Skip to main content

Kevin Clash: Making Elmo Come To Life

For more than 20 years, puppeteer Kevin Clash has been the voice behind the lovable red monster on Sesame Street. Both Clash "and" Elmo talk with Terry Gross about performing with Jim Henson, and creating a fun, educational experience for preschool-aged children.

14:11

Other segments from the episode on March 23, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 23, 2012: Interview with Jason Segel and Nicholas Stoller; Interview with Kevin Clash; Review of the 5th season premiere of the television show "Mad Men."

Transcript

March 23, 2012

Guest: Jason Segel & Nick Stoller-Kevin Clash

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MUPPETS")

STEVE WHITMIRE: (As Kermit) Miss Piggy, it's time for our song.

ERIC JACOBSON: (As Miss Piggy) Okay.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Kermit, Miss Piggy and their old Muppet friends reunited last year in the movie "The Muppets." Today we'll hear Terry's interview with the film's writers, Nick Stoller and Jason Segel. Segel is also one of the film's human stars of the show

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE MUPPETS")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As characters) (singing) It's time to play the music, it's time to light the lights. It's time to meet the Muppets on "The Muppet Show" tonight. It's time to put on makeup, it's time to dress up right. It's time to get things started - why don't you get things started"

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) I always dreamed we'd be back here.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character) Dreams, those are nightmares.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) It's time to get things started on the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational - this is what we call "The Muppet Show."

DAVIES: "The Muppets" movie won an Oscar for Best Original Song, and the film is now out on DVD. Here's why the Muppets reunite in the new movie and decide to put on a show. Jason Segel plays Gary, a nice guy living in Smalltown, USA. He has a younger brother named Walter, and Walter is a Muppet. Having grown up in the human world, Walter would do anything to meet another Muppet. So when Gary and his girlfriend plan a vacation in L.A., Walter insists on coming along and taking a tour of the old Muppet studio.

But the studio is dilapidated and deserted, and Walter learns an oil baron plans on tearing it down to drill for oil underneath unless the Muppets can raise $10 million to buy the studio.

So Walter, Gary and his girlfriend set out to reunite the Muppets and stage a telethon to raise the money. Before writing the screenplay for the Muppet movie, Jason Segel and Nick Stoller collaborated on the film "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Segel also stars in the CBS series "How I Met Your Mother." Stoller directed "Get Him to the Greek." Terry spoke to them in November, when "The Muppets" was released in theaters.

GROSS: Jason Segel, Nick Stoller, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really enjoyed the film. Congratulations.

JASON SEGEL: Thanks a lot. It's really nice to be back.

NICHOLAS STOLLER: Thank you so much.

GROSS: So let's start with the premise of the movie. And the premise is that, that Jason, that your younger brother is actually a Muppet who's having trouble finding his place in the world because he's never met another Muppet. He's never met anybody or anything like himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: How'd you come up with that as the premise?

SEGEL: Well, I mean, Nick and I came up with it together, but the character of Walter is sort of an analog for me in getting this Muppet movie made. He's a wild Muppet fan who when he finds the Muppets, they're not in the place that he was when he, you know, the Muppets that he grew up with. And so he sets out to make them as famous as they once were, which is - that was sort of our goal in making this movie.

GROSS: To rescue them from being washed-up?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEGEL: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, comedy really moves in cycles, and I think that the kind of purity of the Muppets had been taken over by cynical sense of humor. And so we set out to make a Muppet movie that harkened back to, like, the late '70s, early '80s Muppets that we grew up with.

STOLLER: We also have been, you know, asking ourselves, like, where have the Muppets been. Why hasn't there been a Muppet movie? And so - in such a long time. And so we put those words into Walter's mouth.

GROSS: So in the story, so Jason, your character and your girlfriend, played by Amy Adams, are going to go to L.A., and Walter really wants to come and go to the Muppet studio. And you finally decide okay, you're going to take him. And everybody's so happy. You're all going to L.A. together.

And then there's this great production number called "Life's A Happy Song." And so, like, hundreds of people are down Main Street in Smalltown, USA, that's the name of the town, singing this song. And it is so - it is just really, like, so delightful.

So before we hear the song, talk about asking Bret McKenzie from "Flight of the Conchords" - he's one of the co-stars and co-writers of the songs in that show - to write this song. He did several original songs for "The Muppets" movie. What did you tell him you wanted from this opening production number?

SEGEL: Well, Nick and I had written a rough sketch of the idea of the production number, you know, when we were writing the script. And then when James Bobin came on to do the movie, he brought Bret McKenzie along with him, and James Bobin directed many of the "Flight of the Conchords" episodes, and he was one of the creators.

We didn't have to tell Bret much in terms of tone because he is - he's by nature very Muppety. The Flight of the Concords themselves, it's a very Muppety kind of vibe: It's two wide-eyed innocents making their way through a tough New York. And so he knew what to do with that number, right from the start.

