Sesame Street Comes to New Jersey: Part Two

Published: February 4, 2009
Categories: Feature, Reports

Part 1Part 2

I also want to point out the latest edition of the MuppetCast, in which host Steve Swanson gives a detailed account of the other panel that happened before the panel on Friday night — it was a session just for teachers. You can listen to that podcast by clicking here, or by subscribing to the MuppetCast via iTunes.

Now, let’s see, where was I? Ah, yes. Michael Davis asked Fran Brill about Zoe, and moments later Zoe herself appeared onstage. I could tell right away something was different about her… From the balcony, she looked like more like a Zoe doll than the usual puppet. Sure enough, the puppeteers revealed that after a smaller Zoe was built for her role as the Dormouse in the Abby in Wonderland video special, they liked it so much they decided to use it for season 40 as the actual, real, official Zoe.

Fran Brill said it felt right to her for Zoe to be smaller, but I gotta say, I’m not convinced. What’s she going to look like standing next to Elmo now that she’s suddenly two-thirds of Elmo’s size? But Fran said they’ve had kids visit the set and they don’t seem to notice… which prompted Bob to point out that “We had three Gordons, and they never noticed!” That got a big laugh. Go, Bob.

Do you think he’d mind if I call him Bob? I feel like I know all these people well enough to call them by their first names in this article, with the possible exception of Tony Geiss. Somehow he seems like a last name guy.

Pretty soon Davis asked about Telly, and he too emerged from his duffel bag. As it turns out, Marty Robinson is incredibly funny, and Telly was very loud, nervous, and hilarious. After doing a bit about the fact that he had been stuffed inside a plastic bag, Telly insisted (loudly and frantically) that he’s not neurotic, and that Marty is the one who’s not normal — there’s a Jekyll and Hyde thing going on there.

Telly was completely freaked out by li’l Zoe. “She’s a SHADOW OF HER FORMER SELF! Look at little homunculus Zoe! We used to be married! Now she’s TOO YOUNG! Life on Sesame Street is REALLY WEIRD!” It’s just too bad they’d never let Telly do the same rant on the show.

Davis asked Kevin Clash about Elmo, and Kevin briefly told the story of Richard throwing him the Elmo puppet with a command to give it a voice, a story we’ve heard many times before. Or anyway, I’ve heard it many times before. I had to remind myself a few times during the panel that not everyone in the audience was a Muppet fan, and in fact some of them were Normal People hearing these time-worn anecdotes for the first time. It was a good thing, though, that Kevin soon brought out Elmo for some improvised banter with Davis. Except I was so mesmerized I forgot to write down anything they said.

Next came perhaps the most inspired part of the whole evening: Michael Davis presented the Inside the Actors’ Studio questionnaire to Oscar and Elmo. As expected, they answered very differently. Here’s how it went:

What is your favorite word? Elmo: “Happy.” Oscar: [Pause, mug to the audience.] “It’s not happy!”

What is your least favorite word? Elmo: “Sick.” Oscar: “Six? Did he say six? I was gonna say seven.”

What turns you on? Elmo: “A great big hug.” [The audience went “Awwww,” and Elmo replied cynically, “Oh, come on! What did you expect from Elmo?”] Oscar: “You really wanna ask me that question? She’s sitting right next to me.” [Maria! Oscar totally lusts after Maria! After years of sexual tension, the truth comes out!]

What turns you off? Elmo: “People being unhappy.” [Again with the “awww,” and Elmo’s resulting exasperation was wonderful. He can’t help being sweet! He’s trapped in a world of cuteness!] Oscar: “Happiness.”

What is your favorite naughty word? Elmo: “Poopy.” [You could sort of sense that the wheels in Kevin’s head were turning as he tried to come up with something funny that wouldn’t be too unacceptable for Sesame Workshop standards, and “poopy” falls somewhere within those boundaries.] Oscar said, “You better not ask me that.” Which doesn’t indicate anything specific, but it just sounds funny, doesn’t it?

What sound or noise do you love? Elmo: “A baby laughing.” [More “Awwws” from the audience, and Elmo threatened to leave.] Oscar: “You don’t really want to know.” Which was the same answer as the last question, but somehow it was funny again.

If Heaven exists, what would you like God to say when you arrive at the pearly gates? Elmo: “He would say He wants a big hug.” Oscar: “How did YOU get here?!”

Then it was time for questions from the audience. It’s always a crapshoot when you let people from the audience come up and ask unrehearsed questions at events like this, because you never know what kind of weirdos you have in the audience. Way too many of the question-askers felt the need to preface their questions with lots of details about their lives and their careers and their interest in puppetry. I mean, it’s great that you want Maria to know your name, but she’s already forgotten it 10 seconds after you ask your question. The questions, more or less:

Q: Is Linda Bove still on the show? Bob answered: No, she hasn’t been for a few years. He’s not sure why she left, but it might be because of the smaller episode count per season these days. She’s lives on the west coast, where she’s still involved with the Theater of the Deaf, so that keeps her busy.

Q: Has there ever been a study to determine what the world would be like without Sesame Street? [This one wins the prize for Most Impossible to Answer Question of the Evening.] Everyone on the panel kind of stared at each other silently until Marty spoke up: They tried, but there was no control group.

Q: For Frank – How do you come up with character voices? Before he answered, Frank said he wanted to talk about Richard, which he had not done earlier. He said Richard had a greater sense of “childlike abandon” than any other performer, and he always rooted for the underdog. Frank told a story from The Muppet Show days when the performers were all in a car, and the guy ahead of them threw a pack of cigarettes out the window, and Richard got out and yelled at him. Anyway, to answer the question, Frank said he’s not a voice person, but rather the voice comes from the character instead of the other way around.

Speaking of voices, here Kevin talked about the time when he was working on Dinosaurs in Los Angeles and he would talk on the phone to his daughter on the east coast. She would often ask to speak to Elmo, and with the time difference he sometimes found himself at 5:00 in the morning trying to get his Elmo voice warmed up. (He demonstrated the result, which somewhat resembled Elmo after smoking his own pack of cigarettes.)

Q: For Frank – Is there a major shift required going between producing work for adults to working for children? Frank said, “This might surprise you, but I’ve never directed or performed for children.” So basically, that’s two questions in a row that Frank answered by negating the question, which is awesome. He said Jim’s philosophy was not about separating children from adult sensibilities… He never talked down to the kids in the audience, which is what happens when you try to write “for children.”

Q: For Frank – a question about Cookie Monster’s healthy eating habits. Frank pointed out that they’ve been doing that with the character occasionally for years, but he said he doesn’t buy it (and here the audience applauded). He thinks “kids are smarter than that,” and seeing one character who only eats cookies isn’t going to inspire them to only eat cookies for their entire life. Similarly, he thinks it’s silly when people complain about Cookie Monster saying “Me” rather than “I,” because no kid is going to grow up to be a lawyer and say, “Me want to represent you.”

At the time, I had this thought: Ooh, what if Tony Geiss was the one who wrote “Healthy Food” or “A Cookie Is a Sometimes Food”? And Frank basically just dissed those songs with Geiss sitting right there! But I just looked them up on the Muppet Wiki, and Geiss wrote neither of those. Oh well.

Q: (From Tough Pigs forum member Chris Stultz!) For Frank – Does he miss performing?
Frank said that more than anything, he misses working with the other performers, his “brothers and sisters.” He did remark that that morning he had performed for the first time in two years, which is intriguing. Was he taping material for the new season of Sesame Street?

Q: Could Frank say something as Miss Piggy? I wouldn’t have blamed Frank for just growling at that guy, but he answered simply: “I’m not going to do that,” explaining that the characters are too important to him, and he does not use them like party favors. It would have been fun to hear Frank do some of his character voices, but I was just as happy to see that he was exactly as Frank Oz-y as I hoped he would be. But what if somebody had asked him to say something as, say, Prince Charming from the “Sesame Street Newsflashsketches? Is that character important to him?

Q: For Caroll – Oscar started out orange. Why did he become green? I’m not 100% sure I wrote this down correctly, but I think Caroll said it was Jim’s idea to make him green. The first green Oscar was seen on The Flip Wilson Show. Caroll arrived at the studio, opened the box containing the puppet, and was shocked to see this green thing sitting there. When one of the producers (Dave Connell maybe?) saw it, he said, “We have to change him back!” but by then the Flip Wilson stuff was ready to air and it was too late.

Q: For Frank – Has he ever thought about writing his autobiography? (The guy asking started by saying something like, “I’m begging you,” and it sounded for a second like he was going to plead with Frank to do the Miss Piggy voice, which would have been pretty awkward.) Frank said, “I’ve thought about not writing it.” He’s a private guy, and he’d rather do new work than talk about work.

That’s understandable, but man, it sure would be great if he would just dictate everything he remembers from his Muppet career. He also said that while he realized most of the questions during the Q&A session were coming to him, he wanted everyone to realize that Jim Henson was “the guy,” and everything the Muppets did came from him. You can’t argue with that.

Q: From nine-year-old Tough Piglet Emileigh:
She started by explaining that she’s nine years old, almost ten, and she’s been watching Sesame Street for about 10 years now. That is adorable and brilliant. She’s seen some of the newer characters like Abby, but what happened the older characters like Betty Lou?

Fran answered: Betty Lou has an interesting history… In the early days, they had two very similar little girl puppets, Prairie Dawn and Betty Lou, and they were occasionally mistaken for each other. Eventually, aspects of Betty Lou’s character “morphed” into Fran’s Roxy Marie character, and later, elements of Roxy Marie “morphed” into Zoe. They now have about 10 main characters that they focus on in most episodes, which means they can’t devote screen time to every minor character.

At this, Marty chimed in to say that they have a “Dead Muppet Wallin the green room, featuring all the failed characters. I’d like to see that for myself, and pay my respects to Elizabeth.

Q: How heavy do the puppets get? Marty answered: Snuffy’s the heaviest, Slimey’s the lightest.

Then they got onto the subject of Jon Stone, whom Frank referred to as “the Father of Sesame Street.” He recalled when they were doing a scene, just messing around and having fun, and Frank asked, “What are we teaching?” to which Jon replied, “It doesn’t matter!” Kevin said Jon was great with children. Manzano noted that Christmas Eve on Sesame Street was one of the purest expressions of Stone’s spirit.

Q: For Caroll – What happened to Bruno the trashman? Caroll first explained that Bruno was inspired by something he saw on The Gong Show: a large, walking clown puppet pushing a baby carriage, with the puppeteer inside the carriage. The puppet builders wanted a way to get Oscar out onstage for live appearances, so Caroll came up with the idea of Bruno as a way of making Oscar mobile. Bruno was a man of few words, as it was hard to manipulate his mouth while also puppeteering Oscar.

A few years ago, Caroll asked the producers why they never use Bruno anymore, so they took him out of storage, but he had dissolved, and it would cost 20 grand to build a new one, so that’s it for Bruno. $20,000 for one Bruno? Dang, that’s a lot of money. It seems to me all you’d really need was a puppet head, puppet hands, and a uniform with a big hole in the middle, but I’ll go ahead and assume that Caroll Spinney knows more about his job than I do.

Q: For Frank – Is it true that you were originally supposed to be Big Bird? Frank said no. The guy asking the question was like, “Are you sure? ‘Cause I’m pretty sure you were.” Frank said it was possible that Jim had the idea that Frank would play Big Bird early on… Frank hated playing large characters, and Jim liked torturing him by making him play those characters, but he never was going to be the bird. So there you go.

Q: How did they get Elmo to ride Snuffy? Kevin described how they actually had him inside the puppet with Marty and Bryant Young, who performs Snuffy’s back end, and the camera avoided showing Snuffy’s bottom half. Zoe’s done it too, and Kevin and Fran agreed that the inside of that puppet between Marty and Bryant is not a fun place to be.

Then time was up. Michael Davis thanked all the guests, and we gave them a standing ovation. I want to point out here that normally I hardly ever participate in standing ovations, as I think they’ve become too commonly used for performances that are merely good but not great. Often I’ll find myself the only person in my row not standing at the conclusion of a show, because I’m that curmudgeonly… but this time, I was one of the first people to rise, because if anyone deserves me standing up, it’s the Sesame Street people. I’m sure they’d be thrilled to know they have my approval.

I don’t suppose Sesame Street will last forever. But for one television show to be so important, and so beloved, and still so great, inspiring a concert hall full of people of all ages to stand up and applaud so whole-heartedly, even after 40 years? Well, I think that’s pretty good.

I’m sure there’s a ton of little bits and pieces that I left out, so you should really
click here to drop by the Tough Pigs forum to read the memories of other audience members, and to give Sesame Street a standing ovation of your own.

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Written by Ryan Roe

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