Premature Climax In Happytime Murders Lawsuit
On last week’s podcast (Episode 148), we discussed the redband trailer for HAPPYTIME MURDERS, directed by Jim Henson’s son Brian. The film essentially depicts an R-rated story in something of a Who Framed Roger Rabbit-style universe where humans live alongside puppets. The trailer, among other things, features an extended puppet ejaculation scene and the tagline “No Sesame. All Street.”
Sesame Workshop, the producers of the SESAME STREET television show, took immediate legal action, suing STX, the production company behind HAPPYTIME MURDERS. The non-profit educational organization, who ironically sold broadcasting rights to the same channel that airs Game of Thrones, filed a complaint on May 24th to prevent STX from “use of the phrase ‘NO SESAME. ALL STREET.’ in connection with their marketing of the film.”
Less than a week later, it’s all over (mostly). Because marketing campaigns have a naturally short lifespan, Sesame applied for a temporary restraining order which requires the court to evaluate whether it is “likely to succeed” if the case proceeds all the way through trial. Judge Vernon Broderick of the Southern District of New York issued an accelerated briefing schedule and a hearing on May 30.
According to a report from the NY Daily News, Broderick denied the TRO in a ruling from the bench. A written opinion is almost certain to follow, but according to those in attendance, the judge disagreed with Sesame’s allegations. For their part, Sesame Workshop confirmed that their sole concern was the tagline, and nothing else about the movie. Their attorney even
demonstrated why she doesn’t work in marketing offered up her own lame alternate taglines, like: “Naughty Puppets,” “Bad Puppets,” “Puppets After Dark” and “Puppets Get Freaky.”
A 1996 law permits owners of famous trademarks to prevent “use … that is likely to cause … dilution by tarnishment” regardless of whether anyone would be confused. For example, the design on this T-Shirt was the subject of litigation in the seventies on a similar theory. In the case of HAPPYTIME MURDERS, however, Judge Broderick noted how the tagline actually distinguishes the film from the Sesame Street brand. He referred to the “No Sesame” aspect of the tagline as a “humorous, pithy way” of communicating to the audience that the film was not, in fact, Sesame Street. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how someone could read “No Sesame” and think “Yes. Sesame!”
STX has, of course, released a statement through their own lawyer. Naturally, he’s a puppet named Fred, Esq. Numerous media outlets are reporting Fred’s comments: “We fluffing love Sesame Street and we’re obviously very pleased that the ruling reinforced what STX’s intention was from the very beginning — to honor the heritage of The Jim Henson Company’s previous award-winning creations while drawing a clear distinction between any Muppets or Sesame Street characters and the new world Brian Henson and team created.”
While this lawsuit never threatened the actual release of the film, the swift and decisive ruling bodes well for creators looking to capitalize on their own pithy catchphrases.