Politics, But Make It Puppets – The Assignment with Audie Cornish

A couple weeks back, I had the surreal experience of being a guest for Stephen Colbert.

Please welcome to The Late Show, Audie Cornish.

We talked about the show.

You have a new podcast called The Assignment.

Audie Cornish on Colbert


I do.

And he asked me about you.

You ask your listeners for ideas for what stories you should be covering, the people you should be talking to. What have you learned from the suggestions you’ve gotten from your audience?

And my friends, I’m not going to lie. I kind of drew a blank. And then the first thing that came to mind…

Audie Cornish on Colbert


Someone sent in an idea about- they said, “well, I do a sex puppet show out here in Arizona. And I think- and I think it would be really great, you know, to talk about-.

And he was very kind about it.

Did you check out the puppet show?

Audie Cornish on Colbert


We were not able to- weren’t able to make it. And then a lot of-

Damn it. Please come on the Late Show.

Shortly thereafter, I heard from a lot of fans of said puppet show and from its creator.

Hi, my name is Shaun McNamara. I am the R-rated sex puppet show in Phoenix, Arizona. You mentioned me on The Colbert Show last night and I wanted to follow up with you.

In fairness, he wanted to clarify a few things.

But I assure you, I don’t just do sex puppet shows. Unless that’s the angle, and then I’ll do them all day.

But this is what caught my ear.

Part of the reason why I called you was I am a left leaning liberal who moved to a red state and I’m selling out these R-rated puppet shows where there is political humor on both spectrums. And yet somehow I have managed to find an audience willing to sort of go wherever we want to go. And I think my thought process was maybe we’re not as far apart as the media makes us believe that we are from the left and the right. And that the common ground is actually where we thrive.

And it made me think that Shaun McNamara and Stephen Colbert have something in common. They’re trying to appeal to the widest possible audience in the most divided times. And yet neither is afraid to embrace politics in doing so. So what is that like when you don’t have the fame and platform of a nationally beloved comedian to protect you? I’m Audie Cornish. On this episode of The Assignment — and I am totally serious when I say this — we’re asking the puppet theater people about laughter and politics. So this is not going to be a super serious discussion. Shaun, after all, is a comedian. For a long time, he worked in theme parks. Now he’s the founder and director of the All Puppet Players in Pheonix, Arizona. Tickets are for ages 17 and up. Performances include “50 Shades of Felt” and “Die Hard, A Christmas Story.” Shaun told me that before this, he had lived in California. He dreamed of being the next Jim Carrey.

That’s why you’ve heard of me.

That didn’t work out. But this little puppet theater company he started there was actually doing okay. Then his wife’s new job took him back to his home state of Arizona. He started putting on his R-rated puppet shows in Pheonix, and soon he added politics to the mix. The initial reaction caught him off guard.

I was- a patron, demanded to talk to me, demanded. So they brought me out during intermission and he said, “how dare you interrupt-” or “how dare you interrupt my evening with political jokes? This is not the place for political jokes.” And he was like, “I’ll tell all my friends, you’re never going to get us again. No one’s ever going to come here.” And I was like, “holy crap.” And I remember, like being very defensive in saying, like, this is the only place- this is the perfect place for me to be having-

Right, but the atmosphere was such at the time that there would be this perception that you’re just another liberal comedian making jokes about our president.

Totally. 100%. So he walked out with his girlfriend and made a big deal. And that was like my sort of experience of like, “oh, crap.” Like, you better be ready to, like, back up all these jokes.

And Shaun McNamara, he doubles down.

You know, at a certain point in our “Die Hard,” we have mixed “It’s a Wonderful Life” with “Christmas Carols.” So death comes to meet John McClane and tell him his future, and as death is leaving, he says, “all right, I’m off to go kill Kari Lake’s career, woo.” And he disappears. Normally, you would get either polite applause or you’d get an outpouring of love and support for this line. Sometimes the audience was definitely aligned with you, and sometimes it was dead silent. If it was dead silent, I, as me, would walk on stage and go, “hey, no, we’re not doing that tonight. You guys, stop it. That’s a funny joke.” And that would ease the tension and everyone would be absolutely fine with it. And I mean, we have a Joe Biden puppet. We tend to not lean political, but it is funny to see- I would say that our audience a lot like Arizona now is almost 50/50. We’re split right down the middle and it’s it’s tribal. There are a tribe of people who love what we do. And that political affiliation means nothing to anybody because it’s all just jokes. It’s stupid people with stupid puppets doing eighties movies on stage for fun. And I think that that has really chilled out the rhetoric, the sort of bad feelings, the bad blood.

Yeah, because the country feels so divided right now and our entertainments even have a kind of red state, blue state vibe. I don’t know if you feel that way.

100%. And that’s why being here in Arizona, it feels so wild that we are so successful because really this should be one of those places where, you know, I’m watching theaters around town really try to go out of their comfort zone and really present stuff that is maybe a little bit more left leaning. And I’m watching them get slapped down. I’m watching Facebook fights and things like that. Theaters sort of being accused of doing things for not the right reasons. We just want to entertain.

Wait, wait. I want to step back and clarify, because I think you’re making an interesting point, but I’m not quite sure I understand. So you’re saying right now, when you look at the theater scene in your community-

‘-when people get upset at performances, what are the kinds of things they say?

“You didn’t cast correctly. There’s not enough racial diversity. There’s not enough racial diversity in just the shows that you’re choosing. There’s a lot of whitewashing. You’re choosing themes that maybe Arizona is not ready to handle. That’s a bigger theme or a larger story.” And I’m definitely not the person who should be speaking of this because my goal has always been to be the idiot in the back, making fun of everyone who’s trying to do the right thing.