STOLLER: And in our initial meeting with James - I'd been friends with James for a few years - but in our initial meeting on this movie, he said the movie should open with a song that's about how everything's great, but everything's not great. You know?

GROSS: So - but everything is kind of great in that opening.

SEGEL: Well, you know, hidden beneath the surface is Walter feeling like he doesn't quite belong in this town. And the Amy Adams character is feeling like our relationship is a bit stunted because of how close I am with Walter. So very, very subtly under the surface, we plant the seeds of the problems that are going to come up later in the film.

GROSS: True to all that, okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

STOLLER: There's a subtle darkness to that song.

SEGEL: There's a subtle darkness to everything we do, a very subtle darkness.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Okay, so here's "Life's A Happy Song," with its subtle darkness.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIFE'S A HAPPY SONG")

SEGEL: (As Gary) (Singing) Everything is great, everything is grand. I got the whole wide world in the palm of my hand.

PETER LINZ: (As Walter) Singing) Everything is perfect, its falling into place. I can't seem to wipe this smile off my face.

JASON SEGEL AND PETER LINZ: (As Gary and Walter) (Singing) Life's a happy song when there's someone by my side to sing along.

LINZ: (As Walter) (Singing) When your alone life can be a little rough. It makes you feel like your three feet tall. When it's just you, times can be tough when there's no one there to catch your fall.

LINZ: (As Gary and Walter) (Singing) Everything is great everything is grand...

GROSS: So that's "Life's A Happy Song" from the soundtrack of the new Muppet movie, which is called "The Muppets," and we heard Jason Segel and the voice of the new Muppet Walter.

Let's talk about staging this opening production number, in which, like, you have a Main Street, and you have, like hundreds of people singing and dancing in a style that harkens to a lot of really, really corny production numbers. But it's so, like, not corny.

You're both pointing to what is corny about certain production numbers and doing it and not doing that corny thing at the same time.

SEGEL: Yeah, well, we wanted to - we wanted to sort of reference the old MGM-style musicals, which I love. You know, "Singing In the Rain" is one of my favorite movies, and it's intentionally campy.

I think one of the mistakes people make about "Singing in the Rain" is if you're young enough, it just seems like the past, but that movie was actually making fun of 20 years earlier than when it was made. So it's intentionally campy, and I think that was sort of a reference for us in terms of the musical numbers

STOLLER: And the Muppets also are always winking. You know, there's a kind of a self-referential thing going on. And so with a little wink, you can get away with a lot of campiness.

SEGEL: Yeah, absolutely. And we had a great choreographer, a guy called Michael Rooney, who actually is Mickey Rooney's son, who did most of the choreography of the film. It was really awkward because Mickey Rooney makes a great cameo in the first, in the opening number, and I did not know that Michael Rooney was his son.

GROSS: Oh, you didn't?

SEGEL: No, and he kept...

GROSS: Oh, that's so funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEGEL: And he kept bossing him around, going, like, all right Dad, get over here Dad, get over here Dad. And I went up to him, I'm like: You can't just call an old person dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEGEL: And he was like: No, that's my actual dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: No, I had this all wrong because it's funny, as soon as I saw his name, you see, I thought of Mickey Rooney right away because part of the movie is the let's-put-on-a-show premise.

SEGEL: Absolutely.

GROSS: Because part of the plot is that when Walter, you know, gets to the Muppet studio and sees that the Muppets' old theater is, like, it's dilapidated, and they have to raise $10 million in order to buy the studio back, it's like, well, how are we going to do it. Well, let's put on a show and raise some money. And that is so Mickey Rooney. It's literally from "Babes in Arms" with him and Judy Garland.

So I thought immediately of Mickey Rooney, and then I saw that Michael Rooney was a choreographer, and I thought Wikipedia time, let's see...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Let's see if he's - so anyway, I think what I'm trying to say is I can't believe that you didn't think of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEGEL: Yeah, no, I really didn't put it together. I was really thinking about singing and dancing at that point. I hadn't really thought it through.

STOLLER: They also look quite similar.

SEGEL: They look like twins, exactly.

STOLLER: Michael Rooney looks like a tall Mickey Rooney.

SEGEL: Yeah, it's really true.

GROSS: Okay, so once you realized you have Mickey Rooney and his son on the set, did you talk about all of those let's-put-on-a-show kind of movies?

SEGEL: Yeah, well, he's - you know, it's funny. Like, he comes from an era that's sort of, it's bygone now, but he really was a Disney guy, you know, back in the old studio system.

And so he at the end of one of his takes, at the end of his day of filming, they said all right, that's a wrap on Mickey Rooney, and Mickey Rooney said: Before I go, I'd just like to take a minute to thank the wonderful family at Disney not just for this film but for all of the wonderful films that they've done in the past and will do in the future.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEGEL: I'm like wow, that is from a different time. It was really neat to see.

