Muppet performer Noel MacNeal is one of the most talented men ever to wear a bear suit. In addition to his best-known role as the titular ursine on Bear in the Big Blue House, he’s been part of the Sesame Street troupe for decades, and worked on many, many other Muppet productions. And he has a new book out called 10-Minute Puppets, in which he shares his expertise with aspiring puppet builders of all ages. We recently sat down for a Q&A with Mr. MacNeal, which will be presented here in three parts. In this first installment, MacNeal talks about playing large characters, the infamous Snuffle-divorce, and how Oscar the Grouch got him hooked on coffee.
Tough Pigs: How did you get involved with the Muppets? Was Sesame Street your first project?
Noel MacNeal: Yes, it was. I went to college here in New York at the Pratt Institute, and there was at that time a theater department, and in the theater department was a puppetry program that was taught by Kermit Love, who designed and built Big Bird and Snuffy. When I joined, they were pretty much phasing out the theater department, so I would have been literally in a class by myself, at graduation — it just would have been me. And thinking ahead, there are not a lot of great productions you can do with just one person. So instead of doing my last year in college, Kermit’s assistant had quit, so he offered me the job to be his assistant wrangler on Sesame Street, taking care of Big Bird, and Caroll as well. So instead of going for my final year of college, I started on Sesame Street, which was an education in itself, learning television production. And at that time, this was pretty much like the puppet show on television, especially here in New York. So that was quite an education.
So from there, I worked on their specials, like the museum special, and the first Sesame movie, and then just started performing more from there. So that was my first experience, Sesame Street and wrangling.
TP: So you were pretty much around on the set every day working with the puppets?
NM: Yes, exactly. The first time I ever drank coffee was because of Sesame Street! I blame my addiction on Sesame Street, because this was back in the glory days of Sesame Street when the season ran from like September to mid-February, and you did like 110 shows. There was one afternoon where it was Oscar — it was just Oscar. Oscar popping out of his trash can, berating Gordon, harassing Maria. And it was really nothing else, and all I had to do was just give Caroll Oscar, all I had to do was just stand by. And I’m literally falling asleep standing up, and so I went to craft services, and said, “What is this ‘coffee’ I hear about?” So I pour myself a cup to keep me going, and ever since then… the caffeine addiction is because of Oscar the Grouch.
TP: According to Muppet Wiki, you played Mommy Snuffleupagus in the 80s and 90s.
NM: I’ve played many Snufflerelatives. I played Mommy, I was Daddy for the famous divorce episode which never aired, I’ve been his uncle, I’ve been his grandmother, and I’ve even been his personal trainer Arnold Schnuffleupanegger. And then there was some sort of cousin, which was the other Snuffy with pigtails popped out, and somebody else did the voice, but I manipulated her.
TP: So you’ve been in the front and the back?
NM: I was in the back once, and said, “Never again.” I’m too tall, so it doesn’t work. Bryant [Young] couldn’t do it so Marty asked if I could do it, but never again.
TP: So when you played those characters, did you usually have the same puppeteer in the back?
NM: Yes, Peter MacKennan was in the back working with me.
TP: So that’s kind of a teamwork thing.
NM: Yes, and that’s why Bryant and Marty work so well together; they’ve been doing it so long. I was there the day Snuffy was on the trampoline, which is on YouTube. First Big Bird did it, and then Snuffy did it. It was the kind of thing where it was written in the script, and they said, “Could Snuffy actually do this?” I think Marty really accepted it as a challenge: “So you’re thinking Snuffy can’t do this? We’re gonna prove he can!” So they did it themselves first, bouncing without Snuffy on, and then finally putting Snuffy on and doing it.
TP: Have there been any other times when you’ve been playing a Snuffleupagus and you’ve been faced with a challenge? Maybe not that level, but something where you had to stop and think about if it was possible?
NM: No, I usually leave those to Marty. Marty really loves those things. But I’ve also filled in some when Marty’s done Telly, and I’m in the background in Snuffy, which is great ’cause I love Snuffy. He’s one of the best creatures ever created.
TP: Do you think there’s a particular reason why you tend to play these large, full-body characters so often?
NM: I don’t know. I’ve always gravitated towards it. I mean, I’ve always liked the Muppets… I’ve always loved Grover, I’ve always loved Oscar — Oscar’s great, Oscar’s one of those characters you could just never create again. But when I saw Big Bird and then Snuffy, it was amazing. These are characters who can actually walk around, they can actually walk up to you, and also walk away. And that’s why I like Bear so much too, because he can actually walk out. You don’t have to hide behind anything or just have him on your hand.
TP: Do you think other performers tend to shy away from those characters because they’re more difficult?
NM: I don’t know… Maybe if they were given the opportunity, maybe they would. It just depends on the performer, whether they adapt to it or want to do it. There are a select few of us now — Caroll was really the first one, and then Jerry and then Marty, and me, you know, Matt Vogel, Peter Linz… and Jen Barnhart now, she does Mommy Snuffy now whenever she appears.
NM: Ah, yes.
TP: Did you know at the time that you were making something that maybe would be controversial or that wouldn’t air?
