Nick Toti’s “Digital Gods”- Transmission Five
(If you aren’t already familiar with The Creatures of Yes, you might want to read the previous article before diving into this interview with creator Jacob Graham. If you’ve already read the article, you may be interested knowing that this interview was conducted a few months ago. At the time, I was unaware of Graham’s pre-Creatures of Yes life as an indie rocker so that part of his career is not addressed. There are already plenty of interviews about his music, so feel free to look them up! An earlier version of this interview was posted on interestingproductions.org, but since I was the one running that site I steal with my utmost respect and permission. Without further ado…)
Hammer to Nail: I assume that the thought process for Creatures of Yes went something like: “I like muppets, old technology looks awesome, Sesame Street is on HBO now (weird)…I want to make Creatures of Yes!” Am I missing any steps?
Jacob Graham: It’s hard to boil it down to a concise thought process because I feel like my whole life has been setting me on the path to eventually make this show — but if I had to try to pin it down, it might be something like this…
There was some magic spark I remember in television puppetry when I was a kid, and I fail to see it happening now — so I thought: I’m going to try to take a swing at it myself! That’s the short answer.
HtN: This strikes me as being as noble of a reason to attempt something as any. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops, since much of this current iteration seems to perhaps be primarily concerned with nailing the desired aesthetic. I imagine that once the look/feel of the show becomes “natural” (i.e. you familiarize yourselves with the equipment/process to the point where it feels like business-as-usual), then the characters/world/storylines will begin to take on a new sort of life.
JG: Yeah, totally! I have all these grand ideas of using The Creatures of Yes to make the world a kinder, more thoughtful place. But I’m taking small steps towards this, such as establishing that Tom is kind of lonely and desperately wants a friend. But yes, I have a lot of ideas for where it’s all going.
I also wanted to make a puppet show with a more subdued sense of humor (less of the zaniness one usually sees with puppets), and I’m obsessed with time travel — specifically the experiments of David McDermott and Peter McGough. Making Creatures of Yes is my own time travel experiment. I knew that even if I was ever able to get a job with Sesame Street that I wouldn’t be working on SS in the ’60s & ’70s, which is where I really wanted to go.
HtN: I really like the non-zany quality of the show. (If it were me making it, this would probably require a HUGE amount of willful determination.) There’s something quiet and poetic about it that is very comforting – but without sacrificing humor and…weirdness?
JG: I don’t much like the idea of being strange just for the sake of it, so I try to let the characters do their thing and see where that leads, sometimes it surprises me! I honestly feel like when I’m working with one of these characters I’m channeling a personality from somewhere else, I don’t think they’re all living in my own head.
HtN: McDermott and McGough are fascinating. I don’t know much other than the bullet points about their work though. Can you recommend a starting point for anyone interested in learning about them?
JG: My favorite is definitely An Experience of Amusing Chemistry –Photographs 1990 – 1890. I first discovered their work through a television show called TV Party, which was a local access show in New York City in the ’70s.
HtN: How do you personally define “time travel?”
JG: To me time travel is totally immersing yourself in any given era. I think a little bit of time travel is very possible. If one were dropped in a cave or the middle of the jungle (some place where one couldn’t see, hear, or smell anything man made) you wouldn’t really have any way of knowing if you were in the year 1945 or 2016. The add those elements from a certain time period and you’re basically there. Even better would the same experiment on the Moon!
So, my point being: if I’m only using these processes, equipment, technology from 1979 and earlier, and I’m in that frame of mind. Who’s to say The Creatures of Yes wasn’t made in 1979? But the fun of it for me is rewriting history. What can I change that would better that time?
HtN: Do you take drugs?
JG: No. I had considered taking LSD for time travel purposes but when I learned that it had permanent, lasting effects on one’s brain I decided it was too risky.
HtN: Do the Creature of Yes take drugs?
JG: No. I don’t know if they ever will, but I might not be opposed to doing an episode that involved drug use if there was a lesson to be learned.
