Pride Month Profiles: Alan Muraoka

Published: June 21, 2024
Categories: Feature, Interviews

For this Pride Month at ToughPigs, we’re reminding you again that gay, transgender and nonbinary people are just people in your neighborhood like everyone else. We’re not evil or weird, or even new, despite what a lot of people want you to think. We’ve always been here, living our lives, hanging out with our friends, and sometimes, making the art you love. 

Case in point: The Jim Henson Company and Disney have worked with a number of trans and nonbinary puppeteers and performers over the years. They’re a part of shows you enjoy, like Muppets Mayhem and Back to the Rock. So for Pride Month, I reached out to some of them and had amazing conversations with some of the most genuine, passionate artists I’ve ever spoken to. Below, I’m going to profile one of them and share some stories. Stay tuned this month for another profile!

Alan Muraoka (he/him)

Henson Projects: Sesame Street


Every Pride Month, I talk about “people in your neighborhood.” If there’s one performer who absolutely counts as one of those, it’s Alan Muraoka. For 26 years, Alan has played Alan, the proprietor of Hooper’s Store on Sesame Street. That’s longer than any other Hooper’s Store owner, even Mr. Hooper himself. Behind the scenes, Alan also directs episodes of the show. He has won two Emmy awards for his work directing and producing the show.

While Alan is no stranger to anyone who’s watched Sesame Street in almost three decades, many viewers may not be aware that Alan Muraoka is a gay man who takes great pride in his identity. While it would be impossible to tell the full story of Alan’s career, I was happy to discuss some of his life story with him.

Getting to Sesame Street:

Long before he ran Hooper’s Store, Alan performed on Broadway, starting in 1987 in a show called Male. A decade later, he was performing in the Broadway revival of The King and I when he received a call from his agent. He was told that Sesame was looking for an actor to play the new owner of Hooper’s, and decided to try for the role. Alan wasn’t sure he’d get it, but figured it was worth a shot. After the first audition, Alan thought “well that was fun” and assumed nothing would come from the process. 

However, he got called back. After the second audition, Alan realized that they were looking for an Asian American, and started to get more confident. By the fourth audition, it was between Alan and his friend Ann Harada (who would later originate the role of Christmas Eve in Avenue Q). Even Ann was convinced Alan would get the part. 

At the final audition, Alan had to improv a scene with Telly Monster. There, Telly’s performer Marty Robinson tested Alan’s flexibility by refusing to play by traditional improv rules. When Alan asked Telly if he wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Telly screamed “NO!” and Alan had to adjust his plans on the fly. Of course, he did so with flying colors. Years later, he realized that Marty was testing his flexibility when working with difficult children.

Thanks to this quick thinking and his experience studying children’s theater at UCLA, Alan got the part, and the rest is history.

Alan on Street:

When Alan arrived on set for the first day, he decided to tell people about his partner (whom he would later marry). He figured that, if he were keeping any secrets from his coworkers, it would affect the quality of his performance. Gay marriage was not even legal in New York at the time, but Alan wanted to make his relationship known. Alan proudly says that him coming out to his colleagues 26 years ago gave many of his coworkers the courage to open up as well.

Making a difference, both behind the scenes like this and on-screen, is Alan’s favorite part of working on Sesame Street. He notes that some of his favorite moments were filming episodes that responded directly to real-world events. Alan recounted the events of Episode 3981, where a fire burns down Hooper’s Store, which was created to help explain the events of September 11 to children, as one of the things he is proudest of. 

He also talked about the joy of regularly appearing with Julia both in episodes and in live events. The Sesame team knew Alan could handle sensitive topics well, so they paired him with Julia. Alan loves being able to communicate with people about autism in this way.

In recent years, Alan has begun directing more episodes, which allow him to tell stories like these in a new way. During the waves of anti-Asian hate that followed the COVID-19 pandemic, Alan co-directed and co-starred in the See Us Coming Together special that introduced Ji-Young, which was very important to him as an Asian man. Similarly, he notes a recent episode he directed, where Mia celebrates her two fathers’ Jewish and Puerto Rican heritages, as a new way to blend many important issues together. 

Alan, Dave, and Frank

Speaking of Mia’s fathers, Alan had a lot to say about Sesame’s work representing LGBTQ+ people on screen. As mentioned, Alan has been with his husband for a long time, and that fact has always been common knowledge on set. After a decade on the show, Alan started asking writers and producers if his character could come out in an episode, but they weren’t ready. Around eight years ago, when new executive producers joined the show, this conversation was brought up again. Alan notes that then-producer Brown Johnson pushed addressing LGBTQ+ issues very high on her to-do list. 

Early conversations were about Alan being out on the show, and a scene was written where he would be decorating a cake for his husband, and Elmo would ask him questions about this. However, the team got scared because Alan was a core cast member, and they feared that would mean there would be more pushback. They also wondered if a younger queer couple would be more meaningful for children.

As a result, Sesame decided to hire two new actors to play Mia’s fathers, Dave and Frank. Alan admits that he was at first very disappointed that he wouldn’t be the one breaking that boundary, but he was glad to be a part of the team guiding the auditions process. He also co-directed and appeared in the episode that introduced them. Alan admits that “this should’ve happened twenty years ago,” but he was glad to see Sesame have courage in the end.

At first, Alan was a little upset that Dave and Frank were not introduced with a big fanfare. But a gay Muppet performer on set said that he liked how “mundane” their appearance was. Alan ultimately agreed, saying that it felt good to not treat them any differently from Nina or Chris or any other adult. Gay people are just a part of the Sesame Street community.

Sesame and Diversity

Ultimately, Alan feels that Sesame has been a very supportive environment for both queer employees and those of other minority groups. He notes that, for a while, it felt like Sesame administration was largely made up of white people. However, in light of various recent events, they have begun diversifying in many areas. For instance, he and Noel MacNeal have been directing more frequently, providing some diversity behind the camera, a fact that neither take lightly.

Alan says that Sesame works hard to make everyone feel accepted behind the scenes. He notes that he’s still struggling to learn everyone’s pronouns, but that he’s trying very hard because it’s so important. The crew is all trying to be positive and move forward, not back.

He mentions that there still is a long way to go. Alan misses having a deaf character on the show, and wishes the team would return to discussing issues like that. He’d like to see a trans child or adult join the cast. But Alan feels glad that he’s been able to represent the Asian American community on the show for this long.

Other Projects & Closing Words

With all that he does for Sesame Street, it’s remarkable that Alan is also able to do so many other projects. However, he has been a professional theater director since 1998, and that is still an important part of his life. He recently directed an all-Asian version of the William Finn LGBTQ musical Falsettoland, combining two major parts of his identity. As of this writing, he is currently in Chicago directing a production of the Asian American gay romantic comedy Zac Efron with the Token Theatre production company. The show entered previews this week at A Red Orchid Theater.

In July, he’s heading to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to direct the premier of a show called Kafka’s Metamorphosis the Musical, then in the fall, he will be directing a regional production of Frozen in the DC metro area.

At this point, both on Sesame Street and in theater, directing is Alan’s passion. He loves being able to use his empathetic nature to get stronger performances out of his actors. 

Alan’s closing message for ToughPigs’ LGBTQ+ readers is simple. “Know that you are represented in [Sesame Street], and you are a thread in the fabric that makes our community so strong. I’m proud to be a part of that community too.”

Click here to give a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to Telly Monster on the ToughPigs Discord!

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Written by Becca Petunia

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