Homespun puppets taking Latin American TV by storm
By Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Globe Staff
SANTIAGO—Geraldo Rivera, watch out. A self-important hand-sewn monkey who reads the news in Chile is fast taking Latin America by storm.
An earnest, cross-eyed red rabbit may be Chile’s most famous environmental reporter. A nervous, fluffy creature with headphones is its most recognizable television producer. And a talking boxing glove and soccer ball are as popular as many human sportscasters.
Somehow, this constellation of quirky puppets and their biting parody of television news has captured the imagination of Chilean children and adults since ”31 Minutos” first aired two years ago on TVN, the Chilean state network. The low-budget Saturday morning show recently became the first Latin American program ever syndicated throughout this region on the Nickelodeon children’s cable channel. Last year, it was nominated for an international Emmy Award for best children’s program.
The brainchild of two 32-year-old journalism school graduates from the University of Chile, the country’s most popular children’s show in memory is part ”Sesame Street” and part ”The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” with a lot of just plain silliness. On a shoestring budget of as little as $15,000 per episode, a team of young artists has created 150 whimsical puppets from felt, buttons, soup cans, hair dryers, and toilet seats.
The show has spawned a fanatical following and dozens of branded products, from socks, cereal, and toothpaste to electronic organizers and cellphone accessories — enjoying the most commercially successful first year of any new brand in Chile. One popular character, a flying argyle-sock superhero who wears swim goggles and defends the rights of children, has a board game with a seal of approval from UNICEF and the Ministry of Education. A fan website that went up last year (31minutos.inet.cl) has recorded more than 181,000 visits.
The show’s array of catchy tunes that treat subjects of real concern to children (including ”They Gave Me a Bad Haircut,” ”Ma’am, Please Give Back My Ball,” and ”White Tooth, Don’t Go Away”) became surprise hits on Chilean radio. A compact disc of the songs sold all 10,000 copies on its first day in stores two years ago — prompting the issue of 140,000 more — and became Chile’s best-selling CD of 2003. The ”31 Minutos” DVD has sold more copies than any DVD in the country’s history.
The show’s creators, who are plotting a movie version for 2006 as well as the program’s third season, due to begin airing in May, are at a loss to explain its phenomenal success. Jobless and ”nearly homeless” after two cable channels they worked for went under, Alvaro Diaz and Pedro Peirano had been desperate for a new endeavor when they stumbled on the concept. The night before proposals were due for a government grant to support environmental programming, they came up with the idea of a puppet show ”that would make fun of really bad TV news we have in Chile” while also teaching children about ecology, Peirano said. With a cheeky sensibility inspired by ”The Muppet Show” and ”Monty Python,” their peculiar cast of characters was born.
A far cry from Barney, television’s gentle purple dinosaur who has bewitched American toddlers, the big stars of ”31 Minutos”‘ are what the creators call ”dysfunctional functionaries”: Tulio Trivino, a pompous and ignorant button-eyed anchorman, and bunny Juan Carlos Bodoque, a reporter with a weakness for playing the ponies.
”We didn’t want to present a perfect moral example like Barney,” Peirano said. ”The idea is that even though each has his faults, one loves them and they all have friends.”
In the opening credits, Tulio drives a white Mercedes convertible with vanity plates to work, where he is dressed in ridiculous outfits by his wardrobe assistant, a maniacal chimpanzee. Juan Carlos and other puppets hash out ideas over coffee and cereal at the morning news meeting.
The educational cornerstones of each episode are real environmental reports by Juan Carlos, on everything from the ozone layer, desertification, and industrial pollution to recycling and a popular segment explaining how sewage is processed.
Argyle Sock Man teaches children about their rights. In one episode, he comes to the aid of a glove who is being bullied by socks for looking different. In another, he rescues underage oven mitts who are being forced to knit in the dark by an evil factory owner.
One news segment chronicles a fictional border war between two armies of cans from ”Salsasia” and ”Conservia”– a play on words referring to canned food items. ”We took a situation that is serious — war — and showed how absurd it is,” Peirano said.[
Many skits — such as a wacky percussion concert by a sink, toilet, and electric appliances — have no obvious lesson. ”We were given money to make an educational program, but what is educational? Who defines that?” Diaz said.
Diego Duran Kobayashi, a 10-year-old in Santiago, said he loves the show because ”they do silly things and sometimes serious things, but not many of those. You can enjoy and learn at the same time.”
Tatiana Rodriguez, vice president of programming for Nickelodeon Latin America, said network executives had searched long and hard for a home-grown show to syndicate but found nothing that would appeal to children from Mexico to Argentina. When they saw ”31 Minutos,” she said, ”we went crazy about how original it was. It was the first one that could cross borders.”
Last month, it trailed ”SpongeBob SquarePants” as the most talked about show among Nickelodeon Latin America’s 16 million subscribers, based on postings on the channel’s website, Rodriguez said. Earlier this month, a Portuguese version launched in Brazil was the most watched program in its time slot, she said.
The network has subtitled one ”31 Minutos” episode in English to pitch to Nickelodeon in Europe. ”Our goal is to make it as big as we can,” Rodriguez said. ”We’d be very proud to say that we identified a Latin American program and were able to make it a global one.