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Kevin Clash On Bringing Elmo To Life

Sesame Street's Elmo used to sound like a caveman and he was not very fun. But when puppeteer Kevin Clash started working with the furry character, Elmo quickly became a cute and cuddly icon. Host Michel Martin speaks Clash about his experience as everyone's favorite red Muppet.

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, my thoughts in my "Can I Just Tell You?" commentary are coming up.

But first, even if you don't have a little one at home, chances are you've heard this voice.

KEVIN CLASH: (as Elmo) Then you can say, no more binky. Wow, oh, wow. Check out who's a big kid now.

MARTIN: That's Sesame Street's Elmo. He's now one of the best-loved and most recognized children's characters in the world. But before Elmo developed that famous voice, did you know he sounded like this?

RICHARD HUNT: (as Elmo) Uh-oh. Elmo squeak balloon too hard.

MARTIN: How Elmo went from caveman to cute is one transformation, but so is the story of how puppeteer Kevin Clash went from teen puppet prodigy to international acclaim as Elmo's voice. Both stories are told in the documentary "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey." The documentary, by Constance Marks, is in theaters now. And Kevin Clash, the senior puppet coordinator and Muppet captain for Sesame Street, joins us now from our bureau in New York. And I think he's brought a friend with him. Is that true?

CLASH: (as Elmo) Hello, Miss Michel.

MARTIN: Hello.

CLASH: (as Elmo) How are you?

MARTIN: I'm very well. And Kevin, are you there, too?

CLASH: I'm here. If he lets me say something, I'm definitely here.

MARTIN: OK.

CLASH: Listen, I thank you for having me. And also, you know, Richard Hunt was the performer, the senior performer who performed Elmo, and had that kind of caveman voice. He was one of Jim's main puppeteers, and he was gracious enough to throw the little red monster to me.

MARTIN: And that tells us something that - important to know, is that puppets do have their own personality.

CLASH: Oh, yeah. Definitely.

MARTIN: And let's talk about you, Kevin. Can we talk about you for a minute? Is Elmo going to let us talk about you for a minute?

CLASH: (as Elmo) Yes. Two minutes.

MARTIN: Oh, OK.

CLASH: (as Elmo) Start now.

MARTIN: OK. Thank you, Elmo. We're still working on manners with Elmo, aren't we?

CLASH: (as Elmo) Yes.

MARTIN: A little bit. You grew up in Baltimore.

CLASH: Yeah. Good old Baltimore. Yeah.

MARTIN: And, as I recall, this was always in you somehow. Do you remember how it started with you, the desire to be a puppeteer?

CLASH: Oh, yeah. Watching Kukla, Fran and Ollie and actually, just really started building puppets when I was 10 years old.

MARTIN: I understand that the first puppet you made was a monkey, and that you borrowed your father's raincoat to get the fur.

CLASH: Well, the challenge - the word borrowed is - I mean, it wasn't something that I could, you know, pull the puppet apart and put it back in my father's coat lining.

MARTIN: I was being nice.

CLASH: I had a creative spurt, and decided to go in and take my father's lining inside of his coat, and cut it up and made a monkey puppet out of it.

MARTIN: And he was OK with that?

CLASH: Well, yeah. Yes. They were - both my mom and dad were always very, very supportive of my brothers and sisters, and so they knew I was just creating. They didn't want me to be that, you know, villainous.

MARTIN: I think ask first was the operative...

CLASH: Well, yeah. He said, what's his name? And I said, Moandy(ph) and he said next time ask. And then, you know, right after that was when my mom was starting to take me to hobby shops and different fur places to get stuff that I needed to build the puppets instead of taking it from the house.

MARTIN: Now, eventually, you had 85 puppets and just after high school, you worked on "Captain Kangaroo" and "The Great Space Coaster." I'm just trying to think about that. As a high school student, you were already who you are, in a way.

CLASH: Well, right before those two, I actually had two local shows where I really honed in on my craft locally before I actually got those two - which was with Stu Kerr, called "Caboose," and a religious children's program called "Mr. Rainbow's World." And those were the two that I did locally and started using my puppets. And then through "Caboose" and Stu Kerr is when I met Captain Kangaroo and started doing his show. And then through that, I found out about Kermit Love and his involvement with "Sesame Street."

MARTIN: But, you know, the reason I'm pointing that out is that student-athletes, we often find, can have almost a professional existence, you know, at that age. They're constantly going to tournaments and they get a lot of, you know, respect and admiration, oftentimes, from the neighborhood. And they're like, you know, they were actually almost professionals at that age now. And you really, you were doing the same thing as a puppeteer.

