HEAT VISION

How Peter Jackson's Low-Budget Cult Comedy 'Meet the Feebles' Inspired 'The Happytime Murders'

Todd Berger, scriptwriter on STX's R-rated puppet comedy, and 'Meet the Feebles' writer Danny Mulheron (who also wore the infamous — and "rancid" — hippo suit) recount almost 30 years of bad taste.
A still from 'Meet the Feebles,' Private Investigator Phil Philips from 'The Happytime Murders' (inset)   |   Wingnut Films; STX Entertainment
Todd Berger, scriptwriter on STX's R-rated puppet comedy, and 'Meet the Feebles' writer Danny Mulheron (who also wore the infamous — and "rancid" — hippo suit) recount almost 30 years of bad taste.

When the first trailer landed in May for The Happytime Murders, STXfilms’ liquor, drugs, sex and violence-soaked puppet crime comedy starring Melissa McCarthy, one British newspaper declared it to be the “first-ever R-rated Muppets film."

Not quite.

As was quickly pointed out by Flight of the Conchords star Jemaine Clement, that title had already been claimed.

“Ahem… No, that would be Meet the Feebles, Peter Jackson, NZ, 1989,” he tweeted, referring to only the second feature by his Oscar-winning fellow New Zealander, made back when he was a 20-something filmmaker spending his weekends putting together comedy horror splatter movies on shoestring budgets and over a decade before The Lord of the Rings trilogy would turn him into a billion-dollar box-office behemoth and household name.

In reality — and as one typically pedantic Twitter user commented — neither film is officially ‘Muppets’ property, despite The Happytime Murders coming from The Jim Henson Company and being directed by Brian Henson, son of the late puppet master. (The R-rated puppet seal was also probably broken by the 1976 pornographic film Let My Puppets Come by Deep Throat director Gerard Damiano, but that’s another matter.)

But it was actually Meet the Feebles — which Jackson described as a "kind of Roger Rabbit meets Brazil" — that would ultimately spark the imagination of a New Orleans-born college student and, decades later, result in one of 2018’s most off-the-wall Hollywood releases (and one featuring arguably the most comically graphic puppet sex scene in cinema since Team America: World Police).

“I was in the University of Texas in Austin, and my friend Dee [Robertson] and I were in film class together and bonded over weird cinema,” says Todd Berger, scriptwriter for The Happytime Murders. This was back in the late 1990s, when fans of obscure films would have to visit actual video stores to peruse the shelves for oddities. “And Austin had all these great video stores,” adds Berger.

First the pair discovered two of Jackson’s later-made comedy horrors, 1996’s The Frighteners (considered his first big-budget Hollywood film and starring Michael J. Fox as a man given the power to see ghosts), followed by 1992’s infamously splattery zombie-fest Dead Alive (released internationally as Braindead). But then they stumbled across Meet the Feebles, made just two years after the director’s noted 1987 “splatstick” DIY debut Bad Taste.

A ridiculously over-the-top and pitch black satirical comedy about an all-singing, all-dancing theater troupe of depraved Henson-esque animals falling apart at the seams — sometimes literally — Meet the Feebles was a hysterically insane, tasteless, felt-covered acid trip. Among the gratuitously offensive assortment of more than 90 furry creations (including a 20-foot whale — all made by Kiwi designer Cameron Chittock) was a heroin-addicted sword-throwing Vietnam vet frog (Wynyard); an excessively horny hare struck down with a sexually transmitted and violently vomit-inducing disease (Harry); a dopey elephant facing a custody battle with his chicken ex-girlfriend (Sid); and a scheming drug-dealing rat with a side job making hardcore, mostly bovine-based pornography flicks (Trevor). And at the top of the lunatic tree was the show’s femme fatale, the singing sensation Heidi, an obese, insecure and cake-scoffing hippo whose Walrus boyfriend and show manager spent much of his time being pleasured by one of the backing dancers, a rather slutty Siamese cat. The film's spectacular and destructive finale was summed up by the tagline, "Hell hath no fury like a hippo with a machine gun."

As a critic several years later wrote, “It’s The Muppets Go Sleazebag.”

With the Feebles firmly in the back of their minds, in 2000 both Berger and Robertson teamed (Berger writing, Robertson directing) for their final project in film class, a 13-minute comedy short called Manifest Destiny. The story centered around Edward, a depressed divorcee battling his alcoholism who is visited by the physical manifestation of his inner-demon of alcohol dependency, an adorable, blue puppet called Alkie (voiced by Berger, who also popped up as a pizza delivery man).

