As an author, I'm accustomed to receiving the occasional request out of the blue. They're usually pretty easy to handle. Need a book signed? Just mail it to me, and I'll Hancock it. Need a blurb for your upcoming book? Shoot it over, and I'll see what I can do. Need a kidney? Sorry, I'm using mine.
Last week, however, I got a first: A man wrote to ask for...[drumroll]...a puppet show. [Rimshot. Except it' s not a joke.] He didn't want me to come to his house and perform one for him, thank god. That would be creepy. No, he was wondering if I could write one for him. His wife is a fan, you see, and her birthday's coming up and she's really into art and hubby's thinking of throwing her a build-your-own-puppet party (are those big back east?) that would climax with the world premiere of an original new Steve Hockensmith playlette.
"Gosh," I thought as I read his e-mail, "it's sweet of the guy to want such an original surprise for his wife, but I don't have a puppet play just lying around waiting for...oh."
Turns out I did have a puppet play just lying around. I wrote it 20 years ago for my old pal Mike Wiltrout. So far as I know, he's the only one who's ever read it, and it's never been performed. And it probably never will be performed, even at build-your-own-puppet parties, because -- as you'll see if you read it -- it's the least-cheerful puppet show since The Muppet Iceman Cometh (or Ubu Roi, which was the real inspiration/rip-off source).
But hey -- someone asked for a puppet show, and I've got a puppet show. So here you go: I'm subjecting all of you to an ever-so-lightly revised version of it. Try to invite me if you end up staging it at a birthday party. If you can't send an invitation, at least send cake. Or royalties.
Little Ray of Sunshine
or Kafka, Fran and Ollie:
A Play in Two Shameful Acts
(Curtain opens. A multitude of happy puppets are frolicking before a cheerful village backdrop.)
Town Elder (a bearded puppet): Hello, everyone! Welcome to Sunshine, the happiest land in all the world!
(The puppets begin to sing "We're So Hip-Happy." Work in as many Fame/Solid Gold dance moves as you can get sock puppets to do.)
We're So Hip-Happy
All: We're so hip-happy
Hip-hip hurrah for happiness!
And we say we're blessed!
We're so hip-happy
Toe-tappy dip-dappy, too
If you're not this happy, boys and girls,
Then there's something wrong with you!
Town Elder (singing in a deep, Paul Robeson-style baritone): When but a lad, I was told by my father
There's no use to all this bother
Pondering life's unbearable pain
Each way you look at it, it comes up the same:
We're all going to die anyway
(Town Elder hangs himself from church steeple, stage left.)
All: We're all going to die anyway!
(Puppets stop and look at each other, then resume full speed.)
All: We're so hip-happy
Town Baker: I'm so glee-glad
I'm ugly and fat!
Town Mayor: I'm so smee-smug
I'm a bullying thug!
Town Leopard Bearer (bearing leopard): I'm so co-co-content
I'm right full of shit!
Town Pastor: I'm so hip-happy
Someone oughta slap me!
Little Ray: Gee, I'm not really sure quite how to put it
But the feeling I'm feeling feels quite...ambivalent
All: We're so hip-
(Song ends abruptly.)
New, Even Older Town Elder: Little Ray! You know the punishment for ambivalence!
Little Ray: I most certainly do not, good sir. If I had, I wouldn't have yakked my yak.
All: Ignorance of the law is no defense!
Little Ray: I didn't know that either.
Town Bleeding Heart (Use a cow heart for best effect. Inquire at your corner butcher's shop.): He's innocent! You can't harm the lad!
Town Mayor: Why, of course I can! Just look at how easily I flay your sorry carcass!
(Mayor skewers Town Bleeding Heart on his cane and begins to slice him, meat tornado-style, with his spectacles.)
Little Ray: Trepidation without limit! This bodes ill for the handsome young I!
Town Ballistics Expert: What should we do with him, everybody?
Town Mayor: Ah, yes! A referendum! Democracy in action!
Town Haberdasher: I motion that we deep-fry his feet and make him clog dance with Norwegian retirees.
Town Candlemaker: I motion that we force him to eat sand, then beat him against a tree.
Town Cobbler: I motion that we set him on fire, chug pitchers of Budweiser, then piss on everything but him.
Tourist Just Passing Through: I second the motion!
To Mayor: Done! (Turning to Little Ray.) And you're done for!
