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For Puppet's Sake!

Two Toronto boys are on the road to glory with a string of homemade puppets
and a handful of patience

By Cristina Del Zotto

Mr. MeatyIn a puppet shop that combines a child’s play-land and business office, Jason Hopley and Jamie Shannon, the Toronto-based duo known as Grogs Inc., delight viewers with quirky puppet magic – again.

Casually placed on a fold-out table and wedged between an empty coffee cup and a cigarette ashtray sit their matching 2004 Gemini Awards for Nanalan’, a pre-school puppet production about a three-year-old girl named Mona, her Nana and her Nana’s spotted dog Russell.

“I’ve been doing the character for so long it doesn’t even feel like it’s work,” says Hopley, an elf-like 35-year-old who is the puppeteer for Mona. “It gives you a chance to be someone else for a while.”

Nanalan’ started in 1999 as a series of shorts on YTV. An extremely positive viewer response prompted Hopley and Shannon to create a half-hour pilot. YTV passed, but in 2003 CBC picked up the show and 42 episodes and a Gemini Award later, the duo are poised to introduce puppets into the world of tweens and teens with the help of CBC and Nickelodeon. Mr. Meaty is a puppet show about two teenage wanna-be horror filmmakers working at a sinister burger stand in a mall.

Hopley and Shannon started making puppets together as teenagers, when Shannon came back from Europe, inspired by the dedication to the craft of puppetry he saw there.

The road has not been an easy one for the pair, who have been friends since Grade 6. Both theatre majors in high school, Shannon and Hopley dropped out of university in their first year to work at YTV for free with their puppet creations, then known as the Grogs.

At the puppet shop, the bizarre cast of Mr. Meaty characters line the walls, including headless chickens, angry vegans and, of course, the two main characters, Josh and Parker, complete with zits and bad hair.

“Puppets are the perfect mix of theatre and making things,” says Hopley, who sees teenagers as a natural choice of audience for puppets. “People still have this concept that puppets are for kids, but the minute that puppets start doing something that’s not kid-like, it becomes a lot more edgy and bizarre.”

“It’s a long road,” says Shannon, who claims the puppets keep him looking and sounding younger than his 34 years. “We’d been at YTV about 13 years ago, so it’s only now that we’ve been really busy. It’s been all sorts, I really love doing it.”

Given that television is such an influential medium and often-rough industry Shannon says his goal was to survive to make high-quality, creative children’s programs.

Jack Lenz, the film and television composer behind Lenz Entertainment, got started with Hopley and Shannon at YTV in management and has become one of their greatest supporters, both creatively and financially. Lenz, through Lenz Entertainment, funds The Grogs Inc., writes the music for the programs and does all the production through his company. Praising their fresh and irreverent puppeteering style, he puts the people and the broadcasters around Hopley and Shannon to actually make it happen.

There were a lot of bumps along the way, says Hopley, but Lenz introduced them to all the right people, including some in Los Angeles and New York

Despite meeting the right people, pitching Nanalan’ to the networks was a nerve-racking experience at first, says Hopley. Before the idea was picked up by CBC, there were many years of pitching it to Disney, Warner Bros. and Fox to learn the etiquette of what to say when.

“But when you have an idea that you love and confidently believe in, it’s not that hard to pitch an idea,” says Hopley. “Now I’m not that nervous ever trying to pitch an idea.”

When Martin Markle, executive in charge of production at CBC, approached Hopley and Shannon to fill a block of time that opened up on CBC with more edgy, after-school programming, it took them about half an hour to suggest Mr. Meaty, a show geared toward teenagers, and the 13 episodes developed from there.

Mr. Meaty airs Monday afternoons at 4:30 p.m. during the CBC after-school program block.

“You hear puppets and you think, ‘OK, it’s something for children and it’s babyish.’ But this isn’t that,” says Markle. “It’s very sharp and funny and great teen insights, and the design of the puppets themselves is really ironic. The puppets look like classic slackers. They’re gross. It’s awesome.”

Markle says CBC is thrilled with the puppets and feels the show is a great way to present puppets to teens. Calling the material “cheeky,” he says the content reflects what teens and tweens do and talk about.

“Something like Mr. Meaty – teens in a food court, OK, good concept, but concept alone doesn’t mean it’s going to be a success. It still has to be funny content – and it is funny content,” says Markle. “It’s the meeting of good concept and good content and Jamie and Jason have really done that.”

Along with “instant” success, after almost 13 years of hard work, comes new pressures.

“It’s not a creative pressure,” says Hopley. “It’s financial pressure to get things done fast, good quality for as little money as possible.”

Although sometimes ideas must be modified to comply with networks, Canada is still more liberal-minded. The United States is much more particular about anything that may offend viewers, says Hopley.

“I’m working with Disney right now and I must have written about five or six drafts of every script I’ve sent them, which are only a minute and a half to two minutes long,” says Hopley. “It’s the price of admission.”

Hopley and Shannon are also in the process of getting a half hour show on Nickelodeon, one of the largest youth and children’s networks in the United States, encompassing about 80 to 90 million homes nationwide.

“It’s a tough road, it truly is,” adds Hopley. “But if you truly love it, you can’t [escape] from the fact that you have to get up in the morning and get slapped in the face a lot in this industry. If you love it a lot and truly believe in it, you have to keep that alive and keep it going.”