But I can still ask because if you’re trying to draw people, if you’re trying to create entertainment for people in a divisive time, I’m curious about what that’s like and how hard that is.

I- I think a community, especially the tribe that starts to come see your shows, they really sort of fall in love with you as people first. And I think that that really helps us because our people love us and they trust us and they know that we’re here-

So it’s about intentions. And you’re not-

‘-making fun of us as a flyover state. You’re not making fun of us as a right leaning state. You’re not making fun of us in the audience.

Being back here and now being quote unquote successful, I mean, we’re a mom and pop theater that has still managed to go after 13 years, which is very rare in this business. We are not a nonprofit. We are a for profit theater. We are solely here because of the people, our audience who keeps us around. And I think what I realize now is heavy themes, politics, all those things that people say they want, they don’t really want that. They do kind of want a hush. They want just popcorn and candy and they want some fun. And I think that’s what we bring.

I’m talking with Shaun McNamara, director of the All Puppet Players Theater in Arizona. After a quick break, sex and puppets. Welcome back to the Assignment. When Shaun McNamara was first getting started in puppetry, his big idea was to adapt “Hamlet” into a show for students to get them interested in Shakespeare. He convinced his wife to put all their savings into renting a theater. Opening night was a disaster.

Things are falling. Things are breaking. Everything went wrong. And as my puppet, I was talking smack about how stupid this was. And I can’t believe you people paid for this.

So, Shaun is there basically heckling himself in character as his Hamlet puppet, and the grown ups in the audience ate it up. And it was then he decided he should keep making shows, but for adults. And I guess this is where I should ask about the sex puppet part.

Yes. So “50 Shades of Felt” is the show that is definitely our sex puppet show. It sort of saved us. It was a Hail Mary. This is before the movies. This is really before the book has become this sort of international bestseller, one of my-

That is very hardcore, so to speak. So you did this before there was even a movie?

The movie. So one of my cast members had read the book and said, “we should adapt to this.” And I was like, “no way.” And I read it and I was like, “oh my God, how are we going to do this?” And it was so wild that we performed and then the movie came out and it was like, “well, we got do the show again.”

Cutting edge, yeah, yeah.

We’re on top of the world. They’re following us.

And then other titles include “Jurassic Puppets” and “Reservoir Dogs,” and in parentheses, the producer’s written “with all dog puppets.” Yeah.

With all dog puppets, yep.

I love it. I love it. You know, I think fundamentally, it is so hard to do anything that pleases everyone in this environment and still touches on politics and still touches on sex even. Right?

When has it felt really hard? You know what I mean? Like, is there a time where you’re doing this stuff and you’re kind of like,”ooh, this is a really rough atmosphere”?

I feel like now. I haven’t felt that way because there’s been such a reckless abandon that I sort of approach everything to, that when you only have nine people in a 200-seat auditorium, the chances and the risks that you’re willing to take are astronomical compared to, you know, this “Die Hard” run ran for seven weeks and it was sold out before we opened every show. I think the pressure now is how do you keep people interested in your shenanigans and stay true to the spirit, which is that equal opportunity offender?

It is interesting thinking about using puppets in general. When I think of, what was it? Was there a Broadway show? Was it “Avenue Q”?

Am I remembering? Plus there’s- we all have a soft place in our hearts for puppets because of Jim Henson and because of Sesame Street. How were you- what do you think this particular art form does for the kind of comedy you’re doing?

It turns adults into children. It literally brings them back. And we are- the puppeteers are fully in black. We wear black masks, hoods. So you can’t really get any facial tics or body movement. You just see a puppet in front of you, a lot like Avenue Q. So we have free range around the stage, and many people will say “after the first five minutes, I only notice the puppets.” And that’s sort of our philosophy. It’s it’s not humans playing with puppets, it’s these puppets trying to put on these shows as best they can and ruining it every time they try to perform something earnestly and passionately, they ruin it because they’re puppets and childlike. And it’s crazy to watch the adults follow that train of thinking and become these children who are laughing and clapping and acting like it’s a live concert event and not a clear theater experience.

Well, Shaun McNamara, I’m so glad we spoke. I’m so glad you were persistent.

Thank you so much for having me.

I don’t know if I can get you on The Late Show because I don’t even know how I got on The Late Show.

It’s ’cause you’re awesome. This podcast is awesome.

But we appreciate you so much here at the Assignment. Thank you so much.

Thank you guys so much for having me.

That was Shaun McNamara, director of the All Puppet Players Theater in Pheonix, Arizona. Next, he’s going to adapt “Of Mice and Men” only with Robots. Your move, Colbert. That’s it for this episode of The Assignment. We’re taking a break for a few weeks, but we will be back soon. In the meantime, if you have an assignment for us, just like Shaun, you can give us a call and leave us a voicemail. The number is 202854 8802. You can record a voice memo on your phone and you can email that to us at the assignment CNN at The assignment is a production of CNN Audio. Our producers are Madeleine Thompson, Jennifer Lai and Laurie Galaretta. Our associate producers are Isoke Samuel, Allison Park and Sonia Hton. Our senior producers are Haley Thomas and Matt Martinez. Our editor is Rina Palta, Mixing and sound design by David Schulman. Dan Dzula Is our technical director. Steve Lickteig is our executive producer and special thanks to Katie Hinman. I’m Audie Cornish. Thank you for listening.


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