Every once in a while comes a television show that’s ahead of its time. Sometimes networks give the show a chance to grow... and then there’s the Fox network. Notorious for canceling creative shows in their prime, Fox brought the world “Greg the Bunny” in 2002, and then canceled the show before its thirteen episodes had aired. Luckily, through the joy of DVD, the show lives on for the few fans it managed to attract during its limited life.
I grew up a big fan of the Muppets. Jim Henson’s creations attracted my attention, not just because they were big and colorful, but because they interacted with real people, like me. I wanted to live in a world where pigs entered beauty contests, wild bands performed in roadside churches, and frogs and bears could be twin brothers - indistinguishable except when one of them was wearing a hat.
That same idea is the concept behind “Greg the Bunny”. The show takes place in and around a hollywood studio that produces a children’s show called Sweetknuckle Junction, very similar to a certain street we all grew up watching. There’s a catch of course - the puppet creations that appear in the show are real. They aren’t operated by humans, rods, or strings. They are what are referred to as “fabricated americans”. They aren’t just in the show either. They are in the crew, operating boom mics or designing costumes. They are in the streets, in bars - basically, they are everywhere. This is a world where man and puppet live side by side. “Greg the Bunny” focuses on Greg, a bunny (surprise!) who joins the cast of Sweetknuckle Junction. Other members of the cast include Professor Ape aka Warren Montague, a helmeted gorilla puppet who prefers legitimate theater and Shakespeare to the kid’s show, Dottie (Dina Walters), a human who’s a bit of a space cadet, Junction Jack (The Shawshank Redemption’s Bob Gunton), Count Blah, a vampire puppet with a ridiculous verbal tick who spoofs a more familiar Count character, and Tardy, a um... slow turtle puppet. Behind the scenes are equally as important characters: Greg’s roommate and production assistant Jimmie (Seth Green), Jimmie’s father and the show’s director Gil (Eugene Levy), and the network producer Allison (Sarah Silverman). It’s amazing the amount of talent that was placed in this show, and although some of that talent is misused (Silverman and Levy both play “straight man” type characters a lot of the time) it’s never wasted.
The show excels in building a world where puppets and humans collide. It’s not an absolutely silly place like previous attempts at meshing cartoons and humans have spawned, but a normal world that just happens to have puppets. Just imagine that co-worker next to you - instead of being white, or black, or asian, he’d be a puppet. It’s a great concept, and well executed, whether it’s by adding in puppet height camera shots, or just tossing some puppet extras in the background. This is the world I wanted to live in as a kid, but be warned, as the tag line goes: “This is not your father’s puppet show”. These puppets curse, drink, and sleep around. Their kind, friendly appearance is just an act, and like any actor, when the camera is off there’s a different person revealed.
That said, the show lacks a solid foundation. As is typical for starting shows, things change drastically from episode to episode. In one episode Junction Jack is a gruff mean old goat when the camera isn’t rolling, tossing around viscous racial slurs like “sock” without abandon. Two episodes later he’s cheery over running into a co-worker at the mall, and talks about surprising the cast by cooking them something. While one could think maybe he learns a lesson that turns him into a nicer guy, it’s a longshot. The truth is, the show was cut down before it really found its voice, and that’s a shame.
I give “Greg the Bunny” lots of points for a more intelligent and creative sitcom then a lot of the other crap that’s on television. While the show wears its gimmick on its sleeve, it doesn’t rely on that gimmick for the same laughs show after show. Each episode has it’s own plot, devices, and laughs, with the exception of Tardy the turtle, who’s just a welcome laugh anytime he appears in a scene (“Drumsticks can be chicken too!”). In one episode, the puppet/human relationship is shown to suffer the same racial issues that plague mankind right now, and it would have been nice to see that metaphor carried further in future episodes. It’s a real shame the show didn’t get a chance to find its legs and walk around a bit. It would have been a show both the child and adult in me would have enjoyed for many years.
The fact that a short lived series like this gets to see the light of day again on DVD is one of the major benefits of the format to me. Usually a show like this would have its short run on television and be gone forever, but thanks to DVD we not only get the show, but a good look at what should have been for the series.
All thirteen episodes that were produced can be found on the set’s two discs, of which only eleven actually aired. That means no matter how much of the show you caught during its run on Fox, there’s something here you haven’t seen. The shows look and sound great too, although they aren’t presented in widescreen, which apparently the show was filmed in (both widescreen and hi-def according to series creator Dan Milano).
Select episodes have commentary tracks, all of which have Dan Milano in some form or another (Milano operated and voiced puppets Greg and Warren). Sometimes it’s Milano and other puppeteers, other times it’s Milano along with other cast members, and once it’s Milano in character with other puppeteers and actors, also in character. All of the commentary tracks are fun to listen to and give the feeling of a bunch of friends sitting around chatting while watching a television show.
The commentary also offers insight into the original concept of the show: an improvised comedy like “The Larry Sanders Show” or “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, only with puppets. That whole improv angle is why the show went after cast members like Sarah Silverman and Eugene Levy, only to later have the show changed to a scripted format. It’s not clear if the change was because of studio interference, but it’s highly likely. According to both cast and crew, the real entertaining side of the show was between the scenes, when the puppets would almost come to life, thanks to the improvisational skills of the puppeteers. There’s not one member of the cast or crew who doesn’t talk about how much they enjoyed working on the show despite studio involvement, because of the fun and joy they had behind the scenes. While it’s good to know a good time was had, it’s a shame we the viewers didn’t get to partake in it.
The behind the scenes documentary gives a brief history of Milano’s puppets, who existed before this Fox sitcom. Apparently Milano started with his puppets on public access, and was eventually given a job on IFC doing in-between-movies material (some of which is included on the DVD). When he managed to get the show picked up by Fox, he auditioned other puppeteers (also included on the discs) and the rest is history... short lived history, but history nonetheless.
Other extras support some of the comments that are mentioned in the commentary track - deleted or extended versions of scenes and a wrap reel that shows the fun happening behind the scenes that the cast alludes to. There is also a short film entitled Tardy’s Delivery that is a must see for anyone who loves Tardy’s quirkiness throughout the series. Obviously shot behind the scenes of “Greg the Bunny”, Tardy’s Delivery gives the impression it’s more of what Milano and company had intended from the beginning - a comedy improvised by both its human and puppet cast. This film does bring home one of the sad points of the DVD though. Apparently after the series ended two of the puppets ended up missing: Susan the monster and Tardy the turtle. If anyone knows the whereabouts of Tardy (or Susan), please contact Fox Studios (or preferably Dan Milano) with any information. Tardy is obviously a comedic genius who needs to be returned to his home.
“Greg the Bunny” is worth a look if you grew up as a fan of the muppets, or are open to the humor of “fabricated americans”. Even though the show didn’t survive the meddling of the studio, Milano proved himself to be quite creative, and I hope eventually he gets the show he originally intended “Greg the Bunny” to be. Until then, these thirteen episodes of puppet gold will have to be enough.