Kevin Clash: The Man Behind Sesame Street's Elmo 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.
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Kevin Clash: The Man Behind Elmo

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Kevin Clash: The Man Behind Elmo

Kevin Clash: The Man Behind Elmo

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. As a rule, I don't interview puppets on FRESH AIR, but I was really happy when my guest Kevin Clash brought Elmo with him. Elmo is the little red monster Muppet from "Sesame Street" that young kids just love.

Although they don't care who the human is that's performing Elmo, as an adult it's fascinating to hear Clash's story of how he created Elmo's personality and made him into a beloved superstar.

Clash has performed Elmo on "Sesame Street" since 1984. The new documentary "Being Elmo" 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 home 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 later was adapted into the theme for "Elmo's World," a segment hosted by Elmo, which is a feature of "Sesame Street." The song starts with Elmo at the piano and Big Bird and Snuffy dropping by. Of course it's Kevin Clash singing as Elmo.


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.

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


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. He loves to sing, la, la, la, la, Elmo's song. La, la, la, 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.


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...

GROSS: Kevin Clash, welcome to FRESH AIR. So how would you describe Elmo, physically, and how do you describe his personality to anybody who doesn't - if there's anybody who doesn't know Elmo?


CLASH: Well, physically he's just a little - he's a little red monster. He's about three-and-a-half years old. He has a lot of energy, loves hugs and kisses and loves to laugh.

GROSS: So kids just, like, love Elmo. Are parents sometimes mystified by how much their kids love Elmo?


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.


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.


GROSS: Elmo, how come you always describe yourself as Elmo, and you don't say me or I, you say Elmo?

CLASH: (As Elmo) Elmo just was born that way. That's just stuck with Elmo.

GROSS: OK, and 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.


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

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


GROSS: So now let me get back to Kevin Clash here.

CLASH: (As Elmo) If you must.

GROSS: Excuse us, Elmo. So do you feel somewhat transformed, like, once he's on your arm?

CLASH: Yes, yeah. You know, it's interesting. When you're a performer, you really don't think about - once you go into the character, you don't think about yourself. It's pretty interesting because you're watching a TV that's showing you what the camera is shooting, and sometimes you forget that you're performing at the same time, and you tend to laugh at what you're doing, but you're actually performing it.

It's a little strange, but it's something that happens because you are creating something, and you're thinking about that character.

GROSS: This is interesting, so you have to be physically hidden. We have to see Elmo, but you're hidden because the kids aren't supposed to see that there's, you know, a Muppeteer. So is there a little video monitor hidden with you so you can actually see what's going on?

CLASH: Yeah, we actually have, you know, a monitor that's down, that shows us exactly what the cameras are shooting.

GROSS: What are some of the things you have to do to remain invisible?

CLASH: Well, I think what's interesting is we've found over the years of performing, especially on "Sesame Street," we have a lot of children that will visit. A lot of parents - you know, people who know people on the show and everything. And what we've found is that they really don't care about us, about the puppeteers.

You know, they've watched these characters on the show, you know, on TV for so long like close friends. So it's interesting when - and you saw it in the doc, they really don't look at me when they see Elmo. They run to Elmo because it's a friend of theirs that they've been talking to and communicating with and singing with for so many years that we've found that they really don't - the delusion is not broken by seeing us puppeteering the character in front of them.

GROSS: So how much do you like that, meeting all these kids who are totally star-struck by Elmo?

CLASH: It's the sweetest thing. You know, I get humbled by it all the time, the things that they tell Elmo, the things that they - I mean, the expression on their face when they see their friend, it's really...

GROSS: Do they tell Elmo secrets? Have you heard a lot of child secrets?

CLASH: They normally - a lot of things that they tell Elmo is, you know, when they got new shoes or a new dress or stuff like that, or they go to school, or they got a new pet, or they got a new sister or brother. It's more those things. It's really, really sweet.

The time that it really, really changed, and it really scared me, is when 9/11, when that happened. A lot of children were relocated from schools down in that area, and so they asked "Sesame Street" if some of the puppeteers, some of the characters and the cast could go and meet and greet these children.

And I remember I used to, you know, go and do, you know, appearances like that, and they would be coming up and giving Elmo a drawing of Elmo. And it was very scary to see these children bringing up drawings with the tower and a plane hitting one of the towers. It was - and, you know, it's very hard for me because I don't know what to say to them. You know, I'm there to really entertain them and take them away from that.

GROSS: So what did you do?

CLASH: Well, I just said, well, you know, yeah, that was really scary, but Elmo's here for you, and give Elmo a hug, and let's sing. You know, I tried to pull them away from it as much as possible because, you know, again, you know, again, you know, mommy and daddy, they're there to explain a little bit more, you know, but we're there to really entertain and try and take them away from it.

