Friday, October 25, 2013

DIY, Baby!

My career has been two-fold; as a puppeteer and as a stay-at-home dad (and being a stay-at-home parent is a career onto itself; but that's another posting). These two jobs have often intersected, even collided with each other in terms of what I can create for my son (and, let's be honest, for me too). I have made puppets and things out of cardboard ever since I was a kid and now have done it for and with my son.

I have been very blessed and spoiled that I have had this opportunity with my son. Not every parent can. So many parents I know, both, set off to work and don't get to have full family time until the weekend. It's one of the reasons for my book "10 Minute Puppets" (from Workman Publishing) and my new book "BOX!" (from Globe Pequot Press). The puppet book was the idea of my wife (author Susan Elia MacNeal of the how-to-make-your-own-infused-liquers, "Infused" among other books; yeah I'm cross promoting
She said, "You know how to be a puppeteer and you know how to be a dad. Why not combine them to show other people how easy and fun making puppets can be. But," she added, "Don't make it 'crafty.' Make it for people like me. You are not married to Martha Stewart." So now part of my career is showing others that DIY-ing crafts is simple. And cheaper. My new book, "BOX!" is all about how NOT to buy every single toy for a child. YOU CAN make them yourself. Really.

For me I just learned to. Being the child of a single parent who worked two jobs to keep our mouths fed and a roof over our head, I learned early that if you want something done, do it yourself. Cleaning? That was us.  Shopping? Us. Laundry, cooking? Us. Us. Cause you can't pay to have someone do it ALL for you if you only have enough money for yourselves. We did live in an apartment house so we could call the maintenance man to fix the sink. But being a kid I watched him. And asked questions. Then when I was old enough, I tried to fix a leak---and it worked! I felt so proud that I was able to do it myself. Showed off to the rest of the family, too. Then one time here, in our own home, the pipe under our sink burst; completely rotted away. So we did call a plumber for an estimate. I won't print it cause you are already imaging the cost. So I wondered how I could do it. Went online; took pictures and showed them to the guys at our local hardware and they set me up. Done. I did. I. Did. It. AND got my son to help. (And yes the sense of pride got passed down to him; bonus having a lesson taught and a dry kitchen floor.) So I was certainly not raised on a sense of entitlement in our home. (Thanks mom.)

Today, with the internet there are so many sites and resources to help YOU do those jobs around the house. Major chains such as Lowes and Home Depot have courses online and even in the store themselves; workshops to help you do what needs to be done.

And of course there is the hub of how-to, Youtube. You can fix a leaky faucet, install a shelf, even re-do your kitchen or bathroom with SO many people giving video advice on...well.... EVERYTHING. I installed our ceiling fans myself after checking (and cross checking) how to do it. My friend, artist Jon Stucky (@stuckyart and showed me how easy and cheaper is was to paint one of our bathrooms with a couple sample cans you can get at Home Depot. I usually make my son's halloween costumes. One year after saying he wanted to be a vampire (with the cape and make-up standing by), he told everyone, two days before Halloween, "I'm going to be Anakin Skywalker!" Huh!?! Then he said to me, "It's easy dad. WE can make them!" (How do you say "no" to that? To the internet!) A friend figured out not only how to replace his counter top, but do it with a resin and set antique silverware in it (he's good and an over-achiever). And a neighbor of mine is a passionate biker. He and wife and kid all ride. On bikes he made. Yep. HE MADE THEM. Got the parts and put them together, maintains them and they are so much lighter and more durable than anything he could have bought. (Feel that sense of pride again?)

But you are already DIY-ing; cooking! You can't eat take out or go out every night. So you whip up dishes, easy recipes, tried and true meals, even ones that can be frozen and served again. (And if you're not, well go onto that "inter-web" and there is an endless supply of cooking/baking sites and videos.) I learned from my grandmother and I and my wife are passing it down to our son. And all his b-day cakes and parties were home grown. WE just did it.

My son is into fencing, taking it for after school. Explaining to him that the foil is a tool, part of his equipment, and not a toy, he still wants to practice. So I made he and I "foils" from dowel rods and cardboard (with foam safety tips). We practiced in our courtyard, even giving "lessons" to his friends on the proper stance. One little friend came to me and asked, "Where did you buy them?" I told her I made them. "Wow," was her reply. Then I said, "Maybe your dad could make you a pretend sword, too?" Then in a melancholy tone said, "No. He couldn't do that." I told her to bring hi by and I will show both of them how.

