August 22, 2003

My Week with Jim Henson’s The Storyteller Day 5: Tales, You Lose

Filed under: Feature — Danny Horn @ 9:04 pm

myweekstoryteller104Danny
Today we’re watching A Story Short.

Kynan
Is this the last one?

Danny
It’s the last one for us. The series goes on for four more episodes, but I won’t make it that far. I’d say this was the longest week of my life, but I watched “Jack and the Beanstalk: The True Story.”

Kynan
This one’s from an early Celtic folk tale. Insert basketball pre-game joke here.

Danny
I would, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Storyteller: “Yesterday, I was telling a marvelous tale about how the moon became round. Suddenly, as I reached the best bit, I couldn’t remember what came next. I still can’t.”

Danny
Well, let me guess: And that’s how the moon became round. The end.

Storyteller: “I thought, what will I do when there are no more stories in me? When the well runs dry?”

Danny
I don’t know. You go into syndication?

Kynan
It’s not his well, for a start. Just ask the Early Germans to whip something up for you.

Storyteller: “Yes, yesterday, I forgot a story… so that is why I went straight out and gave my supper to a beggar. Everyone knows beggars are never what they seem.”

Danny
For example, at least one of them is MC Hammer.

Storyteller: “There was a time when I myself was forced to beg.”

Kynan
Yeah. “Please, NBC, just let us show the last few episodes!”

Storyteller: “A bad time. A bitter cold… when a great humger was on the land, and only the rich had bellies.”

Danny
And they STILL got tax cuts! Thank you!

Kynan
So the beggars end up at a castle where the cook is Jim Backus with a skin condition.

Danny
And the Storyteller offers to make soup from a stone. It’s Reagan’s hot lunch program! Thank you!

Kynan
Y’know, “Stone Soup” is a whole other story. These shows just burn through the fairy tales. It’s an interesting trick, though — if you haven’t got enough story to fill a half hour, then toss in a few leftovers from other folk’s myths and you’re away.

Danny
Everyone stands around and watches. Thank you for coming out to support live soup-making!

Danny
Then he gets brought to King Santa and Queen Olive Oyl.

Kynan
And Little Prince Death. That kid looks like Death from the “Soldier and Death” episode. Freaky little demon spawn.

Cook: “What’s your trade, fool?”

Storyteller: “I am a teller of stories. A weaver of dreams. I can dance, sing, and in the right weather, I can stand on my head. I know seven words of Latin — I have a little magic, and a trick or two. I know the proper way to meet a dragon. I can fight dirty, but not fair. I once swallowed thirty oysters in a minute. I am not domestic; I am a luxury. And in that sense — necessary.”

Danny
Nice. You gotta give John points on that one.

Kynan
That’s from One Hundred Monologues for Young Beggars.

Danny
So on the strength of that, King Santa hires him to tell stories. That’s a good job interview; they didn’t even ask for references.

Kynan
That’s the great thing about being a Storyteller. If you lie in the interview, that proves you’re qualified.

Danny
The deal is that he has to work for a year. If he comes up with a story every day, he gets a gold crown. If he doesn’t, he gets boiled in oil. The king must be the first Hollywood producer.

Danny
Is this how your contract works? As soon as you run out of jokes, you get blossomed and deep-fried?

Kynan
No, writers don’t make good meals; we’re too bitter. And actresses have got no meat on ‘em. The only people in Hollywood who are still on boiling oil contracts are good, solid character actors.

Danny
The Storyteller seems happy with his contract. One gold piece a day, just like the cast of Friends.

Storyteller: “What more could an artist want? Food to eat, money to spend, and his audience awake. Each night, a tick on the golden calendar, and a snuggle with my new wife.”

Danny
New wife? Where’d she come from? That’s life in Hollywood, I guess.

Kynan
Storytellers under pain of death obviously get a lot of action. It’s like these women who keep writing to Death Row inmates.

Danny
So now the big problem is that on the last day, he gets writer’s block. What would you do if you had to come up with a new story or you’d be boiled? I’d probably just do a sequel to one of my old stories and add a robot assassin or something.

