If you want to have an experience full of laughs, crafts, belches, and puppet stuffing, I can’t recommend a visit to the Ridiculous Puppet Company’s studio highly enough. Founders Megan Culverhouse and Jeff Neppl were gracious enough to invite me in to talk about what makes geekery, puppeteering, and the Ridiculous Puppet Company so very special.
Duck Washington (TCG): What does the term “geek” mean to you?
Jeff Neppl: It’s a person who bites the heads off of chickens at the circus.
Megan Culverhouse: Yeah, the term has undergone such a radical redefinition over the last several years. I remember being in elementary school and being into Star Trek and Star Wars and science and math and literature, and those things holding a very geeky and bad connotation. In my 30-some-odd years, that definition has changed several times already.
Jeff: She’s right. The term “geek” has changed from the literal definition of someone who bites the heads off of chickens to the social stigmatization of people who are outcasts in social groups. Because the definition has changed so much, it kind of depends on when in history you are talking about. Now, “geek” refers to a certain particular culture. “Geek” and “nerd” are sort of interchangeable and refer to sort of higher intelligence levels usually incorporating specific interests in science fiction or fantasy or science or. . .
Jeff: Yeah, that kind of stuff. But now, the negative connotation has kind of dropped away, whereas in the eighties it was kind of the opposite of being a jock.
Megan: Nowadays, I think we tend to celebrate the strange and the weird and the unique much more than we used to. Our society was based much more around the idea that you had to “cut all the blades of grass to the same height,” that everyone had to fit in. As we hit the 21st century, it’s okay to celebrate the things that make you different from other people. It makes the term “geek” almost seem marketable at this point, because it is proof that you are different or weird or non standard, and that is what sells.
TCG: Obviously you like puppets (at least I hope you like puppets), but what other sorts of geekdoms are you into?
Jeff: No, they dragged me kicking and screaming into this. Um, fantasy, science fiction, space and astronomy, physics and music, books.
Megan: I’m really big into Game of Thrones and science fiction/fantasy; huge epic, sprawling narratives like Dune. Oh, Dune is so close to my heart. I’m always a fan of the weirder dark places on the Internet.
TCG: Tell me a little about the Ridiculous Puppet Company.
Megan: We were originally the Institute for Ridiculous Science. We started that because Jeff wanted to rebuild his character Felton from the Renaissance Festival. He knew that I sewed and said, “Hey, would you be interested in helping me build a puppet?” and I said, “I’ve never built a puppet before in my life.” We went to SR Harris and picked up a bunch of polar fleece from the remnant bin and built Fleige, or rather this bubblegum pink puppet that ended up becoming the main character in the Institute for Ridiculous Science videos. We did that for about a year. After about six months, Jeff filed the LLC paper work for the Ridiculous Puppet Company, and about two months after that I quit my day job. It was a lot of work, but this really was where my passion was.
Jeff: I was working in technical theater and my hours were dropping significantly. Puppetry is what I had wanted to do as a career since I graduated college. Here it was ten years after I graduated and I thought maybe I ought to get into puppetry professionally. So I did.
Megan: We worked out of my basement for a good while. It was very small; about 250 square feet. We moved here to our workshop, which is about 1000 square feet, and we have been here for about a year.
Jeff: One year and a week. Hey, we didn’t even celebrate! Cheers! (clink glasses)
Megan: Cheers! Yeah! So, we just renewed our lease and we will be here for another year at least. We are really excited for what the future holds for us.
Jeff: In moving to this studio, we quadrupled our space. Not only are we able to have the work space, but also an office, conference area, kitchen, and lounge—as well as a standing video studio—which is awesome. We are really happy to have it, and look forward to using it in bigger and better and crazier ways.
TCG: For those who are not familiar with what you do, how would you describe it?
Jeff: We do puppets for everybody. I’ve always had an issue with the stereotype that puppets are just for kids. I don’t think they are. I can make anybody laugh—any age, any denomination, any personality—I’ll make them all laugh. The Ridiculous Puppet Company is about bringing the best quality puppets and the best quality performances that we can to everybody. I’m not saying that everyone is going to like it, because not everybody does. There are people that don’t like chocolate chip cookies. . .maybe we should change our name to the Ridiculous Chocolate Chip Cookie Company?
Megan: I think we would get a lot of angry phone calls about why weren’t bringing them cookies, or why they were covered in fake fur.
Jeff: We like to work on levels like Sesame Street likes to work on levels. There are levels of entertainment for kids, and in that same piece there are also levels of entertainment for adults. We also specifically have a Children’s Entertainment division. We have kids shows out for day cares, schools, libraries, and private birthday parties.
Megan: It sort of pays the bills.
TCG: What got you interested in puppetry?
Jeff: I was hanging out with this girl in her dorm room. She was working on a paper, and I was looking at this book she had checked out from the library that was just sitting on her bed. It was called Jim Henson: The Works. While I was looking through this book, I was like, “Man, puppets are cool. Being a puppeteer would be so much fun. I could totally be a puppeteer.” So, I read everything I could, and it was specifically the moving-mouth Muppet-style puppets that really kind of got me. While I was in college, I got my very first puppet—the original Felton—from a puppet builder out in California named Nick Barone. I did a couple of variety shows in school with him, and it was in college that I realized that this was the kind of performing that I wanted to do, but how do you get a job as a puppeteer? I had no idea. It wasn’t until the Renaissance Festival that I really started to do it with any kind of seriousness.
TCG: And Megan, what draws you to puppets?
Megan: I’ve always been a big fan of the Muppets (Muppet Babies in particular) and I watched Fraggle Rock, but it wasn’t like I was “gonzo” for puppets (hold for laugh). When I started out, my interest came from the world of sewing, and puppets are this really fascinating technical challenge. They require a wealth of materials knowledge and really crazy patterning, and then when you get done with that craziness you get to do some insane costume pieces. We have characters that have crazy bodily dimensions, but you still have to dress them realistically. If you’re making a suit coat, it has to look like a suit coat even if you are putting it on a torso that is shaped like a peanut and the size of a gumball machine. I get to do crazy weird stuff all day long, and that makes my heart sing.
TCG: Would you say that Jim Henson is your favorite puppeteer, or are there any other puppeteers you draw inspiration from?
Megan: Jim is like the 500-pound Snufflupagus in the room. How do you describe a relationship to Jim Henson? Of course you respect the guy, and how could you not? The man defined what puppetry looked like in the in the late 20th century and the 21st century. You inevitably cannot do this work without being compared to the Muppets. You can’t do this work without being asked how you feel about Jim Henson. You almost have to forget that Jim even existed, in a lot of ways. Yes, he will always be an influence and will always be in the back of your mind, but you can’t compare yourself to that kind of work. We aren’t the Muppets, and neither of us wants to be Jim Henson, either.
Jeff: To answer the other part of your question on whether we have any favorite puppeteers, I have a lot of favorite puppeteers. Every single Muppet performer is inspiring to me. You don’t get to work on the Muppets unless you are good. There is an inherent level of talent, skill, and professionalism that every one of them brings to the table. There are also some non-moving-mouth-style puppeteers that I am a huge fan of. There is a man by the name of Phillip Huber who is incredible. Did you see Being John Malkovich? That marionette thing at the beginning? That’s my friend Phillip. Did you see Oz the Great and Powerful? The china doll? That’s a marionette done by Phillip. Nick, who built this (referencing the original Felton puppet), was a brilliant children’s entertainer in San Jose. He passed away a few months ago and we are really sad to lose him. Nick was a huge inspiration to me and influential on my career. He was an amazing performer and builder.
Megan: The puppets that we build are heavily influenced by the work that Nick did.
Jeff: Heavily. Local man Charles Hubbell; God damn that man is talented. He blows my mind every time I work with him with how freaking talented he is. There are lots of puppeteers I am a huge fan of.
TCG: If someone was interested in getting involved in puppeteering, what advice would you give them?
Megan: Learn to love the taste of ramen.
Jeff: The best general advice that I can give is that if you really want to do it, do it. Get a puppet, build your own, or buy one and just do it. Do live shows, do videos—whatever you want to do. Whatever you think is hindering you, you are wrong. Just do it. That took me an awful long time to learn.
TCG: Lastly, who is your favorite captain?
Megan: I think I’m going to go with Crunch. Specifically, Peanut Butter Captain Crunch. There is something about the flavor of Peanut Butter Captain Crunch that reminds me of the taste of Peanut Butter Play-Doh. If you didn’t get a chance to play with Peanut Butter Play-Doh as a kid, you were deprived and should probably turn your parents in to CPS and have them jailed retroactively for ruining your childhood.
Jeff: They Might Be Giants have a song called “The Cap’n,” and the guy they talk about in that is pretty awesome. He doesn’t drive a boat, but he has a hat and calls himself “Cap’n,” so he’s pretty groovy.
I loved my day with Jeff and Megan, and enjoyed every minute of watching them put their talents to work filming an episode of Felton’s Vlog once we finished the interview. You can learn more about The Ridiculous Puppet Company and their weekly video series Felton’s Vlog on their website or on YouTube.