Dec. 10, 2012 at 5:44 PM ET
A pair of otters peacefully floating on the water, holding hands, rafting — with more than 18 million views, it’s one of the most peaceful, popular videos on YouTube, and completely without drama. Until you read the comments, of course.
They are SO cute! I want to [expletive deleted] them all!
Why would anyone think this is cute? Putting two rats in your swimming pool so you and your entire family can get into disease infested water and probably die from AIDS? Hardly cute.
I'd like for one of them to hold a grenade, and the other the pin. And when they separate next time...KABOOM!
that would be funny if they were gay heheh(:
"The video was so benign, yet the comments just exploded into unimaginable vitriol," recalls April Winchell, also known as "Helen Killer" on the Etsy-lampooning site, Regretsy. “Homophobia, racial epithets, political sniping, threats of violence ... it had it all.”
Winchell, who never met an unlicensed "Twilight" craft she couldn’t make cry, saw the possibilities. If sleeping otters could incite a flame war to ridiculous it couldn’t be scripted, what other comedy gold was buried in comment forums?
"I was not only amused by the reflexive hatred, I was also struck by the fact that there are really only a handful of personalities that bother to involve themselves in these threads,” Winchell told TODAY. “The Fixer, The Racist, The Apologist, The Expert and so on. I started thinking of them as recurring characters, and the threads as potential scripts.” And Sockpuppet Theatre was born.
One of the first episodes, "Stop Killing Your Pet," features a potato chip-eating pup who inspires a debate as heated as Kant's Moral Argument and the categorical imperative, only stupid and with swear words.
The subtle burns delivered in a World of Warcraft forum discussion on women and games might’ve been lost to the ages had Winchell not brought it to finely-crafted light in "Trolling 101."
Of course, we don’t need spectacularly detailed puppet sets and top voice talent to break the news that people sure are annoying, obnoxious jerks on the Internet. But usually, reading comments is just really irritating. The brilliance of Sockpuppet Theatre is that it gives us all the drama and comedy, with none of the stomach acid. Observe:
Winchell, daughter of ventriloquist Paul Winchell, and an actor herself, recruited a cadre of talent for her project. With the help of her friend Rob Paulsen (who won an Emmy for "Pinky and the Brain"), her fiancé, animator John Foley, and the puppeteering agent Pat Brady, Winchell launches a new episode every Friday. The growing list of contributing voice talent reads like a Who’s Who of every cartoon voice you’ve heard in recent years, including Billy West ("The Howard Stern Show," "Ren & Stimpy," "Futurama") and Pamela Adlon (Bobby Hill on “King of the Hill").
There’s a reason the "sockpuppet" part of the project’s name is one word, not two. Actually, a couple. "On the Internet, the term 'sockpuppet' (one word) refers to an alternate account that allows you to post anonymously, or to rejoin a community after you've been thrown out," Winchell explains. "So we have sock puppet sockpuppets. It was also easier to trademark it that way, since no one else had the courage to misspell their domain name."
Though her initial inspiration came from YouTube (and otters), Winchell says she looks for threads everywhere. "My favorites are the threads that explode when the original post is not even remotely provocative," she says. "There's a screen cap on Sockpuppettheatre.com of a race war that broke out in the comments on a pecan pie recipe."
Along with combing forums for future scripts, Winchell also makes the sock puppets, readily sharing the craft techniques she employs so these once-blank cotton sheaths put a face to the "desperation, angst and xenophobia," of their words. "I think my rudimentary crafting skills speak for themselves," Winchell says, dodging a question about Regretsy’s influence on her crafting abilities. "The unhinged appearance comes from the mismatched buttons for eyes, and the amount of Poly-Fil I put in the head. I never know what expression they're going to have until I turn them right-side out and put them on my hand."
Winchell herself points out this is not exactly the puppeting craft she grew up with.
"My father was one of the greatest ventriloquists in history, and made all of his own puppets," she says. "I vividly recall being 6 or 7 and watching him painstakingly apply layers and layers of fiberglass to his molds, creating amazing, expressive creatures. It didn't occur to me until I was well into this that I was now in his line of work, if you can call sewing buttons onto socks 'work.'"
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