So just try. Just try. That's all I'm saying. You will always amaze yourself what YOU
can do.

(Now please excuse me while I go install a chandelier.)

Monday, April 8, 2013

"No Puppets, Please"

There is a dearth of puppetry on TV right now. Let's review:

Thanks to PBS Kids and Sprout, two of the 24 hr kid networks now available, the classic - nay - now the landmark, standard bearer of children' television, Sesame Street, can be seen every day, almost at any given hour. On Disney XD, the 24 hr tween channel from the House-of-Mouse, there is the prime time series, Crash & Bernstein, (starring my friend and colleague in puppetdom, Tim Lagasse) about a young boy's doll come to life and thus, hilarity ensues.

And what do these two series have in common. Of course....


Both use this art form to entertain their viewers, slipping in a lesson or two while doing it (well the Street does, anyway), all the while using tricks and techniques first perfected by the Muppets and that guy who started it all, Jim Henson. Jim once said that his characters were "made for television." Meaning, that the TV, itself, is the traditional proscenium his puppets used. Thus no need to hide behind anything; the camera just cuts the puppet off at the waist (and hiding the naughty bits, aka puppeteers underneath). Crash is the freshman on the air, with it's first season under its belt, while Sesame just wrapped it's 429th season on the air. It feels that way. I mean, at this point, when wasn't Sesame on TV?

These two shows have one other thing in common.

They are the only two shows featuring puppets, nationally seen on networks, in the United States.

And that's it.

Zip. Nada. Zilch.

No puppets.

I think there should be more puppets on TV. I grew up with puppets on my TV, on a daily basis. Sesame, of course. But also, Shari Lewis and Lambchop (and how many shows did they do duirng the course of Shari's career?); Kula, Fran & Ollie with the incredible Burr Tilstrom doing all the characters (save Fran, the token human to be the puppets' friend, confidante and assistant); Mister Rodgers' Neighborhood and the  the cast of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, brought to life by Fred Rodgers', himself); and Saturday mornings had many a Sid & Marty Kroft show.

When I began my career in puppetry thrived in TV and commercials and even movies. Remember Alf? Spitting Image? D.C. Follies? All those Chuckie movies? Gremlins? Gremilns 2? I could keep listing. Puppets were naturally used. When Nickelodeon created its' first kid show it was Eurreka's Castle (paid from the profits the network got from its game show Double Dare. Remember that?). And I was fortunate enough to work on it. This new puppet show Not a cartoon. A puppet show. Nick then had other shows with puppet sin the 90's; Allegra's Window and Gullah Gullah Island. Shows with humans and puppets. Nick loved puppets right through Jack's Big Music Show and up to Oobi.

Disney too had its original puppet driven program in the 90s, Welcome to Pooh Corner (ok, puppets is a stretch with this show, but it comes close). But then in 1997, Disney announced that it would create a new daytime block called "Playhouse Disney," and the "flagpole" (network-eese for the central, main draw) would be a show called Bear in the Big Blue House. An all puppet show, with puppets created by The Jim Henson Company (making Bear et al un-official "muppets"). In 2005, the channel produced the spin-off series, Breakfast With Bear, with the walking-talking Bear out in our world visiting kids in their actual homes. (And let me tell you; human doors aren't designed for the girth of a bear.)

Now that's all changed. Yes, due in part to the advancement in computer-generated technology to create 3D characters. And I have nothing against good shows that use this medium. Sid the Science Kid, on PBS, mixes puppet techniques and computer animation to create Sid and his world. This new form brought to by The Jim Henson Company. In Jim's words, again, these characters "were made for television." It's a good show but, is it's success due to Sid & company not looking like "puppets?"

Networks don't want puppets. Period. It's true. In fact, one children's network actually has it written in its letter to those pitching show ideas to them. "No puppets, please." I've had execs at two different pitch meetings at a kids network tell me that "the problem with puppets is that they screwer too young," "puppets tend to be for young children." But your networks are for YOUNG CHILDREN! And another network actually let me know that if I could come up with a cheap 3D show where the characters had to collect things that kids at home wanted to collect (wink, wink: buy), that would work. Networks have a bottom line and once again I am reminded: there is a reason why this is called "show business."

Well that doesn't work for me. And I intend to do something about it.