Follow that Berg: Fozzeck, the 'Suppits, and the Absurd Uncertainty
of the Self
The world of light opera is cyclical in nature, and in those cycles
and epicycles recurs upon and incorporates what was experimental a generation
or two before. A case in point would be the Stoppard-inspired musical
Fortinbrass! of the 2008-9 season that told the tale of the
last nobleman left standing at the end of Shakespeare's play in his
adventures as the new King of Denmark and the leader of a marching band.
Thus the Norwegian prince's proclivity for bold action proves an almost
fatal flaw in a series of increasingly slapstick scenes of high-flown
Needless to say, the Tony nominating members were smitten.
But not since 2005's Stranglers in Parricide has classical
(in this case Modernist) inspiration collided with fanfic and existentialist
crisis in such an interesting way as in Fozzeck, a 12-tone
take on the careers of the 'Suppits, the cherished but streetwise puppet/phenomenon/franchise
that reached its apogee in the 1970s and '80s.
The controversial film version of Jason Kiester and Nick Stooler's
stage production has recently hit the nation's multiplexes, and, much
to the chagrin of surviving 'Suppits co-founder Frank Od, seems to be
doing quite well.
The film's protagonist, Flawzi Boar, more commonly known only as Fozzeck,
portrays a version of his well-established character, a low-level entertainer
trying to make ends meet by cutting hair during the day. The opening
scene has him clipping the plumage of the über-patriotic Captain
Eagle, the maître d' of the motel supper club at which Fozzeck
performs. In the recitative, the following exchange occurs:
CAPTAIN EAGLE: What will you do with the great expanse of comedy
FOZZECK: (Pulling a rubber chicken from the Captain's behind)
CAPTAIN EAGLE: A worthy man with a conscience that's clear does all
FOZZECK: And yet, kind sir, The Mighty Favog will not spurn a poor
fellow all because a chuckle was not uttered before the joke was thought
of! The Favog spoke: “Suffer the whoopie cushions to poot out
some for me!” Besides, it is much easier for the comic with
many props . . .
Thus begins the detailing of Fozzeck's downward spiral as a comic,
and his identity crisis as a 'Suppit. According to 'Suppit lore, their
relative place within the 'Suppit community is directly determined by
their entertainment value, as judged by eternal hecklers Gansevoort
and Roosevelt. This failure is reinforced in the following scene wherein
Fozzeck's bad jokes fall flat, his love-interest, the live-action Mariah,
heckling along with all the rest.
It is revealed in Act One, Scene Three, however, as Fozzeck is pulled
offstage with a hook, that his comic failure is actually the result
of an experiment by the well-meaning but hopeless Dr. Punsin Havenoughclu,
who has given Fozzeck an experimental drug that plunges him into torturous
unfunniness in order to study the long-term effects of bombing on stage.
And thus Fozzeck takes unto himself the failure of his act in true 'Suppit
fashion. His resulting poverty leads to “a lack of props,”
which leads, in his mind, to a lack of laughs, while Captain Eagle,
the ultimate straight man, and Mariah, who is not even a 'Suppit, fail
to understand how his act can be so closely related to his identity.
In a telling scene, Dr. Havenoughclu lectures Fozzeck:
DR. HAVENOUGHCLU: In comedy, originality is sublimated into new material.
Do not let a man like a mere Eddie Izzard upset you . . .
FOZZECK: When the laughter has vanished . . . and the theater is is
so dark, so dark that you have to grope around for a line . . . and
it seems to disperse like sophomoric weeping . . . . When in the middle
of the night the world seems bursting forth into chortles . . .
And here Fozzeck begins to hallucinate the voices of Gansevoort and
Roosevelt chiding his act and runs screaming up Saysme Street.
Among the controversies surrounding Fozzeck is the merging of the worlds
of children's educational puppeteering and the world of more adult,
commercialized, entertainment-driven comedic puppets. This scene, as
well as the one featuring Mariah detailed above, are widely viewed by
'Suppit purists as being the most troublesome aspects of this new treatment
of their beloved characters. Fozzeck's flight from Dr. Havenoughclu
takes him straight into the arms of Mariah. As a citizen of Saysme Street,
she represents not the tough-edged version of the 'Suppits, but their
self-esteem-building counterparts that have given generations of young
people their first shot at feeling good about themselves. Behind this
merging of worlds is the even more disturbing notion of what it means
for a 'Suppit to have a romantic relationship with a live-action person,
as the implied conceit of Saysme Street had always been that the set
of 'Suppit characters unique to it were stand-ins for the children watching
the show, the live-action humans stand-ins for responsible adults. Not
only does this represent a canonical miscegenation; it implies a disturbing
Presuming (as, apparently, do Kiester and Stooler) that non-Saysme
Street 'Suppits can be adults, there is still the problem, which they
confront dead-on, of what defines 'Suppitude within the fictive universe
they inhabit. Here Kiester and Stooler provide an answer in a crucial
plot-point: Mariah, in the nicest way she can, spurns Fozzeck and pronounces
their love “impawsible,” and in what is perhaps Fozzeck's
signature song, “Have I a Soul, Or am I a 'Suppit?” Fozzeck
Have I a soul, or am I a 'Suppit?
If I've a soul, it's a highly 'Suppity sort of soul.
And am I a ham, or am I a human?
If I'm a human, I'm a very hammy sort of a man.
He thus reveals and reifies the depth to which the 'Suppit relies upon
his shtick to make him him. For a 'Suppit, after all, a characterization,
a tagline, a shtick, are all forms of ensoulation: otherwise, as the
song notes, “we're just chunks of foam / with hands all up our
Turned from Mariah's door, Fozzeck eventually finds himself falling
asleep in a trashcan and beginning to turn green. Here he is visited
by nightmares and sings: “All our days are spent endlessly joking
. . . [we] even bomb in our sleep . . . poor, wretched folk.”
And thus begins the road movie portion of the film.
The chase sequence/road movie part of Fozzeck involve Dr.
Havenoughclu rounding up all the 'Suppits to find the eponymous character,
as the good doctor must reclaim his test subject in order to maintain
his grant funding. He bribes the rest of the 'Suppits by promising them
co-authorship of the eventual research paper and lifelong treatments
of beakersful of his patented Lulu Juice (a sort of anti-serum to the
mysterious med with which he has been treating Fozzeck). Meanwhile,
Mariah has begun the search for Fozzeck from the other side of the 'Suppit
divide, seeking to return him to his own rough kind and get him out
of the positive, clean, strengths-based Saysme Street. This is perhaps
the most traditionally 'Suppit part of the film, as the motley cast
moves through a series of preposterous, cameo-filled subplots too numerous
and byzantine to enumerate here.
It is all pointless, of course (satisfying another of the 'Suppits'
common themes) as Fozzeck is hiding in plain sight; the cast is searching
for a black, fuzzy boar, not a green, sloppy grouch.
The chase/road movie sequences further reinforce the major theme of
identity: as the 'Suppits stand in contradistinction to the live actors
both visually and conceptually, they also interact as if nothing is
amiss. Ostensibly, the message is of radical inclusiveness; however,
that message is continually undercut by the fundamental weirdness of
the 'Suppits and literally by the recurrence of the “Soul or 'Suppit”
musical motif on the soundtrack. This is particularly evident during
a montage in which Fozzeck wanders the back alleys of Saysme Street
seeking a place to fit in, his newly green face superimposed on those
of the “real” people he stares at through windows.
A meta-message presented by Fozzeck is that authenticity
itself is a matter of self-determination, and the character Fozzeck's
existence is a double-distancing from the authentic, both as an unwitting
subject of Dr. Havenoughclu's mad experiment and as, in point of fact
and as a matter of postmodern self-awareness, a puppet. Even within
the framework of his own double-constructedness, even within his own
powerlessness to be, Fozzeck is unable to resist the innate desire for
Fozzeck's wanderings eventually lead him to the lake shore, where he
throws his beloved rubber chicken in the water, the symbol of the death
of his career and his identity as a 'Suppit. The green tinge, as it
was merely the withdrawal effects of Dr. Havenoughclu's medication,
has begun to fade, and Fozzeck is again becoming his recognizable feral
porcine form. The parties pursuing, one strictly 'Suppit, one full of
Saysme Street denizens, both converge and catch up with him here. As
they confront him in a cacophony of human and puppet voices, an argument
erupts over the nature of Fozzeck's soul, with Captain Eagle asserting
that Fozzeck's is a moral failing, an inability to understand and come
to terms with who he is, and with Mariah countering that his is a societal
disease, one that will be repaired through a restoration of his self-esteem,
and only in that way will he know his true, 'Suppity self.
In despair over his own downfall and his entire world descending into
chaos on his account, and in perhaps the darkest moment yet in 'Suppit
history, Fozzeck threatens to plunge himself into the abyss and drown
beneath the weight of his comically-battered felt hat. With a predictable
last-minute deus ex machination, Dr. Havenoughclu, having been delayed
by yet another explosion set off by his acerbic and wicked-tongued assistant,
Retort, arrives to reveal to the masses of 'Suppits and live-actors
that Fozzeck is, in fact, the subject of an experiment in humorlessness.
Havenoughclu is frustrated at Fozzeck's having ruined his experiment
and his funding stream, and determines to go back to his original idea
in humorlessness studies, an analysis of the sitcom How I Met Your
Meanwhile, the mad octogenarian 'Suppit Granimal breaks into Havenoughclu's
lab and steals the Lulu Juice, passing it out to any and all, and an
old-school '70s era 'Suppit party ensues, loose ends from the subplots
are tied up to the familiar “Hamamena” tune, and Fozzeck,
feeling once again inspired, heaves himself from the water and commences
to “revive his real act,” which turns out of be
based on the concept of the fart-hat, headwear that emits flatulential
sounds at every doffing. The camera, in a recursive gesture reinforcing
and recapitulating the film's theme, pans the now distraught 'Suppits,
finally focusing on the bloated form of the rubber chicken as it washes
listlessly against the shore.
Thus we are left, bereft of real answers and farced once again to question
the genuineness with which Kiester and Stooler revision the 'Suppit
franchise. Purism itself is in question here, and a meta-analysis shows
that this is both paean to the 'Suppits and parody of them; it reveals,
if nothing else, the deep obsessions of Kiester and Stooler, and the
popularity of the film suggests that theirs are, indeed, our own.
Plans for a follow-up collaboration loosely based on the Song
of the South and titled Burning Tales of Dropsical Hominy
have been, as of this writing, mercifully dropped.
Fozzeck. Dir. Jason Kiester. Writers Jason Kiester and Nick
Stooler. Perf. Error Jacobsen (Fozzeck, Captain Eagle), Dave Gallz (Dr.
Punsin Havenoughclu), Sonia Monsteranto (Mariah). 21st Century Schlock,