Tough Pigs: Your work with Sesame Street now seems like you show up and do a few things every season. How does that work? Do they call you and say “We want you to be a singing mouse in ‘Elmo the Musical?'”
John Tartaglia: Sometimes it’s “Are you interested and available?” As much as I can be there, I love to be there. We’re doing a lot of parodies now, and obviously with “Elmo the Musical,” a lot of musical stuff. So it’s been a busier time with that stuff than it used to be. With “Elmo the Musical,” because musicals are another love of mine, they thought that would be a nice fit. It’s great, because Stephanie D’Abruzzo and Jen Barnhart and me, that’s our forte, so we get to bring that to the show.
I went away for a while because of Avenue Q. I couldn’t do both. But coming back — it sounds so cliché and Hallmark card-y — but it was coming home. I missed the family there and I missed friends, and now it’s nice to be there again.
TP: You’re credited as a “computer graphics puppeteer” for “Elmo’s World.” What did you perform there?
JT: We look back and that looks so archaic and ancient now, but it was back in the day when everyone was trying to figure out how you could do live performance stuff. If you remember the TV and the desk that would move, and the window shade, we had these sliders that we would move that would change the way those would move in the camera. Then it turned into sensors inside blocks of foam that we would move like puppets, and then eventually it became a little more advanced than that. I think it was me, Matt Vogel, and Jim Martin, and we would sit there with these pieces of foam with sensors inside them, and just move it.
TP: Did each puppeteer tend to do the same object?
JT: Yeah, Jim always did the “You’ve got mail” computer that would jump through, and that’s his voice. Matt would do the window shade, and I think I did the drawer. But sometimes we would rotate, like if I were right-handing for Kevin, we would switch off.
It was fun. We felt so revolutionary, like “We’re breaking new ground here!” It was a big deal. And now I look at some of the stuff we’ve done with the HDPS system and how advanced that is, it’s like, “Aww, we’re losers now.” (laughs)
JT: Yes and no. I always dreamt of that… Who doesn’t dream of someday creating their own thing? But I always thought I’d be 60 and maybe have won the lottery so I could pay for it myself. I never thought it would happen when I was 26.
I think what prepared me was that it’s a collaboration. Sesame Street is like this machine, and everyone has to contribute, and everyone’s opinions are valid, and each department has to give their all to make it the best it can be. I think that was a great lesson, but the weird thing was that I was doing the opposite of what I had trained to do, because with the exception of Sage, the old character I performed, I was onscreen as myself. On Sesame Street I was always below the camera, looking up at celebrities performing, and all of a sudden I was a human talking down to puppets.
It was like, “Now I totally get why people get thrown off by it,” because it is a little disorienting when you’re in front of a camera and you’re reading lines, but being around the amazing human performers on Sesame Street helped me get ready for that. But I just remember everyone working really hard to make it the best it could be.
TP: Is it true you still get recognized for Johnny and the Sprites?
JT: I do! And I forget, because to me it was like a wonderful chunk of time, and once you film something you kind of set it out there, and you know someone’s watching. It’s funny, the kids freak out a little bit, because they’re trying to put two and two together. But the parents are the ones who lose it. And it’s sweet, it’s really nice. I’ll be in my sweatpants and a hat, taking my laundry somewhere, and I’m like, “Oh!”
TP: “It’s that guy on TV!”
JT: Yeah, and then I worry: “Did I shave?” But it’s nice, and now kids are at an age where they grew up with it, which a) makes me feel really old, and b) is wonderful, because it’s nice to know that it was part of their childhoods. So I like to think there’s a little piece of “We did something good there.”
JT: As you know, we lost Jerry Nelson last year, which was awful. I don’t think anyone ever thought that that would be an issue again, that we would hear from the Fraggles. Then with the 30th anniversary, the opportunities came about to look at bringing Gobo back, so I auditioned, and here I am. It was very quick, and surreal. Usually with auditions, you do it, and then you have to learn to forget about it, because if you think too much about it, you get upset if you don’t get it. But I was kind of obsessively excited and nervous. And when I was told I would be performing Gobo, I was shaking. Jerry was my hero, so to have that opportunity to carry on this character was overwhelming.
TP: Did you watch a lot of Fraggle Rock to prepare?
TP: The fans noticed you doing the thing Jerry did, skipping syllables in the lip-synching.
JT: Yeah. You know, people always think that we just do voices, and a lot of people don’t understand that the voice is just one piece of the character and that the way a puppet moves and breathes is it’s soul. The way one puppeteer moves a puppet is very different from the way someone else does. And Jerry certainly had a very original style — as does Frank, as did Jim, as does David Rudman. We all have different styles — I’m a little more slick, I guess. But Jerry had this great salt-of-the-earth way of moving Gobo, and I felt like if I didn’t try to get a little bit of that, it would feel wrong. So I tried to emulate as much of that as I could in a way that felt honest.
And it’s been lovely to hear people say that. You want that transition to feel as less bumpy as possible, not just the voice but also that persona. He had great ways of moving the mouth, to make an expression that only Gobo would do, and little tilts of his head, and I tried to do as much as I could. I could never be Jerry, but trying to keep it as true to what he did as possible.
TP: Did you get much advice from the other Fraggle performers?
JT: I had a lot of support, especially from Karen Prell. Karen and I had done a few things together, and she is, like me, a huge Fraggle fan. She believes in the show so much. When she found out I was doing Gobo, she sent me this e-mail, and I was crying reading it: “I’m so happy, I’m so proud of you…”
She’s been a fountain of knowledge about where certain things came from, and how Jerry wanted Gobo to be Canadian, and have that “eh,” and “been” and “about” and all that stuff. So it’s been nice to have that support, because you want to feel like you’re doing it justice. And she’s been such a champion, which has been a huge relief. I was still nervous the first time, but having her there, kind of holding my hand, was very helpful.
JT: She’s such an encyclopedia, she knows everything. And I think she was like, “Wow! You know a lot too!” I said, “You know it because you lived it, and you were there, and you know all the background. I know it because I’m an obsessive Fraggle fan who, to this day, still loves to watch the show.” When I ended up getting Gobo, my mom said, “Oh my God, this is the perfect dream come true for you, because you get to use all your nerdy Fraggle knowledge!”
Those Facebook questions that we did were mostly improv, and Karen and I were like, “Let’s just go for it.” It was fun after each take to go, “Oh, you knew about that?” “Yeah, you knew about that?!” So now what I thought was my useless Fraggle knowledge is useful.
TP: I assume that you’ve seen that people are posting these two photos of you.
JT: I had not seen these put together, but that’s hilarious. That’s when I was a kid, my Red Fraggle doll that I gutted mercilessly into a puppet. Yeah, it’s really surreal. When I hold the puppet, I’m still like, “I’m holding Gobo!” But that was my every day as a child, just sitting there looking at my puppets. When I cut my Red Fraggle doll open, my mom was so mad at me. She said, “You destroyed it!” and I said, “No, I made it a puppet.” I think I still have that somewhere.
TP: I hope so!
JT: But now she’s half-stuffed full of foam, and like, dying. But yeah, it’s very surreal.
TP: It’s full circle.
JT: Yeah. Last year, when I sang with the Fraggles at Carnegie Hall, I said, “You’re never going to get to do this again. You’re around Fraggles for the first time ever, and probably the last time ever.” So it’s nice to get to continue on with that a little bit.
TP: I know you probably can’t talk about if there’s anything in the works, but are you hoping to do something with Gobo where maybe you have more of a narrative?
JT: I think we all hope that there’s more Fraggle stuff. What’s nice is the way people are reacting to it. In the press, people love the show so much. There’s this fan base, and to say they’re passionate is an understatement. And I count myself as one of them. So I think it’s wonderful that there’s that much passion for it, and because it’s the 30th anniversary I hope there’s more stuff. You guys have probably been to the 30th anniversary site — there’s all these things coming out. I don’t even know about some of it.
TP: Well, we’re very happy that someone has taken over Gobo who is as big a fan as you, and as great a puppeteer as you. You have done the character justice, and I think you’ll continue to. It really helps the transition a lot.
JT: No one will ever be Jerry. No one will ever do what Jerry did, and I’d be foolish to say, “Oh, I’ll be as good as Jerry!” But I hope it helps that I’m a fan, so people can trust that I would do… what Gobo would hopefully do. (laughs) I won’t have Gobo rapping; don’t worry.
TP: “What Would Gobo Do?”
JT: “What Would Gobo Do.” I’m going to make a bracelet. WWGD.
TP: Wait for the 31st anniversary.
JT: Yeah, exactly!
TP: Do you have a final message you want to relate to the fans?
JT: First of all, thank you for all the support, and keep letting folks know what you love and what you want. And know that you have a big fan sitting right here, too. This generation of Muppeteers are all Muppet fans too, which is kind of exciting, and our love is to continue it on as much as we can.
And now, as promised, here’s a video bonus, in which Mr. Tartaglia answers the all-important Muppet fan question…
Our big thanks once again to John Tartaglia for speaking with us! Click here to wear sweatpants and a hat on the Tough Pigs forum!
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com