Did NBC News Censor a Puppet?

Donald J. Tramp
Photo: April Brucker.

It was one of those emails that you’re quite sure is spam. Even if it wasn’t quite Nigerian-lawyer-gifting-you-$1M spam, the headline was still just kooky enough to seem implausible:

The Today Show 86’d a Real Dummy

The body of the email began like this:

…Last week, Donald J. Tramp, my political puppet partner, and I were kicked out of the plaza at The Today Show. Apparently a stuffed fictional candidate is now “a political statement.”

As a longtime New Yorker, I don’t normally do “touristy.” However, in the wake of Donald J. Trump’s landslide victory in the New York primary, a friend of mine suggested that Mr. Tramp and I go to The Today Show to get our 15 minutes of fame. Since my Donald J. Tramp dummy bears a striking resemblance to the GOP front-runner dummy, I figured why not.

“Political puppet partner” — what a phrase! Were we talking metaphors here, like Sarah Palin, who could see Russia from her house? Or puppets like New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who stood behind Donald Trump a few weeks ago, the shell-shocked survivor of a Republican concentration camp?

The email was written by April Brucker, an actor and a ventriloquist. And Donald J, Tramp is a real puppet — one of 19 in her collection. And apparently The Today Show didn’t find her, or Mr. Tramp, very funny:

I arrived at Rockefeller Plaza with my Tramp campaign signs and Mr. Tramp wisely concealed in a box. A viciously huge security guard demanded to know what the signs were. Eyeing me suspiciously, he informed me that to gain access to the plaza audience I would have to dismantle my signs.

As I took my place in line, I smiled knowing my secret in the box. But then the secret was spoiled. Another security guard, an even beefier fellow, also eyed my signs suspiciously as I was dismantling them. “Donald Trump? Come on,” he grumbled.

Then he approached me and eyed me like a snake about to envelop a mouse in it’s jaws. “Aren’t you the girl from YouTube with that Donald Trump puppet?”

“Donald J. Tramp, sir,” I corrected him.

“We can’t have you here,” he said, as he promptly ordered me to leave.

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[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]She also delivers singing telegrams.[/pullquote]Originally from Pittsburgh, Brucker earned her BFA in acting from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and over the past few years she has amassed a list of colorful, if nontraditional, TV and film credits, including Cash Cab, CBS Sports Now, Entertainment TonightInside Edition, Last Comic Standing, The LayoverMy Strange Addiction, No Reservations: Anthony Bourdain, Rachael Ray and The Wendy Williams Show. Her one-woman show, Broke and Semi-Famous, ran at the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan. Brucker even a connection to this site as a contributor to Spaz Comics, the first-ever comic book written by comics, which was published in 2015 by Rik Sansone, whose Idiots in Ink cartoon column will return to this site soon.

Brucker’s entrepreneurialism is spunky. Unlike the legions of actor-waiters and actor-temps awaiting their next Equity call, Brucker makes a living delivering singing telegrams — a swell throwback to the day-jobs of yore. But Donald J. Tramp — well, all 19 puppets — are her greatest passion:

She also has a knack for publicity. Last year, she persuaded the Daily Mail to feature her, emphasizing the tens of thousands of dollars she spends annually to care for her puppet coterie, which have their own bedroom in her apartment. As she told the Daily Mail, when her then-fiance decided it was either him or all of them, he lost.

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Here’s a little more, according to Brucker, of what happened at The Today Show:

The two NBC pages working the show, both nice girls who were probably fresh out of college, thought that Mr. Tramp was a creative idea and loved the concept. However, they told us that in light of all the recent political controversies, The Today Show had nixed any and all political statements by the audience on the Plaza. “Even puppets?” I asked.
“Even puppets,” one of the pages told me with a half smile.
Yes, even puppets. Puppet free speech was being censored. As an author, comedian and scholar of the First Amendment, I find this not only worrisome, but also a sad commentary on the times. While George Orwell predicted media censorship, did he know it was going to become so severe that it would restrain ventriloquism free speech?

In fact, The Today Show‘s website directly addresses the matter of political speech outside Rockefeller Plaza, over which NBC apparently does have legal jurisdiction. For example, “Tip 4” reads as follows:

Bring an eye-catching poster to help you stand out or create one at the TODAY poster station when you arrive on the plaza.

The website also features a warning to visitors:

Nothing gets the attention of our camera operators like a creative and colorful poster. You will have the opportunity to create one at the TODAY poster station when you arrive on the plaza. Highlight why you’re visiting or send a message to someone back home. (Please refrain from using political statements, commercial promotions or profanity.)

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]What constitutes a “political statement”? NBC News won’t say.[/pullquote]But after chatting with Brucker, I still had questions for NBC News. After all, plenty of people. and not just tourists, crowd around outside The Today Show‘s studio every morning, bearing banners and posters promoting birthdays, anniversaries, high schools and such, and who’s to say what is and isn’t political? So I sent NBC News two emails each to tomediainquiries@msnbc.com, todaystories@nbcuni.com, contact.nbcnews@nbcuni.com and NBCNewsMediaRelations@nbcuni.com. Someone at NBC News must have read them because my LinkedIn profile was visited twice by some unidentified NBC News employee. But they did not respond to my queries. Perhaps they’re afraid of puppet-riots in the streets over at 30 Rock. Or perhaps this part of my request for comment eluded an acceptable answer: 

Can NBC define what constitutes a “political statement”? Let’s say an individual wears a Bernie Sanders button on their lapel. Is it the official standing policy of The Today Show to force that person to remove such a button? What about a baseball cap, a t-shirt or watch with the logo of a political campaign or cause on it? If an individual carries, say, a handbag with a commercial logo on it, is the official policy of The Today Show to ensure that the individual turn their bag away from the camera in order to “refrain from using…commercial promotions”? Who decides does and does not constitute “political statements” or “commercial promotions”? What training are they provided by NBC to make those determinations?