The Feebles influences weren’t just present in the darkly comic script (Alkie proceeds to push alcohol on Edward at every opportunity, including pouring Kahlua in his breakfast cereal), but with the characters themselves. In a music sequence, Alkie sings ‘Drink Up’ (with such lines as “when your life looks like a joke, so it’s all about a Jack n’ coke”) in front of a backing band featuring a dreadlocked, Rastafarian frog keyboardist almost identical to the Feebles’ own organ player.

“We stole a character!” Berger laughs. “So if you ever thought, have these guys seen Meet the Feebles, yeah, we did, definitely.”

After graduating from college with a ringing endorsement from the film department for their short, Berger and Robertson moved to L.A., and while hanging out one night in 2002 (“probably drinking,” Berger admits) decided to come up with a feature idea that could combine their love of puppets and “hard R” comedy. Antoine Fuqua’s 2001 hit Training Day had recently given the buddy cop concept a new twist, so they put together something similar, teaming a human with a puppet in a world where both co-exist. And so, The Happytime Murders was born.

While there are no direct references to Meet the Feebles, the Happytime script would include several noticeable hat tips.

The plot itself concerns the hunt for a serial killer tracking down and murdering the (all puppet) members of a 1990s TV show called The Happytime Gang. “Which is totally a nudge nudge wink wink to Sesame Street and The Muppet Show and Meet the Feebles,” Berger says. And the world seems just as absurd as Jackson’s in 1989, with puppets addicted not to drugs, but a super-strength form of sugar (a scene from the trailer sees McCarthy’s cop snort lines in a “sugar smack den”). The puppet-on-puppet sex scenes look even more ridiculous. “It’s not like they’re overly graphic, we just thought this would be how puppets have sex all the time, no matter what the circumstances — it always just gets crazy!”

And one of the Happytime puppets, a machine gun-toting bulldog with a Russian accent called Junkyard, is, he says, “the most Meet the Feebles character… to me it’s a pretty direct homage.”

Despite having initially devised the film for Robertson to direct, the two quickly found their plan to take a page out of Jackson’s early book and make their film on a “super low budget” (Berger says they initially had $25,000 in mind) fall apart: puppet films were simply too expensive to put together. Even a quarter century earlier, Meet the Feebles had cost an estimated $750,000. So the idea was shelved.

Five years would pass (during which time Berger landed, among other things, a small role in Richard Kelly’s infamous Cannes bomb Southland Tales alongside Dwayne Johnson) before his agent received a call from The Jim Henson Company. Having launched the mature and less family-friendly label Ha! (Henson Alternative) a couple of years earlier and focusing mainly on live, adults-only improv stage shows, the puppet house was now looking for writers to develop feature-film ideas. In The Happytime Murders, there was a script already ready and waiting.

“So he sent it over, and they loved it,” Berger says. “And the rest, as they say, is history.”

Actually, it wasn’t quite history. Even with The Henson Company on board and Brian Henson now attached to direct, it would still take another decade. The film was initially set up at Lionsgate, which picked up the project in 2010, with Cameron Diaz and, later, Katherine Heigl reportedly set to star. But the pieces never came together, and as drafts of the script were passed between studios and financiers, each new potential backer would have their own suggestions on the tone, one even asking that it be written as a PG-13 movie. Berger duly obliged, before putting back in all the stuff he’d cut out, and adding a whole load more, when the next prospective investor said it should be “really R, sooo R.”

In the years spent waiting for The Happytime Murders to find a home, adult puppetry had moved on considerably, becoming recognized not just as a juvenile pastime, but a genre with genuine global appeal.

Alongside Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s acclaimed Team America: World Police, which provided a new cinematic benchmark in 2004, Crank Yankers landed on Comedy Central in 2002 and would run for four seasons, while Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx’s stage musical Avenue Q — still being performed around the world — first opened off-Broadway in 2003. Then would come Seth MacFarlane’s foul-mouthed Ted in 2012, which earned an astonishing $549 million with the help of human co-star Mark Wahlberg, and its 2015 follow-up Ted 2 ($217 million).

“There was this big giant question mark. Is this something people want? Do people want to see this?” Berger says of the early hesitancy. “Fifteen years ago there wasn’t a lot of twisted children’s characters aimed at adults, and I think people were tentative of saying, ‘Sure, we’ll sink a bunch of money into this.’ But now we’ve had years and years of success and seeing that there’s an alt-comedy audience out there — just look at Sausage Party. Now finally everyone is like, ‘yeah, I think people are ready for this'.”

In 2015, The Happytime Murders found a home at — then — upstart STX Entertainment, with Melissa McCarthy officially joining in 2017 as the human detective partner to the blue-skinned puppet private investigator Phil Philman. Production kicked off in L.A. later that year.

Almost 30 years on from Meet The Feebles, the nearest thing to a 21st century successor was actually going to see the light of day.

