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LEARNING DAY

Puppet Week: Curt Hiss the Drug Free Beatboxing Snake 🌭

It’s the 1980s. You want to make movies but you don’t have the budget, cast, location, or talent. There’s only one avenue left for you: Drug education. You could really feel the frustrated creative mind behind every afterschool special that needed 47 minutes and an alien costume just to tell kids not to die behind a dumpster. These directors wanted to be more than this, they didn’t deserve to be more than this. One of them would be more than this.

If there’s one thing children respect, it is the sock puppet. The brainchild of Wayne Owens and Magnolia Productions, this is Curt-Hiss the Drug Free Beat-Boxing Snake’s first video, 1987’s Curt Hiss: America’s Friend, Pusher’s Enemy. It is an immediate eyeball curse. Filthy, piss yellow, the distorted, uneven font placement, the grainy cover image – this is what shooting heroin between your toes would look like, if it was boxed media. Ironic? I don’t know, and I will not look up the definition.

The first Curt Hiss outing starts off tame, but it’s important we start here to understand the motifs of Wayne Owens’ later work. He is an auteur, or something that shares most of the letters with it. America’s Friend, Pusher’s Enemy opens with Curt bullying his little brother, who insists Curt should be above this kind of “kid’s stuff.” Set the clock: How long until he’s slamming hooch in the gutter? Stop the clock.

Five seconds. We are five seconds in. Toy commercials have proven that eight year-olds respond best when you paint your message on the front of a truck and hit them with it. When you’ve only got twenty minutes of runtime and a dirty foot covering to snatch an entire generation from the street horse’s deadly mouth, you do what you can. There’s a reason nobody sets the table at an Arby’s.

Anyway, here’s the Grim Reaper.

We are six seconds in.

Curt’s passed out when he hears the whisper of the Reaper on the wind. It snaps him awake, but he can’t find the source. His first thought should be “death’s voice sounds sweet here, on the shores of oblivion.” Instead it’s “nobody’s there, good! Now I won’t have to share… THIS.

Hey Wayne Owens, if we’re not supposed to think drugs are cool, maybe don’t give your sock puppet the sweetest weed flourish I’ve ever seen. Curt Hiss effortlessly spins a joint into his mouth using his tail, then rips it to the base in two monster drags. If Willy Nelson saw this he would laugh, take the sock off his hand, and say “but seriously thanks for coming out tonight, Tampa, here’s Mamma’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”

Curt coughs. He coughs again. He turns it into beatboxing. This rules, actually. This is the one skit you don’t skip on an MF DOOM album. Then he starts spittin’ pure venom. That’s a hip hop snake joke. Please leave my article.

I read that shit in Danny Brown’s voice, every time. Any children on the fence about drugs have already fled the gymnasium to find Big Ron’s IROC in the parking lot. I have a theory that this is technically the start of the G-Funk era and I will only need $300,000 in grant money to prove it.

Curt isn’t done carpet-bombing his own mission: He tells kids they can buy drugs anywhere if they know what to ask for, tells them what to ask for, assures them it’s easy and cheap, and that they can get the money from mom’s purse! Curt Hiss literally cannot get any cooler-

Okay, sunglasses and a skull shirt, now he can’t get any-

You know the way Prince kind of fingerbangs his guitar when he’s really on fire? That’s Curt Hiss and smoking joints. His friend, Floaty the unspecified furball, starts to ask if he can try some drugs but Curt has already teleported behind him like Vegeta and his tail is swooping in with a joint like the Goku you shouldn’t have taken your eyes off of. Curt ambush shotguns Floaty’s lungs and laughs when he can’t handle it. I don’t know whose older brother this is based on, but I bet his band sucks and his van smells like pussy.

We burned a lot of film on Curt Hiss contact juggling spliffs, so that doesn’t leave a lot of runtime for character development.

In the same sentence Curt is informed that his little brother was selling drugs, sold drugs to an undercover cop, was arrested, is in jail, and has killed himself in jail. Curt responds to this the only way you can: he does not.

