Move over, Bacon!

Puppetry of the Penis meets male nudity taboos head on

Photo by Jill Wagner

See it! Try it!

In 1998, the Western world was hurtling toward the millennium in the throes of Y2K anxiety. Values were questioned. Mores were loosened. On the brink of a new era, popular entertainment struggled to shed its 20th-century restrictions and stay modern.

In America, much ballyhoo was made about Kevin Bacon’s full-frontal nude scene in the trashy thriller Wild Things. The unprecedented promise of unclothed penile presence in a mainstream Hollywood film caused people to flock to the theaters for the sheer novelty of it. After sitting on the edge of their chairs for more than an hour, the audience was rewarded with a chaste flash of Kevin’s “bacon” as he reached for a towel in a bathroom. Theatergoers were left squinting at the brief nude scene and wondering if they should be shocked, titillated or merely annoyed at the hoopla generated by a press as puritanical as it was salacious.

At the same time in Australia, an enterprising young man created a glossy calendar featuring close-up photos of his genitalia arranged in various origami-reminiscent formations. Simon Morley had hoped to capitalize on the “installations” he and his brother had created over the years during bouts of sibling rivalry, but he found his Puppetry of the Penis calendars were nearly unmarketable. He soon realized, however, that, though no one wanted photos of his penis on their wall 12 months a year, people were extremely interested in a live demonstration. In order to sell the calendars, he concluded, he would have to perform a live show.

In a garage packed with spectators, Morley first demonstrated exactly what he had “down under.” Manipulating his genitalia like a circus clown fashioning a balloon animal, he created installations such as the Hamburger, Windsurfer and Loch Ness Monster to the surprised delight of his audience. The performance-art version of Puppetry of the Penis was born.

Fast-forward five years to the present. Though Hollywood has yet to make any further strides on the penis-liberation front, Puppetry of the Penis has become an international phenomenon. Morley and his original performance partner, David Friend, have trained a team of puppeteers and have created an entertainment enterprise that includes seven touring companies (on three continents), a multi-lingual presentation and a how-to manual. Some 525,000 people have seen the show, and that number continues to increase exponentially. Next week, Sacramento will join the ranks of penis-friendly cities when Puppetry of the Penis comes to the Crest Theatre.

The show’s setup is fairly simple: Two guys wearing only capes and tennis shoes tell jokes and exhibit approximately 45 penis installations for a non-sexual evening of goofy comedy. Large video screens ensure that even those in the back row have a good view of the goods.

“It’s basically just a party trick that’s gone too far,” Morley admitted in a recent phone interview. “I think this is something that every man does. We just put capes on and charge people to see it. We’ve put a few West End and Broadway frills on the thing and taken it way too far.”

Every man might experiment with puppetry, but it takes a certain breed to act in the show. Puppetry auditions have been held worldwide to fill the ever-increasing demand for performances. (Note to aspiring puppeteers: Local auditions will be held on February 12 at the Crest Theatre.)

“It’s a very strange afternoon,” Morley said of the audition process. “We start off with a bit of a workshop, teach people how to do a few of these tricks. Then, we have them get onstage and do a few shapes. It’s an afternoon of sharing,” he laughed.

Photo by Jill Wagner

What qualities make a good puppeteer? “Well, we don’t like to talk size, but let’s just say the more clay the sculptor has to work with, the more he can create. You’ve got to be able to do the tricks,” Morley stated, “but a complete lack of shame is the first prerequisite.”

Enter Daniel Lewry, a veteran puppeteer and Morley’s co-star for the upcoming Sacramento shows. “I used to get drunk and do a few dick tricks at parties,” Lewry reminisced during a recent interview, “but I started my career as a bum puppet. I used to paint faces on my ass and recreate great scenes of cinema. We did festivals around Melbourne and played Sydney during the Olympics. The last show we did was Apocalypse Now. I got to play Marlon Brando!” he said excitedly before rasping “The horror! The horror!” into the phone.

Two years ago, Lewry’s friends urged him to attend the Puppetry auditions and pitch the bum puppet idea to the show’s producers. “They weren’t interested at all. They just said, ‘Can anyone do any dick tricks?’ So, I did the Bulldog and the Hamburger. Then, I did this trick I used to do, which they thought was hilarious. I just put all my tackle between my legs and did a handstand and made silly noises. It’s just something stupid to make everyone laugh, but it got me the job. What a Cinderella story, eh?”

Since then, Lewry has toured Australia, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Canada and the United States. “I never thought my penis would get me this far,” he laughed. “I thought it would get me in trouble more than anything.”

Oddly enough, being a penis puppeteer has even improved his relationship with his family. “They didn’t really get into the bum puppets. They heard I did it, but they didn’t ask any questions. But my mom’s seen Puppetry of the Penis. It was a bit scary having her in the audience. I made her stay up at the back, so I couldn’t see her while I was performing. My mom is very proud, which is a strange thing.”

Morley’s mom goes even further. “She was horrified at first,” Morley said, “just tortured by it. But now, it’s a big hit, and it’s popular culture in Australia. She’ll ring me up and say, ‘I want another 10 tickets.’ She swaps them for free haircuts and golf lessons. She trades on it.”

Though their families are supportive, being a penis puppeteer can interfere with one’s love life. When asked if an actor gets propositioned more or less after joining the cast, Lewry admitted, “You get less. Women have seen it, heard it, they’re sick of it. They’ve seen you in the nude. It’s like, ‘I know what he’s got to offer. There’s no mystery there.’ Then, I go home, and I’m like, ‘Jeez! I play with my nuts for a living, and I still can’t get a date!’ ”

Though he feels the show has neither helped nor hurt his sex life, Morley affirmed, “We honestly don’t get propositioned after shows.”

However, the performance does attract another kind of fan—the amateur puppeteer who insists on unwrapping his package in public to show his favorite penis trick to the actors. “We get way too much of that,” Morley groaned. “We don’t want to encourage it. Please don’t come up to me in the bar afterward and show me your genitalia!”

Of course, anything as taboo as public nudity also garners the opposite reaction. “Though both men and women come to see the show, a lot of heterosexual men in this country go, ‘Dude. That’s way too gay!’ ” Morley confessed. “If they were half smart, they’d realize it’s the perfect place to pick up women. It also makes a wonderful first-date show. It breaks all the ice.”

It’s the odd protest in the midst of worldwide praise—such as Salt Lake City’s KSL-TV refusing to air an episode of The Tonight Show featuring a discussion of Puppetry of the Penis, or The Sacramento Bee’s rejection of the show’s paid advertising—that forces the comedians to acknowledge the larger implications of their show. “We’re well-aware of the social implications. We just choose to ignore them most of the time,” Morley laughed. “We’re about celebrating the penis and liberating the male genitalia. Women and men have been told for a long time now, ‘You can’t laugh at a man’s genitals. You’ll hurt his feelings.’ We say, ‘Not true!’ We make them three stories high on a big screen and say, ‘Have a good, old-fashioned belly laugh.’ ”

Still, some refuse to get the joke. “Even last night, we had two people walk out,” Lewry said of a show in Santa Cruz. “I don’t get it. It’s called Puppetry of the Penis, and there’re two nude guys on the poster. Really! What are we going to be doing? Do they actually expect puppets?”

Well, that or Kevin Bacon.