The creators of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared offer us a glimpse behind the puppets
“The goal was to keep the show small”: Joe Pelling, Baker Terry and Hugo Donkin on turning a cult web series into a Channel 4 TV show, without losing its uniquely confusing essence.
How best to summarise Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared to the uninitiated? “I suppose it’s like a kids’ show for adults,” says creator Joe Pelling. “It’s annoying to be so evasive on your first question, but we tend to try not to explain it too much,” the director adds. “We kind of want people to be watching it and thinking: ‘What is this? What the fuck is this?’,” says creator Baker Terry.
Confusion is essential to DHMIS’ s unique brand of colourful, chaotic and occasionally distressing content. Launching on YouTube in 2011 as a web short, after the creators had just finished art school, the show was born as a comment on “being taught creativity between occasionally narrow margins,” says Baker. Over a decade has passed since its first episode – which showed its central characters Duck, Red Guy and Yellow Guy receiving a lesson in creativity – and the series is now coming to Channel 4 as a full-length TV show (launching today on 23 September 2022). Produced by Blink Industries, the new release gives us more time with its characters and world, while inevitably throwing up more questions than it answers. Though mystery will always be at the heart of the show, we recently caught up with creators Joe and Baker, alongside producer Hugo Donkin, to catch a glimpse into its making.
Most significant, however, is that viewers going into the show should not expect to be met with a mammoth expansion on a beloved classic. “The goal was to keep the show small,” says Baker. “To not try to expand outwards and create this gigantic South Park-style cast of recurring characters and to keep everything as insular and tiny as possible. To the point where we did that successfully and quite far into scripting, we realised they literally didn’t get up from the table until the second-to-last page.” This stripped-back approach also arose because of how “unfeasibly difficult” it is to get puppets to pick up and use props frequently during a shoot. “We realised we were going to have to actually write jokes that functioned as jokes without a prop in every single instance,” Baker explains.
Rather than expanding the selection of props or locations, DHMIS instead spends its new, longer run time looking closely at its three protagonists, trying to understand who they are, their house, why they live together and their purpose. “That’s the show,” says Joe.
“The goal was to keep the show small.”Baker Terry
DHMIS has always juggled numerous creative practices; in the past, the show has merged the likes of live action, claymation, animation and puppetry. The new series is no different. Hugo explains that production for the Channel 4 iteration ran out of a huge studio in Canada Water, with two live-action units led by Joe and Becky, another stop-motion unit on the sidelines and then “afterwards CG and 2D happening as well”.
There were more experimental additions this time too. Canada-based animator, director and expert of the uncanny Cole Kush, for example, has done some work on the show incorporating the AI-powered program DeepDream. “We used some fun theatrical techniques that you probably don’t see that often in TV because they feel quite unreal, like back-projection. That was really fun,” says Joe. That said, the creator also notes that it was key not to rely on these techniques as “crutches to lean on when you run out of ideas for story”. The team instead “tried to keep the story at the forefront”.
Then there are the puppets – perhaps one of the most recognisable parts of DHMIS. “Back in the day, it was all of us doing the puppeteering,” explains Baker. “Having the puppeteers that we have now is amazing. They’re incredibly skilled performers.” For an undeniably wonky entity like DHMIS, puppeteering is a curious aspect. “We’re not looking for what you would categorise as a good performance from a puppet,” Baker says. Although the puppeteers working on it today “get that entirely”, their presence has also enabled richer characters to play out this time around in Duck, Red Guy and Yellow Guy.
“We were going to have to actually write jokes that functioned as jokes without a prop in every single instance.”Baker Terry
For the fans who have followed the show since its conception, the possibility of seeing performances that are more “emotionally powerful in certain scenes”, as Joe puts it, is a whole new and exciting ballpark. When the short teaser trailer for the DHMIS TV show launched this June, the YouTube comment section was alive with fan theories and users breaking down its 30 seconds of content, providing a mere glimpse into the considerably deeper dives to be found on Reddit. Internet fandom and the idea of darker messages within more naive, childlike content have always gone hand in hand, and in the case of DHMIS, the fandom has become just another aspect of the show.
Joe tends, however, to steer clear of too much immersion in theories, hesitant that it could affect the writing. “Over the years, we’ve got tremendous enjoyment from them – and not in a condescending way. You read the theories that are so well thought-through, detailed and fleshed out that you start to go: ‘Oh, maybe that is correct.’ And if it is to them, it is. So that’s what we’ve always said: ‘If it’s what you think, then it’s correct for you and for whoever else wants to believe it.’”
Baker adds: “I remember years ago – Joe, maybe you can help me out with this – there was one [theory] about how it was all about the war criminal Radovan Karadžić.” Joe laughs: “Yeah, that one, I think we can say, is correct.”
“We all agreed a while back that it would be really fun to do a stage musical with the show.”Joe Pelling
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Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared S1 Ep6 (Copyright © Channel 4, 2022)
“I remember years ago, there was one [theory] about how it was all about the war criminal Radovan Karadžić.”Baker Terry
Will this level of dissection live on when the show moves from the online space that has housed it for so long? While fandom does live best online – “the internet is innately something that you can kind of sit and examine,” according to Joe – over a decade on, it’s hard to imagine commitment to DHMIS will ever wane, no matter the format in which it’s delivered. Finishing our conversation on the run-up to the launch of a long-awaited Channel 4 series, we ask the trio where they’d like to see DHMIS go next, in an ideal world. “A live musical has always been a kind of thing that we fantasised about, but we haven’t acted upon,” says Baker. “But,” in true DHMIS fashion, “they don’t sing,” Baker suggests. “All you can hear is the puppeteers’ feet squeaking on the floor.” Hugo predicts: “It’s gonna be a hit.”
Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared S1 (Copyright © Hugo Donkin / Blink Industries)
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating from the University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, Indie magazine and design studio Evermade.