CLASH: Yeah.

MARTIN: Did you get that kind of respect?

CLASH: No, I didn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: Well, I mean, you know, in school it was like, you sleep with your puppets; you know, you play with dolls. But, you know, I didn't really go with peer pressure. I wasn't interested in it. I had a, you know, very strong family, you know, and so we all supported each other. So it wasn't necessary and, you know, I never got down about, you know, being called names in school. I was doing what I really enjoyed doing, and I continued to do it.

MARTIN: And then fast forward to that moment when you got a chance to try out for Sesame Workshop. Can you tell us about it?

CLASH: Well, it was interesting. I was doing some projects with Kermit Love and he was trying to get me on "Sesame Street," and it was the year that "The Muppet Movie" had come out, and they needed puppeteers for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day float that year because they needed extra puppeteers. All the main guys were going to be on this bus that was from the movie, "The Muppet Movie." And so Kermit asked me to perform on the float. And afterwards, after the parade, they always have a party at Macy's, and Jim Henson was there. And I went up with Kermit, and Kermit introduced me Jim, and Jim actually asked me to stay up, if I could, the next the day. Well, it was Thanksgiving so I had to get down to my family, plus I had the two local shows. So I sent a tape up to him; he liked it and through that, I started getting work through Sesame because of that.

MARTIN: Can you take us back to what that moment was like when you realized you were in, you were one of them?

CLASH: Well, it was - well, it was amazing. It was truly amazing. It was a dream come true. You know, it felt like, it always felt like a "Cinderfella" story to me - my life and how I, each accolade just kept happening and happening and happening.

MARTIN: You know, the film really takes us behind the scenes at "Sesame Street." And I just want to play a short clip from the film. Marty Robinson, who is behind Snuffy - and this is what he has to say about what it takes to be a great puppeteer.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BEING ELMO: A PUPPETEER'S JOURNEY")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTY ROBINSON: When a puppet is true and good and meaningful, it's the soul of the puppeteer that you're seeing.

MARTIN: So I know Elmo's probably getting impatient...

CLASH: (as Elmo) No, it's OK. That's OK.

MARTIN: ...and trying to get into our conversation - OK. But what is it that we are seeing of your soul in Elmo?

CLASH: I think the childlike quality that, you know, that I still have - that everybody still has in them. That never goes away. You know, we deal with the reality of being adults and stuff like that, but we still have our child in us, and so that's where mine comes from, you know, that you see with Elmo.

MARTIN: But he wasn't very popular - and I'm sorry, Elmo. I don't mean to hurt your feelings.

CLASH: (as Elmo) That's OK.

MARTIN: But he was not very popular until you took him on and now, he is one of the most loved and - I think it has to be said - most recognizable characters there are. And I'm not giving him a big head, I hope.

CLASH: (as Elmo) No, Elmo already has one.

MARTIN: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So what is it that you think? Is it that laugh? Is it the...

CLASH: I think it's the laugh.

MARTIN: Yeah.

CLASH: I think it's also the personality. I mean, it's the - with children, they connect with him because he is them. He has that same personality that, you know, where he wants hugs, he wants kisses, you know. He wants to be acknowledged all the time, like a child does. What I love is - and I enjoy - is that Muppet edge, that all of these characters are kind of comedians...

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

CLASH: ...and we play that, and we try to crack each other up, and that's always a lot of fun.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're visiting with Kevin Clash. He is an...

CLASH: (as Elmo) And Elmo.

MARTIN: I wasn't - I didn't forget you, Elmo. How could I forget you?

CLASH: (as Elmo) Sorry. Sorry, Miss Michel.

Kevin Clash is the Muppet Captain at Sesame Street, for "Sesame Street." And you can see that he brought his friend Elmo with him, and we're talking about - their story is told in the new documentary "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey."

MARTIN: You know, Elmo, is it hard to be so - I mean, everybody has their sad days. And I was wondering, is it...

CLASH: (as Elmo) Elmo, Elmo does have sad days, too.

MARTIN: Yeah. Is it ever hard to be happy for everybody else when you're sad yourself?

CLASH: (as Elmo) Well, well, it depends. It depends on what Elmo's sad about.

MARTIN: Hmm.

CLASH: (as Elmo) If he's sad about a friend, then when he's around them he tries to cheer them up. But when he's not around them, he worries about it, you know?

MARTIN: I do know. Yeah. So Kevin, can I ask you that question, too? I mean, here you are...

CLASH: Well...

