NEAL CONAN, host:
Sesame Street is a place where it's generally sunny, the air is reportedly sweet. But since 1969, at least one person has been undergoing a personal struggle of epic proportions: Oscar the Grouch.
Mr. CAROLL SPINNEY (Voice Actor, Puppeteer): (As “Oscar the Grouch”) I don't really like being happy. But then, sometimes somebody will give me a nice bag of trash, and I'm going to get a chance to look through it. So that makes me happy. But I don't like to be happy. I'd like to be miserable. But being happy makes me miserable. So I like being miserable, so that makes me happy. But I don't like being happy. That makes me miserable. But being miserable makes me…I'm a mess.
CONAN: As you might imagine, that sort of thing can go on for a while. And has.
Caroll Spinney has played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street for 37 years. In that time, Mr. Snuffleupagus has finally achieved corporeal form, a little red twerp named Elmo has seemingly taken over the universe, and Big Bird has turned six.
At the Daytime Emmys tomorrow, Caroll Spinney will accept a Lifetime Achievement award for his work, and he joins us now from Los Angeles today.
Welcome to the program. Congratulations.
Mr. SPINNEY: Oh, thank you.
CONAN: If you've got questions for Oscar, or for Big Bird for that matter, or for that matter for Caroll Spinney, give us a call: 800-989-8255. You can also e-mail us, email@example.com. You've been there 37 years. Big Bird has just turned six. Apparently, Sesame Street is pretty good for you.
Mr. SPINNEY: Yes it is. And, of course, that's bird years.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SPINNEY: I don't know what that means.
CONAN: I don't know what that means either, but apparently, they're longer than human years.
Mr. SPINNEY: Yeah. I, funny, I looked younger when I started, but he doesn't look much different.
CONAN: You've inhabited two very different personalities all that time.
Mr. SPINNEY: Yes.
CONAN: Big Bird, who's, you know, just about the sweetest kid you'd ever like to meet. And Oscar, who, sweet is not a word anybody has ever applied to him.
Mr. SPINNEY: If you called him sweet, you'd get, he'd probably kick you in the shin.
CONAN: Do you like being one more than the other?
Mr. SPINNEY: No, it's hard to--I've often asked which do I like best, and it's hard to say. Oscar has certain abilities that I've never had. And the bird doesn't have, either. So, I kind of like doing him. But I really, I guess I like the bird the best.
CONAN: The bird, though, as I understand it, is more difficult to perform. You're inside that suit.
Mr. SPINNEY: Well it's, yeah, it's--he's tall because my head, his head is in my hand, and it's straight up over my head. But, sometimes it's more awkward, though, to do Oscar, because you've got to squeeze into strange little places and positions.
CONAN: Well, let me talk to Oscar for a minute if I could.
Mr. SPINNEY: (As “Oscar the Grouch”) No, I'm not talking to anybody today.
CONAN: Well, you got a Lifetime Achievement Award. That must make you miserable, huh?
Mr. SPINNEY: (As “Oscar the Grouch”) I didn't get it. That Spinney guy got it.
CONAN: So, you're not taking any joy in this whatsoever?
Mr. SPINNEY: (As “Oscar the Grouch”) No, I tried to prevent him from getting it, but he got it anyway.
CONAN: Uh-huh. Let me ask you a question, Oscar. There's something that's been bothering us all these years. That kid Elmo, does he bother you?
Mr. SPINNEY: (As “Oscar the Grouch”) I can't stand monsters. He's a little monster. I call him a little red menace. That's a play on words, you know? But, nah, he's all right. The kid's okay. He means well. That's why I probably don't like him.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: You've been living in the trashcan for a pretty long time now. Any time you're going to go Hollywood now that you're in Los Angeles? Move up, maybe into a dumpster, maybe?
Mr. SPINNEY: (As “Oscar the Grouch”) Hey! Hey, I hadn't thought, a dumpster. Wow! You could spread out. Think of the trash I could cram in there with myself.
CONAN: You could even have legs in a dumpster.
Mr. SPINNEY: (As “Oscar the Grouch”) Yeah, well, you could have anything you want. Well, I think I'm home sweet home. Or, home sweet trashcan.
CONAN: Is there anybody…
Mr. SPINNEY: (As “Oscar the Grouch”) Rent's cheap. I'm sorry.
CONAN: The rent is cheap. Oscar, is there anybody on Sesame Street that really you secretly like, or maybe hate just a little bit less than everybody else?
Mr. SPINNEY: (As “Oscar the Grouch”) Well, of course I hate to say this, but I really like my pet worm, Slimey. But as far as human beings go, yeah, they're all all right. They annoy me just right, so I like being annoyed. So that works out.
CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on this conversation. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. Josh…
Mr. SPINNEY: (As “Oscar the Grouch”) Say that again. I have to dial it.
CONAN: Ahh, okay. 800-989-8255. Josh dialed it already. He's in San Francisco.
JOSH (Caller): Hi, there. I wanted to know what they thought about the move to say, the Cookie Monster has to say the cookies are only a sometimes food?
CONAN: Ah, Cookie Monster is a health nut now, Oscar?
Mr. SPINNEY: (As “Oscar the Grouch”) Right.
Mr. SPINNEY: Yeah. Well, let me answer that. Oscar will say something like a wise guy, I'm sure.
Mr. SPINNEY: They decided that, you know, some people have commented, you know, he's kind of a fanatical cookie eater. And so, that we're looking into the better ways of implying to children that they should eat good.