DAVIES: Jason Segel and Nick Stoller wrote the movie "The Muppets," and Segel also starred in the film. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview with Nick Stoller and Jason Segel, who wrote the movie "The Muppets," which is now out on DVD. Segel also starred in the film.

GROSS: Let's play another song, and this is another great song that Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords wrote. It's called "Am I A Man, or Am I Muppet?" And Jason, you sing half of the song, and Walter, the Muppet, sings the other half. Do you want to describe the premise?

SEGEL: Yes, this is about, you know, halfway through the film, if not a little later, and Walter and I, who are as close as can be, are starting to drift apart because Walter is realizing that he needs to be with the Muppets, and I'm realizing that I should probably grow up and further my relationship with Amy Adams. And we're having a hard time breaking away from each other.

This was one of my favorite things I've ever done in my career. I think this song is so funny.

GROSS: It is really funny. So you sing it, and the new Muppet that you've created for this movie, Walter, sings it, too. So here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AM I A MAN, OR AM I MUPPET?")

SEGEL: (As Gary) (Singing) I reflect on my reflection, and I ask myself the question: What's the right direction to go? I don't know. Am I a man, or am I a Muppet? If I'm a Muppet then I'm a very manly Muppet. Am I a Muppet, or am I a man? If I'm a man that makes me a Muppet of a man.

LINZ: (As Walter) (Singing) I look into these eyes, and I don't recognize the one I see inside. It's time for me to decide: Am I a man, or am I a Muppet? If I'm a Muppet, well I'm a very manly Muppet. Am I a Muppet, or am I a man? If I'm a man that makes me a Muppet of a man.

LINZ: (As characters) (Singing) Here I go again. I'm always running out of time. I think I made up my mind. Now I understand who I am.

SEGEL: (As Gary) (Singing) I'm a man.

LINZ: (As Walter) (Singing) I'm a Muppet....

GROSS: So that was "Man Or Muppet," featuring Jason Segel and the new Muppet Walter, from "The Muppets" soundtrack, and Walter is performed by Peter Linz.

So you had to create a new Muppet for this movie, the character of Walter, who's your brother, Jason Segel, in the film. So now that you had a chance to create an actual Muppet that would be part of the franchise, so to speak, what did you want Walter, the new Muppet, to look like and behave like?

SEGEL: The goal was that he was just a wide-eyed innocent who sort of - he reminds me of maybe what Kermit was before Kermit became famous, you know, when Kermit was still living in the swamp.

And I think literally in describing Walter initially, we said that he was completely nondescript, which was our version of sort of calling him the Everyman. We didn't want him to look too particularly like anything.

GROSS: And what was it like to cast the performer to play Walter? And what does it mean to play Walter? What does the performer have to do?

SEGEL: Sure. Well, we auditioned quite a few people to play Walter, and then Peter Linz walked in, and talk about a no-brainer. He really was Walter instantly. I'm glad you asked what the puppeteer has to do.

The sad thing is that their job is, at the end of the day, to be invisible. You know, you're not supposed to think about the puppeteer. But in reality, these guys are acting, they're puppeteering, they're singing, they're dancing, they're doing improv.

A lot of times, you know, they're being contortionists. If a puppet is sitting on a couch talking, that means there's a puppeteer scrunched into a hollowed-out couch. And at the end of the day, you're not ever supposed to think about the puppeteer, and they're the true geniuses behind this movie.

GROSS: So how does it work exactly? These are - like, the Muppets are all hand puppets, and the body of the puppeteer has to be hidden. That's quite a directorial problem, too, isn't it?

SEGEL: Oh, yeah, the building of the sets is crazy and the logistics of what James had to do. You know, we - it's easy for Nick and I to imagine scenes. We wrote a scene that was supposed to 10 full-body Muppets running away in slow motion from an exploding building. It's easy to write it, and then James asked us how we were going to do it, and we said we had no idea.

And he explained that that was impossible. So he had to do the heavy lifting.

GROSS: Like for instance there's a scene - this isn't a special effects scene, this is kind of delightful. Jason, you and Amy Adams and all the Muppets, or a lot of the Muppets, are in a car together, you know, talking and singing. And you of course are so much bigger than the Muppets are.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEGEL: Yeah.

GROSS: You've got this, like, big smile on your face, but I was wondering if you were actually in the car with the Muppets when that was shot, or whether you were kind of added in.

SEGEL: I was. No, no, we did very, very little CGI. I was in the car with Amy, and there were 10 puppeteers scrunched into the car below us. And we had so many Muppets in the car in that scene that Amy and I were actually puppeteering while we were sitting there.

GROSS: No, really?

SEGEL: Yeah, I had the puppet on either side of me, and Amy had a puppet on either side of her. So we were doing all of it. It was really cool. It was a cool experience.

GROSS: God, that must have been heaven for you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEGEL: It was. I was thrilled. I think I had Animal and Dr. Teeth on my hands.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEGEL: And it was like - it was the greatest moment of my life.

STOLLER: And he wouldn't take them off.

GROSS: Now are you allowed to do that, like, franchise-wise? Is that legal for you to do them?

SEGEL: It is, yeah. You know, what they do in cases like that is they add the voices in later. So you're puppeteering, and then the guys who do the voice of the puppets, who are operating the other puppets they do, are going to add the voices later. It's pretty crazy.

GROSS: When you auditioned for Walter, did you - of course you had to have the would-be performer sing, right, as part of the audition?

SEGEL: Yes, we sang. He and I sang "Love Will Keep Us Together" as a duet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SEGEL: With him and Walter. We gave people, like, three or four choices of duets, and Walter and I sang, Peter Linz and I sang "Love Will Keep Us Together." He was just great.

GROSS: So when you got access to the Muppets for the movie, were there, like, was there like a book of guidelines that you were handed in order to, like, you know, honor the Muppets' legacy and work within the rules of the Muppet kingdom and everything?

STOLLER: There are a set of rules that, you know, that puppeteers kind of, you know, explained to us as we were working on the script. And so, you know, in one of our - in our earliest draft, Jason's character Gary and Walter were - he was a ventriloquist on the Venice Beach boardwalk, and Walter was his puppet, and they had this amazing act, and then you reveal that Walter's actually alive and wants to be a Muppet.

And the puppeteers explained to us that we couldn't - that in the world, Muppets think of themselves as people. They're not puppets. They're not, you know, Kermit's a frog, he's not a puppet and that that would kind of break one of the kind of cardinal rules of the world.

And so we changed that very quickly to what, you know, to what's in the current - so there are a lot of kind of rules like that that make the world whole.

SEGEL: And then there are just - there are rules that you know viscerally if you love the Muppets, like the Muppets are never mean to people. The Muppets don't get laughs at other people's expense. It's part of what I really loved about the Muppets is they don't even want to destroy their villains, for example. They want to reform their villains.

In the first Muppet movie, Doc Hopper, played by Charles Durning, wants to cut off Kermit's legs and make frogs legs, and as opposed to destroy him, Kermit is, like, oh, maybe you should think about why you don't have friends, and, you know, maybe you're just lonely, and you need to be a happier person. It's like the Muppets are pure.

DAVIES: Jason Segel and Nick Stoller wrote the movie "The Muppets," which is now out on DVD. Segel also starred in the film. We'll hear more of their conversation with Terry in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for I'm Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview with Nick Stoller and Jason Segel, who wrote and served as executive producers for the movie "The Muppets," which was released last year. Segel is also one of the film's human stars. It's now out on DVD.

Stoller and Segel also collaborated on the film "Forgetting Sarah Marshall." Terry spoke with them in November when "The Muppets" was released in theaters.

When we left off, Segel was explaining how he appreciated the long-standing guidelines for Muppet characters - that they were never mean or vindictive, for example. But in the new film, we meet some Muppet imitators who are a little nastier than the originals.

GROSS: You have like this cover band that you created called the Moopets.

SEGEL: Yes.

GROSS: And it's, you know, like - you describe it, 'cause I don't even know what language to use now.

SEGEL: You're right. They're the only way that you could create Muppets that were bad was to literally do like the comic book style Bizarro Muppets. So they are the exact opposite of the Muppets. They're Kermut, Fuzie, Rowlf and Animul. And they are the evil version of the Muppets. You're right, actually. They're the only evil Muppets I've ever seen.

NICK STOLLER: Mm-hmm.

SEGEL: And so there the big threat is that Tex Richman, played by Chris Cooper, who is just an absolute genius, has potential to get the rights to the Muppet name and his plan is to replace the Muppets with this evil, cynical version of the Muppets called the Moopets.

GROSS: And the Moopets have been working basically as a cover band. You know how a lot of old band have like one member of the original band and the rest are all just musicians that they picked up, so it's a band like this.

SEGEL: That's right.

GROSS: Like one of the real Muppets is in the band but everybody else is like a Moopet.

SEGEL: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And everybody - like all the Moopets are really like they're mean, they're nasty, they're cynical. And so the song that they're singing in this, they're a lounge act at a casino. Is it Reno or Vegas? I can't remember.

SEGEL: It's Reno and it's called the Pechoolo Casino. And Fozzie Bear, the consummate performer, is the only remaining member of the Muppets performing in this band and he's taken all of the original beautiful Muppet songs and has changed the lyrics so that they describe the Pechoolo Casino's specials and hotel deals.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And this is like a very sacrilegious thing to do in Muppet world.

SEGEL: It is.