A slippery voice on the wind makes grave promises. “Curt Hiss,” the Grim Reaper croons, “I will see you soon.

No, Death. That’s not “soon.” Curt’s little brother speedran drugs in about two minutes. He clipped through marijuana and got inertia-launched straight into a jailhouse suicide. Curt’s not dead yet, he just likes drugs a little more. I know people who smoked their first joint, segued to meth, clinically died twice, had a kid, segued to Jesus, got really into American Folk music, segued out of Jesus, then opened an artisanal cupcake shop with a life partner who’s a gender they did not expect, and all in under ten years. Curt hasn’t even changed his shirt. A decade is a lifetime, especially to somebody who hasn’t lived one yet. I’ll never understand why Wayne Owens thought he needed a 10 year time jump to sell these stakes. Especially since Officer Patrick runs on-screen to once again tell Curt every consequence in one breath.

Curt’s mother facetanked a child’s prison hanging and 10 years of her sock puppet son getting crusty for crack, but she dies now and it must be because of a broken heart? No, this isn’t an English moor. Cholesterol is its own tragedy and it can be prevented if you’ll only watch this educational video starring OranguTony, the A Capella Ape.

This is the tragedy it takes for Curt to get clean. The Grim Reaper shrieks to the sky in frustration because he’s been big-deathing this snake for a decade and never got to little-death himself, and Curt becomes an anti-drug Crusader. He gives a stump speech while Floaty and Officer Patrick hum “America, the Beautiful.” He tries to rap again but like every artist who finds Jesus, he’s lost his flow.

Somebody thought the best way to reach at-risk youth was a beatboxing sock puppet who owned neither boots nor cats, they accidentally taught an entire elementary school that drugs kick ass for at least ten years, then panicked and hit the America button when they didn’t have an ending. This is enough to earn your Hot Dog Media badge. But this is Puppet Week, and we’re only getting started. The one thing Curt Hiss: America’s Friend, Pusher’s Enemy actually accomplished was teaching Wayne Owens to dream big. He no longer wanted to be the McGruff of sock puppets. He wanted to be the Martin Scorcese of sock puppets. Hence the sequel…

With triple the budget ($75) and a hundred times the ambition, 1988’s When Will We Learn Who to Trust is an action packed crime thriller that teaches children ages 5-8 the complex societal damage of narcotics as a business. It’s Michael Mann for kids who still have pictures on their underwear.

When Will We Learn Who to Trust opens on a news story about the criminal trial of The Mongoose, a notorious drug kingpin. That’s an action movie trope. If the first scene is a reporter talking about some pivotal impending conviction, you’re about to see a disillusioned Jean Claude Van Damme’s ass. He’s going to wake up in a scummy apartment and slip his briefs on, pour whiskey into his coffee, then look meaningfully at a framed photo of a smiling woman in a sweater before strapping on his holster for another pointless day in pursuit of justice he won’t find.

This trial all hinges on a single testimony, but I’ll let Officer Patrick explain.

All The Mongoose has to do is take out one witness and he’ll walk away scot-free because the law is helpless in the face of corruption. Actually, let’s all take out our activity books and write down “helpless in the face of corruption” to practice our cursive. Remember that a lowercase S is like a little Sailboat Sailing through the word!

The Mongoose’s high-powered defense attorney, Penelope, is a sexy lady snake who shares a murky romantic past with Curt Hiss. After all these years, the chemistry is still there – but now they’re on opposite sides of the law. If you guessed that it’s time for a sock puppet to sing a rock ballad about choosing between the love of a good snake and vigilante justice, no you didn’t.

Officer Patrick shatters this dreamy serenade: It’s their star witness! The Mongoose got to them, they’re too scared to testify now. He laments that they relied too heavily on witness testimony – they should’ve had more on The Mongoose before going to trial. His next line really sells the existential despair that a good cop goes through, trying to navigate this failing bureaucratic quagmire we call “the law.”

Hey, you know who’s not bound by the inadequate laws of man? Snakes! And socks. Either way Curt Hiss is in the clear and our society needs vigilante puppets like him just to balance the scales. When a criminal slips through the cracks in the bottom of the washing machine that is our legal system, it will take one lone sock to catch him.