As it happens, while The Happytime Murders may have taken over a decade and a half from conception to a release, the making of Meet the Feebles wasn’t an entirely smooth process either, the 15-week shoot in an old Wellington train shed now almost sitting as a dark mark in the folklores of New Zealand cinema.

It was actually Braindead that was supposed to be Jackson’s second feature, an obvious follow-up to Bad Taste, which had proved to be an unexpected hit among international distributors when it was taken to the Cannes Film Festival's market in 1987. But funding fell through at the last minute, so they turned to a 20-minute puppet-based pilot Jackson had made for a late-night TV concept (a pilot that his mother had reportedly done the catering for).

“It was just a stupid little pilot,” says Danny Mulheron, one of the key Meet the Feebles writers (he claims he brought the "scatological humor") and — perhaps more notoriously — the man inside Heidi's hippo bodysuit (“which was rancid and absolutely stank … after one day!”).

“When Braindead fell over, we said, well, let’s just do this and put in a stupid storyline.”

Around the same time, Jackson’s talent had caught the eye of Jim Booth of the New Zealand Film Commission. (Booth, credited with helping launch Jackson’s career, would later quit to become the filmmaker’s full-time producer, before tragically passing away in 1994).

The Commission would reportedly stump up around two-thirds of the $750,000 budget needed for Meet the Feebles (the rest coming from Japanese investors), but this relationship would be severely put to the test, especially given the film’s rather outrageous content, which the filmmakers tried to keep from their paymasters.

“We had two different scripts, one for the Film Commission and one that we shot,” admits Mulheron, who also wrote one of film’s final musical numbers, the rather self-explanatory ‘Sodomy’ (“You must think it very odd of me, but I enjoy the act of sodomy.”)

Eventually, having gotten wind of what was being filmed with their money and with the budget and schedule spiralling out of control, the Commission pulled the plug. But attempting to shut down the project down would only force it underground; a determined Jackson and his filmmakers instead shooting at night under a different title, Frogs of War (named after a scene, in which Wynyard the frog reminisces about his time as a POW in Vietnam). 

Meet the Feebles — with the Commission now having removed its name from the credits — had its world premiere at the Fantasy FilmFest in Hamburg, Germany, in April 1990, before heading to the Toronto Film Festival in September. Its theatrical release began in Japan in December, and it would slowly stagger out across a handful of international locations over the next 15 months. But it wouldn’t land in the U.S. until 1995 (Mulheron claims a disgusted Hollywood test audience walked out, accusing them of having the “morals of alleycats”).

Despite critical praise, the film would prove to be a commercial flop, only reaching cult status years later, especially as people began to dig into the early works of the New Zealander who had successfully brought The Lord of the Rings to screen. On accepting the best picture Oscar for The Return of the King in 2004, Jackson even mentioned his obscene puppet past, acknowledging that it, along with Bad Taste, had been “wisely overlooked by the Academy at that time.”

There was, Mulheron recalls, one accolade the film would receive.

“I’ve got a Japanese award for best female performance,” he laughs. “I was onstage with two heroes of mine, Chow Yun-Fat and Donald Pleasence, but I was stuck in a fucking hippo suit with a machine gun! I would have loved to have said, ‘Hello,’ but I remember Donald looking at me and saying, ‘Are you hot in there?’ It was a very bizarre experience.”

Meet the Feebles didn't quite prove to be the instant springboard to stardom for its creators (many of whom worked on the film for reduced rates), and it would be more than two years before Jackson would start on Braindead, which would be seen as the pinnacle of his comedy horror phase. The director himself later admitted that Feebles' black, savage humor had alienated "a lot of people." Mulheron, now a noted writer and director on New Zealand TV, says he did create a series for Fox in the early 1990s with Sesame Street songwriter Mark Saltzman called Only Puppets Bleed (which featured a cop duo made up of a duck and a bear), but it was canned before a pilot was made.

But the film did mark the first writing collaboration between Jackson and Fran Walsh, his future partner and writer on all his later films. It was also Jackson's first to deploy the special effects expertise of Richard Taylor and Tania Rodger, who helped create much of the splatter. The three would help set up VFX specialists Weta (Meet the Feebles is listed as its first production), which shot to fame thanks to its work on The Lord of the Rings and is now a world leader in its field. 

And thanks to a VHS tape in a Austin video store in the late 1990s, it also helped lay the R-rated foundations for what could be 2018's most unlikely release.

"Well, I'm really pleased it corrupted someone," Mulheron laughs. 

Adds The Happytime Murders writer Berger: "One day I'd love to talk to [Peter Jackson] to hear what he thought about the mess he created."

Main image: Meet the Feebles Trailer - Peter Jackson - Wingnut Films - 1989

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