Growing Up With Sesame Street
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Generations of children have grown up watching and learning from "Sesame Street." The furry red monster, Elmo, and his friend Kevin Clash join Maureen Cavanaugh in studio and talk about what it's like to live on "Sesame Street" and the love children have for Elmo and the other Muppets.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Sesame Street is celebrating its 40th anniversary on Public Television this year. Adults who've grown up with Big Bird and Cookie Monster have now watched their children fall in love with the same characters. As Sesame Street Muppets go, the red, furry, monster named Elmo is not the oldest or the youngest or the biggest but to many kids he is the most loveable character of all. And the man behind Elmo says being the focus of that kind of magical, unconditional love has taught him lessons about life and about laughing out loud. It’s my pleasure to welcome Sesame Street Muppeteer Kevin Clash. Kevin is the author of the book, “My Life as a Furry Red Monster.” And, Kevin, welcome to These Days.
KEVIN CLASH (Muppeteer): Oh, thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Later in our conversation Elmo himself will be joining us. In fact, he just laughed at what I said a little minute ago but…
ELMO (Muppet): Her’s funny.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Elmo.
CLASH: Okay, I’m ready. Here we go.
CAVANAUGH: Kevin, you have been the puppeteer for Elmo for 25 years. And – But you’ve been connected to Sesame Street since 1979. What is it about this show that has such staying power, do you think?
CLASH: I think it’s the humanity of the show. I think it really connects to every child, every parent, every adult, you know, every grandchild, I mean, grandparent. It hits all the levels of us, which is great. And the show has always worked on two different levels, for the kids and for the adults.
CAVANAUGH: You know, on Sesame Street it seems like people go there and become characters and stay there for a long, long time.
CLASH: Oh, yeah. Yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the commitment that you and the people you work with have to the mission of Sesame Street.
CLASH: Well, I think, you know, we stay there because it’s, well, you know, it’s our occupation but also it’s a great place to work. It’s – We always used to call it a street within a street, and when you go there you’ll know what we’re talking about. Also, I mean, you know, the directors, the cameramen have been there from the beginning. You know, Frankie Biondo, who started camerawork the second season, he’s still there and he’s our cheerleader. He does the tee shirts every year for us and he goes out to the different hospitals and gives toys out to kids and stuff. Everybody is committed to the show because they see what it’s done. I mean, to be on for 40 years. Granted, I haven’t been there for all those 40 years…
CLASH: …but I’ve been there for over 25. You really, you know, you – I’ve traveled all around the world, I’ve met everybody that, you know – every year I’m going somewhere, and I meet so many people and children that just, you know, love the show. And they – It’s become like an household name and it’s just been amazing. I never thought that this would ever happen. You know, I mean, I started building puppets when I was ten years old and from there, you know, started doing local television and, of course, my dream was to be on Sesame Street and my dream came true. And never in a million years would I have ever thought that this would ever happen. And I think none of us ever thought that this show would be on that long or hit so many people around the world.
CAVANAUGH: Kevin Clash, tell us a little bit more about your beginnings because I know in your book “My Life as a Furry Red Monster,” you talk about putting on puppet shows and sort of like having the puppets sing Earth, Wind & Fire songs.
CLASH: Oh, sure.
CAVANAUGH: And that was a big hit.
CLASH: It was interesting because, you know, it was kind of a mirror image of what I was going to be doing on Sesame Street. I mean, you know, I would watch what was popular, you know, Earth, Wind & Fire, you know, certain dance moves, the Bump. The Robot was out then, and so I had the puppets doing that. Certain commercials that were on. I remember one of the commercials that was really popular, I made a mummy and the mummy would climb up and sing “I am stuck on Bandaids because Bandaids stuck on me.”
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I remember that, yeah.
CLASH: You know, the Helen Reddy song I did, which was “You and Me Against the World,” and I had a skunk mom and a skunk little boy that sang the song. So everything was kind of topical, you know, what was happening in my life when I was growing up with watching TV or certain music. And then when I got on Sesame Street, they do the same thing. They, you know, we – we, instead of Desperate Housewives, we have Desperate Houseplants, and we did a whole – What was it called? Law & Order type show that actually Dick Wolfe saw and just thought it was the most funniest thing that he’s ever seen. So we keep it as topical – you know, same thing with music. I mean, not only do we parody music but we have, you know, well known singers, you know, musical artists on the show like, you know, Alicia Keys and, you know, Beyonce and stuff like that.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, what is the difference between being a puppeteer and a Muppeteer. Is there any difference?