JOSH: But isn't that the kind of thing that kind of takes away the whole purpose…
Mr. SPINNEY: First of all, he realizes, and actually, all along he's been--you should him light into a steak. But I don't know if that's the best thing to do. And I actually understand he's quite a salad man. But that's the only salad I've seen that instead of croutons, it's crumbled cookies.
JOSH: But isn't that sort of caving in to the current wave of hysteria among today's parents that are so worried about their children being overly influenced by the media, that even really innocent fun, fantasy-driven kind of thing like a Cookie Monster being made to kind of tow the line?
Mr. SPINNEY: Well, I still, you know, when are kids are really small, that like our show, and I think that by--it isn't a bad idea to imply that eating good is a good idea. And so, we do have a lot of influence on what kids are going to do. And we're not really comparing ourselves to other shows. I think that it's a good idea to emphasize good eating, and we might as well start when they're young, along with arithmetic and the ABC's.
CONAN: Josh, thanks very much. Appreciate it.
JOSH: Okay, thanks.
CONAN: We're talking today with Caroll Spinney, to be receiving tomorrow a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work on Sesame Street these past 37 years.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get another caller on. This is Miguel Arron(ph) in Portland, Oregon.
Mr. MIGUEL ARRON (Caller): Miguel Arron.
CONAN: Miguel Arron. Thank you. I'm sorry for mispronouncing it.
Mr. ARRON: That's okay. I wanted to know that in the Sesame Street movie, there was a scene where Oscar was running with his feet out the bottom of the trashcan…
Mr. ARRON: Yeah. Was that Caroll?
Mr. SPINNEY: No, I'm much too tall for that.
Mr. ARRON: Oh.
Mr. SPINNEY: We have to use a trash can stunt.
Mr. ARRON: You had a trashcan stand-in?
Mr. SPINNEY: Yeah, well, you know, the little feet.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Just the feet?
Mr. SPINNEY: Yes, because you, the lid is just slightly parted at the top so he can see out and not run into a tree. But, actually, on Sesame Street, Oscar often walked around in the trashcan with his little feet. And there was a fellow named Hervé Villechaize who was…
Mr. ARRON: Oh wow! Boss, de plane!
Mr. SPINNEY: He was the first feet of Oscar's character.
CONAN: Wow! That's, I didn't know that.
Mr. ARRON: What was that, Treasure Island? Or Paradise Island?
Mr. SPINNEY: Which? I'm talking about his feet was, that was on Sesame Street.
CONAN: On Sesame Street. Thanks for the call. Appreciate it.
Let's go to Ruvin(ph). Ruvin's with us from Galt, California.
(Soundbite of phone ringing)
RUVIN (Caller): Hello?
CONAN: Hi, Ruvin. You're on the air.
RUVIN: Okay. I just wanted to share a little story that my now 21-year-old grandson, when he was about two years old, and I'd wheel him by the frozen food section in the market in the shopping cart. And he'd yell out, pointing at the turkeys, Big Bird!
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SPINNEY: Well, you know, we have a joke around Thanksgiving when we're working that Big Bird, where's he going, what's he going to do for Thanksgiving? Hide out, as usual.
RUVIN: Ah-ha. It seems to have…
Mr. SPINNEY: He gets a little nervous around that time.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SPINNEY: That's a funny…
RUVIN: I remember watching Sesame Street in 1969.
Mr. SPINNEY: Um hm. That's when we began. We had a lot to learn, I felt, when I look back at that. I have a copy of the first show, and it was a little bit more like the original amateur hour.
CONAN: Well, one of the things, Big Bird was quite different then.
Mr. SPINNEY: Yes, he was. At that point, I didn't really know what I was doing. Because he was just, initially just going to be this big, silly bird. And I couldn't see out, and I had no monitor. And we didn't see playbacks very much, and I was shocked when I saw the show how much his head was flailing around and his feathers were all put on inverted so that the bottoms, the underside of the feathers were showing. So he was raggedly looking. And he just sort of talked like Mortimer Snerd, well hi there.
And it was a little into the show, maybe a month or two, and they started writing scripts for him, because when they had the scripts written, Big Bird hadn't even been built yet. He was built only a few days before the show, and, that we went on the air. So I suggested that maybe he should be a kid. And that changed everything. Because it's a lot better to have a kid there learning than this big goofy guy wanting to hang around the kids. You know.
CONAN: Ruvin, thanks very much for the call.
RUVIN: Okay, and thanks Sesame Street for all those years of helping kids.
Mr. SPINNEY: Oh, you're welcome Ruvin. Thank you.
CONAN: And very quickly, we just have a few seconds left. But I, as I understand it, you found Oscar's voice not in a garbage can, but in a taxicab.
Mr. SPINNEY: Yeah, that's right. I was down, I had never done very bass voices with my puppets before, and so I just hadn't found anything that seemed satisfying for Oscar's voice. And I got in a cab and the guy said, where to, Mac? And he talked about Mayor Lindsey and how he was ruining the city, and I will not use the language he was using. And actually I kind of tended to agree with him, but I kept saying to myself, where to, Mac?
And so, Jim was waiting in the studio when I got there, Jim Henson, and the builder, Don Seline(ph), and so I got--climbed in the back of the trash can and said, knock on it, and Oscar pops up and he says, get away from my trash can! And Jim said, that'll do fine.
CONAN: Caroll Spinney is on his way to the Emmy Awards, where he will, tomorrow, receive a Lifetime Achievement Award to go along with his flock of other Emmys for all his work playing Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch over the past years.
Congratulations again, Caroll.
Mr. SPINNEY: Well, thank you very much.
CONAN: Caroll Spinney on the line with us from Los Angeles.
I'm Neal Conan, NPR News, in Washington.