There's a lovely subversiveness in putting puppets in an adult setting. The brain, extensively trained to expect family-friendly wholesomeness, jars when they act all grown up. Simply, watching cute, furry critters swear like drunken wharfies is inherently hilarious.
Comedic ventriloquist David Strassman has been putting very crude words into the mouths of dolls and teddy bears for years. US cable show Crank Yankers gave us crank-calling foul-mouthed puppets. More recently, Broadway musical Avenue Q defecated all over Sesame Street with a very adult story of life on much darker American streets.
I had the pleasure of seeing the brilliant Avenue Q on stage in London (it has recently opened at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne) and it's impossible not to draw comparisons when seeing this all-singing, all-dancing puppet spectacular - Sammy J in the Forest of Dreams.
Which isn't to say this show is derivative, nor unfunny. It won high praise at the Melbourne Comedy Festival earlier this year and is a welcome addition to the first recession-minded In Stiches mini comedy festival at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. But riffing off familiar themes, young Melbourne comic Sammy J was always going to overreach to create something truly original.
This twisted two-man musical - puppeteer Heath McIvor works furiously behind the black cloth - makes its intentions clear from the start with the opening show-stopper F**k You Disney. All those wholesome cartoons shielded him from the reality of life, the baby-faced, sweet-voiced funnyman intones. Transported to the Forest of Dreams, Sammy J quickly finds this simpler two-dimension life has a sinister core. As the show is billed, think the Muppets meet South Park.
Sammy J (Sam McMillan when at home) is a young comic on the rise. Named best newcomer at the 2006 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, his Australian shows along with a 2007 appearance at the famed Edinburgh Fringe Festival have won over most critics. He seems to adopt the absurdist wit of Shaun Micallef and childlike innocence and vivacity of Frank Woodley - both comic influencers, he says - mixed with a self-deprecating charm and talented musicality. A polished performer and real showman.
He has written some genuinely toe-tapping songs - with lyrics that will make your grandmother blush - and a frequently funny script that hits most targets. That just four arms bring so many characters to life - some 14 puppets, indeed; engaging with the protagonist so you almost forget their make-up of felt and faux-fur - is credit to a well-rehearsed, imaginative staging. It is mostly controlled chaos; funny when it works and, as this audience discovered, even funnier when it doesn't.
While it may not be the most original idea, Sammy J in the Forest of Dreams is as riotous and spectacular a comedy gig as you're likely to see.
Sammy J & Heath McIvor
SAMMY J IN THE FOREST OF DREAMS
Venue: Cremorne Theatre, QPAC
Dates/Times: 24 - 27 June 7pm