Little Ray: I fear it will take an aside to save this stinky cloth hide I call home. (Aside.) Maybe if I could distracticate my nemeses with an act of cunning. (Gesticulating wildly.) LOOK! UP THERE! IT'S ABSOLUTELY NOTHING...AND IT'S NOT COMING TO GET YOU!!!
Town Mayor: You can't fool us, Little Ray. Little Eugene tried to pull that one, and we all remember what happened to him.
Town Pastor: In the name of Almighty Gosh, listen to me! I beg you to show mercy on this poor soul.
Town Straight Man: Why should we?
Town Pastor: Because he is yet young and without knowledge. Because I got sick watching what you maniacs did to Little Eugene. And because this isn't a one-act play.
Town Punster: We must listen to this wise old sock puppet.
Town Straight Man: Why?
Town Punster: Because he's a man of the cloth!
(Loud trumpet wah-wah-wah and laugh track blast deafen the unfortunate audience members in the first four rows. Town Mayor and Town Critic attach electrodes to Town Punster's head and fry it with 10,000 sparkling kilowatts of pure electricity. Loud harpsichord wah-wah-wah and groan track blast deafen the audience members in the aisle seats.)
Token Black Sock Puppet: (Turning to Little Ray.) And as for you....
Little Ray: In my own defense, I would like to interject here that though the thought of death sends rivets down my fern, I am heartened a-mightily by the fact that once I have had my bucket kicked by you fine sock gentlemen and ladies....
(Little Ray performs "I Will Feel Nothing" in speak/sing Henry Higgins style.)
I Will Feel Nothing
I will feel...nothing
I will know...nothing
I will expect...nothing
I will want...nothing
I will feel nothing
It's so burdenly being ambivalent
There's so much for a puppet to do
I want to spread luv from near and to far
And spread hatred everywhere, too
I ponderpate eating breakfast
When it's actually time for brunch
And after I've gobbled supper instead
I decided I should've had lunch
Though my beloved archenemy brother
Kept me up through the night with his snores
I found once I'd sawed off his noodle and slept
I preferred insomnia more
There's just too much I want to do
And too much I want to don't
Mountains to move by the force of my will
And molehills to move by my won't
It's no Ice Capade being ambivalent
Though some days it's really a cinch
Yes, it's really a hoot and a gas, by and by
Except when you're about to get lynched
So flay, splay, Martha Raye me
Besmirch my grits with your grime
You'll hear me cry "Stop!" and "Murder!"
Then thank each of you for your time
And when I'm dead it's over
This hellish yet heavenly curse
Yea verily, I won't be ambivalent
As they haul me away in a hearse
For I will feel...nothing
I will know...nothing
I will expect...nothing
I will feel nothing
Or maybe I will
Town Mayor: (Menacingly.) So that's the way it is, eh?
(Little Ray shrugs.)
Town Mayor: (Crestfallen.) Well, that's no fun.
Town Link Provider: Little Ray, you leave us no choice but to not kill you. But since we've got to squeeze some entertainment value out of this, we'll think up something else to do to you instead.
Town Pastor: Let the Most Elderly Town Elder pronounce judgment!
Town Link Provider: Yeah! He judges everybody!
The Most Elderly Town Elder: (Clears throat.) The punishment shall be banishment...to the wilderness land of Hammphist, where, it is hoped, you will have many enlightening adventures, encounter an amusing array of misfit characters, generally experience what is known as "picaresque" and finally end the ordeal by making up your mind about things.
Little Ray: Okay. If you say so.
The Most Elderly Town Elder: Now you must go.
(Sock puppet villagers point at Little Ray and sing "Go.")
Go go go
Go go go
Go go go
(Little Ray trudges away, then stops.)
Little Ray: Well. Bye.
(Little Ray exits, stage left. Curtain. End of Act One.)
(A moonlit night, a country road and a lone Little Ray.)
Little Ray: Oh, what to do, what to do? Banished for an entire intermission, and I haven't collected a single lovable sidekick.
(There's a stirring in the bushes, stage right.)
Little Ray: Avast! Ahoy! I'm petrified! I'm putrefied! I'm palpably unnerved and suddenly dehydrated!
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: (From bushes.) Who dares disturb my slumber?
Little Ray: It is only I, an inoffensive leaf floating down from yon high branch. Pay me no heed.
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: (Emerging from bushes.) I heed what I like, leaf.