GROSS: So therefore let's hear the Moopet version of "The Rainbow Connection," which is basically an ad...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...for this hotel in his lounge they are performing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINBOW CONNECTION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) (Singing) Why are there such great deals on our hotel rooms? And continental breakfast is free. Breakfast is free. HBO in every room. And free gas if you check in after noon. Free parking for cars, not RVs. Not RVs. Our wedding chapel is 24 hours. No marriage certificate is needed. No marriage certificate is needed. We're glad you found it. Pechoolo Casino. The owners. The Moopets. And me. Cha cha cha. Thank you. Thank you. You're a great audience.

GROSS: So that's the Moopets, the Muppets cover band of like bad guy Muppets from the soundtrack of the new movie "The Muppets." My guests, Jason Segel and Nick Stoller, wrote the movie. Jason Segel stars in it.

So tell me more about what the Muppets meant to you as kids. Like which were your favorite characters?

STOLLER: I mean, you know, being a, you know, comedy writer, comedy director, general comedy nerd, they were kind of the first thing I watched that made me say I want to do that. I remember as a kid, you know, the Muppets kind of very quickly lead to watching "Saturday Night Live" and "Mighty Python" and all those other shows. But it's the first thing you want as a kid, that...

GROSS: As for people who don't remember, the Muppets used to be - in the first season of "Saturday Night Live" the Muppets were regulars.

STOLLER: Right. Yeah. And they also, I think, really set the stage for, you know, "The Simpsons" and for, you know, the Pixar movies and for a lot of comedy, you know, family comedy in particular, that appeals to both kids and adults, that's, you know, that's a little bit more complicated than just something that just appeals to kids.

GROSS: Now, I've read, and a lot of people might read this too, that there is a couple of people who performed Muppets in the past who thinks that this movie kind of like violates some Muppets traditions. And particularly because there's like a whoopee cushion joke, so it's kind of like a fart joke - it's a whoopee cushion. So did you get any criticisms like that from the inside, from the Muppet family?

SEGEL: I think more than anything they were, they made those comments before they saw the film. I think that they were just nervous about what we were going to do. One of our producers put it best. We're by definition the stepparents in this, you know? And no matter how good the stepparent is, the kids are always going to be skeptical of them and give them a hard time.

STOLLER: Also, I didn't realize until, you know, working on the movie how much the puppeteers have lived and breathed Muppets for, you know, 30 years. You know, Steve Whitmire has worked on this for 30 years. And so I, you know, if I'd worked on something for 30 years and two guys came in and said we're doing the next thing, I would be, I would certainly have my back up, you know.

GROSS: I wish you both the best. I want to thank you both so much for talking with us.

SEGEL: Thank you. It's a real honor to be on your show again. Thank you so much.

STOLLER: Thank you so much.

DAVIES: Jason Segel and Nick Stoller wrote the movie "The Muppets," which is now out on DVD. Segel also starred in the film.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.As a rule, Terry doesn't interview puppets on the show. But she made an exception last year when Kevin Clash came to the studio with Elmo, the little red monster Muppet from "Sesame Street" that so many young kids love. Although they don't care about the human behind the character, Clash has an interesting story of how he created Elmo's personality and made him into a superstar.

Clash has performed Elmo on "Sesame Street" since 1984. The documentary, "Being Elmo," which will be shown on PBS stations next month, is about Kevin Clash and how he fulfilled his lifelong ambition of being a puppeteer, which wasn't considered the coolest fantasy by his classmates when he was growing up. While he was sewing his own puppets, kids mocked him for playing with dolls. But he kept at it, and by the time he was in high school, he was a puppeteer on local TV kids' shows in Baltimore.

Let's start with Elmo's song, which was later adapted into the theme for "Elmo's World," a segment hosted by Elmo which is a special feature of "Sesame Street." The song starts with Elmo at the piano and Big Bird and Snuffy drop by. And, of course, it's Kevin Clash singing as Elmo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELMO'S SONG")

KEVIN CLASH: (As Elmo) Everybody - Snuffy, Big Bird, come see what Elmo did.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) What have you done, Elmo?

CLASH: (As Elmo) Elmo wrote his own song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) Really? What's it called?

CLASH: (As Elmo) "Elmo's Song."

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) Oh, clever title.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) Yeah, wish I'd thought of that.

(As Elmo) Do Snuffy and Big Bird want to hear it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) Sure.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) Sure.

CLASH: (As Elmo) OK.

(As Elmo) (Singing) This is the song, la, la, la, la, Elmo's song. La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, Elmo's song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) I like it.

CLASH: (As Elmo) (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) To think he wrote this alone.

CLASH: (As Elmo) (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Snuffleupagus) Catchy.

CLASH: (As Elmo) (Singing) He loves to sing, la, la, la, la, Elmo's song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Snuffleupagus) Oh sing it.

CLASH: (As Elmo) (Singing) La, la, la, la, Elmo's song. He wrote the music, he wrote the words. That's Elmo's song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) Wow, that's great.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) Yeah, I wish I had a song.

