Performing Arts

Oh, Those Incongruous Puppets!


Still from The Muppet Movie, 1979

“The puppet serves as an ambassador or pilgrim to human beings from the world of things. The puppet reminds us of our powers of animation…”

Objects of humour: The puppet as comic performer
by Jason Price
in Comedy Studies : Volume 4 Issue 1

IQ Overview:
In the latest issue of Comedy Studies, Jason Price looks at a very particular breed of comedian—the puppet. He begins with a quick historical overview that locates puppets as elements in a tradition of farcical performance that reaches back through recorded Western history to 3rd century Greece. In their satirical position, puppets often played a role analogous to that of the fool in court, criticizing powerful elements of society that were otherwise untouchable.

Price investigates our enjoyment of puppets by mapping the incongruities they present to the viewer. With respect to comedy, he suggests that these incongruities create a cognitive shift that is analogous to the underlying structure of traditional jokes, as explained by theorist John Morreall: the ‘set-up and punch’. Price quotes Morreal:

…human experience works with learned patterns. What we have experienced prepares us to deal with what we will experience […] Most of the time, most experiences follow such mental patterns. The future turns out like the past. But sometimes we perceive or imagine a thing whose parts or features violate our mental patterns.

The absurdity of ‘violations’ of learned patterns—the punches—which are inherent in the punch-line of a joke, and in the essence of puppetry, is what causes us to find them funny and pleasurable.

One of the main incongruities that Price focusses on is the difference in size between puppet and operator. Puppets are often human-sized, or larger than human size, but it is very common for puppets to be significantly smaller than their operators. This creates an anticipated power relationship in which the puppet would be expected to hold a childlike position with respect to its operator (one further emphasized by its limited, ‘childlike’ rage of motion). Ventriloquists in particular exploit and reverse this anticipated relationship to comic effect, creating domineering or even quasi-abusive puppet characters that ‘steal the show’. Price refers to performer Conti, and her hand puppet Monk (the monkey) as an exemplification of this inversion. He cites, among other elements of their show, Monk’s refusal to deliver the correct punch lines for the jokes that Conti is ostensibly trying to tell.

The most fundamental incongruity of a puppet, though, is that it seems to live while we know for a fact that it is not alive. A puppet presents a somewhat emotionally complicated juxtaposition of human and object. This juxtaposition should be easily resolved by our logical comprehension of the relationship between the puppet as an object and its operator as a human. However, this is not how we experience a puppet show. Price finds the most convincing explanation of our experience to be Steve Tillis’ theory of ‘double vision’…

…which posits the spectator sees/perceives the object as object and character at once. For Jurkowski, this ‘double recognition’ causes the spectator to ‘oscillate’ between the elements, which might explain how we can invest so firmly in the illusion we overlook, temporarily, the reality of the object. For Tillis, the process is simultaneous, ‘[s]timulat[ing] a certain amount of pleasure by challenging its audience to consider the ontology of an “object” with “life”.

Price refines the object/human dichotomy in a section titled “Incongruities of materials and life”. He uses the example of a 2012 production by Blind Summit Theatre, The Table. In The Table, a two-foot tall puppet named Moses, with the help of three human operators, indulges in an extended self-conscious meandering about his day-to-day experience of being a puppet—with three human operators—who lives on a table. In describing the effect of exposing mechanics while simultaneously engaging imagination Price quotes Kenneth Gross:

The puppet serves as an ambassador or pilgrim to human beings from the world of things. The puppet reminds us of our powers of animation. It can also remind us (by contrast) of our tendency to turn ourselves – our words, our thoughts, our feelings –into fixed, inanimate things

While not as good as an incongruously live encounter with a puppet, there is some fun puppetry to be found around the web:

Puppets telling jokes—incongruity squared!


The BBC has a neat Punch and Judy archive.


Nina and Monk: The Monkey Pilots


Lisbon has an entire museum devoted to puppets: Museu da Marioneta

Jason Price’s original article is available online at IngentaConnect

Jason is a lecturer in Contemporary Theatre and Performance at Sussex University, where he teaches courses in political performance, directing and theatre making. He has published and presented widely on the topics of popular and community performances, with recent work appearing Contemporary Theatre Review, Popular Entertainment Studies and Studies in Theatre & Performance. His book Popular Theatres is due out next year

Comedy Studies covers multiple aspects of comedy, with articles about both contemporary and historical comedy, interviews with practicing comedians and writers, reviews, letters and editorials. The journal seeks to be instrumental in creating interdisciplinary discourse about the nature and practice of comedy, providing a forum for the disparate voices of comedians, academics and writers.

Principal Editor:
Chris Ritchie
Solent University