Little Ray: (Aside.) Gasp! Tis an obligatory evil mushroom. I should've known one would show up sooner or later. By Billy's velvet eye patch above, about this I'm certainly not ambivalent!
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Why, you're no mere leaf but a fine, strapping young sock puppet.
Little Ray: Gads! The jig is up! (Gulps loudly, begins filling out life insurance forms.)
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Oh, the many years I've slept here waiting for your arrival.
Little Ray: My mood shifts suddenly from fear to befuddlement.
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Lo, there is a prophecy among the obligatory evil mushrooms that one day a sock puppet shall come in our hour of greatest need and be generally ambivalent about our sad situation. It is the solemn duty of every obligatory evil mushroom to befriend this sock puppet and become, if we might, his sidekick. So it is written. So must it be done.
Little Ray: Like...really?
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Really.
(Obligatory Evil Mushroom sings "The Obligatory Evil Mushroom Song.")
The Obligatory Evil Mushroom Song
Life as a fungus was once mighty grim
We were born in manure
Broken off at the stem
But things began to look up
When we changed our way of life
People weren't so quick to eat us
When we were EVIL fungi!
Chorus: Yo ho! Yo ho! Yo ho ho Ho Chi Minh!
Yo ho! Yo ho! Yo ho ho Ho Chi Minh!
Now if you grab hold of your cacti
And take a step back, perchance
You could persuade this ol' evil mushroom
To do the Obligatory Mushroom Song Dance!
(Obligatory Evil Mushroom proceeds to do so, singing chorus.)
But now things for mushrooms
Are looking bleak again
Evil pizza pies are on the rise
And evil mushroom souffles are in
You're our last hope, Little Ray
You know we're counting on you
Only by remaining totally ambivalent
Can you see us through
(Obligatory Evil Mushroom repeats the Obligatory Mushroom Song Dance, singing chorus.)
Little Ray: My heart seethes with unbridled ambivalence.
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Let's just see that it stays that way.
(Lonely Squirrel scurries down from a tree.)
Lonely Squirrel: Hey, are you Little Ray of Sunshine?
Little Ray: Actually....
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: That depends on who's asking, squirrel.
Lonely Squirrel: Why, I'm Lonely Squirrel, the loneliest squirrel in the forest.
(Lonely Squirrel sings "I'm the Loneliest Squirrel in the Forest.")
I'm the Loneliest Squirrel in the Forest
I'm the loneliest squirrel in the forest
Little Ray: Yes? And?
Lonely Squirrel: The word's out that you're in the market for sidekicks.
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Uh oh! Trouble!
(Block of Swiss Cheese, Slab of Ham, Pineapple, Ketchup Bottle, Carpet Sample, Harmonica and Mrs. Butterworth enter.)
Little Ray: Who der Heck are you?
Block of Swiss Cheese, et. al.: We're the Seven Food Groups! We're here to help you learn about --
Tim Tock, the Ticky-Tackiest Man Alive: (Pushes his way through the cursing food groups.) One side! Make way! Potential sidekick coming through!
(Tim Tock is wearing yellow biker shorts, a sleeveless T-shirt, a purple fanny pack and Uggs.)
Tim Tock: People call me Tim Tock, the Ticky-Tackiest Man Alive!
Lonely Squirrel: I don't.
Little Ray: Go on.
(Tim Tock sings "I Wish I Had Some Taste.")
I Wish I Had Some Taste
If I were a stunning beauty
Or a darling little cutie
I'd still turn people off
They'd look at my stupid clothes
And laugh at how my bad taste shows
Oh, I wish I had some taste!
A garden gnome collector
Were strictly polyester
I was doomed from the start!
With a family
The poodle wears a sweater
Is it any
I'm cheesier than cheddar?
Please -- ya gotta have a heart!
I can't help it if I'm tacky
So who am I...Bob Mackie?
Even he's a trifle gauche!
So you see, my dear friend, Little Ray
This tacky song is just to say
Please help me find some taste
(Lonely Squirrel and Obligatory Evil Mushroom look at each other and nod, impressed.)
Lonely Squirrel: Wow.
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Not bad!
Little Ray: Meh.
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Join us, my tasteless friend.
(Tim Tock lets out a Dukes of Hazzard "Yeeeeeeha!" Suddenly, a cloud of smoke appears with a loud "Poof." The Poof's name is Bernard.)
