happytime murders

The Happytime Murders has been a long-rumored film since the beginning of the millennium. For years, it kept on almost getting made. Now, Brian Henson has finally directed The Happytime Murders starring Melissa McCarthy as the human cop in a world of deranged puppets.

Todd Berger co-wrote The Happytime Murders with Dee Austin Robertson. In the film, puppet P.I. Phil Philips (Bill Barretta) stumbles onto a murder case when femme fatale Sandra White (Dorien Davies) hires him. Phil has to reluctantly team up with his former partner Connie Edwards (McCarthy) to solve the murders of The Happytime Gang cast.

Berger spoke with /Film by phone this week about his long journey to making The Happytime Murders. Find out how it almost ended up being PG-13, how Brian Henson got involved, and just how difficult it was to make puppets behave like naughty adults. The Happytime Murders opens Friday, August 24.

The Happytime Murders has been in development for so long. Did it change over the years?

Oh yeah, sure. It’s been 15 years and it started as a very, very more straightforward and insular kind of script. When Dee Austin Robertson and I, who created the characters with me, we were going to do it ourselves. So we were writing this to be a low budget indie. We were like, “What’s the cheapest way we can make a puppet movie? There’ll be like five puppets in it.” As the years went on and that didn’t work out, when we hooked up with the Henson company, the world got expanded because the Henson company rolled in, was like, “You know, we have 100 puppets that we’ve already built. Not only will we build the brand new puppets but we’ve already got a bunch of puppets that we created” for this improv show that they have called Puppet Up. They were like, “We want to expand this world and really play up that this is a world in which puppets and humans coexist. Where can we put all of these puppets? In the background and side characters.” Then plot things changed a little, although the plot’s pretty similar to exactly what we wrote a long time ago. The humor progressed, especially when Melissa McCarthy came on board. She brought her style to the movie and it’s a lot funnier. I’ll admit, it’s a lot funnier than I thought it would be just from my own script. She took it to a whole new level and made it her own. The last draft I worked on before she came on board, the character was a man. She came on and, although she didn’t really feminize the character or anything, she took the character and just made it her own. Her just riffing and interacting with the puppets, especially Bill Barretta who plays Phil Philips who is pretty amazing and funny.

So she Ellen Ripleyed it.

She did, yes, exactly. There are jokes in the movie that where characters are saying she’s a man, but that’s just how the script was written because she was a man not long ago. So they just kept the jokes. It wasn’t even a joke. It was because she was a man. When a puppet offers to suck her dick, it was because she was a man. Now they just kept the line anyway that the puppets think she’s a man.

Did she do a script draft on it?

Yeah, when she came on board, she did a pass to change her character from a man to a woman and change some dialogue for herself to make it more Melissa McCarthy-ish. Other than that, the plot and the characters are all exactly the same. She pretty much took her part, did a pass on her part.

Did The Happytime Gang become a reboot since Fuller House and all the other classic shows have come back with reboots?

It’s possible. Considering the cast was murdered, you’d have to hire new young hot puppets for the 13 episode Netflix series. It’s inevitable in this world since it was so beloved. They probably already got a three season order from Netflix to do the new Happytime Gang with all the hip young millennial puppet versions of the original cast.

You hooked up with Henson in the last 15 years. Do you know if Jim Henson in his time had ambitions to do an R-rated puppet movie or more adult shows?

Yeah, just from talking with Brian, that was always on the table. That was always kind of the plan. He would talk about his father did the first season of Saturday Night Live. The puppeteers always really enjoyed in between takes of all the children’s entertainment, riffing and being really blue and trying to get the crew members to laugh by being really blue. That was always something he thought his father was planning on doing but never got to. Not to speak for Brian, but he seems to have never thought this was totally out of bounds. They have been doing this Puppet Up improv show for years before they came upon The Happytime Murders and decided to do Happytime Murders.

I’m sure most moviegoers have never seen Avenue Q, but did you have to think of what Avenue Q had done and what the movie can do differently?

I’ve actually never seen Avenue Q just because I’ve never crossed paths with it. So I don’t even know what’s in Avenue Q. I know a couple of the song titles and I know people talk about it all the time, but I’ve never seen it. I’ve seen Team America and I’ve seen Ted and a couple episode of Crank Yankers. Dee and I first came up with this idea in 2002 because we had done the short film in college in 2000. I wrote the first draft of the script way back then and then over the years, we watched as Crank Yankers and Greg the Bunny and Avenue Q and Ted, all these other puppet things would show up, or that Angel episode “Smile Time.” Every time something would come up, people would be like, “Hey man, that’s like your script. That’s like that movie you wrote.” I’m like yeah, it is, I know. I was so sad watching the world go by and them making adult puppet entertainment and not being able to get mine made. And then finally got mine made but no, I’d like to see Avenue Q at some point. We just never crossed paths.

If you’d come out 15 years ago, you could’ve been the Dante’s Peak and Volcano of R-rated puppet shows.

Exactly, the Armageddon/Deep Impact.

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