Kynan
I think it spoils the fun if the Storyteller admits he just makes ‘em up. You mean the Hedgehog was just a guy in a rubber suit? At least tell me Chewbacca’s a real Wookie…

Danny
The beggar comes back, and the Storyteller ends up in a game of dice where he loses all his gold, and then his wife. As soon as he loses, his wife starts kissing the beggar. This really is Hollywood! The beggar must be his agent.

Kynan
This wife of his really turns on a dime, doesn’t she? She shows up all unexplained, and then betrays him for no reason. She’s the early Celtic J.Lo.

Danny
That’s your second J.Lo joke in two days. Another bottomless well.

Kynan
Then the Storyteller bets himself, and loses, and the beggar turns him into a rabbit puppet.

Danny
Not just any rabbit puppet, but the worst rabbit puppet ever. Who the hell is this beggar? What’s going on, and why does he make such bad puppets?

Kynan
It really is an ugly, ugly rabbit puppet. And it’s not as if they’ve spent this week’s budget on some other fabulous creature — the rabbit is the only puppet in the whole show. They must have really blown out on the office Christmas party.

Danny
And then a minute later the beggar turns him into a flea. What’s going on?

Kynan
Having the rest of the cast mime talking to a flea is much, much less expensive than building more ugly rabbits.

Danny
The Early Celts were just making this stuff up as they went along. I’m starting to think this might not be a true story.

Danny
So now that the Storyteller is a flea, the beggar gets to do his own standup act.

Kynan
The King and his family don’t seem to move around much, do they. They’re happy in their little tableau, and they’re not shifting for nobody.

Danny
They’re the panel on Early American Idol.

Kynan
Very Early American; there isn’t even an America yet.

King: “I don’t want entertainers. I loathe entertainers!”

Kynan
You’re right; it’s King Simon Cowell.

Kynan
Now the beggar does his famous rope trick. He always opens with this.

Danny
Nice shot there spotlighting the kid’s ass as he climbs the rope ladder. That’s your Michael Jackson money shot.

Kynan
Hey, he’s made the evil Prince disappear. I’m liking this beggar more and more.

Danny
The Queen’s not happy with that, though. This act doesn’t do well among women 18-49.

Kynan
Why does the royal family need stories anyway? The Queen’s got a satellite dish on her head.

Danny
Now it gets seriously freaky. They stick the beggar in boiling oil, the beggar’s fine, and the prince turns up in the pot.

Kynan
Mmm, deep-fried beggar and prince. That’s tastier than stone soup. Today it’s a cooking show.

Storyteller: “… I’ve been dreaming! None of this happened!”

Danny
Wait, which bits? The wife is real. Isn’t she?

King: “The day is almost over, and I’ve heard no story. Do you remember the conditions?”

Prince: “Is there going to be a boil?”

Kynan
So after a year of entertaining them, they’d kill him over the last story? Definitely more Simon Cowell than Santa.

Storyteller: “And so I began to tell the King of my adventures. Of hares and fleas and mysteries, the worst day of my life, my wife’s cruelty, the boiling oil… And what a tale it was, my dearies!”

Danny
So now the Storyteller is telling us a story about a time when he told a story about how he couldn’t think of a story. I hope King Santa likes postmodernism; I can’t make heads or tails of this.

King: “That’s the best story I ever heard!”

Danny
He must not get out much. The Storyteller must have told it better to the King than he told it to us.

Kynan
The music soars and the Storyteller embraces the Prince, awww, little woojums — but wait! Doesn’t anybody remember the Prince was an evil little runt who wanted to boil the Storyteller five minutes ago?

Dog: “… And your wife?”

Storyteller: “Oh, she was under the beggar’s spell.”

Dog: “Ah. I thought so. Otherwise, it would have been cruel. To kiss the beggar… to make you into a flea!”

Storyteller: “She was enchanted, definite. And still is, I suppose. She was so taken with his magic that she set off in search of him. I never saw her to this day.”

Danny
Wait, what? That stuff was part of the dream… wasn’t it? Did the beggar really cast spells? What was the dream and what wasn’t the dream? Is Bobby Ewing in the shower?

Kynan
She ran away to chase the magic beggar who she never actually met. That’s really fickle.

Storyteller: “So that’s how a story was lost and then found… and is still told to this day, for the King will hear no other! Only it’s changed now. You know how it is in stories.”

