Hipsters and Fraggles, Otters and Vampires

Published: August 30, 2012
Categories: Commentary, Feature

Jerry Nelson taught us how to count.

This is the resounding theme I’ve been reading over and over again since Jerry’s death. For all of his accomplishments – and there are so, so many; his puppeteering credits alone number in the hundreds – Jerry Nelson will most likely be remembered as the Count Von Count. Not that that’s a bad thing at all! As we here at Tough Pigs look back on Jerry’s life this week, everyone has been marveling at how wide his range was. Jerry could breathe life into the smallest characters, sometimes literally as with Robin, to some of the largest, like Thog. And while the recurring idea of Jerry never having a “major” character – your Kermits or your Fozzies, or your Elmos – the importance of a character like the Count or Gobo Fraggle is not something to be taken lightly.

Jerry had been performing background characters and right-handing on Sesame Street for about two years when, in 1972, writer Norman Stiles told him about a character he was developing. The Count was a vampire, but not the blood-sucking kind. As his name implied, he was a number-obsessed vampire. While he contributed many characters, including Sherlock Hemlock, The Amazing Mumford, and his own monster, Herry, Nelson was especially enthused about the idea and the chance to have a more central character. He approached Jim Henson and told his how much he wanted to perform the new Muppet. “Let me hear what you’ve got for him,” Jim said. And in his best Bela Lugosi impression, Jerry said, “Yes, I vould love to do it!” 40 years later, the Count Von Count will still be heard as voiced by Jerry in Sesame Street’s newest season premiering this fall.

The Count Von Count really did live up to his name, and in all of his years on Sesame Street, he’s still only employed most often when numbers are involved. In recent years, when Matt Vogel took over the puppeteering of the Count as his health declined and it became harder for him to do, Jerry was still dedicated to the character. He would show up every time a Count scene was filmed so that Vogel could puppeteer to his vocal performance live. Everyone knew how much of Jerry was in the Count and the importance of him being there was not lost on the cast and crew. Eventually, as with many of Jerry’s characters, Matt will most likely take over the role completely. But just as he’s done with Lew Zealand, Floyd, and Robin, among others, he will put as much of Jerry into the Count as possible, out of the immense respect he has for him.

When it came time to start production on The Muppet Show, Jerry made the tough call to spend more time with his daughter, Christine, who had been battling cystic fibrosis her entire life. Because of this decision, Jerry didn’t have any “main” characters for the show. But luckily for everyone, because of his wide range, Jerry was an adept character actor who could bring a new direction to every one-shot and background Muppet he performed. We have more on some of those characters here but as I’m talking here about characters in the forefront, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Sgt. Floyd Pepper. Floyd is easily Jerry’s most significant character from the main Muppet troupe and he always struck me as the real standout of the Electric Mayhem. Think about it: How many backstage stories involved Dr. Teeth? Or Zoot, for that matter? Henson and the writers appreciated Jerry’s abilities and wanted to bring him to the forefront as much as they possibly could. Floyd’s cool persona and his hip commentaries on whatever was happening added a new level to the show and helped define it in those early days. Though he never had as big a role on the show as he did in one of the pilot specials, The Muppets: Sex and Violence, Floyd was essential to making the Muppets what they are known for today. Sly wit is never missing from a Muppet production, and Floyd helped to keep too big egos from getting in anyone’s way.

As The Muppet Show was just getting off the ground, the Muppet team was working on a movie for HBO, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, with Nelson in the titular role. Jerry got to show off his puppetry skills in ways that some other productions didn’t utilize, a healthy combination of hand puppetry and marionettes, something Jerry perfected in his early days with Bil Baird. But for my money, the best part of this role was the many songs he sang as Emmet. “When the River Meets the Sea” is still one of my favorite showcases of Jerry’s amazing voice. While not widely known, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas is one of the most heartfelt tales to come from the Muppets and Jerry’s contributions to this tale from Frogtown Hollow are immeasurable.

When Jerry originally auditioned for Fraggle Rock, he wanted to play Wembley. But Jim saw something more in him and envisioned Jerry as the leader of Fraggle Rock, both on and off-camera. As Gobo, Jerry was finally in the starring role, and it’s no coincidence that he stepped up for the show whose goal was to promote world peace. Jerry was a giving performer, even when he was doing one-shot characters. He helped everyone he was in a scene with to take it to the next level, always elevating a performance to the best it could be. He worked hard to make the product work as a whole on every level, not only as Gobo but also as Majory the Trash Heap, Pa Gorg, the Architect Doozer, and several others. The world of Fraggle Rock came together in no small part thanks to Jerry, and that speaks to the ideals of the show. Every person matters and we all affect change and goodness in the world.

The other major character Nelson performed for The Muppet Show, Kermit’s nephew Robin, was that still, small voice the Muppets needed, even if they didn’t realize it. He was the innocent, the wide-eyed, the seemingly insignificant. But he believed in himself, and he inspired others to believe in him, too. And that’s how I like to remember Jerry; helping us along to believe in ourselves, even if our efforts are relatively unnoticed. Sometimes we’re the supporting part in the background helping to shine the light on a certain story’s main character, and sometimes we’re the lead pushing a story forward and showing everyone how good we can all be. But no matter what, we’re all important in contributing to the harmony of the world.

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by Matt Wilkie

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