Jerry the Non-Muppeteer

Published: September 3, 2012
Categories: Feature, Fun Stuff

All this week, we’ve been celebrating the life of Jerry Nelson, mostly by reminiscing about his work as a puppeteer, with all of the brilliant and memorable characters he helped to create.  But as we’re discovering, there is more to Jerry Nelson than his right hand.

Today, I want to take a look at the “alternative”, “miscellaneous”, and otherwise “other” portions of Jerry’s career.  The music, the live-action, and pretty much everything that doesn’t involve a puppet.

Assuming you caught it in our “Musical World of Jerry Nelson” article, Jerry made an attempt at a career in music before teaming up with Jim Henson and his box of wiggling dolls.  The only hard evidence of this that we’ve found so far is this ’45 featuring a song sung by Jerry on each side.  That voice is unmistakeable, and although we’re extremely glad that he ended up with the Muppets, it’s nice to know that he probably would’ve had a successful career as a singer in an alternate universe.

In 1969, Jim Henson filmed an hour-long dramatic piece called The Cube, in which a man is trapped, well, in a big ol’ cube.  Jerry Nelson makes a rather odd cameo as a monk, shaved head and all, in his first on-screen appearance in a Jim Henson production (more of those to come).  One interesting tidbit about the appearance is that Jerry speaks the dialog, “All is all; is is,” which will later be spoken by Jim as Cantus the Minstrel on Fraggle Rock.  Jerry also revisited The Cube in the “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green” audio book, as he reads from a portion of the shooting script.

In the first (that I’ve found) live-action cameo by Jerry on Sesame Street, he appears as the giant floating head of a giant, terrorizing the poor reporter frog who climbed for miles straight up a vine.  It’s always interesting to me to hear one of Jerry’s deeper voices coming directly from his own mouth.

Here’s one that’s been making the rounds on the interwebs recently.  Jerry Nelson appears as “Dr. Jerry Nelson” (what a stretch!) to describe what a Muppet is to Kermit and Fozzie and the TV audience of The Vent Event, an adult-oriented ventriloquist stage show.  It’s especially entertaining to see Dr. Nelson’s unfortunate exit with the help of Sweetums.

Jerry’s face makes another appearance as the Magic Mirror in another Sesame Street Newsflash, this time to expound on the innate beauty of Kermit the Frog. As if he really needed to convince anyone.

Okay, this is a bit of a cheat, but still totally worth revisiting.  The “Muppera” singers aren’t Muppets in the same sense as Floyd or Sweetums or The Count, but parts of Jerry Nelson’s and Jim Henson’s faces.  And the song is pretty catchy too!

Jerry only made a few cameos in Muppet movies, but this one was the most memorable.  Partly due to the dry humor, and partly because it also features Jerry’s late daughter Christine.  Jerry also appeared on-screen in Muppet Treasure Island as Squire Trelawney’s butler, but that one isn’t on YouTube, so you’re just gonna have to live with it.

One of my all-time favorite Jerry Nelson appearances is his short stint as Mr. Harry Stapleton, a key demographic in The Jim Henson Hour’s ratings measurements.  Mr. Stapleton (who appears in the video below around the 10-minute mark) shows up a few times throughout the episode, “The Ratings Game”, and then Jerry (or possibly Mr. Stapleton in his day job) also appears in the John Goodman episode of Muppets Tonight as a stagehand on Roseanne.

The Jim Henson Hour‘s Lighthouse Island might be among the worst things Jim ever made (our review of it to come, one of these days), although that says more about the great stuff he produced compared to the small amount of garbage that slipped through the cracks.  However, Jerry did get the opportunity to appear as “Fred”, a hermit with a magical pearl that lets him transform into sea monsters and birds and stuff.  You can get a glimpse of what Lighthouse Island was like in the video below, and Jerry appears around the 3-minute mark.

I honestly can’t think of anything better than to get the opportunity to buy ice cream from Jerry Nelson on Sesame Street.  And that’s pretty much what happens in this clip from a 2002 episode.  Jerry later returned to the Street in a hidden gem in an episode in the 40th season, alongside some of his signature characters like Herry Monster, Mr. Johnson, and Sherlock Hemlock.

Jerry got a chance to lend his voice, alongside Whoopi Goldberg and John Lithgow, in the audio book version of “It’s Not Easy Bein’ Green“.  Jerry read several segments from the book, and even read lines as some of Jim’s characters like Dr. Teeth and Cantus.  You can hear Jerry revisit his old pal Gobo in the clip below.

One of the very best presents we could’ve received from Jerry is the release of his own album, Truro Daydreams (still available for purchase right here).  We should be so lucky to get such a personal, quality performance from any of the talented Muppet performers outside of their Disney/Sesame/Henson-owned work.  Our thanks also goes out to Paul Rudolph and the musicians who helped to make this possible.

Finally, we’re so, so grateful for Jerry’s opportunity to lend his voice to The Muppets last fall.  It’s hard enough to see a new Muppet movie without Jim, Richard, or Frank’s involvement, and hearing Jerry Nelson reprise his role as the Muppet Show announcer is more than just appropriate, it’s the perfect homage to what came before.  It’s also the perfect cap on Jerry’s career with the Muppets (also having later performed the same task in The Musical World of Jim Henson at Carnegie Hall), helping to lend his powerful voice and extraordinary talent to their big comeback.

So while we’re eternally grateful for his contributions like Floyd, Gobo, Herry, Robin, The Trash Heap, The Count, and countless others, we’re also grateful for having seen (and heard) Jerry the musician, Jerry the voice, and Jerry the human.  Thanks for being you, Jerry.

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by Joe Hennes –

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