Danny
Well, I used to. I’m afraid I’ll never understand another story ever again as long as I live.

Kynan
Y’know, silly and slim though it may be, I really enjoyed this one. It’s playful and slippery and knowing — and if you think about it too much, it disappears up its own chimney. I think it’s the perfect story about the Storyteller — it only exists in the telling, all the fun is in the moment, and it has no greater purpose other than to be itself.

Danny
Okay, you’re King Santa, and the Storyteller is working on the standard contract of a gold crown for a good story and boiling oil for a bad story. How many gold crowns does he get for this week?

Kynan
Here’s my take. Watching these things and making jokes about them is easy. Any pair of comic geniuses can do it, provided they’ve got MSN. And dissecting them, Syd Field style, is kind of fun as an exercise — but it really misses the point, which is that these stories were pre-stories, and they’re having a lot of fun with the idea of structure and character.

Danny
Meaning…

Kynan
Meaning I’m copping out and saying that you’re not supposed to judge them by the kind of bitchy modern critical standards we’ve been using.

Danny
Um. I’m sorry to say it, my genius boy, but that’s the goofiest thing you’ve ever said.

Kynan
Why?

Danny
Of course we can judge these by modern critical standards. This is a modern TV show. Either it works as a modern TV show, or it doesn’t — the source material is irrelevant. It’s like making a show based on bubble gum wrappers, and if it turns out to be lousy, then your excuse is, well, it was based on bubble gum wrappers. If you can’t make a good TV show from this material, then why make it?

Kynan
You think this was lousy?

Danny
No, I just think it’s okay to judge it as what it is, a half hour of television.

Kynan
Well, I’m happy to hand out a few crowns anyway. Hans and Sapsorrow are cracking good yarns — gold stars and elephant stamps. The Luck Child is a mess of arbitrary, unmotivated claptrap, but it really is excellent fun and it’s got the best monster ever. And A Story Short is also fun, yarnwise, but it loses a half-crown for the rabbit and a “tsk tsk” for the flea cop-out.

Danny
What about The True Bride?

Kynan
My god, I’d repressed that. Was it really only yesterday? That gets a barrel of oil. Not so much that it’s a dull story, even though it is, but because that lion is so beautiful, so perfect, so the embodiment of everything the Creature Shop ever wanted to achieve, that it’s actually criminal to waste it in such a thoroughly awful mess. Plus Jane Horrocks bugged me.

Danny
Really? I liked The True Bride way better than Luck Child. I thought the Trollop was really funny, chasing after the silk and the pretty guys. And I thought Jane Horrocks was good at the wistfulness, and Sean Bean was good at the dishyness.

Kynan
And the lion.

Danny
Yeah, and the lion really is fantastic. Luck Child for me was the big mess, because I absolutely hated Lucky and the Princess. They were written very bland, and the actors were awful. But the monster was great, and I liked the King and the Evil Chancellor.

Kynan
The Griffin was The Luck Child’s lion. Every episode has a lion.

Danny
Yeah. And actually, the Storyteller was the lion in A Story Short. The dream sequence was a big mess for me — and I’m not at all convinced that Early Celts used dream sequences in their folk tales — but John Hurt really got a chance to shine in that one, with the stone soup scene and the job interview scene. The only story I unequivocally loved was Sapsorrow, because it was the most like a modern story, with a coherent plot and character development. I’d watch Sapsorrow any day. Same with Hans My Hedgehog, except minus some of the coherent plot.

Kynan
The direction was always good, and the production values were always high. And every episode had some really well-crafted metaphors.

Danny
Absolutely. Every episode had a lion, and — except for Sapsorrow — every episode had something disappointing about it. At its best, The Storyteller could have lived up to the breathless “work of art” reputation that it has, but it’s not consistent.

Kynan
Yeah.

Danny
The whole thing’s just hit or myth.

Kynan
… You haven’t been saving that as our ending line, have you?

Danny
I’m afraid so.

Kynan
Hang on, I’ll put the oil on.

Gold crowns or boiling oil? Let us know what you think… Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: The Complete Collection comes out on DVD next Tuesday, August 26th.

We’ll be continuing this argument on the Tough Pigs Forum…

Come join us, and play King Simon Cowell yourself.



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