Looking at Kevin Clash, it is not immediately obvious that he is one and the same as Sesame Street’s favorite fuzzy animal, Elmo. And yet, for the past 26 years, Clash has breathed life into the lovable red monster, developing the character into one of the stars of children’s television. Clash, who was in Williamstown for a celebration of what would have been Jim Henson’s 75th birthday, was a special guest at Images during the theater’s week-long event Muppets, Music & Magic: Jim Henson’s Legacy. Man and monster have one thing in common: “We both enjoy life and laughter,” Clash said, which has been enough for Clash and Elmo to have an extremely successful relationship over the years.
Clash began making puppets at the age of ten, and by 17 he was puppeteering Cookie Monster at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. At 25, Clash became the voice and puppeteer of Elmo. Then, in 1998, Elmo’s very own segment, “Elmo’s World,” debuted.
According to Clash, “‘Elmo’s World’ came about … to create a format specifically for younger viewers,” after the show realized that much of its viewer demographic was toddler age.
The addition of “Elmo’s World” (and its subsequent success) is just one example of the wonderful adaptability that gives Sesame Street its staying power. While Clash said that the program is still “the same show it’s always been,” Sesame Street has made many modifications since it began in 1969. Not only does the show stay topical by spoofing items from pop culture (such as Glee or Spiderman: The Musical), but also it has been keeping up with the fast-paced shifts of the digital age. In Clash’s words, “We go with whatever’s happening in technology.” Sesame Street now has its own Twitter page and numerous apps for the iPad.
During our interview, Clash expressed how important it was for kids to learn through whatever medium they can, especially those that are most accessible to them. In terms of its educational focus, Clash said that Sesame Street also is turning to relevant issues such as removing the stigma from math and science by “starting young with preschoolers” and showing them the fun in these subjects at an early age. Sesame Street is also trying to tackle bullying, which continues to be an issue in school at all ages. “Because we’re dealing with young kids, we can’t be too heavy handed,” so the show has simplified their message in scenes such as a meanie knocking over Bert’s sandcastle, Clash said.
When it comes to other Muppets, Clash said that his favorite is and has always been Grover, first played by Frank Oz. Oz’s sense of humor and genius as a puppeteer was one of Clash’s major inspirations.
Clash himself originated Clifford, the bassist on the short-lived show The Jim Henson Hour. Clifford, who looks like a Rastafarian catfish, now only appears infrequently in such Muppet productions as The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. Other characters Clash has enjoyed playing include Splinter, the villain from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Baby Sinclair from the early ’90s sitcom, Dinosaurs. Recently, Clash has been devoting all of his energy to Elmo, and rarely appears without the puppet. His favorite recent episode is called “Music Magic,” in which Elmo convinces everyone to sing and essentially turns Sesame Street into a musical.
Clash discussed past episodes, including the one that focused on the death of Mr. Hooper, the well-loved store proprietor played by Will Lee, who was also one of the main writers for the show. When Lee passed away in 1982, the show had a very poignant episode in which his death was explained to Big Bird. Clash said that while this was an instance where Sesame Street was heavier-handed, this was something that needed to be addressed, and kids needed to understand.
As a part of Images’ week-long Muppet programming, Clash gave a Muppet History 101 class on Friday night that included excerpts from the rare pilot of The Muppets: Sex and Violence. While this program certainly has more of an adult appeal, the majority of events held throughout this week leading up to Clash’s arrival were oriented toward a younger audience. Yet Clash, whose 2006 autobiography My Life as a Furry Red Monster: What Being Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love, and Laughing Out Loud, insists that there are messages for college students to take from Sesame Street. While most of our student body may not need reminding about what sound the letter G makes, it is the simple life lessons like respecting each other that everyone could brush up on once in a while.