Comedy Central made an extensive search for someone to take the reins of “The Daily Show” after host Jon Stewart recently announced he intended to depart later this year. Executives found Trevor Noah, an up-and-coming comic from South Africa, but did they consider the sparring blue and red crabs, talking hot dog and chatty, right-wing squirrel holding court at startup cable network Fusion?
Comedian Paul F. Tompkins has tilted at news and politics for three cycles of “No, You Shut Up,” with a cadre of anthropomorphic creatures made by the Jim Henson Company in tow. At any moment, Bo Beetle, an insect who hosts a radio show, might offer commentary, or a cat known as “Supreme Leader Meow,” a deposed world leader, might weigh in on the issues of the day. “Shut Up” is just one more entry in a parade of shows like John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” or Larry Wilmore’s “Nightly Show” that use humor and satire to shred recent headlines – and, more often than not, provide some illumination of the issues that traditional news sources do not. Now, as ‘Shut Up” ends its third season this Thursday, its producers are holding out hope the weekly program might have what it takes to gain more exposure and run more frequently.
“We would like to do a live-to-tape show that happens every day,” says Nelson Walters, the program’s executive producer.
Of course, there could be complications. “Shut Up” isn’t your typical satire show. Holding conversations with puppets can be challenging, as the people animating them need monitors to make sure the creations are looking Tompkins and other human guests in the eye. Tompkins says he has begun to “get a feel for the improvisation of the creatures that are made with felt and have buttons for eyes,“ so their rapport seems natural.
Not too long ago, “Shut Up” might not have been ready for such a grind. When it first debuted on Fusion in November 2013, the show was something of a curio: A 15-minute look at host Tompkins leading a current-events roundtable with such notables as Senator George Galapagos, a bespectacled turtle who also happens to be a North Carolina politician, and Yerd Nerp, a one-eyed alien who is also an author and activist. Since that time, producers have expanded the program’s purview as well as its length, to about half an hour. Some segments feature Tompkins working solo, or have a celebrity guest pay a visit (often with assistance from one of the show’s cast of creatures).
The original format “was kind of a one-joke idea – mostly the puppets arguing and me being the straight man,” Tompkins acknowledges. When the third season started, he says, “We started to slowly get more, different, varied segments into the show, open it up for me to be not the straight man, but taking part in the fun.” Some of the segments have more of a structure to them, whereas earlier episodes relied more heavily on improvisation.The result? “This weird show has gotten weirder and stranger, not in an alienating way, but in a creative way.”
Henson creatures have made their way into unexpected venues before, as anyone who saw creatures named King Ploobis and Scred cavort in oddball sketches during the first season of “Saturday Night Live” in the mid-1970s can tell you. The current generation of TV-watching adults is more willing to accept puppets in entertainment, suggests Lisa Henson, chief executive of the Jim Henson Co., in an interview. Today’s viewers “always had puppets in their lives,” thanks to shows like “Sesame Street” or “The Muppet Show,” she notes.
“No, You Shut Up” has its roots in a live Henson endeavor called “Puppet Up!” The improv show is geared toward adults and asks puppeteers to use their skills with an array of creatures and their own wit to entertain the audience. “We use all of our puppets from all different productions, generally not famous ones,” explains Henson. “It would be strange to see a famous puppet, like a Fraggle or something, appear.”
Its appearance on Fusion owes no small debt to happenstance. The cable network, jointly owned by Univision and ABC News, needed some additional content to help fill a block of time it was devoting to satirical programming. The outlet, devoted to news programming aimed at millennial viewers, wanted to give them a few programs that informed them about the news without sticking to conventional ideas, says Wade Beckett, Fusion’s chief programming officer. He was not at the network when it agreed to pick up “No, You Shut Up” but will obviously play a role in where it goes in the future. “It tackles big issues, but it tackles them in a smart and funny way, which is what I think our audience wants, “he says. “You don’t have to be boring to be informative. It’s important that we build in entertainment, and humor is how a lot of folks communicate these days.”
Two satire veterans helped get the show to the air. Billy Kimball, a veteran of everything from HBO’s “Not Necessarily The News” to CBS’ “The Late Late Show,” was overseeing programming at Fusion, and David Javerbaum, a veteran of “The Daily Show,” put forward the idea of mixing a fake-news format with puppets. The creations “ can get away with so much more,” he notes. Star Schelsinger, the aforementioned conservative squirrel, “says the most horrible things about gays and liberals,” Javerbaum says, but viewers identify it more readily as humor than they would if a live actor were doing something similar.
“No You Shut Up” offered live coverage of President Obama’s “State of the Union” address in 2014, and Henson would like to see more live specials, along with greater exposure through streaming video and social media. Already, characters like Talking Hot Dog have their own Twitter feeds. “We want to always be there,” she says.