MARTIN: ...you are all love, but you're still an adult and a grown man, and you must have your frustrations, you know - not getting a cab or, you know, something.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You know, and...

CLASH: No, I mean, I, you know, I am an adult, and I have a lot of responsibilities, you know. But when I have this character on, then I am the character. Everything else gets pushed aside as far as what I'm going through in my life. Totally. Because nobody cares - and they shouldn't - about what I'm going through at that point. I'm there to make them feel good. That's the performer in all of us.

MARTIN: But you, you know, the film makes this really funny - there's a really funny scene where you just say that when your own daughter was born, that you had a temptation to puppeteer her.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: Yeah. I...

MARTIN: You were moving her arms...

CLASH: Yes.

MARTIN: ...and then you - what would happen? And your wife had to say...

CLASH: That's the strangeness about puppeteers

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...do you mind? Excuse me. This is a baby.

CLASH: Oh, she told me that all the time - will you stop it?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: You know -go and pick up one of your puppets; put her down.

MARTIN: Well, now she's a big girl, right?

CLASH: Yeah.

MARTIN: She's a teenager. She's off to college now, so, yeah.

CLASH: Definitely. Now my ex-wife and I, we're like, you know, we can't believe how, you know, how amazing this child is. She's amazing.

MARTIN: But the reason I bring this up, in part, is that the film does make the point - it's actually kind of a poignant point - that you're on the road so much being Elmo, and giving love to other people's kids...

CLASH: Sure.

MARTIN: ...that there were times which you felt like you were neglecting your own.

CLASH: Oh totally. Totally. You know, and that's the challenges that we have, you know, in this day and age where everybody has to get out and work. And it is, it does take away from our children. You know, so we, what Shannon and I always tried to do is, maybe we didn't have as much of the quantity, but the time that we were together was always quality.

MARTIN: Did she ever feel jealous of Elmo 'cause he got to see you more than she did?

CLASH: No. We've talked about that and no, she - it was always exciting for her. You know, she, when I would go home, she would have printed out pictures of Elmo. And she would have me sign them for teachers and friends and stuff. So it never happened that way. It was just that she got older. She just, she saw that I was definitely not around a lot and she really, really needed some face time, face-to-face, just to spend, you know, with her dad. And she was so sweet. She even said to her mom, you know, should I send this, 'cause I don't want dad to be mad. And, of course, her mom said, of course, you should. And when she sent it, you know, we talked about it. It was emotional for...

MARTIN: You mean, she sent a letter saying, I need to see you more?

CLASH: She actually emailed - she emailed it to me.

MARTIN: She emailed you. OK.

CLASH: Yeah, she sent an email and boy, that - you know, that hit.

MARTIN: Yeah?

CLASH: Hit, hit, hit. And everything after that was having conversations with my personal assistant as far as, these days are off; you know, can't schedule anything here and there and there, and I'm going home. Bye-bye. I'm going to spend with Shannon, or Shannon is coming up to New York.

MARTIN: Kevin, I'm going to ask you this question.

CLASH: Sure.

MARTIN: We often like to ask people who, if they have - some people who've made an impact, if they had some wisdom that they can share about their journey - somebody who's listening to our conversation, who maybe has a dream like you had?

CLASH: Yeah. Really, really focus. If it's something that truly makes you happy and it's legal - not illegal - but it's something that truly, you know, you really get excited about, don't let anybody take that away from you. Focus on it, and continue to strive to where you want to be with whatever that talent is - whatever that, you know, that you really want to do. Don't let anybody stop you.

MARTIN: And Elmo, do you have any wisdom that you want to share?

CLASH: (as Elmo) Yes. Make sure you hug and kiss everybody.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CLASH: (as Elmo) It's important.

MARTIN: You should probably ask first though, right?

CLASH: (as Elmo) Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, definitely.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Kevin Clash is Elmo. He's "Sesame Street's" senior puppet coordinator and Muppet captain. He is the subject of a new documentary, "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey."

(SOUNDBITE OF ELMO'S LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: It's currently being shown in select theaters. And Kevin and Elmo were kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Thank you both so much for speaking to us.

CLASH: Thank you, Michel.

(as Elmo) Thank you, Miss Michel.

MARTIN: And here's a little bit of Elmo's song, to say goodbye.

CLASH: (as Elmo) Cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELMO SONG")

CLASH: (as Elmo) (Singing) This is the song, la, la, la, la, Elmo's song. La, la, la, la. La, la, la, la, Elmo's song.

CAROLL SPINNEY: (as Big Bird) I like it.

CLASH: (as Elmo) (Singing) La, la, la. La, la, la, la. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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