CLASH: (As Elmo) Yeah, well, Big Bird can sing Elmo's.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) How?

CLASH: (As Elmo) Well, just sing Big Bird instead of Elmo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) Great idea.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) Here I go.

(As Big Bird) (Singing) This is the song, la, la, la, la, Big Bird's song.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As Snuffleupagus) It works.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As Big Bird) (Singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, Big Bird's song. La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la...

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Kevin Clash, welcome to FRESH AIR. So kids just, like, love Elmo. Are parents sometimes mystified by how much their kids love Elmo?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: Especially when they're - when they have a child, and the first thing that the child says is Elmo instead of mommy.

GROSS: Does that happen?

CLASH: Oh yeah, I get that a lot. It's like, do you know that my child's first word was Elmo? No, I get that a lot. But they're very surprised by it, but also they understand it too. So it's nice. It really is nice to be a part of their life with their child.

GROSS: So you actually brought Elmo with you, and I should mention you're in a studio in New York, at the NPR bureau in New York, and I'm at our studio in Philadelphia. So we can't see each other.

CLASH: (As Elmo) No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And there's Elmo.

CLASH: (As Elmo) Hi, Miss Terry. How are you?

GROSS: I'm good, Elmo, how are you?

CLASH: (As Elmo) Elmo's good. Elmo was just in Philadelphia.

GROSS: Yeah, but he didn't come visit us, did he?

CLASH: (As Elmo) No, Elmo didn't know you then, but Elmo knows you now.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Do you feel bad because you can't hug me, and I can't hug you because you're in New York and I'm in Philadelphia?

CLASH: (As Elmo) No, Elmo will be there soon, and we can have a play date together.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK.

CLASH: (As Elmo) Is that OK, Miss Terry?

GROSS: Yeah, yeah, that's perfect. I do lots of play dates.

CLASH: (As Elmo) Cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: (As Elmo) Cool.

GROSS: Now, let me get back to Kevin Clash here.

CLASH: (As Elmo) If you must.

GROSS: Excuse us, Elmo. So you've created a lot of puppets over the years, but Elmo was basically a discard. When you came to the Muppet studios, several puppeteers had tried to do something with Elmo, but nothing ever really came of it.

CLASH: Yeah, actually I got Elmo by default.

GROSS: Tell the story of how you got Elmo.

CLASH: Well, Brian Muehl, who's a wonderful, phenomenal puppeteer, he started performing Elmo. He actually originated Telly Monster and Barkley on "Sesame Street." He started performing the character first, and he decided to pursue his acting and writing. So he left the show.

And so the character had to go to someone. So Richard Hunt was the next in line, and Norman Stiles, who was their head writer at the time, really did not like what Richard came up with. He just had the character yelling, and it wasn't - it didn't really sound like a kid. And so Richard really didn't, you know, need the character. So he threw the little red monster to me, and he told me to come up with a voice, and I came up with the voice.

GROSS: So how did you figure out what the personality was going to be?

CLASH: Well, the character was already developed when I actually got the puppet. So I knew that it was a three-and-a-half-year-old, and it loved playing games, and through the games, he would learn things. He always talked in third person. So all of those things I knew.

So really I came in, and I really thought about OK, he's a three-and-a-half-year-old little child, and he has a lot of energy. So I thought OK, this falsetto voice would work for him.

GROSS: And the whole idea that, like, Elmo really loves to be, like, kissed and hugged, and how did that come up?

CLASH: I think all of us tend to try to get some type of catchphrase or something that the puppet does that gets you into the character. Like Jim Henson with hi-ho, Kermit the frog here, or say Fozzie saying wokka wokka or Miss Piggy saying moi. The laugh for Elmo was the hook for me, to get to where Elmo needed to be.

And so that's really how that happened. It was interesting. Lisa Simon(ph), again the producer at the time, she took me out to lunch, and she said, you know, I really think the laugh is really too much. And I was like, OK, I don't know what to do with that, because I was so used to it. And again, like I said, it was that little – you know, the connection I had to performing the character.

And then, of course, the big hooplah about the Tickle Me Elmo doll and everything, and so we left it to where Elmo laughs a lot and loves to laugh.

GROSS: One of the big outcomes of the popularity of Elmo was the Tickle Me Elmo doll. And the year that they came out, like for Christmas you couldn't get one. It became this incredibly hot commodity because it was just selling out everywhere.

CLASH: Yeah. I was out with my daughter, actually, in like a Baby Depot or something like that and I saw the toy and I picked it up. I said, oh, that's what that's for. And I bought it. Took it home and...

GROSS: You bought it. That's great.

