Few, if any, TV shows have millions of fans before they even start filming. But the puppet-based mania of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared has never been conventional.
Starting life in 2011 as a DIY webseries, the original episodes appeared sporadically over five years, making each new release a major event for its booming fanbase. Mystery permeates the show, which initially feels like classic children’s TV until the action takes a creepier turn. It is never clear whether the characters are caught in a dream or a nightmare. It has hints of dark comedies such as Monkey Dust and Jam, and juxtaposes kids’ TV tropes with folk horror. Think Sesame Street with existential dread and the incredibly disturbing use of raw meat.
Creators Becky Sloan and Joe Pelling, who met at university, conceived the series together. “We were doing jobs we hated and wanted to make something fun with puppets, something musical,” Sloan says of the show centered on three felt creations: Red Guy (whose head is seemingly made of two eyes on a crimson-dyed mop), Yellow Guy (like Sesame Street’s Ernie with a blue mohawk) and Duck (a duck). “I’d never made a puppet before – you can see the first ones have too many fingers.”
They were joined by Baker Terry, who writes, composes and does “about 80%” of the voices, in skits that seem to satirize children’s TV. Their first episode was inspired by the “inane drivel” of art school, depicting a craft session that grows increasingly frenzied, with chirpy lyrics about creativity giving way to jarring chords as blood and offal see into glitter and paint. The internet went wild for the surprising, hilarious results – that episode alone now has 70m views.
As Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared (DHMIS) moves to TV, the team have expanded. While Terry still voices Yellow Guy and Duck, comedy greats such as Jamie Demetriou, Lolly Adefope and Phil Wang have come on board as new characters. Edinburgh comedy award winner Sam Campbell and Natasha Hodgson have joined as writers, and Megan Ganz (of Community and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame) is the story editor.
Each episode begins with either a mysterious visitor or an inanimate object (a notepad, a clock, a computer) springing to life – ostensibly to teach the characters a lesson, but in reality causing chaos. The world they inhabit is brightly coloured, made entirely of felt and filled with puppets and anthropomorphic items. Characters are liable to burst into (very catchy) songs, be they outrageously hummable odes to organizing a funeral, or an intercom (played by Adefope) singing a vocoder-packed pop number about workplace stress management.
Everything in DHMIS has always been handmade, which has meant fans are used to months passing between carefully crafted episodes. “It adds to the humor and the mystery, because you’re like: ‘Why would someone spend this much time making all this stuff?’” says Pelling. “There’s definitely an element of: ‘They’ve put so much effort into this, it must be good,’” adds Terry. “Or why would they spend their whole adult lives doing this?!” says Sloan.
On TV, the homemade ethos remains – which will please fans who have been patiently waiting six years for it to appear. Keeping the essence of the originals was vital, with a huge production team working to preserve the look and feel of the web series. You get a sense of the level of detail on screen, but as producers Hugo Donkin and Charlie Perkins show me behind the scenes, it’s on another level. Perkins hands me a travel pamphlet – just a background prop – which I open to find pages covered in felt images of holiday locations. “People have been saying: ‘It’s not usually how we’d do it on TV,’” says Donkin. “We’re not sure whether that’s good or bad.”
“There are so many props that might be for a one-second shot, but are so detailed,” says Sloan. “The house wallet [one giant wallet shared by the three characters] made me laugh,” says Sloan. “It’s really over the top, it has a credit card with a number and date that no one will notice.” Pelling says: “It’s like outsider art – everyone’s gone insane on set.”
One part of the set features a stop-motion area where the team are working with clay, and in the carpentry zone it’s “toilet day” as they craft replica loo stalls and urinals with eyes and limbs. Over in the prop-making area (AKA “the puppet hospital”), items include a felt vending machine full of cigarettes and bottles of mysterious dark liquid, a robot dog and an anthropomorphic coffin. There are also extra versions of the three main characters, as messy mishaps often put them beyond salvation. “We had to cover one of the puppets in hair gel to make it look like he was covered in saliva,” says Sloan.
On a quiet, dark stage dubbed The Void, I watch as a confused Duck and Red Guy try to make out felt objects through the encroaching gloom. Unlike the eventual viewer, I can also see Josh Elwell, Duck’s puppeteer, contorted on the floor behind a felt fridge so he remains out of shot. Bringing in professional puppeteers for television has added “so much personality and emotion,” says Perkins. Sloan agrees: “There are some scenes in this series with Yellow Guy where people might cry!”
And what about one of the more bizarre trademark elements of the show: the amount of raw meat? For the TV version, they’re using silicon replicas rather than actual animal products, with buckets of seemingly raw chicken breasts just odorless additions to the prop shelves. This only came to pass after an incident where they used actual beef to fill a “horrible vending machine”. It ended up smelling so bad the crew conceded it was time to switch to fakes.
By the time the final web episode was released in 2016, a DHMIS community had evolved online, with fans sharing increasingly wild theories about its true meaning. Is the puppet world all inside Red Guy’s head, or is a sinister force controlling things from the outside? Terry’s favorite theory features Bosnian Serb war criminal Radovan Karadžić, while Sloan is a huge fan of the conspiracy-level scrutiny they have attracted: “Someone saw that our cinematographer was called Ed Tucker and said: ‘Has anyone else noticed that Ed Tucker is an anagram of Duck Tree?’ But what does that mean?!”
They refuse to debunk any of the theories. “It’s all fed back into the DNA of the show,” says Terry. The trio promise easter eggs throughout the TV series. “Knowing that the audience had that appetite for dissecting things gave us license to treat them with a lot of intelligence,” says Pelling. “We can put in lots of clues and people will find them.”
There’s even something to find in real life. On my visit, I witnessed a life-size red felt car sitting on stilts. Sloan later revealed that the crew dumped the car in the hope that the show’s supersleuths might one day discover its location. “Fans can find the car where we left it,” says Sloan. “They’ll have to swim through a swamp to get there, but they can find it.”
Given the longer runtimes that come with the move from YouTube to TV, DHMIS has had to evolve. Each of the new episodes has a theme – electricity, transport, death – and the characters go on longer adventures. “The show is slightly less manic,” says Pelling. “We had to give the characters little desires and wants to drive the story, even if the desire is as simple as: ‘I don’t want to be in this room any more.’”
An unexpected detour helped them clarify what they wanted the TV series to be. Back in 2016, they made a pilot with a US company. It had a town and neighbors and was “a bit South Park”, says Sloan. “We also made an attempt, and I’m going to whisper this, because it almost sounds like a dirty phrase, to get an element of current affairs into it,” says Terry.
But the timelessness and claustrophobia of the originals was missing. Writing the new version during the pandemic, often over Zoom, may have helped recapture that oppressive vibe. “It was very strange writing a show about characters stuck inside during a time when we were all stuck inside,” says Pelling. “So maybe there are points where we did actually go insane.”
They’ve finished filming now, and the props and puppets are in storage, but the trio hope to exhibit them one day. “At some point, we’ll have built everything in the world out of felt,” says Pelling. Sloan pipes up: “No one can stop us!”
Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is coming soon to All 4 and Channel 4.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism