‘Being Elmo’: The Man Behind the Muppet
Chances are you’ve heard Kevin Clash many, many times and don’t even realize it. He is everywhere. You’ve heard his voice on TV, and if you have children you’ve heard it coming from one of their toys, one of the most popular ever, over and over and over again. You’ve tickled him.
Clash is Elmo.
Clash began making puppets at age 10 and performed in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor as a teenager. He came to Sesame Street after attracting the attention of Muppet designer Kermit Love and became an official puppeteer on the show in 1984. He’s won nine Emmy Awards for his skills and now serves as Sesame Street’s “Muppet captain” and co-executive producer.
A new documentary, “Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey,” follows Clash’s life story, from when he dreamed of working with his idol, Jim Henson, to how he finds a home on Sesame Street.
Art Beat spoke with Clash about his passion for being a puppeteer and about his alter ego, Elmo.
ART BEAT: How did the character of Elmo develop?
KEVIN CLASH: David Korr, a writer for Sesame Street, started writing the character into some of his scripts. There were several puppeteers before me who did a few sketches of Elmo. Brian Muehl, who performed him first, had this little whisperer voice and then he left. Then he was given to Richard Hunt, who took it on. So Elmo wasn’t one defined character to the audience, because these various puppeteers were picking him up. When I took over Elmo’s character, I decided to use falsetto to make the voice and it just stuck.
A lot of the characters on Sesame Street were designed to have, I shouldn’t say addictions, but obsessions. Like Telly, when he first was introduced to the show, he was obsessed with watching TV. That’s why his name was Telly. Oscar is obsessed with trash, Cookie is obsessed with cookies, the Count is obsessed with counting. And Elmo is a little 3.5-year-old who is obsessed with life and learning through games and asking questions. One of the reasons why they wanted to put Elmo more on the show was because the audience was getting younger, and they needed a character that could relate to the younger audience.
ART BEAT: Jim Henson created such a unique and magical world with these Muppets. What was it like for you entering into that world and helping to shape it?
KEVIN CLASH: Jim Henson was, of course, a genius. The simplicity of the design of the Sesame Street characters is wonderful and so smart. It leads the child to use their imagination of what they want that character to be to them. We don’t play down to any child. Not one of the characters on Sesame Street plays down to children. Each is a personality. When you sit down and you talk to Marty Robinson, who performs Snuffy and Telly, and Carol Spinney, who performs Oscar and Big Bird, they come from somewhere in us or someone we’ve grown up with or known, and that’s where these characters are coming from. It’s really coming from everyday life, people, so we don’t think of Sesame Street as a children’s program. We are performers and we want to crack each other up, and in doing so we do the same for the audience.
We have wonderful writers and wonderful research people who write in what needs to be taught, but we are entertainers and so that’s what we try to do. People say to us all the time, ‘Well, how much is scripted and how much is ad lib?’ The scripted part is there and we don’t play with that because that’s what teaches, but we play off of that and play off of each others’ personality. That what makes a well-rounded character. I would say 80 percent is the script and 20 percent is us playing around.
ART BEAT: When you’re not in character and you see Elmo, whether it’s a picture on the streets or on TV, what’s that like?
KEVIN CLASH: It is so special. It’s so neat to have a character that is a household name at this point. I’ll be walking down the street and a child is running and holding onto a Elmo or you see someone walk past with an Elmo t-shirt on. That is such a cool feeling to know that you are part of something that’s connected to everybody in such a positive way and that people love so much. And it’s universal. I travel all over the world and it’s amazing because it’s everywhere.
ART BEAT: Your passion for being a puppeteer is so apparent in the documentary. What does it take to become a successful puppeteer?
KEVIN CLASH: The film really is, as the title says, a puppeteer’s journey. It’s not just my journey, but it’s all of us who are performers. We all had this passion and this eagerness to get there, to get to work with Jim Henson and the Muppets. It’s everybody’s journey who’s aspired to become a puppeteer.
To be a successful puppeteer you really have to believe in what you’re doing. I was so shy growing up and when I first met and started working with Jim. You are working with the master, so I was extremely intimidated. And I had to get away from that and start to show what I could do. Once you do that and if you have the potential, you can get there. But it’s definitely step-by-step that you take. And it’s really about confidence at a certain point.
ART BEAT: What is it about Elmo that people love so much?
KEVIN CLASH: I think it’s the positiveness of him. I think everybody wants to be loved and love 24/7 and laugh 24/7. Elmo gets to that. They want to gravitate to that. As performers, we are very, very observant of the body language of people, because we have to assimilate that into our work. I find when having a conversation with someone or watching someone that everybody still has a child in them.
When you look across the table and somebody is enthralled or in what they are doing or talking with someone about, That’s what children do. That’s the innocence and the purity that comes from the joy of whatever they are talking about or the humor of whatever they are talking about. It’s so genuine. It’s wonderful for us to still have that and be able to see that, because that’s what keeps us going in a lot of ways. We have so much of the adults to deal with and if we go back to that, a lot more our lives would be so much better.