Important Muppet People – Kevin Clash

Published: July 17, 2020
Categories: Commentary, Feature

Welcome to Important Muppet People: ToughPigs’ newest series in which we’re shining a spotlight on some of the more diverse members of the Muppet, Sesame, and Henson worlds! From puppeteers to writers, from artists to actors, we’re paying homage to the creatives that helped make the Muppets what they are today.

There’s no doubt that Kevin Clash – longtime performer of Elmo, host of Muppets Tonight, and Muppet Captain – was one of the most influential puppeteers of the second generation of Muppet performers. Although it’s difficult to separate Clash from the events surrounding his resignation from Sesame Street in 2012, we at ToughPigs have had a long-standing policy of not commenting on the personal lives of the puppeteers and only focusing on the work they’ve created.

And as you’ll see, Clash not only created an innumerable amount of brilliant work throughout his career with the Muppets, but he quickly became one of the most essential performers of his era.

Kevin Clash: The Superstar

It’s not a stretch to say that Sesame Street is still on because of Kevin Clash. When he joined the show in 1984, it was a beloved institution. But as the years wore on, it was hit from all sides: cable channels like Disney and Nickelodeon became more popular, along with newer PBS shows like Barney

In the mid-90s, Sesame Street was in danger of becoming an irrelevant dinosaur. We all know why it didn’t: Kids went absolutely bananas for a little red monster named Elmo. Elmo’s rise was controversial among Muppet fans, but not among small children. Kids loved him, they wanted his ticklish doll for Christmas, and Sesame Street became a cultural phenomenon once again.

For almost thirty years, Elmo was played by Kevin Clash, Sesame Street’s first black puppeteer.  In fact, Kevin was more responsible for the character’s appeal than anyone else. Elmo is supposed to represent a 3-year-old kid, which means he’s often scripted to be simplistic and straight-forward.

But in Kevin’s hands, he roared to life. Kevin gave Elmo a sweetness and vivaciousness that he didn’t have on the page. This was especially evident in talk show interviews, where Elmo was allowed to be looser and weirder.

Kevin Clash: The Character Actor

But Elmo was just the beginning of Clash’s talent. His other signature Sesame Street character couldn’t be more different from Elmo. While Elmo is a hyper, excitable kid, Hoots the Owl was a calm, laid back jazz bird. He’s one of the few Sesame Street Muppets who seems like an actual adult, and Clash gave him a wise, cool demeanor. Hoots also allowed Kevin to show off his amazing singing voice, such as in this duet with John Legend:

During his decades on Sesame Street, Clash played hundreds of other characters. But starting in the mid-80s, he began working on other Henson projects as well. He performed in Labyrinth, even voicing one of the Fireys in the song “Chilly Down.” That same year, he played two memorable characters in The Tale of the Bunny Picnic, and as PJ, he even turned Rowlf into a Gobagoo in the Play-Along videos.

Clash was becoming one of Jim Henson’s go-to guys, so it made sense that he joined the main cast for The Jim Henson Hour. He played two regular characters on that show: Leon (a lizard who was sort of a proto-Pepe) and Clifford, the bass player for the Solid Foam band. Leon disappeared pretty quickly, but Clifford became one of the primary Muppets of the 1990s. 

Kevin Clash: The Host

In the years after The Jim Henson Hour’s brief run, Clifford was all over the place – he joined the Electric Mayhem for Muppets at Walt Disney World, he got featured songs on the Muppet Beach Party and Kermit Unpigged albums, and he went on Arsenio Hall with Kermit. But his big break came in 1996 when he was chosen as the host of Muppets Tonight!

The Clifford we saw on Muppets Tonight! was kind of a brand new character. He stopped wearing sunglasses, and he lost his chill demeanor. He spent most of his time stressing out about things that were going wrong with the show. This new version of Clifford wasn’t anyone’s idea of a great character. So why did they choose Clifford to be the host at all?

Because they knew that Kevin Clash was the guy who could host a new Muppet Show for the 1990s. Jim Henson and Richard Hunt were gone, and Frank Oz was mostly busy with other projects. Were they going to put Steve Whitmire’s newish carbon copy Kermit front and center? Of course not! Kevin Clash had the charisma and natural skill to be the star of the show, and he pulled it off admirably.

Kevin Clash: The Producer

In the 21st century, Clash stepped back from other projects as he became increasingly focused on Sesame Street. He became the Muppet Captain, the chief puppeteer for the entire show. He began directing segments and videos, eventually becoming a co-executive producer for the entire series. He won nine Emmys for his work.

Since stepping down from Sesame Street in 2012, Clash has worked with the Jim Henson Company on a variety of projects, most notably The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. He performed Aughra among other characters, and he got to do some of the most intricate and expressive puppetry on the show. 

35 years into his career, Kevin Clash is still one of the most exciting puppeteers in the business.

Click here to Happy Tap with Elmo on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Anthony Strand

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