Kevin Clash, The Man Behind Elmo, on Jim Henson, Puppetry, and Jason Segel's 'The Muppets'

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The Muppets are legendary TV and film characters, but there's something about Sesame Street's giggliest resident, Elmo, that makes small children perk up. Constance Marks, the director of the new documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey, put Elmo's appeal this way: "Kids sit up, pay attention, and turn on. There's that bright red fur and adorable bulgy eyes, but it's the soul of the puppeteer that people are responding to. It's an amazing gift."

That soul belongs to Kevin Clash, Elmo's Emmy-winning creator and a Muppet veteran since 1983. As the subject of Marks' documentary, Clash is a solid, seemingly unflappable performer who has enjoyed a tremendous run as a puppeteer: He began as a youngster in Baltimore who tore up coats to build puppets, ended up honing his craft alongside Jim Henson, and watched awestruck as the Tickle Me Elmo phenomenon took over Christmas in 1997. We phoned Clash to talk about his favorite Muppets, the influence of Jim Henson (and Henson's amazing memorial in 1990), and Elmo's single proudest accomplishment.

At the beginning of the documentary, you say that Grover was your favorite Muppet as a kid. Why?

Oh man. Listen, I was lucky first of all to see him on television and love the character, but to watch Frank Oz perform Grover was just amazing to me. He was very, very funny. The manipulation, the silliness he'd do with the character was amazing to me always.

There seems to be a great bond among puppeteers. Do you find that puppeteers approach the work the same way

As far as the way we create a character and the sense of humor, yes, because there's a limit that we can go to as far as we go with the edginess -- but we learned that through Jim. As far as our work ethic, we all block our scripts in different ways and manipulate the puppets in different ways. But as how we perform? That's the same. We try to crack each other up.

Jim Henson is truly Christlike to certain fan contingent. All these years after his death, do his voice and influence linger over your work?

When you said that, I thought, "Jesus Christ! Superstar!" You know, we never looked at him that way, because he never acted like our boss. He just wanted to collaborate with us and have a good time. I just think we were lucky to have a boss who was the ultimate boss, the type of boss you want, the type of boss who wanted to have everyone work together and make it fun and make it something that everyone else can laugh at and enjoy also. And that's why when we don't talk about him like [laughs] this "Christ" character, because it was always a lot of fun. Another thing that Jim did, because it was such a different medium and everyone respected what he did, when he said, "This is the way you shoot a puppet for TV or film," everyone respected him. For all of us who worked under him, it was not a challenge. We had one person who said how to do it in puppet and film, and we miss that immensely. He had that vision and helped all of us that way.

Jim Henson's memorial service is one of the most emotional things I've ever seen. There's a clip of it in the documentary. Can you reflect on that day?

That memorial service ran for five hours, and everyone walked away from that memorial service saying it felt like a half an hour. It was the most beautiful and most unbelievable moment of love, respect, and emotion for this man who'd be missed. It was an unbelievable evening. It definitely takes me back every time, even with the short clip that's in the doc -- where I was at, who I was with, who I came with, what we talked about that day. It was packed at that church, and everybody became one. Another thing that was amazing that day, Big Bird walked out in that church and sang "Being Green," Kermit's signature song, and then Bird looked up to the top of the church and said, "Thank you, Jim." It was the most poignant and beautiful and emotional thing. We all crumbled after that, seeing Big Bird say that.

Is there a strong desire to come up with new characters?

That's the direction that all the puppeteers are going. Jim and Frank, Steve Whitmire, Dave Gold, Jerry Nelson, and Richard Hunt created The Muppet Show, and Jim wanted those characters go on, but those characters are Jim and Frank, and we know that. That's why we love that Dave is still around to do Gonzo and Steve Whitmire is around to keep Kermit going, but we all want to go in the direction of creating new characters, the new Kermit and Miss Piggy for this generation and others. We're all looking forward to creating new characters. That's where Elmo originally came from.

In the documentary, we see you teaching puppetry to a couple of kids. Is there a "You have it or you don't" quality to puppetry, in terms of who can be successful at it?

You're right. It is "You have it or you don't." We find a lot of time the potential is there, and as you begin to train and add more to what you need to know, sometimes it goes away with certain puppeteers. Others keep striving and building and building. So definitely there are some stages that will happen. You get really excited at the beginning, like "Wow! That's really cool! It's there!" Then sometimes [laughs] in the next two or three steps, it goes away. The really exciting ones, you see the potential and it just grows.

What do you think of the approach of the new Muppets film? Frank Oz was critical of it.

It's a new era and a new time. Jim is not there and everybody felt that, but he really thought these characters should go on. What I'm hearing with the final, the puppeteers are excited about it.

Do you worry about the vitality of puppetry? Are there ways for the medium to grow and evolve?

Well, that's one of the main reasons I said yes to doing the doc. Over six years ago, we had challenges as far as the last few movies that had come out -- they didn't do very well. I saw the surge of computer generation projects that were happening definitely in film but also on television. There are so many animated programs that do really well, the same with Pixar. That medium was overshadowing puppetry, and that's one of the main reasons I said yes to Connie -- to talk about puppetry and kind of "cheerleader" puppetry.

You say in the documentary that you develop a character voice well after the puppet is built -- almost as a secondary trait. That surprised me.

A lot of the times over the years I've been given the title "Voice of Elmo." That's not what we do! We use our hands. The voice was always secondary. Jim always thought that way. It was all about creating a character and a personality. The voice would always come second. That's the way we were trained, and that's how Jim saw it. If you can get a good character or personality out of a puppet, the voice comes. That's why voice acting is not what we do. Mel Blanc was brilliant at it, and he said so many different voices, but he was a "voice actor." He didn't use his voice.

What was the height of Tickle Me Elmo's mania like for you?

It was a challenge for me because I had never done that many interviews before. I'd done interviews, but man, when that hit? I was in and out cars going back and forth to different talk shows going back and forth for, like, three weeks. It was during the winter, so my voice got kind of compromised. That was a challenge. I thought I was going to lose my voice. Once it slowed down, I ran to a throat doctor to make sure everything would be cool. It was amazing to me, the amount of press that happened with Tickle Me Elmo.

Finally, what's Elmo's proudest accomplishment?

Elmo's proudest accomplishment is writing his name for the first time and also counting one to ten, definitely. He almost lost his mind on both of those occasions.

Being Elmo is in select theaters now.



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