CLASH: No, it’s – The difference is, is that Jim came up with the name Muppet.
CLASH: And so we’re Muppeteers, you know…
CAVANAUGH: Jim Henson.
CLASH: …in respect to Jim Henson, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah, and tell us…
CLASH: And his…
CLASH: Where the name came from, it was a combination of marionette and puppet.
CAVANAUGH: I see.
CLASH: And so that’s where Muppet came from because back in the day when they first started, they did a lot of marionette work and I think that’s where that came also, from Jim – Frank Oz’s background with his family and puppeteering, they did marionette work and stuff like that, so that combination came, you know, together.
CAVANAUGH: Now being associated with the Muppets was like the culmination of a big dream of yours, wasn’t it?
CLASH: Oh, sure. I remember when I first met Jim, I was maybe 18. Kermit Love, who was this wonderful designer of costumes for ballet—he worked with George Balanchine—and Jim hired him to help him create these characters and he helped create Big Bird and Snuffy, and Kermit asked me would I be interested in actually doing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. They needed more puppeteers because that year they had the Muppets – the movie was being premiered. And so they had the bus from the movie and so a lot of the main performers like Jim and – they were performing the characters on that, so they needed more puppeteers for the Sesame Street float, so I got to do the float. And that was the first place that I met Jim. After the parade, you go into Macy’s and you have a big – a big meal with all the celebrities and stuff like that. So I got to meet him across a crowded room, you know, and actually he asked me to stay up, could I stay up in New York for a couple of days and he wanted to see some other things that I had done. And I actually had to say no because I had two local television shows that I was doing back in Baltimore. And Kermit was there and Kermit was actually the one who said no because I couldn’t say it. Kermit said, you know, listen, he has to go back and do… Okay, well, you know, we’ll – he’ll see me again. But that’s the first time I met Jim.
CAVANAUGH: Now people are not familiar with the Muppet world, we’re not talking about Kermit the Frog.
CLASH: No, no. I didn’t meet Kermit.
CLASH: No, Jim Henson, who created the Muppets, and one of his main characters is Kermit the Frog.
CAVANAUGH: Now let me just ask you because I think the story about the way you and Elmo got together is really amazing. The idea that Elmo was just sort of not formed and somebody kind of tossed him to you.
CAVANAUGH: And said what?
CLASH: Well, it was interesting. They – the workshop was – is always building characters, back then anyway. And they built this little red monster to be with the ensemble of monsters that they had at the time. And what happened is, one of the writers back then, David Koor, saw the little red monster and said, this is a really cool looking puppet. So he started writing for it in his scripts.
CLASH: And so they had to find a puppeteer for it, so back then Brian Newell, who actually originated Telly Monster and Barclay, wonderful characters, very, very funny performer and actor, he started performing Elmo for the first time and had a little whispery voice. It was really cute. And he left to pursue his acting and writing career. Richard Hunt, who is one of Jim’s main, principle performers, who did everything with Jim at the, you know, the all of the – anything that had to do with the puppets, he did. Richard was kind of our – we called him Big Brother. He took care of the younger puppeteers, the up and coming puppeteers on the show. And he took over doing – performing Elmo, and he hated it. He didn’t like it. It wasn’t his type of character. He doesn’t like young type characters and stuff. So I, luckily, I was the only one in the Muppet room. It was our lounge and all the Muppeteers would hang out in. And he threw this puppet to me and said come up with the voice. I come up with a voice for it and I came up with the falsetto voices. And he took me in to the producer of the show at the time, Lisa Simon, her name was, and he said, listen, you know, I really don’t want to do this puppet. It doesn’t really work for me. Kevin came up with a voice. And she said, okay, fine, I don’t – it’s fine with me. And that’s how I got the character.
CAVANAUGH: And did it feel right, right from the very…
CLASH: No, no, no, no.
CLASH: I – Listen, I felt – Jim – I mean, Richard was our big brother, he was the one who we looked up to. Jim and Frank was not normally around because they were trying to, you know, develop other – and at the time they were developing The Muppet Show. So Richard Hunt and Jerry Nelson was the, you know, our, you know, they were the ones that the younger puppeteers looked up to. And so I felt if Richard couldn’t do anything with it, what was I going to do? So what I did was I went home and hung out with my mom, she was a daycare mother at the time, and just watched the kids that she, you know, was babysitting at the time and picked up on this one kid called Ryan that was hysterical. And I went in the next season and I had – I remember the script. It was this wonderful little script that Elmo was imagining going on a trip, and he was at the Fix-it Shop and Emilio Delgado, who plays Luis, asked him, well, where are you going, Elmo? And Elmo was explaining, and throughout it Elmo was actually packing, you know, his imaginary suitcase and stuff. And the camera guy started laughing. And once you get the first laugh, you feel as though – you feel – you’re more confident at that point that you’re doing something right. And that’s what happened, and ever since – After that, what they normally do at the end of the season is the producers and the writers will get together and look at certain pieces from that season that worked. And one was me performing as Little Red Monster and they liked it and that’s how they started writing for it. And then they went – we went out to research, took it out to the schools to see if the kids liked the character. They loved the character, they thought it was really funny. But also they find out if they are learning from the character, and they found out that they were learning from the character also. And then the next step, of course, was toys.
CAVANAUGH: And so did Elmo learn the laugh from Ryan?
CLASH: No, it was really – it was really interesting. I think the laugh just came from just doing the character.
CLASH: You know, that’s what tends to happen and when you sit down and talk with Frank, you know, the moi thing came from just looking at Miss Piggy and the attitude that she should have. The wacka-wacka was something that he came up with because he was a comedian, he was vaudeville, so it was always something that you would catch, there would be some type of catch phrase.
CLASH: But I don’t think it’s something that you think about, it’s just something that happens and then you say, oh, that could be the signature. And that’s what happened with Elmo’s laugh. You know, I love, we all love, hearing a child’s laugh. It’s the best, natural, sweetest thing you ever want to hear because it’s – you can’t fake it. And that’s the thing that’s really important when you’re – You know, when I’m doing the voice, I make – you know, when I laugh, it’s genuine, you know, with him.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Kevin Clash and he is the man behind Elmo, the Sesame Street Muppet. And he’s also written a book “My Life as a Furry Red Monster.” And I think you’re being, you know, really rather modest when you say that Elmo caught on. He is kind of the most famous Muppet now, the most beloved I think some people say. You describe something in your book that I think is really sort of interesting about how some children approach Elmo in a full-on Elmo love attack.
CLASH: Oh, my God, yes, it’s…
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about that.
CLASH: It’s wonderful. I was in – Shoot, I forget where I was at. I was just doing an appearance. I think it was Kansas City. And this was before the show and this mom had a little baby, walking, all it had was a diaper on. And I’d brought out Elmo to do a little meet and greet for the little child. And the child came up and grabbed Elmo off my arm and proceeded to go over to mommy, got on mommy’s lap and was rocking the puppet.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, my.
CLASH: I mean, they don’t know who – they don’t care who I am. That’s their friend. So she wanted the – she wanted Elmo and so she took it off my arm and went and just was rocking it over by mommy. It was really sweet. It’s wonderful. You know, it’s interesting, I’ve – Over so many years of performing, you know, people still feel as though, oh, you know, if I bring my child or, you know, I don’t want them to see the puppeteer because it’ll break the illusion. You know, that has nothing – It’s funny how the – it really has nothing to do with us; it has to do with the believability that the child has. And even, I mean, I could – You know, you’ll see today, you know, with any of your colleagues here, when I put Elmo on, you have – you’ll stop yourself as an adult and say, wait a minute, I’m having a conversation with… But it’s still, you come back to that child’s imagination even as an adult and want to have a conversation with these characters because they mean something to you. You grew up watching them. And so it – that’s what happens with children, they come in, they never look at me. They don’t care. They see me as – I’m holding up their friend or I’m carrying their friend to bring, you know, to bring them to talk to each other, and that’s the way it is. I do that – I say that to celebrities. I remember Mel Gibson coming in and he said, you know, to the producers and everything, he was going to bring his kids in and, you know, he got there and I said, well, where’s your kids, and he said, oh, I didn’t want to… And I said, oh, man, you missed out on a great opportunity for your kids…
CLASH: …because it’s the best. They don’t look at us.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I guess the question is can we talk to Elmo now?
CAVANAUGH: Hello, Elmo.
ELMO: Hi, how are you?
CAVANAUGH: I’m really well today. I’m very glad you could come in.
ELMO: Elmo’s so happy because the weather’s so beautiful outside.
CAVANAUGH: I’m sorry it rained for you yesterday.
ELMO: Oh, that’s okay. Elmo got to do some fun stuff inside, too.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, very good. Now, I’m – Since you’re here, and I’ve never been to Sesame Street, can you tell me…
ELMO: You should come.
CAVANAUGH: I would love to. Can you tell me…
ELMO: You have a open invitation.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you. Can you tell me a little bit about Sesame Street and what you like about it?
ELMO: Oh, Elmo loves everything about Sesame Street.
CAVANAUGH: Do you get lots of fan mail, Elmo?
ELMO: Elmo gets letters from his friends, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah.
ELMO: And Elmo writes all of them back, too.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. Now what’s the best part of living on Sesame Street? Is it just everything? Or do you like one thing more than another?
ELMO: Well, Elmo loves how everybody gets along.
ELMO: And we get to sing songs and play games and stuff.
CAVANAUGH: I hear you sing songs. You have a wonderful voice.
ELMO: Oh, really?
ELMO: Elmo never thought about that.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, you should, it’s lovely. I – Lots of people sing along.
ELMO: What’s your name?
CAVANAUGH: My name’s Maureen.
ELMO: I – Miss Maureen?
ELMO: What two things do you love?
CAVANAUGH: I love San Diego…
CAVANAUGH: …and I love my family.
ELMO: Okay. La-la-la-la, la-la-la-la, Maureen’s world. La-la-la-la, la-la-la-la, Maureen’s world. You love San Diego and your families, too. That’s Maureen’s world.
ELMO: See what Elmo did?
CAVANAUGH: That’s great. You personalized it just for me.
ELMO: Yes. Now, Elmo doesn’t want to see it on eBay.
CAVANAUGH: I’ll keep it off eBay, I promise.
ELMO: Okay, good.
CAVANAUGH: Now, do you – Famous folks come to Sesame Street to visit you, huh?
ELMO: Oh, yeah, good friends.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, good friends. Do you remember any of the people who came by?
ELMO: Oh, Kobe Bryant.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, wow.
ELMO: And Eva Longoria.
CAVANAUGH: Wow. And so what – Do they bring you any presents when they come? Or…
ELMO: No, we get to sing and we get to spend time together. And that’s the most important thing. Elmo loves that.
CAVANAUGH: Elmo, who is your best friend?
ELMO: Elmo’s best friend is Dorothy, Elmo’s pet goldfish.
CAVANAUGH: Dorothy has the best imagination.
ELMO: She is the smartest person, well, other than Mommy and Daddy, in the whole world.
CAVANAUGH: And she imagines you all over the world, even on the moon sometimes.
CAVANAUGH: I saw you dancing on the moon.
ELMO: Yeah, it was cool.
CAVANAUGH: What do you do for fun, Elmo?
ELMO: Everything. That’s Elmo’s motivation: Do everything for fun.
CAVANAUGH: And does that get you ahead in life, Elmo?
ELMO: Well, Elmo doesn’t know about that because Elmo’s still three and half. But Elmo hopes so because Elmo sees that that’s the best way to be.
CAVANAUGH: I want to talk to Kevin again for a minute, can I do…?
ELMO: No, sir.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, no. No, no.
ELMO: No, you have to pay money now. Just kidding.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for that. I can…
CLASH: No problem.
CAVANAUGH: I can see why Elmo is just so…
CLASH: Well, you know, what’s wonderful is…
CLASH: …when celebrities come on the set…
CLASH: …you know you know it’s going to happen with kids. You know, the kids’ll go crazy. They want to go to Hooper’s, they want to go to Big Bird’s nest, they want to go to the steps. But it’s interesting, I kept catching Paul Rudd, who just did the show, and he – you would see him stop and look and you could literally see him turn into a five-year-old…
CLASH: …through his eyes. And I would say, Paul, and he would say, oh. Oh, you caught me again. But that’s what – that’s the feel that, you know, you have, you know, because, you know, a lot of these – you know, we were talking about the Obamas. You know, they grew up watching the show.
CLASH: It’s the first president that grew up watching the show…
CLASH: …and First Lady. And, matter of fact, it was wonderful. Caroll Spinney just turned 75 and Obama sent him a letter, congratulating him on turning 75 and talked about how him and his sisters would watch Sesame Street and loved Big Bird and stuff.
CAVANAUGH: Ah, that’s wonderful.
CLASH: Yeah, it was great.
CAVANAUGH: You know, in your book, Kevin, you talk about the idea of laughing out loud and how Elmo basically taught you, you know, that as adults we’re so timid about laughing and about expressing ourselves. And I wonder, does that actually enter your own personal life? Do you find yourself…
CLASH: Oh, yeah, I always find – I try to find as much, you know, in life humor-wise and I make sure that my daughter understands don’t get trapped into, you know, being too serious about too many things. You know, once you can see the lightness of it, it helps you get through certain things and stuff. And, you know, actually Frank and Jim always said, you know, don’t have a problem being silly, you know, because, you know, you’ll find, you know, you’ll find what you need to find to make these characters come a lot more alive if you know the sense of humor of them.
CAVANAUGH: Is there anyone who goes on Sesame Street and becomes a little daunted, I’m talking about celebrities now.
CLASH: Oh, yeah.
CAVANAUGH: Yeah? There are?
CLASH: I remember when Candice Bergen came in. You know, she was so used to her Murphy Brown, you know, crew and set and everything, it took her a little bit. You know, and this is someone who’s been around puppets for all her life.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah, with…
CLASH: You know, so…
CAVANAUGH: …Charlie McCarthy, her father...
CLASH: …you know, it happens.
CLASH: I remember when I worked with Julia Roberts for the first time. She had just – she was coming off a premiere of a Flatline (sic) movie she came in, you know, she’d never done television before and so it was interesting. It took her a little while to get comfortable with the whole idea, and also, you know, working with a, you know, puppet and stuff. And then she got it and she was wonderful.
CLASH: She was so much fun.
CAVANAUGH: I wonder, do you – having worked with the people that you’ve worked with for such a long period of time, you must have basically a shorthand now in how you approach different scenes and different songs and…
CLASH: Well, it’s interesting. You go in and you, you know, I mean, you know, we shoot now 26 shows, and we normally go in the end of October and finish up before Christmas. And every time we go in, you know, after being away, it’s like – it’s like we never were gone. You know, it just feels like, you know, we just went for a weekend and we came right back. No, it’s down – I mean, it’s definitely down to a science as far as how we do the show. We go in, we shoot a lot of scripts, but we go in, we sit and read the script with everybody on the floor. We then block it with the cameras, the same thing, and then we shoot it.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Sesame Street is not just seen in the United States.
CAVANAUGH: It’s seen all over the world.
CAVANAUGH: 140 countries. How many Elmos are there?
CLASH: Wow. Well, there’s – there was one in Japan, there’s one still in South Africa called Nano. Shoot, we did one in Elmo-no – Wait a minute. Elmo-noske was in Japan.
CLASH: Elmo-noske, and then we actually – We originated one in Mexico called Pepe that was an Elmo. So I would say about four different countries, we’ve – I’m in the process of maybe doing, I think, in India maybe doing one with – you know, creating an Elmo there. So, you know, they opened up for a lot of the co-productions to, if they want to, if they choose to, they could have their own Elmo or Cookie or Big Bird. Normally, when I first started doing co-production, we would design specific characters for those countries but sometime they ask for these characters, which is fine. I mean, I love hearing the characters in different voices.
CAVANAUGH: Do you work with them to train…
CLASH: Yeah, because, I mean, I would love – man, I would love to be able to say I do about, you know, 10 different languages but, no. I think it would be great but no, they – We have some wonderful voice people around the world and some wonderful puppeteers who actually, you know, do the voice in their language, too.
CAVANAUGH: Kevin, tell us some of the things that Sesame Street is doing to celebrate the 40th year of the show.
CLASH: Wow. Well, we – we did a lot. You know, there was a naming of the – of a – of the street right across from the offices. It was naming – called Sesame Street. We’ve done ev – you name it, we’ve done every single talking program and we’ve been traveling…
CAVANAUGH: I saw some people on the early morning shows and, yeah, just traveling and talking.
CLASH: And talking and just, I mean, it was wonderful. We went out and said, okay, this is happening and, boy, the press just took hold and we were, you know, all of us, the cast and the puppeteers were all over the place doing interviews and talking about the celebration of this show. Also what was wonderful is the Emmys recognized it by giving it a Lifetime Achievement Award and so that was wonderful. It’s – The feel, the energy and the emotion from the television industry, the daytime television industry, was wonderful.
CAVANAUGH: Can I talk to Elmo one more time?
CAVANAUGH: Elmo, I just want to tell you, I want to thank you so much for being here and I love you very much.
ELMO: Oh, Elmo loves you, too, and you definitely have to come to Sesame Street.
CAVANAUGH: I’m going to put it on my travel agenda right now.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Thank you.
ELMO: You’re welcome. Bye-bye.
CAVANAUGH: Bye-bye. Thank you so much. Kevin Clash, thanks for being here.
CLASH: Thank you for having me.
CAVANAUGH: Kevin Clash is a Sesame Street Muppeteer for Elmo, and author of the book “My Life as a Furry Red Monster.” You’re listening to These Days…
ELMO: …on KPBS.
(audio clip from Sesame Street of Elmo singing “Elmo’s Song”)