All: Audible gasp!
(Smoke [and Bernard] clears, revealing the mystery-shrouded figure known as Count Jones. You can make your mystery shroud out of used Kleenex.)
Count Jones: (Laughs The Spooky Laugh. You know the one.)
All: Involuntary empting of bladders and bowels!
Count Jones: I haff come for the one named....
Little Ray: Ann Coulter?
Count Jones: No.
Little Ray: Drat. The Kardashians?
Count Jones: No.
Little Ray: Double drat. Little Ray of...Akron?
Count Jones: No.
Little Ray: Triple drat. Little Ray of...Sunshine?
Count Jones: Vhy, yes, that is the fellow.
Little Ray: Drats unto infinity! That's my good friend here! (Gestures told Lonely Squirrel.)
Lonely Squirrel: If terrified squirrels made loud shrieking noises, I'd be making them right about now.
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Actually, terrified squirrels do make loud shrieking noises.
Lonely Squirrel: Oh, yeah. (Begins making loud shrieking noises.)
Count Jones: (Approaching Lonely Squirrel.) Little Ray, I am Count Jones. I haff come to....
Lonely Squirrel: (Stops shrieking.) I believe at this point I'm too overcome with fear to make any sound whatsoever, let alone articulate my thoughts and feelings coherently.
(Tim Tock, meanwhile, has been literally scared out of his skin. This effect can be achieved by wearing a surgical glove beneath the Tim Tock puppet. Color the glove with Magic Markers to create the illusion of tissue, organs and a skeletal framework. Try to be as lifelike as possible. At the right moment, whip off the puppet, revealing the glove beneath. Not only is it good theater, it's educational!)
Count Jones: ...ask a favor.
All: H-U-H-question mark?
(Tim Tock's skin reappears.)
Count Jones: I would like to join your qvuest. For just as you haff to learn not to be ambivalent, I haff something I seek.
(Count Jones sings "Love Is Like Tomorrow."
Love Is Like Tomorrow
I'ff been a vampire for a tawsand years
I'ff sucked much blood...and I've shed a few tears
But now I face
A fate vurse than the stake
An end has come to my plasmatic adventures
For, you see, I'm the count
Who needs to get dentures
Little Ray: (Interrupting song.) Quick, boys! He's toothless! Get him!
Count Jones: Vhat? Vait!
Little Ray and Company: Kill the vamp! Kill the vamp!
(All fall upon Count Jones and rip him limb from limb. This effect can be achieved by cutting the fingers from a glove, filling each finger with chicken livers and tossing them around Ye Olde Puppet Theatre.)
Lonely Squirrel: Is he dead?
Little Ray: There's only one way to be sure.
Tim Tock: Yeah! Let's eat him!
(The band of kooky misfits gather up the little bits of Count Jones draped across the scenery and push them into their horrific, furiously working puppet mouths.)
All: Munch munch munch!
Lonely Squirrel: Bloody good!
Tim Tock: Fang-tastic!
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: There's not much left, so make every bite count!
(The sidekicks roar with laughter, spewing half-chewed vampire over each other.)
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Now that's what I call comic relief.
Lonely Squirrel: Damn, we're good.
(Little Ray has drifted off to an abandoned doughnut shop, stage right. He moves slowly.)
Little Ray: Sigh.
(The sidekicks continue eating and laughing. Little Ray looks over his shoulder at them, then gazes off into the heavens.)
Little Ray: By Joshua's golden hang-nail, I said "SIGH"!
(Obligatory Evil Mushroom walks over to Little Ray and wraps an arm around his shoulder. This effect can be achieved by...hell, I don't know. They're sock puppets.)
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Something troubles you, mon ami.
Little Ray: Oui, 'shroom. I am...saddened.
Little Ray: Yes, saddened.
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: You don't feel ambivalent?
Little Ray: No, I don't think so.
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: You feel overcome by powerful emotion?
Little Ray: Yes. It grieves me that --
Lonely Squirrel: Wait! (Clears throat.) Why is it such a big deal/That you can finally feel?/Why is it so important now/When a moment ago/You were having a cow?/(Begins singing a cappella.) Isn't fear an emotion, too?/Isn't terror good enough for you?/Aren't you satisfied that...oh, nuts and berries! Why aren't I getting any musical accompaniment for this number?