Penelope motions for dismissal, and without a star witness, the judge grants it. The Mongoose walks free. If you guessed it’s time for a drug-dealing puppet to sing a whimsical duet about mistrials with a tap-dancing Grim Reaper, holy shit. What are the odds?

We all know what happens next. Curt Hiss opens the storage unit he thought he’d closed forever. He blows dust off his trusty shotgun. He puts on his sunglasses, he whips a faded tarp off a neglected Harley and it coughs black exhaust as he burns ass down the PCH to a fateful confrontation he does not expect to walk away from. Not this time.

No, he goes to talk to his congressman. We’re slow playing it! We have to build up Curt Hiss the Drug Free Beat-Boxing Snake’s disillusionment with the established system so the audience understands his desperation. This is vital for his character arc. I’m not kidding, it only sounds sarcastic because he’s a fucking sock.

The congresspuppet tells Curt he only listens to polls, letters, and phone calls from his constituents, and he receives very few letters demanding tougher drug laws. You might recognize this as exactly how democracy is supposed to work, but Curt Hiss thinks this is the most vile kind of bullshit. It’s this craven subservience to Big Voter that finally pushes Curt over the line into vigilantism.

The Mongoose is planning a major drug deal tonight, a fact Curt hears from Floaty, which makes Floaty the minority CI in this 1988 cop thriller, so expect him to be gunned down in the third act while Curt whispers “now it’s personal.” They head to the drug warehouse, which is a hilarious child’s understanding of how drug deals work, but Officer Patrick beat them to it! Quick: What is Officer Patrick doing here? REMEMBER this is an educational video to teach very young children to obey the law!

If you guessed “planting drugs,” then you are a witch and will be burned as such.

Officer Patrick just hasn’t been the same since he got out to look for a shiny quarter, didn’t put the handbrake on, and his patrol car rolled over his head. He loudly announces to nobody “all I have to do is put these bags in the right place, then I can put the cuffs on Mister Mongoose!” He flops wildly about the alleyway before settling on the mailbox, then stops because he remembers that’s against the law. He stops again because breaking the law reminds him that laws exist. He forgot about laws!

If you guessed it’s time for a cop puppet to sing a Hall and Oates style yacht rock number about the incompetent American justice system forcing its police into corruption, that’s fucking crazy. It is fucking crazy that you guessed that. I’ll give you points for it, but I am going to confiscate your phone until this quiz is over.

Ah, but you did not guess how funny it would be to watch the little drug bags stapled to his puppet hands waggle in time with the choreography.

He’s just about to go through with it when he sees Curt and Floaty watching and decides that, no, this isn’t right. He loves the law. Almost as much as he hates people witnessing his crimes. They all decide to petition the DA for a warrant for a sting operation, and teachers – this is the part where you pause the tape and explain sting operations, warrants, and district attorneys to your second grade class. Pay special attention to any children who look like they’re following along: those are narcs. Check the copyright notice before you play Watership Down on hangover day or you’ll spend next summer break getting a cobweb tattoo from a guy named White Fred.

Penelope catches the whole crew at the worst possible moment, with bags full of cocaine in the alleyway beside her client’s drug warehouse. She’s so offended by this betrayal she turns on Curt-

Holy shit. That’s racially coded, right? That is, at best, an Uncle Ruckus situation. It has to be. I’d worry about reading adult meaning into a kid’s video but the very next scene is The Mongoose tricking Penelope into drug muling.

It’s crazy these are the stakes in a children’s puppet show. He might as well be convincing her to swallow knotted condoms as a miracle weightloss solution. She walks in on him planting the drugs in her briefcase and freaks out, so The Mongoose calls his weird, mute, creepy, unidentifiable henchpuppet to bind and gag her in total silence. It’s a Pulp Fiction moment. This is Curt Hiss’s boxed gimp.

