Puppetry of the Penis in 3-D

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“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’.”

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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 n Dom

Denton and Dom discuss benefits of CGI interview technique


Penistory

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.”

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David has a hamburger!


Penartistry

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.”

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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.

 

Freebies…

Puppetry of the Penis in 3-D opens Tuesday 17 April at the Athaneum Theatre in Melbourne.

Yoke Communications has freebies to the Wednesday 18 April performance. Be one of 20 lucky double pass recipients by emailing Nina at Yoke Communications now (nina@yokecommunications.com.au).

The Sydney season starts May 5 at the Enmore Theatre.


Keeping abreast of Bev Killick

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I got to have a lovely chat with Bev Killick to which I’ll direct people whenever she’s doing a gig. My apologies for 'guessing' the spelling of the Busting Out character names…


“I haven’t done stand-up for a little while because I’ve been busy on Busting Out,” Bev says, “but I was standing on stage the other night, and it came to me, the way I used to tag a joke. I went, ‘oh, thank god!’ I love the way your mind can work: it can help get you out of a situation when you need it – if you trust yourself.”

There’s a heap of stuff to start with right there, talking to Bev Killick, who has been a professional comic for the better part of a decade and a half. But as she says, recently she’s been concentrating on Busting Out, a kind of ‘women’s own’ Puppetry of the Penis (only, not really, as Bev’ll explain), that she does with Emma Powell.

Point is, Bev’s in town to do stand-up, and a scary thing happened to her in the process: she actually had to stretch some comedy muscles that had hitherto not been exercised in the show Busting Out, despite it enjoying three months of success in the UK – after nearly four years of success in Australia and New Zealand.

First things first, though.


Starting Out

Bev, in her own words, has always been ‘the funny girl’ and ‘a party animal’ growing up, always prepared to do “shocking things to get attention”. She also trained in theatre, and, true to form, ended up in hospitality for many years, until she realised shed had enough.

“I worked one too many shifts when there was an entertainer on, when I went, ‘Why don’t I just switch? I wanna be up there; I don’t want to be walking around with a tray in my hand!”

So Bev, believing comedy to be “such a different genre to theatre”, attended Peter Crofts’s ‘Humourversity’. “It was just a really good way to focus, I suppose,” she says. The best aspect of Crofts’s approach to teaching comedy is that he was more a ‘life coach’, taking an holistic approach to getting his students on stage. So despite Bev being a procrastinator – “if it was too difficult or scary, I’d put it off, which a lot of funny people do” – Peter ensured a date was set for her comedy debut. “I had to ring up a club and book it in. So I had to get there, and I had to have five minutes.”

Having “worked and worked” on her five minutes of material, Bev Killick made her debut. She got up. And did 17 minutes. Of open mic. That’s outrageous. For several reasons. It’s hard to come up with 17 minutes of comedy. That is actually funny. That an MC will actually allow you to deliver, uninterrupted.

But it gets better: Bev’s MC was Dave Grant. The Dave Grant. Though sadly gone, Dave was a master, and a mentor to many a comic. And one of the lessons he lovingly imparted – usually with stern gusto – was the importance of sticking to your time. It’s amazing that he let Bev go for more than three times that. She must have been exceptionally good.

“He was enjoying it,” she assures me. “I got to the five-minute mark and he sort of looked at his watch and said, ‘You know what? Just keep going’.

There is, of course, an epilogue to this tale:

“I went back to the same club the next night and just bombed.”

Oh yeah. That happens a lot to new comics – they get through their debut on fear and nervous energy, by the grace of an understanding audience. And then, in Bev’s words, “you rest on your laurels. You think, ‘Oh yeah, that’s that,’ and you don’t put in the same work that you did the first time.” And, she adds, “nervous energy can sometimes make you really funny”.

Thereafter, Bev learnt her craft the hard way: by doing it. “I stayed at that five minute mark for a while,” she says, “but it didn’t take me long to get to the fifteen minute mark…”

Of course not. How could it? She debuted past the 15-minute mark. And those initial 17 minutes, plus the skills she’d been taught – understanding “transitions, heckle lines, comeback lines, all those sort of things – meant she took to the stage well equipped. “I felt I could go up there armed, like, ‘If this happens I’ll do that…’ I also had some freedom to improvise here and there.”

The real lesson, for Bev, was learning how to stay relaxed on stage. Because early on, she used to get “so strung out” before a gig that she lost heaps of weight from being nervous all the time. “You over-produce adrenalin and it’s just not good for you,” she advises, adding, with a hearty laugh, that “your bowels work very well when you’re starting out as a comedian.”

The question is, did Bev have any inkling, as the funny girl and the party animal on a constant mission for attention, that she’d end up doing all of that professionally, as a comic?

