I grew up with Sesame Street during the day and The Muppet Show at night. Although it was clear to see those thin wires helping Kermit‘s arms to express themselves, it was also quite clear to me that Kermit was his own man, uhhh…frog that is, and that he expressed himself on his own without anyone’s help. It simply never crossed my mind to doubt that hardcore belief that I had instilled in myself: Kermit is real, even if his arms need assistance. And whose arms wouldn’t? He was the only character working both during the day and at night!
By the time The Muppet Movie came along there were no more wires, setting the Muppets free to play guitar like Kermit did in the iconic pond with his hit “Rainbow Connection”, or to ride bikes the way they did in The Great Muppet Caper leaving us kids in awe. How the heck did they do that?!
That sense of wonderment we get as a member of the audience watching the artistry and imagination within the Jim Henson universe is something that seems to have been built into Kevin Clash, a puppeteer and the Muppeteer better known as the voice of Elmo.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is a mostly nice and fuzzy general interest doc with a much better-than-average amount of filmed footage from Clash’s upbringing in a middle-class African-American home in the suburbs of Baltimore through the late 60′s and into the 70′s. It doesn’t get too deep in either his personal life or with its behind-the-scenes footage of how Muppets are brought to life, but what we do get from both is enough to stoke our imaginations and our sense of nostalgia for that period on TV. A time when variety shows and not “reality” shows were all the rage allowing for funny skits, musical numbers, and famous guest appearances.
Kevin Clash was all about puppets as a young boy and when Sesame Street came along he knew he was meant for that world. The desire to create a Muppet and express himself through it was so strong that as he stared at his father’s long fur-coat with its plush dark inner-lining, he couldn’t help himself. With a pair of scissors he cut into it with the bi-product turning out to be a puppet of a monkey. Like most kids, it was only after he finished the task that a dread crept up in him at the thought of what his father would do. “What’s his name?”, asked his father. “Mondi”, uttered Kevin. “Next time, just ask”, answered his father.
Using his mother’s clothesline outside, Kevin would put on shows for the neighborhood kids. In one of the many delightful home videos that are over 30 years old, we see Kevin sewing up one of his creations and toying around with mannerisms and voices. Some kids made fun of Kevin for “playing with dolls”, but that teasing stopped after he scored a job with the local TV station where he now had a platform to showcase his characters and more importantly his talent.
We then follow Kevin through a series of lucky breaks as he gets put up in a hotel in New York City eventually working with Jim Henson Productions on Sesame Street. The footage from the show at the time is marvelous and the real eye-opening stuff is watching all the work the humans have to do to get things just right. We watch their arms in a shot while their heads are bowed to the ground watching monitors of their arms on-camera and often with a second human moving the Muppet’s arms or controlling its legs.
Though Kevin found himself living his dream, he hadn’t settled into any one distinguishing role or character on the show until the Muppet we now know as Elmo was literally thrown at him by a colleague who just didn’t know what to do with the little red furry guy. The footage of Elmo on TV before he was Elmo is very funny stuff as the original puppeteer played him a low, gravelly voice.
Armed with opportunity, Kevin took Elmo back home to Baltimore on a family visit that weekend and drew inspiration from a mix of the small kids he had been observing playing on the block and moreso, his parents when it all clicked: he would make Elmo a younger Muppet with the main characteristic being the need to give and receive tons of love and affection. Elmo took off and with it so did Kevin, a shy and quiet boy who grew up to be able to channel that innocence and wonder into one of the most successful and beloved Muppets of all time. You may recall that wicked Tickle Me Elmo craze about a decade or so ago as people trampled over each other at Christmas time to procure them.
Kevin Clash is presented as a shy, precocious young man in his youth, and a contented middle-aged man today who knew early on what his dream was and found that he was lucky enough to not only dream it but to live it as well. Jim Henson had been his hero growing up, and now in his semi-retirement he has the memory of working alongside him and being able to say that he was his friend.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey will work with grown adults as a wonderful piece of nostalgia, and it should have the effect of helping to continue to inspire the imaginations of youngsters.
Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey ***
Our good friends at Disney have been great in giving us passes to the upcoming Muppets movie coming out November 23rd. Their generosity has now been stepped up a level because we have a very cool one on one interview with the number one dude of the Muppets himself!
Ladies and Gentleman…
I present to you, Mister Kermit the Frog:
KERMIT THE FROG (Kermit the Frog) returns to the big screen in 2011 in Disney’s “The Muppets.” With 56 years in show business, he boasts countless credits in television, film, stage and online, including the recent hit viral videos featuring the Muppets’ take on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2009) and “Ode to Joy” (2008)—both Webby winners (an award very dear to Kermit’s heart and feet). He has been honored with his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (2002), and his song “Rainbow Connection” was nominated for an Academy Award® and a Golden Globe® in 1979. Kermit has appeared many times in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. He received the Key to the City from Kermit, Texas, in 2005, and holds an honorary Doctorate of Amphibious Letters from the Southampton College at Long Island University. He was the first amphibian to address the prestigious Oxford Union at Oxford University.
