On Dave Holstein’s Kidding, production designer Maxwell Orgell faced a classic artistic challenge, crafting sets for a show-within-a-show. Following the downward spiral of a Mr. Rogers type, the dark comedy centered on Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time, a nostalgia-inducing kids’ program with touches of the surreal.
Conceived as a family-run production, coming to viewers from a small soundstage in Columbus, Ohio, Puppet Time was a space marked by the low-budget, crafty magic of local broadcast, which unsurprisingly came with its own wide assortment of original felt creations. With names like Uke-Larry, Soap Scum and Ennui Le Triste, the puppets were every bit as singular as the Puppet Time sets themselves, the product of collaboration between Orgell and two other highly imaginative minds.
When it came to designing Puppet Time and its many idiosyncratic inhabitants, director Michel Gondry was one essential voice. A veteran of children’s television who knew that world inside out, story editor Joey Mazzarino was another.
Together, the trio would embrace the charms and quirks of children’s television shows of the past, while devising a new world with its own aesthetic. Featuring retro, crafty effects and colorfully artificial sets, this was a world in which star Jim Carrey could play, where unfettered forces of creation and destruction would collide.
What made this Showtime series one you had to take on?
Maxwell Orgell: Part of it was going to a new format. I hadn’t been in television necessarily, so that was an adventure in its own right. But after getting a good idea of what this was about, to be able to play with something that’s close to me, as far as the nostalgia of these kinds of shows that I watched during childhood, and then also this real world that was starting to develop, being able to play with that dichotomy was probably the most intriguing thing for me.
Joey Mazzarino:I did 25 years on Sesame Street; I was head writer for a number of years, and I was also a puppeteer and a director of that show. I knew what it was like to just be hanging out with Bob [McGrath] and Roscoe [Orman], who played Gordon, and to me, it was so intriguing. When I first started at Sesame Street, I would see Caroll Spinney, who played Big Bird, riding this tiny little bicycle down 9th avenue and go, “There’s the most famous guy in children’s television, and nobody even knows him.” So, I was super interested in those people’s lives, because I knew them.
Then, when I met with Dave about the show and read the script, I was like, “Oh, man. I’m all in. This is what I’ve been looking for my whole life.”
What was your approach to conceptualizing the look for Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time, Kidding’s show-within-a-show?
Orgell: One of the things that was important to me, when initially diving into this, was that you know what the references might be, that people are going to want to draw parallels to, but to stay away from that. When I’m doing research, you want to know what exists, and then you want to understand how that came to exist in the first place. So, I’d go back to ‘60s and ‘70s, nostalgic, stop-motion animation projects and things like that to look at where some of these things might have come from, or even further histories with Jim Henson on the puppet end, as far back as I could possibly go to understand the genesis, focusing more on that to then make it evolve into something different on its own, so it’ll still hit the same notes, as far as feeling like something that we remember from when we were younger, but at the same time be original in its own right.
Mazzarino: When I came on board, I thought I was really just here for the development of the show within the show. I thought we would almost develop that independently and find out what that was, and what I found, to my delight, was that it all came from these characters and who they were—and most of the puppet characters came out of the story. We pointed at it in Episode 9, the parallels between the characters in the life of Kidding and then what they are on the Puppet Time show. The development of Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time and what that world was all came from Jeff’s psyche—what he had been through, what this place meant to him, in his pain, maybe when he was growing up. It all came from that, in such a super different and awesome way that pays off emotionally in so many ways.
When we’re in Mr. Pickles’ studio, are we seeing on camera facets of your own production space?
Orgell: The interesting thing is the context of where the show is, as opposed to where we are. As far as the world that you see behind the scenes of Puppet Time, you’re not really ever seeing any of our actual studio. There’s a false studio that’s built on the stage. An actual sound stage is going to be too large for the situation; you’ve got to remember, it’s supposed to be local broadcast. So, while it’s okay to catch certain things that normally you wouldn’t catch, the behind-the-scenes aspect of it is carefully curated to be more of a smaller, local studio situation then how we actually operate as a team here. I would have to constantly remind myself of where we are in the real world of the show, and that plays a role in how other things get defined, as well. Also, with the sets themselves, we can make some really crazy things to some degree, but we would always have to [remember], this is reasonably low budget. Even though it’s become an empire, part of the charm of it is staying small, so there are certain restrictions that we impose on ourselves.
Maxwell, you’d worked with Michel Gondry before, on a number of short-form projects. What is it that makes this creative partnership work?
Orgell: I think our relationship really started and stayed together because I can fully understand him with a small amount of information. He can draw a very simple drawing of something, and I can understand. Being a fan of his in the past, I understand an understood notion of what he sort of wants. But frequently, that’s not always true. So, it’s about interpreting to some degree what he will provide you with, and then presenting your ideas after. Often, I’ll start theorizing about how he might approach something or want to see something, come up with some ideas for that, let him start explaining it, and we go back and forth, often with drawings.