“I didn’t,” Bev says. “I was trying so hard to be an actor, I didn’t see comedy as a career path. It sounds odd, doesn’t it? Sometimes I’m the last to know. When I told my friends that I was thinking of doing stand-up, it was like, ‘Der’!”

Bev Killick (Small)

Some Kind Of Bust

The success of Busting Out, both locally and internationally, has taught Bev to take a more balanced approach, particularly when the work is constant. “Maybe it’s just the travel,” she says, “but you just can’t afford to be up all hours of the night. You don’t hang around for the big, long affirmation of how good you are. You pack up, you go back to your hotel and you go to sleep.”

So let’s look at Busting Out. On the surface, it seems like the female version of Puppetry of the Penis, but it can’t literally be that, I imagine. Because while, with the right kind of tackle, you can bend, flex and twist it into shapes. But what can you do with breasts?

“In a way, it’s an homage to what those [Puppetry of the Penis] guys set out to do,” Bev says of the comparison. She reckons there was an element of “reclaiming the penis” as something that could be fun, rather than threatening. However, “boobs were never really that threatening in the first place”, so of course there’s a different dynamic at play.

“The only prerequisites you’d need to be a penis puppeteer,” Bev reckons, “is have a penis, want to get it out in public, and be able to speak”. (It’d have to be a penis worth getting out in public, of course.) “But Emma and I have amassed a lot of performance art training between the two of us.”  So there are some tit tricks, and although I can’t imagine many of them, I couldn’t imagine many dick tricks until I saw Puppetry of the Penis. But there is also sketch comedy, character work, songs… “There is a little bit more of a status between the two of us. It’s scripted, and it’s more of a two-hander. I’m the foil.”

Bev and Emma are two breastologists from some nefarious Baltic country. Emma is Ivana Fitcherbrayerbitch, the boss bra fitter. Bev is Nania Bizhness, who essentially just likes getting her tits out in public. “That’s the sort of relationship our characters have,” she says. But there’s a point at which the power structure is reversed, when Bev is the boss, and Emma has to do what she’s told – which involves trying to fit a bra on an audience member. A man, of course.

“We show the audience that men don’t really have much of an idea when it comes to what we have to go through as women. It’s really good fun. We fit this guy up, we dance with him…”

Emma happens to have a beautiful singing voice, so there is a torch song – sung to the tune of ‘Memories’ from cats. (I’m guessing it’s ‘Mammaries’.) During this performance, Bev comes on as a cat and tries to upstage Emma. “It’s not an easy show to do,” Bev insists. “We do actually have to have gifts and talents. It’s not just standing there with your tits out.”

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Neither is stand-up comedy so straight forward, though. Although a lot of work goes into Busting Out, in the end, there is a script to fall back on, as well as a partner on stage. If one of them flags, the other can step into the breach. In stand-up, it’s just the comic. There are always issues of “What kind of crowd is this? What kind of material might they react to? What am I going to wear?’ All of these sorts of things, and you’ve only got yourself to fall back on.”

Bev discovered this, last week, stepping back onto a stand-up stage she used to play all the time a few years ago. “I didn’t enjoy it at all,” she says. Back whe she was a regular, she’d routinely get a couple of encores from the audience. This time it was all hard work. And she’s got a few theories as to why: “The demographic’s just changed; it used to just be that fun pub atmosphere. It’s outside their age bracket; I’m talking about kids and stuff and they’re not even thinking about having children. And, after playing the big stages, maybe, without realising it, I’m being a bit too theatrical.”

It was probably a combination of all three factors. Whatever. The following night, Bev altered her approach, chatted more to the audience giving herself more time to acclimatise to them, and vice-versa, and the result was every gag hit its mark and both the audience and the comic were content! “As soon as they can relate, you’ve got ’em,” Bev confirms.

The next plan for Busting Out is a return to the UK – during which time, a ‘company B’ cast will continue to deliver the show in Australia.

“We’re going back in March and there’s already some interest from the West End. We’re also going to invite some American producers because it’s not too far for them to travel. So it’s probable that it will go to LA, New York, Canada…”

With all this success, I’m wondering if at this stage punters who come to see Bev Killick do stand-up are disappointed that she’s not on stage as Nania Bizhness, doing tit tricks.

“No,” Bev replies. While people come to Busting Out because they know Bev Killick as the killer comic, none of them expect to see ‘Busting Out Bev’ on the stand-up stage. “I don’t get people coming to see me do stand-up, yelling ‘show us your tits!’,” she assures me. “Although, if they asked politely, I’d probably be willing to show them. Except, it’s actually in my contract now, that I’m not allowed to!”