Can puppets save democracy? From political lampoons to inciting revolutions, how puppets get away with things humans can't

Donald Trump is the human version of a non-stick frying pan. Never mind eggs or burnt cheese, damaging press and political scandals all slide right off the man, barely leaving a trace. As he once infamously attested, Trump could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing votes. He’s immune to the basic laws of public life; nothing can touch him.

But there may yet be one squadron of dissidents poised to challenge the U.S. president with their radical tactics. These outspoken insurgents couldn’t care less about political correctness or potential retaliation. They lurk in the wings, waiting for their moment in the spotlight to strike where it hurts most.

Who are these subversive rebels? Puppets.

They may often appear small, adorably fuzzy and googly-eyed, but these unassuming creatures are powerful political players. Never underestimate the potential of a puppet.

Last month, Jim Henson Studios launched a new R-rated improv show, Puppet Up! – Uncensored. The company may be best known for the likes of Kermit and Fozzie, but this troupe of 85 miscreants represents a new direction for the company. Alien puppets sing about wiretapping and golden showers, while orangutangs joke about Paul Ryan frequenting BDSM shops. Trump and his associates are frequently the targets of jokes human comedians wouldn’t dare utter.

In an ever-more politically correct world, comedians can’t get away with the types of jokes they used to. When Amy Schumer, outspoken feminist, Hillary Clinton supporter and Trump detractor, released Amy Schumer: The Leather Special on Netflix, she was the target of a coordinated attempt to sabotage its success with one-star ratings. In November, Wanda Sykes flipped off the audience at one of her shows after being booed for her criticism of Trump. It often seems many comedians spend more time apologizing for their jokes these days than actually performing them.

 A scene from Avenue Q

A scene from Avenue Q

Puppets don’t have these problems. They have long been symbols of the everyman that can speak truth to power without consequence. They don’t need to adhere to social niceties or moral codes. Like the most dangerous people, they have nothing to lose.

History has many examples of revolution by puppet. There’s evidence of puppet performances dating back to ancient Rome. Despite our current association of puppets with children’s shows like Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock, manipulated marionettes were largely used for adult entertainment throughout the centuries.

At one point, puppet shows were actually banned in Britain because of their subversive, anti-authoritarian messaging among the poorer classes. Radical puppetry played a role in revolutionary 17th-century England when theatrical were made illegal due to fears of spreading propaganda. Performers turned to puppetry as a way to work around the ban. The famous “Punch” puppet was a beloved symbol of the lower classes who freely mocked God, kings and even death by hanging. Eighteenth-century France had its own subversive version of Punch in a puppet named Guignol. This led to puppeteering being outlawed in both countries.

When the Czech language was banned by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in 19th century Czechoslovakia, puppets undermined the ruling by continuing to perform in Czech. During the Nazi invasions, German censors initially mistook puppet shows as pure children’s entertainment and didn’t pick up on many of the metaphorical messages in performances. Eventually they wised up, but underground puppet shows continued as part of the anti-fascist resistance even though most theatres had been forcibly closed.

More recently, puppets were some of the most visible protesters in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. The People’s Puppets of Occupy Wall Street performed with shadow puppets in the subways of New York City and giant, larger-than-life characters in the streets. Their mission was to spark change through collective art. The foul-mouthed puppets of popular adult puppet musical Avenue Q released a rendition of the song “DonaldTrumpMakesMeWannaSmokeCrack” and staged a town hall debate featuring puppet versions of Trump and Clinton.

Even traditionally family-friendly puppets are playing with politics: Bert and Ernie supported gay marriage on the cover of the New Yorker, a video of Elmo being fired over Trump’s proposed PBS budget cuts recently went viral and political puppets have stirred up storylines on hit shows like Game of Thrones and Big Little Lies.

Conversely, the recent attempt to resurrect The Muppets failed after just one season. Many critics pointed to its determination to be free of politics and steadfastly uncontroversial as part of the reason for its quick flameout. In the grand scheme of puppetry and its capacity to do more than merely entertain, Kermit the Frog could be seen as an unfulfilled puppet. His quaint insistence on shows like The Colbert Report and Hannity & Colmes that he’s neither liberal nor conservative, but “Amphibitarian” now seems out of touch in the politically-charged climate in which we find ourselves.

For all the deserved acknowledgment that shows like Sesame Street have garnered, one can’t help but compare children’s programming that utilizes puppets to the original intentions of the art. In this sense, using puppetry to teach kids how to count is a little bit like using an armoured tank to do your grocery shopping. These colourful characters have a history of instigating revolutions, bringing down regimes and reclaiming public spaces. They can criticize the powerful and represent the afflicted in ways no one else can.

And maybe, just maybe they can save us from ourselves.

This post first appeared in the National Post

Sabrina Maddeaux