‘No Sesame. All street’.
It’s a pretty catchy tagline for an R-rated puppet action-comedy starring Melissa McCarthy as a cop who teams up with her former puppet partner to catch a killer, in a movie which features fabric creatures with ping pong ball eyes having wild sex and snorting drugs.
But the line didn’t go down with everyone, particularly the Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation behind Sesame Street, who sued The Happytime Murders’ production company STX Entertainment, arguing it deliberately tried to confuse people that the two things were connected. The Happytime Murders is a Henson Alternative production, and not associated with the Disney-owned Muppet brand in any way.
A judge threw it out, but what makes the suit particularly poignant is that the producer/director of Happytime Murders is Brian Henson, aka the son of the late Jim Henson who created the Muppets which populate Sesame Street.
“I knew that Sesame Workshop would not be very happy about [STX] using the phrase, ‘No Sesame. All street.’ Henson tells Yahoo Movies. “But at the same time, it’s literally saying not Sesame Street. So I was surprised the Sesame Workshop reacted as strongly as they did. But at the same time I think their reaction was more about concerns about their relationships to their sponsors and all of their grant providers.”
He suggests the Happytime Murders marketing was down to STX (“they have a lot riding on it and so they were very much in control of that”) and admits they were unlikely to shift their position.
“As things like Sesame Street move on to second and third generations, things like this will be of issue,” he says. “In 1976, Saturday Night Live came out as the most controversial television series ever done in history. It was going to be live at 11p.m. on a Saturday night and it was exclusively adult and controversial. And my Dad put Jim Henson’s Muppets on season one of Saturday Night Live. And Sesame Workshop wasn’t suing anybody. But at that point, all the originators were over there.”
Brian Henson has a long and illustrious history as a puppeteer, performing in The Muppets Take Manhattan, moving the mouth of the bloodthirsty plant in Little Shop of Horrors, playing Jack Pumpkinhead in Return to Oz and doing the voice of Hoggle in Labyrinth. He also produced and directed what some people think is the best Christmas film ever, The Muppet Christmas Carol.
But for a tough sell like The Happytime Murders – it took Henson 12 years to get a greenlight – he still faced talk of things like celebrity voices for the puppets, particularly the lead character of private detective Phil.
“At one point the studios had talked about they wanted a celebrity voice in the puppet lead and I thought I would probably lose that battle,” says Henson. “And it turned out not to be a battle when I just explained what happens when you use a celebrity voice on a puppet. I said, ‘here’s the problem, they’re going to want the puppet to look like the celebrity.’”
In the movie, Phil is voiced and controlled by veteran Muppet performer Bill Barretta, who performed Rowlf and the Swedish Chef amongst other in 2011’s Muppets movie reboot.
While his dad may have been the creator of 1982’s The Dark Crystal, Brian says that he’s only the “appreciator” of a new series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, produced by Netflix, which is being supervised by his sister Lisa Henson.
“When I wrapped [Happytime Murders], half of my puppeteers got on a plane the next day to go to England to start shooting Dark Crystal,” he reveals. “And they’re still shooting. They’ve been shooting since last December.”
But does he know what the story is? News reports suggest a prequel?
“The truth is it isn’t even a prequel. It’s set a long time before the movie.”
And what about Labyrinth? The 1986 fantasy starring Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie’s codpiece has become a kids classic in the 30 years since it flopped on release. It’s being developed as a stage musical and there have been rumours of a spin-off, but are we any closer to fruition?
“We’re still trying to figure out the best thing to do with Labyrinth,” says Henson. “We’re sort of developing a couple of different directions at the same time but nothing that is far enough along that I can talk about. We have a couple of different approaches.”
The Happytime Murders is in cinemas 27 August. Watch a new clip below.