Numeric Con, the most awesome episode of Sesame Street to air in years is debuting on September 18th, with a DVD coming on October 7th (under the title “Elmo’s Super Numbers”). And it’s not just because it’s taking the patented Sesame spoof to a new level by parodying Comic Con, or because it features spoofs of all my favorite comic book characters, or even because we get Elmo and Bert as dueling Batmans (Batmen?). It’s because Numeric Con day was the day when I became a resident of Sesame Street.
It all goes back to the fall of 2013, when I was given the vague promise that I might be able to appear as an extra on Sesame Street for an episode in the 45th season. I got a phone call from the talent coordinator asking me if I knew how to ride a bike. Sure, I can ride a bike. “Great,” she said, “because we need people who can ride around in the background of a bike-themed episode of Sesame Street.” That sounded alright, but I was really hoping to do something more than just passing by in the background. I wanted to sing a song or pal around with a Muppet or buy something at Hooper’s Store. I wanted to feel like I actually lived on Sesame Street, even if just for a few hours (in my imagination… yes, I realize that I can’t actually live there). The bike thing would’ve been okay, but I had just learned that there might be a Comic Con-themed episode, and I would give away my first born to be a part of that.
You see, Comic Con is a very big part of my life. I’ve been attending the New York Comic Con every year since it began in 2006. I make detailed excel spreadsheets to make sure I can attend all of the panels and meet the writers and illustrators I’m interested in. I’ve used my annual ToughPigs recaps of Comic Con as an excuse to attend all four days, interview talented people, take photos, and to generally add an extra level to my geekiness. When I met my girlfriend, Sarah, we began cosplaying together at Comic Con (this year will be our fourth year dressing up in costume). I have dreams of someday being able to attend Comic-Con International in San Diego.
So yeah. Comic Con is in my blood. If Sesame Street was spoofing it, I had to be there.
I did a little begging and pleading, and eventually I got the OK. I was able to bring Sarah along with me, as she’s an actor, and the taping just so happened to be on her birthday. We were also able to offer up our own wardrobe, because we actually own spandex superhero costumes. I only had to remember to suck in my stomach every time I was on screen. They say television adds ten pounds, and I can only imagine how HD-TV factors into that.
We showed up to Kaufman Astoria Studios bright and early at 7:00am. The green room was filled with other extras, and I was later told that there were more extras on set that day than Sesame Street had ever had before. There was a rack full of costumes, and everyone was lined up to be assigned one, and therefore a character. Some people were lucky, like some of the superheroes or the (not) Mario Brothers. Others less so, like my friend Ariel who was dressed as a clown. And some got to dress as something totally off-the-wall, like a squirrel or a dinosaur or a giant crayon.
The costumer was excited to see that Sarah and I had brought our own outfits. In 2012, Sarah and I went to Comic Con dressed as two of our favorite comic book characters: Invincible and Atom Eve (as seen in “Invincible”, written by Robert Kirkman, the guy behind “The Walking Dead”). In order to keep from any sort of copyright infringement, alterations were made. Sarah was given a yellow skirt, I was given a belt and cape, and we were both given numbers to wear on our chests (which was appropriate, since we were supposed to be attending a number-themed convention). I was a 6, Sarah was an 8.
After we were all dressed in our finest, we took turns in the hair and makeup room. We all felt like TV stars as we sat in front of the mirrors bordered by light bulbs and had the amazing makeup artists tell us how good looking we all are. We got touched-up, hair-sprayed, face-sponged, and powder-puffed until we looked camera ready.
And then, we waited.
The television world is filled with a lot of “hurry up and wait”. We all sat together and drank coffee (but not too much, in my case, as my spandex costume wasn’t very intuitive for bathroom breaks) and anticipated the upcoming day while the cameramen learned their queues, the puppeteers ran their lines, and everyone got themselves ready for a smooth day of filming.