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And now, here are questions April Brucker has never been asked:

“…and that’s because the puppet is a tramp…”

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Of all mediums, why a ventriloquist puppet?” Well, a puppet allows me to use my imagination, be original, crack jokes and to speak to a greater truth. Comedy is all about irony, and the best comedy comes from a place of honesty. There’s no better object to be a messenger than a puppet, because a puppet can get away with saying anything.

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
“Do you ever think the puppet is real?” No, I don’t ever think the puppet is real. I know it’s an inanimate object. I do refer to them as my children because I am very attached to them, yes, but I know they are not real.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
Believe it or not, and I have been asked this in earnest, is if I’ve had a sexual relationship with my puppets. It’s deep, but it’s not like that…ewwwwwwww!

Your wanting visibility for Donald J. Tramp on Today is understandable. So let’s say, then, that you’d been successful. If one of the anchors had asked you to do a bit with Mr. Tramp — but only for 30 seconds — what was your plan?
My plan would have been to do a short, sweet, TV-friendly bit. Donald J. Tramp would have said, “I looooooove The Today ShowThe Today Show loooooooves me. And now that I’ve had air time with Al Roker, I’m yuuuuuuge! Short, cute, TV-friendly.

When NBC security began eyeing you, did you think of taking Donald J. Tramp out of his box and just performing? Was the experience of being targeted by the NBC security scary? How?
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”Comedy: the great equalizer.”[/pullquote]I actually did think of taking him out of the box and performing, but I wanted it to be a surprise for if and when I successfully got on the air. Being targeted by NBC security was absolutely scary. It’s because they were like German Shepherds: they could smell just about anything and their eyes didn’t miss a beat. If I turned the wrong way they would have been ready to attack. And they were, in the words of Donald J. Tramp, yuuuuuuge. I knew that if all went wrong I could be led out in handcuffs. While people say it’s good publicity to get arrested, actually getting arrested is kind of a frightening thought. And then calling my parents to bail me out…oh, getting that tongue-lashing would have been scarier than anything.

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What is the function of satire in our current society? Have you always had a satirical bent in your work or approach to life?
I believe comedy is the great equalizer, and satire is a way that everyone, regardless of their political point of view, has a voice, whether they be conservative, liberal, independent, whatever. My bent to my work has always been satirical. Each of my 19 puppet characters satirize people I have met or types of people I have had run-ins with. Again, comedy the great equalizer, but also the greatest stress reliever. As well as making the playing field all one level, it also brings people together because we all have commonalities. In this election season, a country that can laugh together will stay together.

While your effort toward The Today Show wasn’t successful, why not try to get on camera at one of the other morning shows? Or is the security scene always the same, from show to show?
That’s a good question. The experience on The Today Show shook me a tad, but now that you mention it, I think that might not be a bad idea. Hoping Good Morning America is a little more understanding of a girl and her puppet.

How did you get the idea for Mr. Tramp? Who made him? What can you tell us about the puppetry and ventriloquism world that most people would have no idea about?
I got the idea for Donald J. Tramp from the watching the Republican debates and Donald Trump in interviews. At first Trump infuriated me, but the more I saw him, the more I realized he is literally the ventriloquist puppet of the Republican Party. He says whatever pops into his head and his supporters all applaud him and think he is great, and he gets away with it.

I decided to call him Donald J. Tramp for two reasons. The first was to shove his woman-shaming in his face. The second is in reference to Charlie Chaplin’s character The Little Tramp, sort of a buffoon. Akin to Charlie Chaplin’s character, Donald J. Tramp is always saying and doing all sorts of things to get him in trouble. While a great many people are furious, at the same time it is also quite entertaining.

As for the person who made him, I went to a company called Pictures to Puppets, located in Scotland. You send the woman a picture of what you want your puppet to look like, and in return she sends you a puppet. I picked this woman not only because I liked her work, but also because of the political climate in the US.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]There is a whole school of conservative, right-wing, Christian puppet-makers.[/pullquote]I say this because a lot of people are not aware of the fact that there is a whole school of conservative, right-wing, Christian puppet-makers. As a matter of fact, I was working with one I will not name, but she decided to discontinue making puppets for me because she felt it offensive that I used her creations for secular work. They even have their own puppetry festivals, like I-Fest. A ventriloquist convention called Vent Haven also has a strong population of performers who use their talents to spread the Gospel. And many Christian puppet-makers sell puppets and scripts for church groups, Sunday schools, etc. Not many people know this exists. But I say good for them, just as it is my First Amendment right to have Donald J. Tramp, it’s their right to use their puppet friends to spread their beliefs, regardless of how I feel about them.

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Bonus question:

Give us five lines of dialogue between Donald J. Tramp and a mythical Ted Cruz puppet. We’re not sure whether to ask for it to be funny or tragic. You decide.

Donald J. Tramp: Hey, Lyin’ Ted. I am going to win this election and the presidency. I am going to winnnnnnnnn because you are a loser, and Canadian.

Ted Cruz: Donald, we both know that’s not true. But while we are on the subject, you are a sniveling coward.

Donald J Tramp: Another lie from Lyin’ Ted. I’m not sniveling. I took an antihistamine.

Ted Cruz: Oh yeah? Well, you are the one taking the low road and reporting all my supposed affairs to the National Enquirer. For the record, they have the location of Jimmy Hoffa’s body.

Donald J. Tramp: Say what you will but when I am President I am going to help the losers like yourself. Jeb Bush can be my butler. You can be the White House lawn gnome. And your running mate, Carly Fiorina, can be my head of security. With her face, no assassin or bullet will ever come near me. And if my family’s in real danger, she can start singing.