Hours before the start of the day’s filming on the Sony Pictures soundstage that is home base for Showtime’s “Kidding,” the proceedings were already in controlled-chaos mode.
Ennui Le Triste, the show’s emotional, talkative French baguette, went over his lines. Sy the Wide-Eyed Fly darted from place to place, attached to a man in a body suit covering everything but his face. Astron-otter, the full-size otter dressed in a white astronaut suit, tried to get a grip on her large helmet.
Welcome to the behind-the-scenes frenzy of “Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time,” the children’s show within the very adult show “Kidding,” the comedy-drama featuring Jim Carrey as a Mister Rogers-esque TV host struggling to maintain a grip on his sanity after a horrific family tragedy.
Carrey plays Jeff Pickles, a.k.a Mr. Pickles, who uses his puppet pals living in the idyllic forest of Pickle Barrel Falls to teach his young viewers life lessons.
On this humid summer day, Carrey was missing in action. Instead, the puppets have taken over the facility.
An array of puppeteers, crew members and technicians were gathering to film some pickup scenes for one of the second season’s key episodes: The Season 31 premiere of “Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time.”
The installment, which aired Feb. 24, deals with sadness and healing, which parallels Pickles’ emotional roller-coaster as he finalizes his divorce to his wife, Jill (Judy Greer). On this edition of “Puppet Time,” the residents of Pickle Barrel Falls are realizing they have to leave their peaceful home behind because the falls are falling apart.
The conceit of “Puppet Time” is that the puppets “take on a life on their own, like a dream,” Carrey said in a phone interview. “Everything in the dream is you and the people in your life. They are parallel entities.”
Executive producer Michel Gondry, the visionary director of the Carrey/Kate Winslet vehicle “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” directed the episode, huddling with creator and showrunner Dave Holstein as a few puppeteers rehearsed on sets featuring the trees and brightly colored buildings of Pickle Barrel Falls. Other puppeteers got into character with their smaller performing partners.
“This is our opportunity to personify parts of Jeff’s psyche,” said Dan Garza, holding up the sad-eyed Ennui, who wears a beret and speaks in a heavy French accent.
Added Gwen Hollander, who plays Astron-otter: “It’s so cool to suspend disbelief. These puppets take up a life of their own.”
About 16 puppets make up the cast of “Puppet Time.” Among them are puppets named Oops, Soap Scum and the heart-shaped Thump Thump. But while the children’s show has an air of childlike lightness, the puppet performers made clear they were not joking around in their work.
“When we perform, it’s very real,” said Garza, a veteran puppeteer who has worked on PBS’ “Splash & Bubbles” and the film “The Happytime Murders” with Brian Henson, the son of legendary puppeteer Jim Henson. “It’s not a puppet show. We’re emoting very true performances. If we fail to do so, we’re never going to connect with our viewers. Then it’s just an act.”
That doesn’t preclude the puppeteers and their charges from having fun though: During the course of the morning, Garza and Ennui joked around with their colleagues. “I’m very much a method actor,” Garza said. “I turn Ennui on and off during the day. It’s like a switch for me.”
He added that he brings his philosophy as a performer to his real life. “I am happy all the time. I don’t let people bring me down. Are you going to let someone else have power over you? Are you going to be their puppet?”
He was particularly excited about getting to sing with Ariana Grande, who guests in the episode as Piccolo Grande, the fairy of hope. “That was truly awesome.”
Unlike Garza, Hollander, who comes from musical theater, is relatively new to puppeteering. Her only previous experience was in a theatrical production of “Avenue Q.”
During a break, she talked about her enjoyment in playing Astron-otter, who speaks in a high-pitched, rapid voice.
“She has a bit of a rage problem because no one can understand what she’s saying,” she said. “But Jeff Pickles can understand her. She’s a bit calmer this season.”
The petite Hollander said it’s easy for her to get into character. “I’m small, but when I put on the suit, I’m huge and have big feet. That seems to do it.”
But playing Astron-otter is no walk in the park.
“The costume is heavy,” Hollander said. “There’s a fan inside the head that is resting on the shoulders. I can’t hear in there. I have to have headphones. The back of my neck is the only place I can hear if someone wants to talk to me. “
Appearing on “Kidding” has been a career highlight, she said. “Dave Holstein is a genius, and working with Jim Carrey is insane. I feel like I won this weird lottery ticket when I’m in a scene with him.”
Carrey said he was particularly delighted because he had a major role in creating some of the puppets. “I wanted to have a puppet that let children know it’s OK to make mistakes. So I came up with this puppet named Oops.”
Though some critics have described “Kidding” as bleak, Carrey said the show’s mission is to heal and uplift — just as the puppets do in 31 seasons of Mr. Pickles’ beloved program.
“A lot of people talk about the heaviness of the show,” he said. “But I don’t think you could deal with these elements of life in a more lovely, buoyant and creative way.”