DOC NYC 2023 Review: “Shari and Lamb Chop” Celebrates a Puppeteer Who Didn’t Always Have the Upper Hand

“Shari and Lamb Chop” doesn’t have the traditional arc of a showbiz biography and yet it tells a story that will ring true to many in the field, or in any professional field for that matter when Lisa D’Apolito presents an entertainer so dedicated to her craft in the multitalented Shari Lewis that there wasn’t much outside of it. It would be easy to conclude as the film suggests early on that Lewis had a unique outlet professionally for what stirred inside her personally when she became a famed ventriloquist with her most famous character, sharing equal billing in the title, able to act as her id. But D’Apolito shows how Lewis could be controlled more by the puppet than having control over it once it became a beloved part of her act, initially an accidental discovery on the set of Captain Kangaroo when the crew was concerned with the bulky dummies she carried around and she simply slipped a sock onto her hand and gave it a voice. However, little else in Lewis’ life happened by accident, born to a magician and a music teacher that made her fate all but predestined and having neither resistance from her parents from pursuing a career in showbiz nor from the industry itself where she was quick to become a draw on the burgeoning medium of television, “Shari and Lamb Chop” can’t follow the same struggle-filled script that most tales of attaining fame and fortune do, an intriguingly, it leads D’Apolito to identify a different set of hardships.

One can’t say that anything came easy to Lewis, who is seen training mercilessly not only to be a ventriloquist, but additionally a dancer and a magician when coming from a vaudevillian lineage where one could do it all, yet in what becomes a fascinating stealth history of popular entertainment in the 20th century, those skills were exploited to unhealthy degrees, having to put on a live show for millions with 10-12 songs and tailor-made commercials with jingles composed week in and week out, filling air time for networks that had no clue yet what would work for audiences. You can marvel at Lewis’ stamina and creativity – as modern Sesame Street muppeteer Megan Piphus Peace notes, she would often engage in three-way conversations with puppets on each hand, raising the degree of difficulty even further – but with daughter Mallory Lewis around as a primary voice, it is also clear the toll such devotion took on her life off-screen and the disillusionment she felt when she was forced off-air by the advent of Saturday morning cartoons.

Although Lewis had a triumphant third act, returning to children’s television with shows on PBS, “Shari and Lamb Chop” may be most fascinating during her time being lost in the desert, finding work at county fairs and telethons and never giving anything less than 100% when she wouldn’t know how. While the vicissitudes of changing tastes are timeless, D’Apolito finds Lewis to be a compelling guide through an entirely different era of entertainment than we’re in now, with Lewis bouncing around from one variety show to another to prove herself to the public and eventually taking Lamb Chop to “Playboy After Dark” and starting a salty Vegas lounge act in a bid for relevancy. Surely this was made harder by being a woman in a world run by men, but the film considers that an issue as much as Lewis probably did, and draws insight quite a bit from programs that seem equally unthinkable nowadays when Lewis also made the rounds on serious talk shows where she’d speak candidly about her professional travails as well as her personal ones. The point is made early on that Lewis paved the way for Fred Rogers and other beloved children’s entertainers, but you come to admire her for going first in so many other ways and ultimately forging a bridge between generations, connecting one era of entertainment to another and eventually, reconciling young and old when her work could speak to so many. Now that her daughter regularly performs as Lamb Chop, “Shari and Lamb Chop” shows how her voice carries on, but also what makes it so resonant to begin with.

“Shari and Lamb Chop” will screen again at DOC NYC on November 14th at 3:45 pm at the IFC Center and will be available to stream through the DOC NYC online platform from November 12th through 26th.

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