HtN: This could certainly be interesting! I can think of a couple things from my childhood that tackled drug use in an unexpected/non-judgmental way. Most recently, I replayed the SNES game Earthbound with my ladyfriend. There are a few points in that game that are arguably depicting psychedelic drug-type experiences (as well as intense meditative states, astral projection, etc). I think it’s probably healthy to view these things as simply “human” rather than strictly positive or negative.
JG: I agree. But it would be a very difficult subject to deal with in my format, where I’m very committed to keeping the show suitable for all age groups. I’m also extremely turned off by current trends in puppetry where it’s thought to be very funny to have puppets (a child’s thing) doing very adult things (sex, drugs, more than cartoon violence). People seem to think it’s clever, but it just shows a lack of creativity to me. Is it because there are no grownups anymore? Are adults in first world countries stuck in suspended animation as adolescents?
I’m getting a little off the rails here, but I’ll just wrap it up by saying I’d be interested in tackling the subject someday, but only in a completely serious way. The show would need to be much more established so that people really understood where we were coming from.
HtN: Are you religious?
JG: I’m a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
HtN: Are you actively religious or just Quaker-on-paper?
JG: I am actively a Quaker. I’m pretty involved with the meeting here in New York City. I also go through periods where I feel more or less spiritual at times (Is there a God, or gods? I don’t know for certain. I hope so! …I think). But Quakerism offers me a lot more than just the spiritual side, there’s also a big social justice side to it that’s very appealing.
HtN: Are the Creatures of Yes religious and, if so, do they practice human religions or do they have their own mythologies?
JG: Thus far they are not religious, but I think I would like to eventually incorporate some religious elements into future episodes to promote a greater understanding of all different faiths.
HtN: I’d be interested in seeing how the Creatures of Yes deal with intolerance. I generally remember Sesame Street embracing diversity but never really confronting any real sort of conflict. Maybe this is wrong, though. I haven’t really studied the show in-depth…
JG: Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. I’ve said from the start that I want COY to confront these issues head on. I think you can have intolerance and conflict in a show like this. The important thing is to show that people can learn and change their perspective so no one is stuck, no one is demonized. There are no villains.
HtN: Sesame Street has a $40 million annual production budget. How do you plan to compete?
JG: That is an interesting question because I was just wondering the very same thing a few months ago. I decided that a) it wasn’t a competition. I mean… SS is one of the longest running show in television history and COY is a brand new little thing; b) if I just followed my heart I might at least end up with something special; and c) COY has a budget of one million dollars.
HtN: Where does the money for Creatures of Yes come from?
JG: Just out of my own pocket. I’m a pretty frugal guy; I’ve made puppets from stolen items (a blanket from an Air-France flight, for example) and most of our props and scenery come from found objects (cardboard and wood I find on the side of the road). I don’t have a million dollars but telling myself that is the budget for COY has knocked down some mental barriers and helped me to throw everything I’ve got at this show.
I do hope in the future to maybe get some sort of funding, but I feel like I have a lot to prove first.
HtN: But it is weird that Sesame Street is an “HBO show” now, right?
JG: It is strange, no doubt, but it was really the only way it could survive. As I understand it public funding had dried up long ago and they’d been running for years on the fumes from old VHS and DVD sales.
HtN: I like to imagine Big Bird at an HBO Christmas party with, like, all the characters from Veep and being very confused/anxious.
JG: That would be wonderful!
HtN: Do you object to the proper noun/brand “Muppet” being used as a generic term for non-Muppet muppets like The Creature of Yes?
JG: The words “puppet” and “muppet” have almost become synonymous; it’s a testament to the great work that Jim Henson and his collaborators do. Though speaking as someone who’s worked as a professional puppeteer most of his life, yes I would have to object, mainly out of respect but also for legal reasons. I understand why those who aren’t as invested in puppetry as I am might see little need to make the distinction. Maybe it’s like telling people they can’t refer to generic glass cleaner as Windex?
