murders, she’s once again on the periphery, playing the dumbbell secretary to puppet detective Phil Philips. Rudolph’s job is to underplay whenever something “zany” or “outrageous” happens in the film, and as a result, she’s consistently appealing. While everybody else is swearing and being rude — all in the name of shocking us — Rudolph is just a pro, delivering some excellent deadpan amidst the nonsense swirling around her. This movie isn’t good, but she is.

Rudolph has tried the limelight. She was in the short-lived sitcom Up All Night. She’s done a couple variety shows, The Maya Rudolph Show and Maya & Marty. They all were busts. Sometimes, really talented people don’t have the ball bounce their way professionally. But watching The Happytime Murders, I was reminded all over again how great she is — and how lucky the movie was to have her.

#2. Jim Henson’s experimental early films are a trip.

It’s been 28 years since Jim Henson, the man behind the Muppets, died at the age of 53. His work as a puppeteer and storyteller will always be what’s best known about him — that and the legacy that his son Brian Henson and the Jim Henson Company have struggled to live up to — but he had a whole creative life before Kermit that’s often forgotten. It shouldn’t be.

I recently caught the Jim Henson Exhibition that’s been making its way around the country, and while it was very fun to see Kermit, Bert, Ernie and other Muppets on display, some of the best parts of the exhibit involve Henson’s early career. That includes a look at the experimental films he made when he was in his 20s. Perhaps the most famous of these is Time Piece, which was nominated for the Best Live Action Short Oscar in 1966.

The film, which stars Henson as an unnamed man in a hospital who suddenly goes on a series of surreal adventures, is only nine minutes long, and it feels very 1960s. (The prevailing feeling while watching the trippy Time Piece is to say, “Far out, man….”) But Time Piece’s playful, impish spirit hints at the direction his career would eventually take. And you also see the people who would go on that journey with him: Frank Oz (who voiced Miss Piggy and Burt) and Jerry Juhl (the head writer on The Muppet Show) both put in appearances. The whole thing isn’t available online, but here’s a cool clip…

#3. Let’s rank the best ‘Happytime Murders’ GIFs.

It’s pretty common nowadays for studios to release a series of official GIFs to promote their movies. Those shareable little bits of story are a great way to possibly go viral even before your film comes out. STX needs all the help it can get with The Happytime Murders, so it’s jumped on the bandwagon, creating a page on Giphy. There are 28 GIFs from the film there. I shall now pick the five best.

5) Why, yes, it’s a sex joke right off the bat — and it’s a lame, homophobic joke to boot. That said, big-eyed puppets always make me laugh.

Suck Your D GIF by The Happytime Murders - Find & Share on GIPHY

4) McCarthy is such a good sport that it’s hard to blame the movie’s faults on her. The reason I like this GIF is because it’s from a scene that made me laugh in The Happytime Murders­ — and because it sorta embodies the futility of this film’s attempts to be funny.

Fail Melissa Mccarthy GIF by The Happytime Murders - Find & Share on GIPHY

3) Many puppets get shot in the head in this movie — and each time, the head explodes, stuffing flying everywhere. I’m such a cretin I laughed.

Explosion Mind Blown GIF by The Happytime Murders - Find & Share on GIPHY

2) No matter how lame the jokes are in The Happytime Murders, Rudolph radiates such composure that you laugh anyway. That’s never truer than during the movie’s extended sex sequence. Seriously, look at Rudolph. The woman is a champ.

Awkward Puppet Sex GIF by The Happytime Murders - Find & Share on GIPHY

1) This is what it felt like to watch The Happytime Murders.

Kick Kicking GIF by The Happytime Murders - Find & Share on GIPHY