Squid Caesar—how I approached the character

Squid Caesar—how I approached the character

May 28, 2021 1 By Allan Trautman

On last week’s episode of The Barbarian and the Toll (“Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me a Map”), I performed a character named Squid Caesar. He’s an old-school, Catskills-style insult comic. He’s also a giant squid. From the perspective of most members of the public, puppeteers perform in some sort of black box, the mechanics of which are unknowable to the outside world. Even for fellow puppeteers, we rarely discuss among ourselves how characters are established or developed. So I’m going to devote today’s post to how I approached the character of Squid Caesar, and to some of the decisions I made along the way. Let me know if you like this sort of shop talk, and I’ll do more.

Approaching the script

As usual for performers, it starts with the script. All (good) performers—this includes actors and puppeteers—do some level of script analysis. We want to know what the writers’ intent with the character was. What function does he serve in the story? How is he described—by both the writers and by other characters? How does he speak—his vocabulary and rhythms?

What does the script of Episode #108 tell me about Squid? Brendar refers to him as “Christof’s favorite comedian,” so it’s safe to assume he’s an established professional. Evan confirms this when he says, “Squid Caesar??? He’s the biggest celebrity insult comic around!” So not only is Squid a pro, but he’s a celebrity. Then the writers describe him upon his entrance as “a big happy-go-lucky squid with Rodney Dangerfield eyes.” I can’t do anything about his eyes, but this does give me an idea for developing a voice. The “happy-go-lucky” description gives me an image of someone who doesn’t let things around him affect him much. Self-contained. And then there’s his dialog. He dishes one-liners and punctuates each of his punch lines by saying “Blammo!” So now I have a pretty good idea of who he is—old-school, a bit of a hack, full of himself as some celebrities are. He commands the room and likes to be the center of attention.

Anchor phrases

At one point, one of his one-liners fails to impress Stacy and he reacts with a “Wow. Tough crowd. Tough crowd.” This, while being a standard response by a comedian to a joke that bombs, is also specifically associated with Rodney Dangerfield. At that point I started hearing Squid in my head with a Dangerfield-like voice. Often when developing a voice for a character, a voice actor or puppeteer will find a key phrase that naturally comes out of one’s mouth in the desired voice. Whenever we find the voice drifting, or if we’re having trouble finding it in the moment, we can repeat this anchor phrase and it grounds us in the voice. The “tough crowd” line anchored the voice for me at that spot with something like Dangerfield’s voice. Since I could hear that line so clearly in his voice, I figured, “At least that moment will work.”

(Funny side note about these anchor phrases: Paul Rugg had a very specific, very funny voice for Ned in Earth to Ned, now streaming on Disney+. And he had a specific anchor phrase to remind him of the voice. It was the name of his sidekick. Unfortunately, during the development phase of the project, when the voice was settled upon, his sidekick’s name was not Cornelius. It was Sebastian. So Paul’s anchor phrase was “Sebastian!” For the first couple of weeks of production, Paul would regain a foothold on Ned’s voice in between takes by flopping from one to the other. “Sebastian! Cornelius!” “Sebastian! Cornelius!” I sat right next to him on Ned’s control system, and found Paul’s screaming to be both entertaining and nerve-jangling.)

Approaching the puppet

I finally saw the actual puppet a day or two before the first day he worked. There are occasions in which seeing the puppet causes me to change the voice on the spot. But in this case, the puppet was so crazy that I felt it could accommodate a wide range of voices. So at this point, I settled on the voice.

The last piece of the character we have a chance to develop is the actual manipulation of the puppet. Squid Caesar is unusual in that instead of two arms and two legs, he has an anatomically-correct two tentacles and eight arms. I didn’t want him to move like a typical anthropomorphized character. I wanted him kind of fluid, wavy, and never still, as if his arms had a mind of their own.

The arms

Jurgen Heimann built Squid with two arms and two tentacles attached to the body, as normal. The other six arms were detachable and could be waved about independently of the body. This can be done in such a way that it looks like they’re attached, but it’s easier for an assistant to take control of them.

I wasn’t sure what to do with all those arms. For a couple of days, whenever I would think about it I just mentally shrugged and moved on. But I knew my subconscious was working on the problem. And just as I was putting him on for the first scene, it came to me. I had asked Jeny Cassady to assist me with Squid’s six free arms, giving her one simple instruction. I told her to keep the arms out of the shot except when I yelled “Blammo!” Then she would jerk them all up at the same time for emphasis. I wasn’t sure what it would look like, but I thought it went with the character (leaning into his hackey catch-phrase) and would be pretty funny. The first time we did it on camera I laughed so hard I had to double over to catch my breath before we rolled again. With a little bit of luck, it worked.

Squid turned out to be a successful character, in my humble opinion, and I hope I’ve given you some insight to the process that lead to it. I’m happy to field comments and questions from my fellow puppeteers as well as the general public.