Puppetry Steals the Show in Eric, So Why Aren’t Puppets in More Media for Adults?

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Puppetry Steals the Show in Eric, So Why Aren’t Puppets in More Media for Adults?

It is a truth that must be universally acknowledged: people love puppets. Puppetry is one of the most endearing artforms in human existence. An artform of overwhelming fondness. They invite us to play pretend, to accept a felted reality and talk to a creature rather than acknowledge a hand.

Most of our collective love of puppets comes from childhood. Especially in the United States, puppetry is a staple of children’s TV. Many people alive today grew up watching puppets in some form, whether it was Sesame Street, Lazy Town, or even Edgar Bergen’s ventriloquist act from the 1930s-’50s. 

But in the year 2024, puppets aren’t something you see in much media anymore. They might be technically there, like puppets being used in the recent Star Wars sequel trilogy, but there isn’t much that centers puppets the way The Muppets, Dark Crystal, or Labyrinth did.

Netflix’s new series Eric attempts to bring puppets into the world of media for adults. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Vincent, the creator of a Sesame Street-esque children’s puppet show Good Day, Sunshine, who begins to hallucinate a giant monster puppet (also voiced by Cumberbatch) while he searches for his missing son. The 1980s NYC-set show takes a dark perspective by featuring a storyline that incorporates alcohol and drug addiction, government corruption, homophobia and the AIDS epidemic, and child sex trafficking. 

It’s a rare instance of puppetry trying to branch out from its childhood associations. The inclusion of puppetry in Eric’s narrative is because of a children’s TV show, yes, but the show uses the artform as a way to discuss its much darker subject matter.

In an interview with Paste Magazine, puppeteer Raymond Carr discussed how even Jim Henson was wary of puppetry being defined by a certain demographic. “He was concerned about getting pigeonholed into the children’s television, children’s entertainment world,” Carr said. “He was not sure that he wanted to do Sesame Street back in the day because of that. Because he, along with a lot of other puppeteers, knew that puppetry has the ability to reach all ages and can tackle all subject matters.”

The man behind much of Eric’s puppetry accuracy is Carr, a veteran puppeteer trained by The Jim Henson Company. Carr has worked with puppets for decades, often in children’s TV shows like Lazy Town, Earth to Ned, and Moon and Me. On Eric, Carr served as puppet captain, teaching many of the actors the art of puppeteering and advising the crew on how a show like Good Day, Sunshine might actually run.

One of Carr’s biggest insights came from the fact that puppetry is not conducted in the UK, where Eric series creator Abi Morgan and director Lucy Forbes are from, the same way it is in the U.S. “Because the show, Eric, is specifically based on American children’s entertainment, particularly of the 1980s, they wanted to make sure that they had somebody who had experience in that world and could work in that space,” Carr said.

Due to Carr and the team of puppeteers and puppet craftsmen behind Eric, the series is especially skilled at depicting how puppetry works. Carr taught the actors how to hold up their hands and be aware of the space on the stage while performing. He also liaised between the art department and camera team on how to navigate what the set-up of a series like Good Day, Sunshine would be, focusing on limited set pieces and a practical use of space.  “If you are trying to do a PBS-style show where the money is limited and you’re pumping out content quickly, you don’t really have time to move major set pieces around that freely like you would on The Muppet Show or even Fraggle Rock or something like that.”

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Carr’s duties also extended to researching the puppetry of the 1980s to make the show realistic to that era, down to the materials being used to make the puppets. The creators used real cameras from that time period, which required an extra degree of choreography from the puppeteers due to the square aspect ratios of television sets at the time. “A lot of the puppeteers were kind of on top of each other at times, or just in awkward positions, possibly more still than they would’ve been if we were shooting in 4:3 or shooting in widescreen.”

But on top of Eric’s puppet accuracy comes a desire to integrate the artform into the dark story. One character in the show proposes the thesis for puppetry’s continued presence and fascination from adults: “They get to say the things we can’t.” For the titular Eric, that means voicing all of Vincent’s inner fears about being a horrible father and addict who has let down his son. But the show also weaves the idea into the conservative culture of the ‘80s that repressed anyone who wasn’t a part of the “social norm,” and allowed corruption and poverty to flourish while abandoning the most vulnerable members of society. In Eric, puppets are the only creatures that get to be themselves in a space designed to help kids become better.

For Carr, the presence of puppetry in a dark show also works to combat many of the stereotypes around puppeteers. “You generally have these [puppets] that don’t have the complexity of problems that adults have, and there is a level of innocence to that. And then there’s the assumption that, if people are writing for these characters of innocence and performing these characters of innocence, then the people who perform it must have this childlike innocent nature or revocation to that kind of stuff, or gravitate towards childlike things.”

Carr described the contrasting views of how puppeteers are perceived by the public. On one hand, they’re assumed to be childlike in nature to be working in children’s TV. (His response: “No, we’re all adults and we have adult interests”). 

On the other hand, the opposing interpretation is just as reductionary: “[The general public] does have this myopic view of them being this childlike thing. And then it comes in contrast. Well, if they are this saccharine, sweet, childlike person, they must be hiding some sort of seedy underbelly secret. Nobody is really that sweet and childlike, and so they have to go to the other extreme.” While this is the association Eric leans to—several of its puppeteers are addicts or adulterers—the show airs on the side of complexity. Yes, there are some characters who commit unforgivable crimes, but others are struggling adults who aren’t defined solely by their work. People are complicated, and Eric emphasizes that there is always an entirely different person behind every puppet.

Eric is a rare chance to see puppetry as an artform put on clear display and be tended to by those who love and respect it. But it’s also a chance for puppetry to branch out from its childhood associations. And with the hit that was last year’s Five Nights at Freddy’s movie, which was heavily praised for its use of real puppets, it seems there is a palpable desire to see them more often, especially in media geared towards a more mature audience. 

One of the most exciting things about watching Eric is seeing the result of when a cast and crew truly cares about honoring and learning a craft.  Puppetry should be experimented with more. It should be used in more media, especially shows and movies not just for children, and in new ways. Relegating an artform to a single demographic limits its ability to grow. Despite being one of the oldest artforms in the world, there’s still so much room for innovation. If only more productions had the bravery to pick up the felt and rods and give something that was previously lifeless a voice.


Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. Her work has appeared in Paste Magazine, the LA Times, Business Insider, Gold Derby, TheWrap, FOX Digital, The Spool, and Awards Radar. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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