The Mongoose plants a bomb next to Penelope and leaves this whole elaborate murder as a diversion for the cops while the real deal goes down, which you might recognize as the plot of The Dark Knight. In a 1988 anti-drug puppet show. That’s where Christopher Nolan got the idea, and I only need $300,000 in lawyer fees to prove it in court.

I’m not a complicated man. Something about the simplicity of this bound and gagged sock staring grimly at a crude little bomb just cracks me up.

If you guessed it’s time for a snake puppet to sing a broken ballad about how she wished she found love instead of explosions, well I tricked you. She’s gagged. She can’t sing at all, sucke-

Shit, you are incredible at this.

Penelope weaves her feelings for Curt seamlessly into a slow jam about how much she also doesn’t like dynamite. It’s a moving, beautiful moment that would make Andrew Lloyd Webber proud, because he was also a fucking maniac. Come at me, theater nerds. I have the Cats PSAs.

Elsewhere, The Mongoose has captured Floaty and yep, he is going to die. He’s tied to an anchor and about to be tossed into the bay. Snitches meet fishes. I guess the puppet drowning noises didn’t focus test well with the Osh Kosh demographic, because Curt saves him. And now for my second favorite line ever uttered by a sock:

Curt makes it back to the warehouse just in time to save Penelope – he doesn’t know how to defuse bombs or untie knots so he just grabs the bomb with his puppet arms, which is his mouth, and runs to the window-

Hurling it into the river seconds before it explodes. There is an underwater bomb explosion written into this anti-drug sock puppet script! It’s not shown, because $75 doesn’t buy a lot of firecrackers, but it’s part of the story!

Now Penelope testifies against her own client, and The Mongoose is booked for assault, possession, and trafficking, all new words you’re going to have to explain to children who still believe in Santa Claus. “See, a RICO charge is what they got Santa with when he tried to say it was his elves who stole those blueprints from Nintendo. Can you say RICO? That’s right, just like our dog’s name!”

Curt and Floaty vow to never relent in the fight, while Officer Patrick looks directly to the camera and yells, “I WISH EVERYONE WAS AS ACTIVE IN CLEANING UP THE DRUG PROBLEM AS YOU ARE!” If any child had ever actually seen this video, Magnolia Productions would be liable in the gangland shooting deaths of countless heroic third graders.

It’s not over! The Mongoose sneers that he’ll just get out on a technicality, because if there’s one message we’re here to sell to the kids on, it’s that the law simply does not work. Penelope has an idea: Politicians can change the laws. You know who’d be a perfect politician? Her vigilante boyfriend! Curt nods and turns to the camera to directly threaten all sitting congressmen.

True to form, Curt’s inept congresspuppet still won’t take action…

Until he’s buried in letters Curt and Penelope solicited! Haha now that chump has to listen to the will of his voters, like he always wanted.

We live in an era where some of our representatives literally tried to lynch the Vice President because he suggested abiding by the results of an election. They didn’t even lose their jobs. And Curt Hiss is pissed off it took a letter writing campaign to affect meaningful change? Never forget what we lost, kids – actually, let’s open our activity books and count them! 1, 2, 3 Constitutional rights! What comes after three? No, not revolution. It’s four!

If you guessed it’s time for a sock puppet to aggressively rap War on Drugs scare propaganda from a pulpit in front of the American flag, you get no points. That was everything in 1988.

I’m pumped. I’m ready to crash a speedboat into a mansion and shoot everybody wearing loafers without socks. But hold on, the first Curt Hiss was an anti-drug film. It wasn’t very effective, but that’s what it was: Curt got addicted to drugs, his life went to hell, he suffered, and turned it all around when he realized clean living was the better way. That didn’t happen in this movie. In fact, nobody used drugs at all. Nobody got addicted, suffered, cleaned up, none of it. The only conflict in this story came from our heroes butting up against the inept American legal system in their pursuit of a drug kingpin. I guess what we’ve learned today is that, from frustrated police officers, to naive attorneys, to noble snake citizens who have simply had enough, the law only works when you take it into your own hands. Death to drug dealers, death to the politicians who enable them, death to the principal!

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