He’s highly visual, and I’ve always operated that way, so we’ll start talking about something, and often he can verbalize it, and I’ll get it and that’s fine. But it always is great: I’ll put a piece of paper in front of him, and he’ll just draw some quick, little drawing and we go, “Yeah, that’s going to be it.” With the puppet design that we did, I read what’s written, I understand what’s there based on writers’ room and everything else, and I’ll come up with a rendering of it. Before showing him that rendering, I’ll say, “Draw me a picture of this first”; then, I’ll take that and combine them. Because I’m always keeping in mind certain things about logistics and functionality, and he’s more about his end, I’ll recombine them to create something that’s a final product.
Could you elaborate on the inspirations behind Kidding’s puppets, and the process of bringing them to life?
Mazzarino: I really do think the way they came about is super interesting. For instance, Secret Chef came out of the story of Deirdre and Scott, and her building it off Scott because he has a secret that he’s hiding underneath. Sy the Wide-Eyed Fly came on when we were talking about Derrell’s dad, who is on death row, the character who was really trying to be an artist and snapped at the wrong moment because he’d been eating sh*t his whole life, and still has a good perspective.
[With] the Vivian puppet, I remember we were talking about Vivian’s story, and [Mr. Pickles] giving her a puppet to keep her legacy going, [and] let her story go on. I was like, “Maybe she’s a librarian…Oh my god, her name is Vivian—Viva Las Pages. She loses the pages, and she’s got to make up the rest.” It just felt so organic, and everybody fell in love with that idea. So, they came so much from the characters in the Kidding world, Seb being this gigantic Sasquatch, so that every step he takes, no matter how small, sort of rocks the world, [which] feels like what Seb is in their world. That stuff was so interesting and fun to build in the scripts.
And Jim was super involved. A lot of it came from the writers and Dave and myself, but then Jim would weigh in. Uke-Larry never had that sort of Hawaiian element in the first designs, and Jim added that layer of it. AstronOtter was once like a super penguin or something, and he was like, “We can do better.”
Orgell: The details start to pile up as we move on further than that. I have what we know from what’s written; then, I’ll do research, making sure that things aren’t parallel to something else. There’s the conversation with Dave about what he envisions, the conversation with Michel about what he envisions, and then I started doing that back and forth, and we started developing these renders of what these things could look like.
After we got through the early bunch of them, they started to inform how to approach other puppets to some extent. Stylistically, it was important in the beginning to identify, how do we deal with eyes? How do we deal with some of these things? Hopefully, they have a unique quality to them, and there’s variances; they’re not all the same.
You brought a number of retro practical effects to Puppet Time. What inspired you to implement them within this unusual children’s show?
Orgell: That grows out of a logic that Michel and I both try to implement as frequently as possible, in a lot of the work we do. We utilize visual effects all the time for things that makes sense, but it goes back to some of the early Gondry stuff that people were aware of. We tried to play with that handmade DIY ethic, and Puppet Time offers a very platform good for that. If we can, we will always do rear projection instead of green screen—things like that—and we’re allowed to do it here. These are things that are the same reasons why I was excited to get into this business in the first place, and unfortunately, so many don’t really get to play with those tools anymore.
Was it interesting to devise original products for the show, like Secret Chef microwavable meals, and Mr. Pickles dolls?
Mazzarino: With the Secret Chef meal, I just remember that [a] Showtime executive heard [about] it and was like, “That’s a really good product. We could sell that!” [laughs]
Orgell: Every time I would get one of the scripts and see something of that nature, I’d be like, “Oh my god, I cannot wait to make them.” I’d start drawing things immediately, and the thing is, they’re so original.
Mazzarino: …In my time as the head writer at Sesame, we would actually go to Hasbro in Rhode Island and talk to the guys who created this stuff, and pitch on stuff, too. So, it’s a world I know pretty well.
Were you figuring out visual concepts for these products, while outsourcing their production?
Orgell: We develop that stuff in house, and I’ll work with our graphic designer to come up with everything from the packaging design to the product design itself. Then, we work in conjunction with our prop master, Andy [Siegel].
Quantity-wise, we’ve often faked, if there’s huge quantities. When it came to the dolls, there were probably three hero [dolls] for if you’re looking at one close up, and 20 of them, if you saw a good cluster of them. Then, we did things like make 100 boxes, and the rest of them are photographs of the dolls in the box, [seen] from a distance, and that just has to do with scaling. It’s not a good use of funds to create 100 of these things, especially when they’re still made by hand. We’re not producing them on full-scale production.
There were so many times that people were so thrilled with certain things that they were like, “They’ve got to use this as a merchandising opportunity,” and maybe this time around, they’ll [do so.]
What have you found most challenging, in bringing Kidding to life?
Mazzarino: This year, there was a big challenge. Dave Holstein and I both wanted to do a full episode within the show-within-the-show, and still advance character, and I thought we were never going to be able to break it. But we broke it for Season 2.
What else can you share about the upcoming season, which is currently in production?
Mazzarino: I think in Season 1, you saw a man who was shackled, dealing with big feelings about what kids needed in the world. I think you’re about to see him unshackled, in a way, and see how that affects him and his family. It’s a different season and an escalated season, and I’m so excited. I can’t tell you.