CLASH: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: Yeah, I did buy it. And like maybe two weeks later I got a call saying that at the end of that week Toys "R" Us was saying that it was going to be the number one selling toy at Toys "R" Us. And then analysts were saying that it was going to be the number one selling toy for that Christmas. And, you know, you've got to understand, I'm a puppeteer. I don't know anything about merchandising or products or anything. And so I just was happy that it was something positive.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: That's all I really knew. But it was fascinating, the big hoopla about this toy. It was unbelievable.

GROSS: So there's this great story in the movie about how you made one of your puppets from - I think it was like the fur lining of your father's coat.

CLASH: Oh yeah, yeah.

GROSS: That must have gone over big in the house. Yeah, go ahead.

CLASH: Well, you know, I just got this energy of just, you know, I wanted to make a monkey puppet. And so I saw the lining of my father's coat, and I took it out, and I cut it up, and I made a monkey out of it and realized what I had done afterwards. And I actually hid - after I built the puppet.

My dad came home, and he saw the puppet. I put it on his - my mom and dad's dresser. And he saw it and asked my mom about it, and he called me, and he said what's his name? And I said his name is Moandy(ph), and he said: Next time, ask. And so, you know, yeah.

I mean, they were always very, very supportive of the things I did. I mean, they were very - I mean, they disciplined all of us. I mean - but they were very creative people themselves. So they knew where that was coming from.

GROSS: In what ways were they creative?

CLASH: Well, my mom, she sewed a lot, and she taught me how to sew on the Singer sewing machine. And she sewed clothes, her dresses, and also what she would do is she would take some of the material that was leftover, and she would cover some of her shoes with that same material. So she was very creative in her own way. My father drew a lot. We had pastel colors and paints and stuff that he would - he loved drawing and stuff, so...

GROSS: So that's how you learned to sew, from your mother?

CLASH: Oh yeah, well, I had gotten - there was a show called "Romper Room" that originated in Baltimore at the local station that I was working at. And it was - "Romper Room," and Miss Nancy was the lady that was the host of it in Baltimore.

The producers of the show asked me, could I make a doctor puppet for, not only the Baltimore local "Romper Room," but all of the different television stations that had their own "Romper Room" in different cities because they wanted to talk about health.

And so I designed the puppet, and the character's name was called Doc. And I had to build 35 of them. And they only paid me like $10 apiece for them.

GROSS: Oh, no.

CLASH: But my mom said listen, I can't sew all these for you. I have to teach you how to sew. So that's when she taught me how to sew. And I sewed all of them myself and built them all myself.

GROSS: How old were you?

CLASH: I had to be still in high school.

GROSS: Wow, they really ripped you off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: Yeah, but you know what? The experience was wonderful. You know, I can't - I was very lucky to get so much experience because that helped me - Jim Henson was very surprised at the amount of experience and things that I knew, once I met him and, you know, and showed him what I could do.

GROSS: So, um... I'm sorry, I just lost my train of thought for a second.

CLASH: (as Elmo) That's okay.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Thank you, Elmo. You're so reassuring. That's very generous of you to step in and rescue me there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So because you've had to crouch so much over the years, like hiding your physical self, Kevin Clash, so that Elmo would be seen while you'd remain invisible, are there parts of your body that hurt a lot?

CLASH: Oh, yeah. I'm 51 now so - but, you know, I know that physically working out is something that's really, really important. So, you know, sometimes I go away from it for months at a time and then I come back to it, because I know that that's the only way I can physically perform these characters. You know, we sit on - roll around, like, ottomans that very low to the ground with wheels underneath that we roll around the set on, and that's how we get around on the set, you know...

GROSS: Sitting or lying down?

CLASH: Sitting. Sitting. Sitting. So oof, you know, so we – yeah, we do have to do like, you know, sit-ups and crunches and push-ups and things that, you know, to keep our bodies in physical shape.

GROSS: Let me just get this image. So you are on an ottoman, hidden beneath the camera, performing Elmo while directing?

CLASH: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, I block it out. I mean I have an assistant director to really - once I get out there and I start performing the character, he has to call the shots. You know, I mark all the - I mark the script up as far as what shots I need and everything. And then the assistant director will call those shots out, because I'm down on the floor performing Elmo at the time.

GROSS: So do you say things like, you know, Cookie Monster, I need more of a smile or...

CLASH: Oh sure. Yeah. Definitely. I mean if I'm performing Elmo and another character says something that's oh, you know, that didn't work. Let's start over again...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: ...at the same time. But, you know, Jim was that way too. I mean Jim was directing and performing at the same time, you know, so I'm just, you know, walking in his footsteps.

GROSS: So before we say goodbye I want to say, like I feel like I should talk more to Elmo, but I have no idea what to say to him.

CLASH: (as Elmo) That's OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: (as Elmo) It's okay. It's okay.

GROSS: Elmo, you don't feel left out of the conversation?

CLASH: (as Elmo) No, no. Elmo has been talking for years.

GROSS: Okay.

