“Sorry I was a bit late,” the founding – ahem – member of Puppetry of the Penis, Simon Morley, apologises from his end of the phone line. “I’ve been baby wrangling.” And unless Simon’s added ‘cot’ or ‘cradle’ to the impressive list of items he can imitate with his wedding tackle, there are no dick tricks involved in that. “Absolutely none,” Simon confirms. “Apart from the conception, maybe.”
Two dicks come out at a bar
Simon and his mate Friendy (David Friend; neither of whom are pictured above) were the two who originally took to the stage clad only in capes in order to present the art of genital origami: in which they’d manipulate their manhood into various shapes. Like ‘The Pelican’ (in which the penis and scrotum are impressively stretched out to resemble the animal’s long upper beak, and long and deep lower beak). And ‘The Skateboard’ (in which the penis is lain across the scrotum so that the balls become wheels). And ‘The Propeller’ (I’m not going to ruin all of them for you).
That was back in 1998, and it occurred with much furor, initially, all of it unwarranted. Because, after about the first fifteen minutes, you’d pretty much acclimatise to the fact that there are two nude dudes pulling at their respective (not each other’s!) cock-and-balls on stage, and as it wasn’t in the more traditionally prurient manner of tugging yer tackle, you may as well have been looking at their elbows.
In time they were playing the West End and Broadway, getting written up in the likes of The Guardian and The New Yorker. And after taking dick tricks around the world, and taking the world by storm, they started producing shows in which other dick tricksters took the stage all over the world, manipulating their respective manhood. Now, nearly a decade-and-a-half later, they’re launching a live 3-D version of the show. In which neither Simon, nor his penis, will be appearing, because, he says, penis puppetry is “a young man's game”.
“I’m 45 now. I’ve got myself a bit of a belly. I haven’t seen my penis in about three years.”
Instead, Simon’s been working on pulling the 3-D technology together. The show is “technically a lot more advanced” than any of the previous Puppetry of the Penis endeavors. He developed it in the UK, and is presenting it here in Australia, premiering in the final week of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Thus, in his own words, Simon’s role is “directing. And pimping. I’m the ‘global pimp’.”
Puppetry of the Penis in 3-D
Zen and the art of dick tricks
If you haven’t seen Puppetry of the Penis live (or on DVD) before, it essentially works as follows: the two 'puppeteers' make shapes out of their nether regions, accompanied by banter. A camera presents close-ups on a screen. So the new 3-D show, you can easily imagine, would be that, but with the technology (and glasses!) to ensure what you see is coming at you (so to speak) out of the screen. However, there’s still more to it than that.
“We’re using CGI” - computer generated imagery - “so that when the guys perform, say, ‘The Pelican’ on stage, the camera is 3-D, the screen is 3-D, but all of a sudden, we’ll put ‘The Pelican’ into a pelican’s body.”
That’s really cool. And a little bit scary.
Another – far more elaborate – example of the CGI involves ‘The Propeller’. “In a tribute to North by Northwest, we put ‘The Propeller’ in a biplane that comes out at the audience. The guys have to leap off stage to avoid it…”
Excellent spectacle though dick tricks are, who’d have thought you could breath such new life into them? According to Simon, the constant question has always been, “What are you going to do with the show? Where are you going to take it next?” And the'd always answer – jokingly – that next it’d be in 3-D: the penises would jump off the screen.
“Then,” Simon says, “I began to realise that the technology was very soon going to be with us.” Thus the new show is groundbreaking and interesting as well as fun. “I just hope people enjoy it,” says Simon.
My conversation with Simon Morley happens to be taking place not too long after my own Melbourne Comedy Festival show, Stand-Up Sit-Down, has ended. Stand-Up Sit-Down consisted of interviews with comedy practitioners. In the final show, guest Andrew Denton spoke of his show David Tench Tonight, in which the main character David Tench was a CGI character animated in real time, interviewing celebrities. The drawbacks were that CGI technology was not quite up to the task at the time, and the animation was too human – an animal or some other object may have proven more disarming for interview subjects.
