Us, robots [with video]

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Us, robots [with video]

Milton was never supposed to take over Ben Jones’ life. Then again, these things sometimes happen with robots.

In 2004, Jones moved from California to New York City and opened a comic book store and affordable art gallery called Jigsaw. He kept the prices of his wares low and kept his loyal customers close by sending out e-mails about his store’s current stock. He built upon the store by hosting art exhibitions and adding a few gimmicks he dreamed up, including a gumball machine that dispersed oddball comics, with names like “Dr. Kranium vs. the Hideous Beast with Black Lipstick.” The work could be a bit overwhelming for one personality, and so Jones invented Milton, a sock puppet-esque robot that “worked” at Jigsaw and could e-mail Jones’ customers and friends on his behalf.


Error! Error! Ben Jones (far right) controls Dr. Kranium, one of the two main characters in his online puppet show, “Jigsaw,” while Kranium operates on a robot named Milton.

When Jones began to contemplate moving his business south, he packed a digital camera and Milton, for whom he’d designed a head and body. Filming in short bursts, Jones documented his scouting trip through Milton; in 2006, he closed Jigsaw’s doors in New York and moved the shop to Durham, North Carolina, where it became Jigsaw Comics.

“I thought [the videos] could work as viral advertising when I got the new store open,” he tells Curtain Calls.

Like all good human-robot pairs—George Jetson and Rosie, say, or Steve Guttenberg and No. 5 in Short Circuit—Jones began to rely on Milton. But the two were too alike in personality—both sharp in wit, energetic, a bit dry—and Jones had a business to run. So he crafted a voice and body for his old comic creation, Dr. Kranium, out of an empty soy powder can. Rather than make Kranium a hand puppet like Milton, Jones ordered a ventriloquist’s dummy on the Internet and, after studying its movement mechanisms, rigged a few rubber bands and sticks to the can to give Kranium a bit of mobility.

The trailer for Season 3 of “Jigsaw.”


The relationship between Dr. Kranium and Milton developed from their personalities, and a story emerged: Kranium, a brilliant flub of a scientist, devised Milton, a similar screwball with a better temperament, to help him run a comic shop so that he could concentrate on other work. As Jones committed more time to his creations, they helped him out with his business. “I was tired of being ‘on’ all the time,” says Jones, a slender fellow with black-framed specs and a care-free haircut. “So, I let the characters run the store.”

When Kranium wasn’t ordering Jones around Jigsaw Comics, Jones found time to shoot more videos of Kranium and Milton running his store, which he posted online under the title “Jigsaw.” Between May 2006 and February 2007, he produced a full season of 20 episodes; by December, he’d knocked out another 20-episode season. “Jigsaw” outlasted the store that bore its name and, a few months ago, Jones moved back to Charlottesville. (His brother, Joel, is a playwright and a former theater critic for C-VILLE.)


Robert Wray, a co-founder of cakes’n’ale theatre, wins big in a New York playwrights conference.

Jones also set to work preparing for the third season of “Jigsaw,” which launched on Friday, May 30 (watch for yourself at jigsawfanclub.com). Down the hallway in his home, between framed drawings of robots and creatures by himself and others, is Jones’ office, which doubles as the set of Dr. Kranium’s laboratory. In a few months of slow and steady work, Jones crafted a lab from plastic pallets, old TV remote controls, vacuum cleaner tubes and a laundry detergent cap.

Jones, who had no experience in creating puppets prior to “Jigsaw,” also set to work creating a new Milton, which proved difficult; when Curt visited Jones, Milton’s new noggin was still in development.

“There’s a very specific sort of facial geometry for Milton,” says Jones. “It’s hard to build a new one without taking him apart.”

Part of the facade for Dr. Kranium’s lab hangs above Jones’ Apple computer monitor; the rest takes up an entire corner of Jones’ office, screwed into place. Above the structure is a framed piece of fan mail that Jones received from a 7-year-old girl, addressed to a recurring character named “Lump,” Dr. Kranium’s first attempt at creating organic matter (introduced in Season 1, Episode 3, as a legless blob trapped at the bottom of some stairs). Shelves hold bits of the history of the show along with the Kranium and Milton puppets.

Jones’ effortless and idiosyncratic pop culture knowledge makes him a savvy writer, even if his scripts are often knocked out only a few hours before shooting ensues: He talks a bit about Internet phenoms like HomestarRunner.com and the broadcasting website Blip (blip.tv), which hosts episodes of “Jigsaw.” He based Lump on part of the TV series “Fishing with John,” a six-episode flop and underground favorite in which musician John Lurie takes actors and musicians like Willem Dafoe and Tom Waits on fishing trips and catches absolutely nothing. He writes his own music for “Jigsaw” on everything from mandolin to accordion.

But Jones’ willingness to get his hands dirty in the circuitry and puppetry of “Jigsaw”—his level of commitment, giving over his job and one room in his home to two felt-covered characters—is what makes for a great show. Although CC is happy to point you to a few episodes (Season 2’s “Strike” series and “24”-ish finale are spectacular, along with “Allegories,” from Season 1), he’d rather you do as Jones did and let the robots take over. With luck, there will be a new “Jigsaw” episode each Thursday, according to Jones.

Taking the cakes

Cakes’n’ale theatre member and playwright Robert Wray just returned to town from New York City, where he competed in the third annual “Theater Slam” hosted by a performance space called The Tank. Among a dozen playwrights, Wray won first prize for his play, Players, Farewell, which means he’ll return to New York in a few months to stage a production of the play.

In the meantime, Wray tells CC that the next cakes’n’ale production—a cultural mash- up meditation on Alice in Wonderland called Looking Glass Alley—opens at Four County Players on October 16 and runs through October 25, after a summer production of As You Like It by 4CP mainstay John Holdren. As usual with cakes’n’ale—and this is as usual as they get, folks—tickets will be “Pay what you can” at the door.

Got any arts news or irrational fears of robot takeover? E-mail curtain@c-ville.com. Before the robots get him.