HtN: I would argue that it goes deeper than that. I’m of the opinion that the “muppet” has risen to archetypal levels that couldn’t have been predicted. “Muppet” and “puppet” aren’t quite interchangeable – I don’t really hear people referring to marionettes as muppets, for instance. Also, “muppet” can be used as an adjective. I have friends who will say that someone is acting “muppety” and it communicates something, I think, quite precise. So, with all due respect to Mr. Henson and the brand he founded, I think that muppets have become a cultural universal. (Which, of course, isn’t to say that the Henson Company would agree. Litigation would still definitely fall in their favor on the matter. But I’m not concerned with such things…)
JG: True. And even in the puppet community people often describe these sort of puppets as “muppet style puppets.” I sense that there’s also a bit of a animosity in the international puppet community against “muppet style” puppets being performed by anyone not connected to JH Co. But at this point I feel like “muppet style puppets” are so established that we can now return to it and make new works. No one would call the Animaniacs a rip off of Mickey Mouse because it’s a different thing, they have a different tone, though they might look very similar on paper.
HtN: Would you watch a horror movie about a woman giving birth to an actual, real life muppet?
JG: No I wouldn’t — not to say it wouldn’t make a good movie! I actually made a firm discussion to stop watching horror movies about fifteen years ago. They didn’t sit well with me.
HtN: If humans could only feel one emotion, which would you choose? (Please choose carefully. Everyone is judging you.)
JG: I’ve always thought sadness was the most beautiful emotion, but if you could only have one, I’d say longing. If you were reduced to just one emotion, longing would keep us all moving forward.
HtN: What are you currently reading?
JG: The Electronic Arts of Sound and Light by Roland Pellegrino, Children and Television by Gerald S. Lesser, and I’m about to start reading The Command to Look: A Master Photographer’s Method for Controlling the Human Gaze by William Mortensen. I love to read.
HtN: I’ve always respected autodidacts, though I’ve never been one. I always just befriend people who are more talented than me and then we find ways to mutually exploit one another.
JG: Ha! Well, I do a bit of that too! Growing up I was always interested in things that weren’t taught (at least not in rural Ohio). I’d spend many lonely days experimenting with cameras, puppetry, juggling, magic, etc.
HtN: Have you had any memorable dreams lately?
JG: Yes I’m plagued by night terrors. A constant stream of unspeakable violence. Every once in awhile I’ll have a pleasant dream. I started a dream journal a while back to record those rare nice ones.
HtN: What’s next?
JG: I’m not sure exactly. I’d like for The Creatures of Yes to continue to grow and become a show with a continuous story arc that carries over multiple episodes. I’d also hope to just generally refine my craft.
It’s always difficult to work on something very hard and then release it into the universe and only hear crickets back. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few people, total strangers, go out of their way to tell me they appreciate my work, I feel very blessed.
HtN: Do you need help?
JG: I think I do. So far it has mostly been just me working on the show and pulling in some talented friends to help when need be. It would be great to find another puppeteer to play off of. There are a few in town that I’ll probably work with soon — it’s just a matter of getting schedules to line up.
HtN: Why are you doing this?
JG: Sometimes I have something in mind that I would really enjoy so I go looking for it. Most things do exist these days, so if it doesn’t, I take it as a sign that I’m meant to fill this void I’ve discovered.
HtN: Are your parents proud of you or do your life choices fill them with shame?
JG: They’re very proud of me. They’ve always been very supportive.
HtN: That’s good…I guess?
JG: Yeah, it’s good. At times I’ve wished I had more to rebel against, but in the end I know that isn’t really me.
HtN: What’s one thing more people should know about?
JG: Here’s two. The positive: Sister Mary Corita Kent – such an inspiration! The negative: there are approximately 17,300 armed nuclear weapons in the world right now.
HtN: Who’s your favorite rapper?
JG: Probably Antony Carmichael.
HtN: Is the team behind The Creatures of Yes just a bunch of hipsters fetishizing their childhood nostalgia?
JG: But isn’t that everything these days?
HtN: What do you need to be better at?
JG: Composing shots, lighting, using a sewing machine, penmanship, grammar, spelling, being less negative, staying hydrated, making the bed in the morning.
HtN: I suggest starting with staying hydrated. Everything else will follow. (I think I might really believe this!)
JG: It’s the little things…
Here are some links: