Wednesday, December 21, 2011

It’s Elmo’s World—And That’s Fine By Me

Documentary Review: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey directed by Constance Marks
How does a puppet (and for that matter, a puppeteer) get to be a superstar? The same way you get to Carnegie Hall, according to the old joke. You PRACTICE. And Being Elmo makes it plain no one belongs on Sesame Street more than Kevin Clash, and he got there through talent, hard work, perseverance, and a willingness to confront his own natural shyness. Being Elmo takes us from Clash’s humble, “wrong side of Baltimore” life, growing up on the banks of a polluted run-off of the Cheapeake Bay to the happiest street in the world. It’s a coming home of sorts; a journey that began for Kevin even before Jim Henson created Sesame Street back in 1969.

Director Constance Marks (seen at right between Kevin Clash and Elmo) has done a thorough job of telling Kevin’s story. A young fan of Captain Kangaroo, Kevin was already making puppets when he watched the premiere episode of Sesame Street. He recalls a moment from episode one when puppet Bert looked right into the camera lens to greet their special guest, the viewer at home. It’s a wonderful “click” moment for Kevin. I also loved the anecdote where youngster Kevin made a puppet from a furry coat he spied hanging in his parent’s closet. I remember listening to Jim Henson talk about making Kermit the Frog from his mother’s old coat. I always wondered if Henson’s mom had worn a pink coat, might his original sidekick have been Kermit the Pig?

To Kevin Clash’s great luck, it does seem that his talents were recognized and nurtured from the very beginning by his parents, and then, while still in high school, by Baltimore local television. Clash moved to New York City right after high school for a job with Captain Kangaroo and by age twenty-five was working with Henson on the film Labyrinth and then made the easy hop to Sesame Street.

And it’s there that Kevin gets the chance to become Elmo. By which I mean Kevin wasn’t the first puppeteer to “have a hand in” the furry red monster. Elmo was voiced by Caroll Spinney in the early 1970s, Brian Muehl from 1979 to 1981, and by Richard Hunt from 1981 to 1984. Frustrated with negative feedback he was getting on his work with Elmo, Hunt literally tossed the puppet to Kevin Clash in the puppeteers’ break room (that must be a fun place) and the rest, dear reader, is history. Clash shares his feelings about the essence of Elmo. The legendary Frank Oz had told Kevin that every great character needs a “hook,” a characteristic that sets him apart and defines him. Oz created the idea of Fozzie Bear having the soul of a vaudevillian, and of Miss Piggy being a truck driver in disguise. Kevin decided that Elmo would be all about love. He’s the puppet who wants to give the world a hug and a kiss (and often does). Cue avalanche of Elmo merchandise leading to the insanely popular “Tickle Me Elmo” doll and you have more than a superstar; you have a legitimate cultural icon.

Being Elmo would be a great choice for your child’s first documentary experience. Any child who’s too old for Sesame Street but has fond memories of Elmo will be entertained by this film. Or just treat yourself to this wonderful documentary. Clash’s personal story is more fun and inspiring than most fiction. And director Constance Marks deftly combines new and archival footage to make a complete meal. Though I must say, some older video footage looks just terrible by today’s standards. Many people don’t know that videotape degrades very rapidly, and this only amplifies the technological differences between then and now. Even some relatively recent footage of Rosie O’Donnell from the “Tickle Me Elmo” era seems oddly contrast-y and blown out. And Clash’s personal life, like his failed marriage, is merely a footnote to his professional life.

All told, it’s satisfying to see someone in precisely the right job, in exactly the right place, at that familiar address of 123 Sesame Street. It makes everything seem possible and attainable. It’s fun to see Kevin Clash mentoring the next batch of young puppeteers. Though it may not seem an apt parallel, I’m nonetheless reminded of a stirring scene from David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. General Allenby tells Lawrence, “Not many people have a destiny. It’s a terrible thing for a man to flunk it if he has.” Being Elmo suggests that Kevin Clash was destined for this life. And good thing for us that it all worked out.

Kevin Clash wrote a book (with Gary Brozek) in 2006 about his life with Elmo, My Life as a Furry Red Monster, that’s worth a look. And you can find out if Being Elmo will be shown in your area at their website.


  1. Nice review! I heard Clash interviewed on Fresh Air and I enjoyed his anecdote about first seeing Tickle Me Elmo, specifically that the name was wrong: Elmo never says "me." : )

  2. He mentions that in the documentary, too. Clash said it should have been called, "Tickle Elmo."

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