CLASH: (as Elmo) Years.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: (as Elmo) Elmo wants to give Mr. Kevin is 15 minutes of fame.

DAVIES: Kevin Clash created and performs the character Elmo on "Sesame Street." His story is told in the documentary "Being Elmo" which will be shown on PBS stations next month. Coming up, David Bianculli on the long-awaited premier of the fifth season of AMC's "Mad Men." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: The AMC series "Mad Men," winner of the Best Drama Series Emmy for each of its four seasons to date returns with Season Five this Sunday, after a 17 month hiatus. Our TV critic David Bianculli asks whether the long-overdue start of this new season was worth the wait, and starts by answering that very question.

DAVID BIANCULLI: Yes, it was worth the wait. Absolutely. "Mad Men" returns Sunday with a two-hour season premiere - and by the time it's over, if you react the way I did, you'll be satisfied and even comforted to have spent two wonderful hours with the folks at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

Series creator Matthew Weiner has created something magical with "Mad Men, and that spell continues in Season Five. This show has a pace and feel all its own, and the writers, actors and directors all attack with the cocky confidence of Jon Hamm's Don Draper entering a conference room to woo a new client.

These characters have been delineated so richly over the years that spending time with them this season is not only a pleasure, it's a constant series of small but revealing discoveries. When Elisabeth Moss, as Peggy, snaps at Don after she has a bit too much to drink, it's underplayed - but it's obviously a bold move that results in a series of aftershocks.

So is the power play by Vincent Kartheiser's Pete, who's bringing in more clients than many others in the office and doesn't want that fact to go unnoticed, or unrewarded. Secrecy and mystery are big parts of "Mad Men," especially between seasons, so there's no point in getting specific here. Yes, as usual, the new season begins some time after the previous season ended, allowing the plot to jump ahead a bit, but I won't say how long.

Nor will I say what most "Mad Men" fans seem to want to know: Did Don really marry Megan, the secretary to whom he proposed, impulsively and quite shockingly, in the fourth-season finale? And if you remember that proposal, you really are a fan, because that was televised way back in 2010.

All I'll say is that Megan is still a part of Don's life, and they appear, at first, to be getting along quite well. That's true at work, where Don, played by Jon Hamm, takes the opportunity to ditch Pete Campbell and meet with Megan, played by Jessica Pare, in his office behind closed doors at which point he immediately embraces her.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")

JON HAMM: (as Don Draper) Let's get out of here.

JESSICA PARE: (as Megan) No.

HAMM: (as Don Draper) Then lock the door.

PARE: (as Megan) As soon as I'm in here longer than five minutes people will start to...

HAMM: (as Don Draper) What? Who?

PARE: (as Megan) I have to get these to Peggy. I have a presentation, you know.

HAMM: (as Don Draper) I can make you go home right now, you know. I have that power.

ELIZABETH MOSS: (as Peggy) (over intercom) Mr. Campbell is here to see you.

HAMM: (as Don Draper) I just saw him.

PARE: (as Megan) I have to get back to work.

HAMM: (as Don Draper) Open your blouse.

PARE: (as Megan) You're a dirty old man. Anything else?

HAMM: (as Don Draper) No, ma'am.

VINCENT KARTHEISER: (as Pete) I'm sorry; am I interrupting?

BIANCULLI: Megan and Don also appear to be getting along outside of work, but appearances can be deceiving. Don may be calm and carefree on the surface, but he's always churning underneath. Season Five begins with him facing his 40th birthday, and a surprise party at which Megan, as a special gift, joins the band that's been hired for the party, grabs a microphone, and sings a pretentious little song in French while giving him the 1960s equivalent of a lap dance.

Because it's Don Draper, it's impossible to register his true reaction, but it'll come out sooner or later. Once again, here's Jessica Pare as Megan.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MAD MEN")

PARE: (Singing in French)

BIANCULLI: The opening hours of "Mad Men," this season, are about office politics and personal relationships. But the world that's percolating outside, at this point in the '60s, can't be held at bay for long. And it isn't.

"Mad Men" is a show devoted to its era, and determined to strip away any undeserved nostalgia - so race, war and drugs all come into play. But "Mad Men" also is about our times, and about the timeless ebb and flow of intimate relationships, professional status and secret yearnings. "Mad Men," even after such a long hibernation, is a show for all seasons. It's great to have it back — and it's as great as ever.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

22:30

From 'Designing Women' To 'Hacks', Jean Smart's Career Is Still Going Strong

Smart is nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances Hacks, about a veteran comic working with a Gen-Z comedy writer, and the crime drama Mare Of Easttown. Originally broadcast May 2021.

52:30

'Storm Lake' Documentary Depicts The Triumph And Struggle Of A Local Newspaper

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Art Cullen discusses the battle to keep print news alive in small-town America. Cullen runs Iowa's Storm Lake Times, along with his brother, the paper's publisher.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue