sesame street: my tale in pictures
photo by gil vaknin
What do you do on SESAME STREET?
I am a Muppet Performer. As you'll see from the other pictures on this page, I play a lot of little, one-off characters, the occasional recurring character, and I even have a few characters who have the great distinction of being "dead." I call this a "great distinction" because all of the best Muppet Performers, including Jim Henson and Frank Oz, have had characters fail on the show. I'm honored to be in such great company.
In late 2014, after the great Fran Brill retired from the biz, I was handed the reins of one of my favorite characters, Prairie Dawn.
How long have you worked on SESAME STREET?
I auditioned for the Jim Henson Company in the spring of 1993, when I was a senior in college. I worked on a SESAME STREET 25th Annivesary home video in June of 1993, and my first day of work on the series was November 3, 1993.
I did not bring a camera to the show that day (or for a long time), but here is one of the earliest pictures of me with a character (Herry's Mom), taken in 1997.
Who are some of your "dead" SESAME STREET characters?
Elizabeth, Curly Bear, and Lulu… who had three different designs in the three seasons she appeared on the show.
What made you want to be a Muppet Performer ?
I wanted to do something that comprised all of my interests: acting, singing, improvisation, playing a wide range of characters… without it mattering what I looked like. (Looking at these college pitctures of me, you can see why.)
At the same time, I was re-discovering the pop culture of my youth, particularly the Muppets. I saw the Muppet Performers through new eyes and I became fascinated by their work. I was studying Radio/TV/Film production at Northwestern, so I had access to equipment, and I lived in a dorm full of dear friends who were willing to be my crew, so I dove in. I built terrible (but fun) puppets and created an original puppet comedy called FREEFORM just so I could learn the ropes of television puppetry. It won a College Television Award in 1993, which led to a series of events which then led me to an audition.
Is it glamorous to be a Muppet Performer on SESAME STREET?
There are many adjectives to describe what I do: fun, sweaty, tiring, challenging, amazing, freeing, hilarious… but "glamorous" is not one of them.
But there's no other job like it in the world. And I love it.
I'd do it every day if the fates allowed, even though one of these pictures features me in a position which caused a bout of tendinitis in my hip. Hint: there's a cat in it.
photo by paul rudolph
photo by paul mcginnis
What kinds of characters do you play on SESAME STREET?
There is no limit to the kinds of characters I play. I play characters large and small, young and old. I play monsters, grouches, humans, aliens, anthropomorphic animals, non-anthropomorphic animals, vegetables & fruits, letters, numbers, inanimate objects, parodies of pop culture, and even a superhero cheese.
How many characters have you played on SESAME STREET?
I only count speaking roles, and across all SESAME STREET projects (the series, home videos, inserts, specials, etc.) it's around 250 characters.
HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!
How come all of these pictures are just of you?
Where are the pictures with all the celebrities?
Where are the pictures with the human cast?
Where are all the other Muppet Performers?
And WHY ARE YOU HOLDING BERT?
The pictures are of me because this is my website.
I have many pictures with celebrities who have appeared on the show, as well as the human cast and puppeteers, but it's my policy to not post pictures of other people on my site without their permission, unless it's a publicity photo that has already been released, in which case it's fair game. Internet etiquette has to start somewhere, doesn't it?
And I'm holding Bert because Eric Jacobson was performing Grover during this shoot. That happens a lot. I have held up almost every SESAME STREET character (except Big Bird and Snuffy) at one time or another, but it means nothing to the canon of the show. Got it? IT'S NOT CANON.
Since you've worked on SESAME STREET for so long, I bet you're too cool for school and don't get all excited to work on it anymore, right?
I take "holy-crap-I can't believe-I'm-still-here" pictures all the danged time.
photo by richard termine
photo by paul rudolph
So, is that it?
I guess so. But just in case you still don't grasp how much this show means to me, take a look at my face in this picture on the left, taken in the fall of 2012. That's Caroll Spinney inside Big Bird, saying hello to me, and I'm three years old all over again. (Bear in mind that when this was taken, I'd been working on the show for 19 years.)
I don't pretend that any of my characters will ever warrant that kind of response from adults, but I will take this little corner of the Internet to say that the surest way to rankle me is to belittle what my co-workers and I do. Children's entertainment is often stigmatized, and puppetry even more so. It's low-hanging fruit, an easy punchline used by people with no imagination. But I dare any of those trolls to face Big Bird up close. I dare them to deny that this old man in a giant puppet can suspend their cynicism. I dare their hearts to not explode with joy.
Yeah. I didn't think so.
That's what I do for a living: the most unique kind of acting job in the business.