No Strings Attached: The Puppet Satire of D.C. Follies
At one corner of the bar, Jack Nicholson is seducing Margaret Thatcher. At another, Richard Nixon is reconsidering the sins of his presidency. Before the night is out, Sylvester Stallone, Oliver North, and Dan Rather will all make appearances, each sporting slightly exaggerated features and misshapen heads.
For two seasons between 1987 and 1989, a fictional Washington, D.C. bar was the setting for this unlikely assembly of political and entertainment figures cast in foam and orbiting around the show’s only regular human performer, actor Fred Willard. D.C. Follies might have been the most peculiar thing to come from the minds of famed television duo Sid and Marty Krofft, and when the hallucinogenic H.R. Pufnstuf is on their resume, that’s saying something.
The satirical, syndicated half-hour series might not have been paying licensing fees to the UK’s ITV network, but there’s a good argument for why they should have. In 1984, the channel began airing Spitting Image, a sharp, cutting take on world affairs created by Peter Fluck and Roger Law that used hypnotically repugnant puppets to represent political figures and members of the British royal family. The altered reality allowed for skewering, with jokes and actions that would have seemed too mean-spirited in live-action made permissible by the fact that they were embodied by living caricatures. In one sketch, then-Prime Minister Thatcher wondered why the poor didn’t just “eat their own bodies,” while newspaper employees at reputed tabloid outlets were depicted as literal pigs. At the height of its popularity, Spitting Image was viewed by 18 million viewers weekly.
Although other UK comedy exports like Monty Python's Flying Circus had found success with American audiences, Spitting Image was strikingly topical and resonated best with British audiences. A series of American-oriented specials for NBC that aired in 1986 and 1987 did well, but not well enough to commit to a series. At the same time, Sid and Marty Krofft—who had made their last name synonymous with Saturday morning kid TV culture in the 1970s—were working on a show that would emulate Fluck and Law’s approach. Thatcher would take a back seat to Oliver North, Dan Quayle, and other sometimes scandalous figures in then-contemporary U.S. politics. With Willard cast as the bartender, D.C. Follies got picked up in 90 markets for syndication beginning in September 1987.
The Kroffts had experience with parody puppets, having crafted Elvis Presley in felt as far back as the 1950s and mounting an elaborate live show, Les Poupées de Paris (The Dolls of Paris), that featured topless puppets. Not quite as appalling in appearance as the Spitting Image cast, the near-life-size foam stand-ins cost between $1500 and $3000 apiece. Political cartoonists like Bob Myers, who contributed to the New York Daily News, would offer a design that puppet makers could use as inspiration for a sculpt. People with easily identifiable features, like the drooping lip of Stallone or the shock of bright red hair sported by Jim Bakker's mistress Jessica Hahn, were ideal.
Unlike Fluck and Law, who typically targeted elected officials, the Kroffts had to be more cautious when it came to legal consequences. While political figures were largely powerless to complain or litigate over puppet counterparts, celebrities tended to exercise more caution over their likeness. D.C. Follies got away with using Woody Allen, Dolly Parton, and a host of others, but Frank Sinatra threatened to sue if he showed up cast in foam. The show eventually added a disclaimer at the end reminding viewers it was meant to be taken in jest.
There was also the challenge of remaining topical in a fast-moving news cycle. Unlike most scripted series, D.C. Follies was taped just three days prior to air to avoid time-worn jokes. Marty Krofft told the press that a puppet could be crafted in just 36 hours if needed, making it easier for them to comment on that week’s headlines.
D.C. Follies premiered the weekend of September 26 and 27, 1987, an auspicious debut for a syndicated offering: It was the same weekend Star Trek: The Next Generation began airing. Often on late at night and sometimes opposite Saturday Night Live, Follies invited a number of human guest stars—Martin Mull was the first—who tried not to be upstaged by the vaguely disfigured effigies surrounding them. Marty Krofft allegedly recruited some guests simply by threatening to make a mocking puppet of them if they didn’t agree to appear.
Each week, Willard—who was apparently hired for his ability to make conversing with puppets seem plausible—lent a sympathetic ear to the problems expressed by his satirical patrons. The blend of characters and real guests made for some odd pairings: The real Mike Tyson once appeared to box a puppet George Bush. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund in his familiar makeup) saddled up to the bar to help plug a new Nightmare on Elm Street movie. Krueger's nightmare: Quayle becoming president.
Mostly, though, the puppets walked in and out of frame in non-sequitur sketches. John Madden might accost Pope John Paul II; Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford were seen playing Trivial Pursuit, with Nixon admitting his Presidential Library was a Bookmobile; Madonna, Sean Penn, Jesse Jackson, Ted Koppel, and dozens of others also passed through.
Follies earned a second season while still filming its first, but ratings were never strong enough to warrant a third. (Late last year, Shout! Factory released the full series on DVD.) The Kroffts went on to produce similar puppet productions like Red Eye Express and Krofft Late Night. Nothing, however, seemed to endure quite like Spitting Image, which ran for 12 years in the UK and is currently being considered for a U.S.-based revival. Based on today’s political climate, there should be no shortage of material.