So the essential questions now are, is the CGI working for Puppetry of the Penis? And might there be a time when dick-based CGI creations (of which, it may be argued, David Tench was one) successfully interview celebrities?
“I’m sure it’s not gonna be too far off,” Simon insists. “I hadn’t thought about getting them to interview celebrities live, but they certainly could. I’ve got ’em singing songs!”
Denton and Dom discuss benefits of CGI interview technique
Historically, the rendering of dick tricks began in hotel rooms while on tour.
Simon initially managed pubs, running comedy nights in bars he managed. In time he started touring the comedians he initially booked, and in the early post-show hours on tour, when much alcohol had been consumed, the dick-trickery began. “At the end of the night, I’d be dropping my pants and amusing the comics,” Simon recalls. One such comic was Jimeoin, whom Morley toured after television success meant he was too big for the pub circuit. It’s whispered that Jimeoin has been known to turn a few tricks of a dickular nature himself. That’s right: Jimeoin is a secret dick-tricker.
“I wouldn’t even say ‘secret’,” Simon assures me. “He loves it! If we’re in Europe or the States, he regularly joins us on stage. He’s very proud!”
And he’s not the only comic who has the talent. Turns out Greg Fleet has a couple of tricks up his dacks.
“I saw Fleety once do a not very politically correct impression, shortly after the Space Shuttle disaster: he had a cigarette flying out of it, jumping off a balcony into a swimming pool. He was doing ‘The Space Shuttle Disaster’.”
Tim Smith is another comic who has indulged in pleasures of the flash. More or less. He may not have been demonstrating them to people, according to Simon, but “he was certainly work-shopping them for quite some time!”
Paul Hester, the original, and now sadly departed, drummer of Crowded House, was also adept at a dick trick. And although it never went to air, Simon and Friendy appeared as Puppetry of the Penis on Hester’s ABC variety show, Hessie’s Shed (some of the footage wound up on the Mick Molloy-produced cocumentary, Tackle Happy).
Jim Rose, of Circus fame, used to do them with Simon and Jimeoin in Edinburgh, in the Gilded Balloon toilets, back in 1992. Can’t get more Fringe than that, surely! “Jim Rose took the hamburger and ran with it! He still does it on stage, occasionally.”
David has a hamburger!
Amazing. Dick tricks, the way comedians amused each other late at night in 1992, became a stage act all their own in 1998, taking the world by storm shortly thereafter. But the origins lie further back. “My brothers and I came up with most of the tricks, as sibling rivalry, back in the 1980s,” Simon reports.
I guess the real question is, has Simon encountered Ron Jeremy in his travels and seen if Ron can do any of them, or indeed, has any tricks to add to the catalogue.
“I have met Ron Jeremy but I didn’t really want to have a ‘dick-off’ with him,” Simon confesses. I think I know what he means. “We met in a bar, and he’d heard of my work, and I’d certainly heard of his work, and there was a bit of mutual respect, but we were on very different sides of the fence, me and Ron! It was a bit like Van Gogh meeting Leunig…”
Not quite sure which one’s Van Gogh and which one’s Leunig, but the point is taken. And it has resonance. Say what you will about two blokes on stage manipulating their genitalia – serious publications approached the show seriously once it left Australian shores. Which Simon anticipated all along.
“I knew this was going to generate some serious debate. It was very confronting.” While it was “harmless fun” to Simon and Friendy – “It’s a piece of skin; get over it!” – for a lot of people, particularly in the media, it was challenging, even down to the basic debate of whether or not it could be shown on television. “Can we show male genitalia in a non-sexual light? What’s wrong with it, given we see so much female genitalia?” According to Simon, “it posed a lot of good questions, and I’m always happy when the debate starts around us. It’s important that we just stay focused; we just want to make shapes out of our dicks!”
Not wishing to enter any debate, my most pressing question right now is, given Simon’s not about to appear in this show, how does the Director and Global Pimp go about selecting his cast? How do you audition would-be dick tricksters?
“Basically, we get boys to come along, we talk them through and tell them what the job entails.Then we ask them all to kick their pants off. We do a little workshop, and then we get them to show us any tricks that they’ve got of their own, reproduce the ones we just taught them, and we look for them to be naturally funny. We say, ‘Right. Deliver your tricks!’”
