Ever since puppeteer Kevin Clash put his hand up Elmo’s backside in 1985, his little red monster has been stealing the show on Sesame Street; upstaging Andy Samberg on Fallon; driving Oprah’s crowd wild; and popping up on shelves as the best-selling creepy robot toy ever. Now the man behind the character is the subject of a new documentary, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. We caught up with Clash to talk about his 30 years on the Street, why he wanted to make a documentary, and the appeal of Elmo.
There’s something about the pitch of Elmo’s voice: It’s like a dog whistle for a baby. Did you know that you had cracked some kind of sonic code as soon as you found that voice?
The first time I really knew that I had something was the sketch that I did — this is in the doc — when Elmo is packing his bags for a vacation and he’s giving Luis goodbye and hello hugs. And the camera guys and the crew laughed when I was doing it. And you know, it’s the same thing with a comedian: The first time you get laughs on stage, you get that confidence that you feel like you can do it. And that’s what happened on Sesame Street with Elmo and me. Once I heard those laughs, I was like, Okay, there’s something here.