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Because you ask a silly question, rodent.
Tim Tock: Fear doesn't count as real emotion because it's a physiological reaction. A mere byproduct of the fight-or-flight response.
Lonely Squirrel: Oh. Sorry.
Little Ray: SIGH.
Tim Tock: What saddens you, L.R.?
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Yes. Give name to your sorrow, friend stocking.
Little Ray: I mourn because now that we've bonded by facing danger in manly solidarity...dramatic pause...one of my sidekicks must...dramatic pause, dramatic pause...die.
Sidekicks: Zoinks and double zoinks!
(Burst of da-da-DA dramatic music. Sidekicks shiver over-emphatically. So much so, in fact, that Lonely Squirrel's head flies off, smacking the sniffling 5-year-old in row three. The child substitutes his incessant snuffling for an odious weeping, and a burly puppet usher hustles him from the building with repeated sock-boots to the buttocks. Scarred by the experience, the boy grows up to pen the bestselling screed Put a Sock in It!: How Puppet Show Traitors Are Destroying America. The book spends 1,754 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and eventually results in a constitutional amendment making puppet theatrics punishable by death.)
Tim Tock: But why, Little Ray? Why?
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Why?
Lonely Squirrel's Head: Why?
Little Ray: Why? Because all popular literaturemanure revolves around vengeance in these here our days today. Self-righteous lust for blood is the only emoting they're promoting for today's fraudiences. We have to give them what we tell them they want, by jove: a senseless and brutal death that I, as the gyro, can avenge in an equally senseless and brutal manner. It's simply supply and demand. You supply flesh to be avenged. I demand that misfortune befall you! Therefore...one or two or maybe all of you, my fine, dear, expendable, barely developed yet oddly endearing in an archetypal kind of way companions, must act as martyrs to the cause, selflessly laying down life and lent in the name of drama.
Lonely Squirrel's Head: But...but...who's going to kill us?
Little Ray: (Mystified.) Puzzlement unbounded! I do not know!
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Well, who's the villain?
Little Ray: I don't rightly recollect. Who's killed somebody so far?
Tim Tock: We tore that vampire guy into little gooey-chewy bits.
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Yes. But we all killed him, didn't we? So that couldn't mean anything. Anyway, his character was totally unsympathetic.
Lonely Squirrel's Head: Oh, I don't know. I felt kind of sorry for him.
Tim Tock: Yeah. Me, too, now that you mention it.
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Hmm. I suppose I, too, feel remorse for felling the fellow, even if his accent was not only cliched but poorly executed.
(Sidekicks begin weeping.)
Little Ray: Great flaming kidneys! Would you stop your ballooing? It was just some old undead mothersucker!
Lonely Squirrel's Butt: How can you be so callous, Little Ray?
Tim Tock: Yeah. You're the one who told us to kill him in the first place.
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: Indeed! And then YOU decided we should eat him!
(Sidekicks glare menacingly at Little Ray.)
Little Ray: Hearsay! Inference! Character assassination and leading the witness!
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: You know, if there's one villain in this dumb thing, we're looking at him right now....
(Sidekicks surround Little Ray, then begin closing in.)
Little Ray: Um.
Lonely Squirrel's Pancreas: Little Ray, it's time we had a little talk about...feelings.
(The sidekicks kick Little Ray to death singing "There's No Place Like Hell.")
There's No Place Like Hell
Be it ever so humid
There's no place like Hell
And thanks to our ministrations
You'll be there in a spell
Tim Tock: There's no place like Hell
On a Saturday night
The music's way groovy, the chicks outta sight
It would almost be perfect
If the A/C worked right
Lonely Squirrel: There's no place like Hell
For fellowship and fun
The folks are so friendly, they greet you one by one
It would almost be perfect
If they didn't fillet you when they're done
Obligatory Evil Mushroom: There's no place like Hell
For laughing away care
Folks kick back in the sunshine, breathe in the fresh air
It would almost be perfect...
All: If you weren't going there!
(Sidekicks laugh. Little Ray's mournful, dazed spirit rises from the gloppy pulp of his battered flesh. He looks out at the audience.)
Little Ray: If only I weren't such a schmuck.
(Demons appear and drag Little Ray down to the eternally burning flames of everlasting damnation. This effect can be achieved by dousing your puppet theater with gasoline and lighting it ablaze with a common household match. If no matches are available, try napalm.)