What Simon’s looking for, essentially, in a would-be dick trickster is a special quality: “If there were couple of old ladies in the audience, we’d want them to have the most confronting and hilarious night of their lives, but we’d want them to turn to each other and go, ‘oh, but they’re such nice boys!’ So they’ve got to have a certain charm about them as well.”
And don’t think for an instant that you necessarily have to be hung like a Clydesdale to do these tricks: “I’ve actually said ‘no’ to a lot of guys who were too big,” Simon insists. “You’ve got to be able to manipulate it. You’ve got to be able to bend it. We’re looking for a certain proportion in the size of the penis to the testicles: the wheels on ‘The Skateboard’ can’t be too big. There’s also a lot of stretchiness of skin: you’ve got to be able to put a sail on your ‘Windsurfer’.”
Ultimately, says Simon, when it comes to dick tricks, “everyone can do some of them; not everyone can do all of them.”
Simon (seated) and Friendy, AKA Puppetry of the Penis
Coque du Soleil
I remember hearing – probably from the lads themselves – that the Umbilical Brothers were approached by Cirque du Soleil. However, joining the troupe would have meant giving up a lot of what they already had, and losing some identity. Has there been some sort of Coque du Soleil offer?
“Actually,” Simon says, “there has been…”
Turns out, in numerous trips to Montreal for the Just for Laughs comedy festival, Simon had encountered the Cirque du Soleil creators, who frequently used to joke that Puppetry of the Penis should become part of the show. And then it was no longer a joke: Cirque were “putting together an adult show for Vegas”.
It came to nothing, of course. For the same reason every attempt by Puppetry of the Penis to get to Vegas has also been stymied: a law that prohibits live sex acts. The wording applies to Puppetry of the Penis, even though it isn’t a sex act:
“There's an old licensing law that says you can be naked on stage, but you can’t touch your genitals. Unfortunately, we get caught up in this. Because all these shows are in billion dollar casinos, none of them are going to go, ‘well, that’s a stupid law…’. Nobody’s prepared to take that chance with a billion dollar license.”
But, Simon’s adamant: it’s only a matter of time. “We’ll play Vegas one day. We’ll get in there!”
Not so cocky
So here’s the thing. You’ve read this far. You’ve giggled at bits. But if you haven’t seen Puppetry of the Penis live, would you? The point I made earlier – which was Simon’s point, back in 1998 – which I’ve found to be true, deserves reiteration: watching two naked guys do silly things with their cocks is unnerving. At first. But after the initial shock, it is just funny silliness. And you may as well be looking at their elbows.
Admittedly, the times I’ve seen it, I’ve felt the need to take female friends with me. And they all react the same way: ‘You’re taking me to see WHAT?’ (Or, as one quoted their mother to me, ‘He’s taking you to see… that PENIS show?!’) But by the end of it they’ve laughed so much that they’re talking about it at work the next day and organising a girls’ night out before the end of the season.
Simon likens it to jumping out of an aeroplane: “It defies all your natural instincts. You DON’T jump out of aeroplanes; it’s madness; it’s stupid. And as soon as you get out of the plane and you’ve let go of everything and you’re freefalling, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Okay, seeing Puppetry of the Penis may not be “the best feeling in the world” but Simon assures that “it’s quite harmless once you get over the initial shock of it all; you’ve just got to strap yourself in and hang on; it’ll be fine. You’re not gonna get hurt.”
Not gonna get hurt, indeed. Reminds me of the urban legend surrounding film pioneers, the Lumiere brothers, and their 50-second silent film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Apparently, the first audience to see it – never having seen film projection before – freaked out at the shot of the train coming towards them. You’ll have your 3-D glasses on; you’ll be watching live theatre with close-ups coming at you live, on screen. But rest assured: those three-dimensional dick tricks coming at you pose no danger, just silly fun.
Puppetry of the Penis in 3-D opens Tuesday 17 April at the Athaneum Theatre in Melbourne.
The Sydney season starts May 5 at the Enmore Theatre.