Leslie Carrara-Rudolph (the performer for Abby Cadabby) wasn’t on the call sheet to show up to work that day, but she came with her dog Newhart to hang out with her husband, Paul Rudolph, who works as the Vocal Music Director on Sesame Street. She entertained us in the green room with stories and showing off Newhart’s dog tricks and being a generally amazing person. So when it was time to go on set, Leslie put on her own costume, a giant left foot, and went with us.
Suddenly, Leslie was gone. In her place was Tony from Tocoma. Tony would greet you by slapping his head, then his knee, and then sticking his hand out to shake yours. He loved making foot puns and hated the hair on his toes. He was also a professional paddleball player, but couldn’t quite get his to work. Joey Mazzarino, who was directing that day, loved Tony and gave him a number 5 to wear so he could sit in as an extra. We didn’t see Leslie again until the end of the day when the foot costume went away. But then Leslie came back wearing a Captain America costume…
I’ve been to the Sesame Street set before, so I’ve already had my epic geekout over seeing the stoop and Oscar’s can and the arbor and Hooper’s Store. But now I was having another emotional response, because Sesame Street was decked out for the Con. Number balloons, banners, and booths were strewn all around the street. I especially liked seeing the metal railings that kinda sorta resembled the structure of the Jacob Javitz Center, where the New York Comic Con takes place. Once we filled it with all the extras, it really felt like we were attending an actual convention.
The first scene we shot was the biggest. Elmo and Leela are addressing the audience while Numeric Con is going on in the background, and they really wanted to fill the screen with as much hustle and bustle as possible. I was stationed at one of the booths in the back, along with some kids and a red Muppet monster performed by Paul McGinnis. The monster affected a cockney accent and played some rhyming games with the kids between takes. Nearby, a blue monster dressed as the number 1 (who looked more like she was uncomfortably crammed into a block of cheese), as performed by Stephanie D’Abruzzo, was doing the same thing by nerdishly describing the benefits to the different kinds of chocolate to her nearby child actors. We try to give the Muppet performers as much credit as we can for their talent and hard work on camera, but I never knew that they were constantly working (in character, too!) when nobody’s watching. And that includes Tony from Tacoma. My respect for these performers grows more and more every single day.
My job was to pretend to take a photo, fake talk to the kids, and then walk across the stage. On my first take, I puffed out my chest, pretended I was a superhero, and strutted from stage left to stage right. When we cut, the Assistant Director told me that I needed to look geekier. Right, of course! Because I’m not a superhero, I’m a guy with big nerdy glasses who goes to number conventions dressed as a superhero! I had my character all wrong. On my next take, I had on a wide-eyed smile, an enthusiastic bounce in my step, and I totally became that convention-goer. In the end, I’m not seen at all in the background of the shot. Oh well, that’s show biz!
After the big group scene, we were all given the option to go back to the green room or hang around (very quietly) on set. So of course, I stayed and watch them film. Extras were being called a few at a time to participate in the background of more shots. Everyone there was getting one extra chance to be on the show. Once they used us, we were done for the day. Eventually, my name was called, and I was ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille.
My job this time was to walk past a crowd in front of 123 Sesame Street and take my place next to the stoop while we all waited for the big reveal: Doctor Two! As a card-carrying fanboy, I have a huge love for all things Doctor Who, so it was really an honor to be a small part of the Sesame Street spoof. I giggled excitedly at seeing the Muppet Daleks and Cybermen just offstage, as well as the Doctor’s “Twodis”. The excitement I’m showing on screen was 100% real.
Ismael Cruz Córdova, who plays Mando on Sesame Street, stood at the top of the stairs, dressed as a Doctor Two fan, waiting for the scene to begin. A few weeks earlier, he’d hurt his ankle, and although he didn’t need to use his cane all the time, he felt more comfortable walking with it. He was about to hand it aside when I heard him ask if any of the Doctors used a cane. As the only Doctor Who fan in the vicinity, I told him that the seventh Doctor had an umbrella, which sort of looked like a cane. “Great,” he said, “I’m keeping it.”