NM: Well, I started so far back with Sesame Street, I was there when we recorded the Mr. Hooper episode, and I was there the season before, so I met Will Lee. I remember that Thanksgiving, and I remember him not being able to come back the next season, and then doing that episode. And it was only done twice, that bit, and that was the quietest the studio has ever been. It was kind of like, everyone knew how important it was, and everyone just wanted to get it over with. “Let’s focus, and concentrate, and get this over with.”
So after that, Sesame Street felt very proud and said, “Okay, what else can we tackle? Divorce! Let’s go after divorce! We’ve handled death, let’s go after divorce!” So they did their research and they put together this episode. I think it was the construction of the episode that was kind of confusing, because it started with a flashback, and then within that flashback was another flashback. Ultimately they tested it — and some people didn’t want to test it because they felt so confident, but the research leader at the time said, “No, we have to test this.” They tested it with two separate groups, one in New York, one in New Jersey, and both groups — separately, and unanimously — reinforced everything they were trying to dispel. Like, “Divorce is your fault. When your parents get divorced, they don’t love you anymore.” It was just awful.
And so Sesame, who had the best spin doctors next to the White House, took that and just turned it around, saying, “We [produced] this, and it didn’t work, and we’re proud to say it didn’t work, and we’ll try again some other time.” They ended up doing a bit with a bird, a Muppet insert spot with a bird that lives in two different nests. Maybe they’ll tackle it again someday.
TP: Did you play both Mommy Snuffleupagus and Daddy Snuffleupagus in that episode?
NM: I played the dad, and I was inside Mommy while Lynn Hippen was the voice of Mommy. I think they wanted to have a clear female voice.
TP: Can you think of any other memorable one-off characters you’ve played over the years?
NM: It was really nice that I got to be Madam Chairbird, whose character you see in Follow That Bird.
TP: How did that come about? It’s a major motion picture…
NM: I have no idea! Thank whoever did that. That day, it was like, “You’re going to do the Chairbird.” “What? Okay!” And I had the worst head cold ever, so I don’t think I could even do her voice now, because it’s based on post-nasal drip and NyQuil.
Or then just being able to be one of the background characters, like one of the penguins or the chickens in the Feist music video, which was great, with all of us there. I use that as an example when I go to train other people in other countries. I tell them, “This is possible.” Even directors, and writers, I go, “I want you to count how many cuts are in this,” and they realize it’s just one. So there are people rolling around, pushing themselves out of the way, and it’s chaos, but you don’t know!
NM: We rehearsed it a couple of times. We did that bit in about three hours. It was really mapped out, really planned out, and we kind of knew what had to be done: “How can I get my tush around this corner without blowing this take?”
TP: So there must have been… twelve puppeteers working on that?
NM: Yes. It was counting to four, so it’s the four monsters, the four penguins, the four chickens. There’s twelve people. There was also great choreography with the camera person, because they have to know, this is the spot, and every time you have to do it like that.
TP: And who makes the decisions as far as “You’re going to be a chicken, you’re going to be a monster…”
NM: That’s [Kevin] Clash.
TP: Speaking of the celebrity appearances like Feist, do you have any favorite celebrities that have visited the show that you’ve gotten to work with?
NM: John Candy was probably the nicest guy ever. He came on and did his Schmenge brother character for “Put Down the Duckie,” and then we broke for lunch. We’re going out for lunch — me, Caroll, a couple other people — and we’re by the door, and we thanked him. And he said, “Where are you going?” We’re like, “We’re going to lunch,” and he says, “Can I join you?” And he ended up treating all of us! He paid for all of us. And then afterward his car was waiting for him, and we said goodbye, and he hugged Caroll… and then he hugged me, which I thought was the nicest thing!
Whenever somebody comes on, they always have a good time. One other celebrity encounter was with Patrick Stewart. I was one of the numbers when Patrick Stewart did this thing with the Count, to try and have the Count count from zero to nine, and [Patrick Stewart says] “Make it so, number one,” which is the closest he ever wanted to come [to doing a Star Trek bit]. There was a whole parody of Star Trek that Sesame used to do, “Spaceship Surprise,” and there was “Spaceship Surprise: Next Generation,” and they had a whole bit written for him, and he was like, “No,” so this was the closest they could do.
NM: Yeah. So this was a compromise… “Can you just do the line?” Which actually works better, because it’s actually funnier. So in between takes, there’s a riser, and he’s standing up there and we’re down below doing the numbers. And we’re taking a break, and we’re coming around, and there were some visitors coming to the set. Caroll was there, and he put on Big Bird, and Kevin put on Elmo, and these kids were there, and they’re laughing and running around. Me, Marty and Pam, we’re joking around, and Marty says, “What are kids doing on Sesame Street? Don’t you see we’re trying to work over here?”
And my usual response to that — just a knee-jerk response that I’ve always done — I said, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” Then I suddenly realized that the guy behind me has done his one-man show in New York, of A Christmas Carol. I turned around and looked up, and he’s just smiling this very contented smile, like, “Thankyou, thankyou, thank you very much.”
TP: Outside of Sesame Street, you’ve worked on various Muppet projects… You worked on The Jim Henson Hour?
NM: Yeah, I worked on the pilot. The pitch was done here in New York at the carriage house, and I got to be a part of that. One of the things I got to do on that was the door, one of the doors from Labyrinth. So that was pretty cool. Working on actual stuff with Jim, like the Muppet Meeting Films back in the 80s, that was cool.
by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com