Kermit’s film credits include “The Muppet Movie” (1979), “The Great Muppet Caper” (1981), “The Muppets Take Manhattan” (1984), “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992), “Muppet Treasure Island” (1996) and “Muppets from Space” (1999). He’s also had starring roles in the TV films “Muppets Wizard of Oz” (2005) and “A Muppet Christmas: Letters to Santa.” In addition to hosting and starring in the international hit phenomenon “The Muppet Show,” which ran from 1976-1981, Kermit’s small-screen credits include “Muppet Babies” and “Muppets Tonight.” He has appeared on a host of variety shows, including “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” “Today” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brian.” Kermit has also been a guest on “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” and “Saturday Night Live,” among many others. Kermit’s memoirs—“Look Before You Leap: A Frog’s Eye View of Life’s Greatest Lessons”—were published in 2006.
Kermit resides in a swamp, where he maintains a bachelor pad.
A CONVERSATION WITH KERMIT THE FROG…
Why should audiences see Disney’s “The Muppets”? It’s funny, upbeat and full of laughs for everyone… frogs, pigs, bears… even people.
For new fans, it’s a chance to see the Muppets in action on the big screen. And for old fans, it’s a chance to get together with old friends… and get a little crazy together.
What is Disney’s “The Muppets” about? Well, it’s the story of this incredible Muppet fan named Walter who comes to Hollywood to meet us… and ends up having to get all the Muppets back together to put on a show and save Muppet Studios.
I guess it’s the first Muppet movie that’s really from the point of view of a fan. Jason Segel, who is a really big Muppet fan in real life, co-wrote the movie. He wanted to show what it would be like if the world’s biggest Muppet fan—along with his brother Gary (played by Jason) and friend Mary (played by Amy Adams)—came to Hollywood to meet us.
What is your role in Disney’s “The Muppets”? I play me, Kermit the Frog. I’ve played other parts, like Bob Crachit in “A Muppet Christmas Carol” and Captain Smollett in “Muppet Treasure Island,” but I think “me” is my favorite part.
Playing a frog named Kermit might be type casting, but there aren’t a lot of great parts for amphibians, so I was happy to get the part.
In the movie—and in life, really—I’m a humble frog in Hollywood who wants to get back together with his friends and keep entertaining people.
How does your life differ from the characters you play in the films? Well, on the big screen. I’m 16 feet tall. But in real life, it’s closer to 18 inches. So, I’d have to say the biggest difference is more height—and better lighting.
Seriously, though, my life on screen and off screen is about the same. In real life and on film, I’m surrounded by chaos, craziness, and romantic pigs—just like any other Hollywood star.
Why did you want to take part in this film? I understand they considered other actors—George Clooney, Tom Hanks. But in the end, when it comes to playing short, green and amphibious, I’m still Hollywood’s go-to guy. According to director James Bobin, when I read for the role of “me,” I nailed it.
What is the funniest scene in the film? I like the scene where everything goes crazy and no one knows what to do. It’s total mad chaos…..Hmm, come to think of it, that describes most of the movie.
I can’t pick JUST one scene—all the other scenes would get jealous. But I really do like the big finale. Lots of singing, dancing, laughing… and, I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s happy, too.
What was it like working opposite Jason Segel? Jason is not only a great comedian, but as a co-writer of the movie, he’s great to work with. If you forget your lines, he can make up new ones.
Jason’s a swell guy. He really loved the Muppets before we worked together…and he still loves us after. That’s a true fan. And he has such a fantastic sense of humor. He can find funny everywhere… even in Fozzie’s act.
…Chris Cooper? Chris plays the villain, Tex Richman, yet he’s really the nicest guy you’ll ever meet. That’s an incredible feat: being a good guy and playing a bad guy. When it comes to acting, it’s not that easy being mean.
…Amy Adams? Amy is incredible. She’s so beautiful and talented and funny. I’d love to make every movie with her…. but Miss Piggy won’t let me.
She’s also a great actress: she can sing and dance, and she has three Academy Award® nominations. I’m hoping she gets an Oscar® for Disney’s “The Muppets.” If not, I’m willing to paint myself gold and stand on her mantle.
…Miss Piggy? I have to say: working with Miss Piggy is always a pleasure. I have to say that ‘cause she makes me say it.
This was a different kind of movie for us. Normally, Piggy and I are together right from the start. But in Disney’s “The Muppets,” Miss Piggy is over in Paris and we have to go get her. That was challenging for me. France is tough for frogs… with legs.
What’s the deal with you and Miss Piggy? Are you still together? Miss Piggy and I have a professional relationship. I think we’re professionals; she thinks we’re in a relationship.
Actually, Miss Piggy and I are good friends, but just friends. We like each other a great deal, but we are not romantically involved—despite her best efforts.
Describe director James Bobin. James has a quirky sense of humor. Just watch his work on “Flight of the Conchords” and you can see this isn’t someone who sees the world like everyone else. Not being normal helps when you work with the Muppets. He’s a consummate professional—and we’re not, so we really needed him.
What is your advice for up-and-coming frogs/actors? Never say croak.