For the Doctor Who scene, I stood to the side and pretended to watch the Twodis appear, followed by the parade of aliens, which was actually being filmed off to the side in front of a green screen. A character based on the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, performed by Marty Robinson, needed to appear in the scene to declare it the “worst convention ever”, so imagine my surprise when Joey Mazzarino suggested that he pop up on my shoulder. Yeah, I had a Muppet sitting on my shoulder. His lips were saying “worst convention ever,” but all I heard was “best convention ever”. Through every take, I nodded in agreement, both trying to show some nerd solidarity and to make a lame attempt at “acting”.
Also in the scene was the Two-Headed Monster, because of course they’re Doctor Two fans. I’ve never seen the Two-Headed Monster live, so that was an incredible treat. They’re also a favorite of Sarah’s, so I made sure to tell them that it was her birthday. It may have been the greatest gift she could’ve gotten to hear them say, “OH! Happa baathdaaaay!”
After the Doctor Two scene, Sarah and I were technically finished. So we changed back into our street clothes and stuck around the set to keep watching. And it was totally worth it. There were so many puppets on hand that day, most of which were familiar characters in new costumes. Elmo as “The Dark Nine”, Bert as the “Caped Crus-eight-er”, The Green Lanten, and so many more. I wanted to try and snap as many photos as I could, because this might be the only time we ever get to see these characters and costumes.
Cookie Monster had a short scene as “In-three-ana Jones”, opening a cookie box that looked suspiciously like the Ark of the Covenant. By the time they had finished the previous scene, there was only a few minutes until the crew had to break for lunch. Knowing that the day would already be a long one, Joey Mazzarino suggested that they at least rehearse the scene in the precious time they had. The cameras rolled, and David Rudman, in true professional fashion, nailed the entire scene in one take. Just in time for lunch. Cookie Monster would be proud.
We watched as Alan joined the ranks of The Fantabulous Four. We saw Chris get his autograph from Fiverine. We were off to the side as Grover and The Count argued over the pronunciation of “Sevengers”. It was epic.
Expectations for Numeric Con must’ve been high, because Sesame Workshop was already planning on turning the episode into a home video release. Apparently, in cases like this, they would film extra scenes to include on the DVD that won’t be seen in the broadcast version. So a half-day of filming was scheduled for a few days later, and I was able to attend this day as well.
They had filmed quite a bit on the first day, so there were only a few more scenes to take care of. For example, Abby Cadabby showed off her “One-da Woman” costume, complete with her own theme song. For this one, I was tasked with the difficult assignment of walking past the camera with one of the kids. Apparently, as I learned, timing is everything. Every time the performers needed another take, the Assistant Director gave me a note about starting a little earlier or later, or standing a little bit further back or forward before I began walking. Extra-ing is tough! But it’s totally worth it, because there I am, walking around behind One-da Woman.
The last thing we filmed was also the last thing you see in the episode. Elmo and Leela are victorious after completing their checklist, and they have one last chant of “Numeric Con!” with the cast of extras behind them. I was one of those extras, and for some reason, even though I probably wasn’t heard at all, it was the biggest thrill to get a line on Sesame Street. Sure, it wasn’t a song, and I wasn’t doing it from behind the counter at Hooper’s Store, but there I was, not just a part of the scenery, but a real human being on a real Sesame Street.
In the end, I can’t quite decide if I felt like I accomplished my goal of being a Sesame Street resident. More likely, I was just one of the many Numeric Con attendees, traveling from my own nearby street, visiting the neighborhood because I really love numbers. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe all I ever really wanted was to stick my foot into the Sesame Street universe, and then come back out to tell the world all about it. Someone has to spread the word that while it’s not an actual magical street, and while it’s not just another TV set full of lights and cameras and PAs, it’s still somewhere in between.
Sesame Street – the real Sesame Street – is full of magic and monsters and people who really love talking about the alphabet, and it’s also full of brilliant performers and incredible puppets and a dedicated television crew. And for one glorious footnote in Sesame Street history, I was among them.
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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com