Tuesday, January 02, 2007

What's My Part?

Sorry for the delay in the "What I've Learned from the Muppets" series. Things have been busy.

I love the Guy Smiley game shows from Sesame Street. One of my favorites is "What's My Part," which can be found on the 2nd disc of the "Sesame Street: Old School" DVD. As I was shoveling out from the Denver Blizzard of '06 part II (Electric Boogaloo) I was thinking about this skit. I realized that this skit is a great example of different styles of puppet lip synchronization.

The skit is a parody of the old game show "What's My Line," except in this version three panelists ask questions to try and identify a certain body part. The three panelists are monsters (including Cookie Monster), the mystery guest is a nose, and Guy Smiley is the host.

Now Guy Smiley is an example of what I usually tell puppeteers not to do. As Guy Smiley, Jim Henson would not vary the degree he opened the mouth at all. The mouth of the character opens very wide for every syllable. Henson is even guilty of flipping the lid quite a bit. Puppeteers usually focus the mouth movements more in the bottom jaw of the puppet. In this case the upper jaw moves quite a bit. I wouldn't usually recommend operating a puppet in this way, but for Guy Smiley it works. Guy is supposed to be the ultimate cheesy game show host. He gets overly excited about the most ridiculous things. These hyper mouth movements fit his character, but if every puppet in the skit acted this way the audience would probably get seasick.

The three monsters are at the other end of the lip synch spectrum. Their mouth movements are quite subtle. If you've ever seen some of those old "What's My Line" shows, you may remember that the panelists were often writers or newspaper columnists. They were presented as being rather cultured individuals. These monsters are also presented as being sophisticated characters. Even Cookie comes off as being quite civilized. Their voices are not frantic or hyper like Guy Smiley, which is the opposite of what you'd expect from a monster. Since their voices are calm and intelligent, the mouth movements are fairly minimal. The fact that this is coming from strange looking monster characters just adds to the humor.

There is one more character in the skit, the nose. The puppet is pretty much just a big nose. It does speak, but there is no mouth. Does this mean there's no lip synch? Of course not! The nose doesn't simply float there, it moves in synch with what it is saying. Even though we see no mouth, the character appears to be speaking through it's movements. The performance of this puppet shows that there is more to lip synch than flapping that jaw. It's also worth noting that the nose also appears to look at Guy Smiley and the other characters, even though there are no eyes. Just like lip synch is possible without a mouth, eye contact is possible without eyes.

"What's My Part" is also a great example of the Sesame Street writing style which makes the show enjoyable for both kids and parents. As a kid, it was completely lost on me that the reason these three monsters could not recognize a nose, even when they take their blindfolds off, is that none of them have noses. As an adult, I now see layers of humor in this skit I had never noticed as a child.

1 comment:

Cha said...

What a cool reminder of the brilliance of Jim Henson and Sesame Street. I wish I was young enough to stay home from work and watch it as I did as a kid. And I don't think I ever realised the monsters didn't have noses!