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.
The job of the puppeteer is usually to stay behind the scenes. Why make yourself the focus of a documentary?
I just wanted to show the joy and the love and the excitement that I’ve had over the years working with these brilliant people. And it’s funny, when Steve Whitemere [who plays Kermit the Frog] saw it he said you could’ve taken my head off and put his on and it would be his story. It really is a puppeteer’s story and a puppeteer’s journey. It’s not just mine, it’s all of us.
When we non-puppeteers see puppets, we forget that you guys are even there. Even as adults, you just see the puppets.
Because you’re looking at them the way you were looking at them when you were kids! I love seeing celebrities on Sesame Street because these people who grew up watching the show turn into five-year-olds. They go crazy! All that Hollywood, all of those agents, all of that stuff just goes away. They go back to being on their little tricycle and watching the show. It’s so cool.
How many of them cry?
Oh, please. Tracy Chapman sang a song with the Muppets and through the whole thing she cried. It’s one of those entities. It hits you. And that’s why when people watch this doc, it’s not just seeing a puppeteer enjoying and loving what he’s doing, it’s all of this nostalgia for growing up and watching the show. I remember watching the first Muppet Movie. I cried through the whole damn thing. And now look where I’m at. [Laughs eerily similar to Elmo.]
Wasn't there supposed to be an Elmo development deal with Ricky Gervais?
No, not a development deal. It’s just that Ricky loves Elmo and Sesame so much that after he did [the show], every other day he was calling and saying, "What about if we did 'Ask Ricky and Elmo' on YouTube? And you answer the way Elmo would and I answer the way Ricky would." He had all of these ideas. Hopefully one of these days we’ll do something, but no development deal.
In the documentary we see you were a great dresser as a kid. Very dapper for a shy puppeteer.
That’s my mom. My mom, she always had us dressing a certain way. My mom loved men’s clothes. She really enjoyed dressing her sons and her husband. You heard her talking about the outfit she put me in.
So is that why there were sewing machines around?
Oh yeah. My mom sewed her clothes and stuff like that. She was very creative. I would go to the fabric stores with her and buy my stuff. That’s how she taught me: on the Singer sewing machine.
The doc gives us some insight into how Elmo’s character is a reflection of your mom and dad’s unconditional love and support for you.
What’s interesting is the love that my mom and dad gave was making sure that we watched what we did, but as far as hugs and kisses, there was none of that in our household. That’s where it really came from: It’s something that we didn’t get in the home. We got it through other ways, as far as knowing that mom and dad love us, but it wasn’t through hugs and kissing.
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.