Published June 28, 2002
NEW YORK – If there's anything sadder than an out-of-work actor, it's an out-of-work puppet.
So while everyone's glad to see a human thespian make a comeback, when a puppet icon returns to the big time, you really have to give it a hand.
Whether they're hawking automobile insurance on TV, hobnobbing with Mets catchers or being honored with Hollywood's most famous ceremonial introduction to living-legend status, the puppets of yesteryear have seemingly invaded the media after a long absence.
"I've been working as a bartender in Connecticut," the alien life-form known as Alf said in an interview in New York.
After starring in a successful four-year show on NBC in the 1980s, the sassy, orange-furred creature had almost disappeared from public view, with only the occasional appearance on The Cindy Margolis Show, Talk Soup or The Love Boat: The Next Wave to remind television viewers that he hadn't returned to his home planet of Melmac.
"He's been an out-of-work actor since the show," Alf's creator, voice and puppeteer Paul Fusco said. "He lived with Gary Coleman for a while. And they didn't give him a part for Men in Black II. He should've at least been a technical advisor."
But lately it's been hard to avoid Alf, who's been the star of a series of commercials for 10-10-220 and rubbing elbows with celebrities such as Mets favorite Mike Piazza. Now Alf's trying to get his own half-hour talk show on Comedy Central, where he'd interview the kind of people who think they've been abducted by aliens or who grow squashes that look like Elvis Presley.
"He's popular again because of what he has to say," Fusco said. "He definitely has a skewed perspective."
For example, when asked if Alf gave up eating cats because of pressure from PETA, the furry alien answered:
"PETA? I love cats on pita. With mayo."
Similarly, a wiseass attitude is why the dog-like Sock Puppet, formerly the Pets.com mascot, is selling car insurance, according to Brian Hakan, whose Kansas-based company represents both the puppet and Gidgey, the Chihuahua made famous in Taco Bell advertisements.
"The public has already registered that they love this little character," Hakan said. "The question is now, how is it fed to the public?"
The public might get a heaping helping of the microphone-wielding puppy thanks to an Emmy-winning producer who wants to develop a Sock Puppet sitcom, Hakan said.
And for those who didn't get enough of the Spanish-spouting Chihuahua, Hakan added, she's got a possible sitcom deal too.
Then there are the puppets that never really went away. Kermit the Frog may not have found it easy being green, but the gentle amphibian's popularity easily won him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame last week.
He will also be in a Muppets Christmas movie on NBC, and would certainly play a major role in a new Muppet show that Fox Television has in development. The Muppets are even starring in the video for the new Weezer single.
"People love the Muppets because they were so well-loved and they cross generational lines," Juliet Blake, president of Jim Henson Television, said. "The thing about puppets is that you can get to know them quickly, because with franchise puppets like Kermit or Miss Piggy, people know who they are and have a certain expectation from these characters."
Shows starring puppets, Blake added, also cost much less than star-powered television programs.
Besides simple nostalgia and the bottom line, the puppet comeback also reflects a change in the American attitude, Blake said in a telephone interview from Vancouver.
"Post Sept. 11, television has become a lot less cynical," she said.
That's why the public appreciates the funny but honest observations that an alien like Alf makes, Fusco said.
"In today's world, things are stranger and stranger," he said. "His comments are even more poignant today than in the '80s. People want an escape. He's a way to say, 'Hey, take it easy, people.'"