GROSS: And when you say let's sing, do the kids know the songs? Do they know "Elmo's World"?

CLASH: Oh, it's very - yeah. I mean, I can go around the world, and I could sing that, and children will sing it. That's how popular the song is.

GROSS: They're probably singing it in different languages, languages that you don't know.

CLASH: Right, but I know the melody. So it's really sweet.

GROSS: So is Elmo dubbed in other countries?

CLASH: Oh yeah.

GROSS: That must be weird, though, because it's like it's your puppet, it's your thing, and you're hearing somebody else's voice doing Elmo, and the voice is such a big part of it.

CLASH: It's wonderful. It is amazing. It's pretty funny, too, I mean, when you hear Ernie singing "Rubber Duckie" in German or, you know, in South African. You know, it's really - it's wonderful, actually. I actually got to meet the voiceover person that does it in Amsterdam, in Holland, and he's 60 years old and beautiful voice, I mean wonderful Elmo voice. It's really cool.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Clash, and he performs the Muppet character Elmo, and there's a new documentary about him called "Being Elmo." Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. Is that OK with you, Elmo?

CLASH: (As Elmo) Yes. Excuse - Elmo was drinking some milk, sorry.


CLASH: (As Elmo) You caught Elmo just when he put the cup up to his lips, sorry.

GROSS: That's OK. All right, so we'll take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Kevin Clash, and he performs the character of Elmo for the Muppets, and he has been fascinated with puppetry since he was 10. There's a new documentary about him and about his lifelong passion for puppets, you know, for making puppets and performing them, and the documentary is called "Being 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, and 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 - 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: How do you get Elmo's facial expressions?

CLASH: You know, I love the simplicity of characters, of the "Sesame Street" characters. I love that it's just, you know, an orange nose and two eyes and no tongue, just a black mouth. And you just find that by just the tilt of the head or, you know, looking up, it says something. There's an emotion there.

One thing that I found that wasn't really built into Elmo is there's a little bar underneath the fur that keeps the eyes on, and I found that by moving that around, I could expressions with Elmo's face. But it wasn't meant - it wasn't meant for that, but it works.

GROSS: So was it great for you to get, like, your own show within "Sesame Street," "Elmo's World," in 1998?

CLASH: It was a lot of fun, and it's been a lot of fun. I mean, it's - you know, the writers came together and talked about what concept would work because at the time, the show was skewing much younger. There were a lot more younger kids watching the show. And they thought that Elmo would be the right one to speak to those - that age group.

So they came up with "Elmo's World," and it was a wonderful show. I mean, it was chock full of so many different really cool things that - and especially that theme song. Man, I heard, you know, so many parents say to me just as soon as my child hears that, you know, "Elmo's World" theme song, they're running to the TV.

GROSS: How old were you when "Sesame Street" started?

CLASH: I was about - it started in '69. So I was nine years old.

GROSS: And what about the first puppet you ever made?

CLASH: Actually it was Mickey Mouse. It was made out of felt, and then from there I did Hansel and Gretel puppets and then started building my own from there. There was a little puppet called Arte that had silver hair. And I grew up watching and listening to, you know, listening to Motown and watching commercials.

So I was influenced by that. So the live shows that I was doing, I really used all of that, like with - Helen Reddy had "You and Me Against the World," I had a mom skunk and a little baby skunk, and they sang "You and Me Against the World," the mom sang it.

I did, you know, Debby Boone had "You Light up my Life," I made two lightning bugs. With commercials, I had a mummy climb up on the puppet stage and start to sing "I Am Stuck on Band-Aids Because Band-Aids stuck on me."


CLASH: So, you know, I watched - and, you know, all my puppets knew how to do The Bump and The Robot, all the dances that were out at the time. So I really was influenced by TV and music, and I incorporated them into my live shows.

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.


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 what was most interesting to you when you first got to look at the Muppets up close and examine how they were made?

CLASH: Just the artistry, the brilliance of how they made them. I mean, I was - please, I was - it was Elmer's glue and, you know, whatever, and staples with me. I mean, I didn't know - you know, I was just going by what I could see.

And when I actually saw, you know, an actual "Sesame Street" Muppet, the fur was so I mean thick and rich and the different threads that they were using. And, you know, touching the eyes and how - you know, I could just find plastic spoons and stuff. You know, their eyes were really hard, and the plastic was really hard, and so that meant it could last.

And so it was really amazing to me how they made the mouths, how they, you know, how they sewed the mouths together. It blew me away. It was so different. You know, you can get with so much looking at it on TV, but up close and being able to really examine it, it was a dream come true for me.

GROSS: Kevin Clash and Elmo will be back in the second half of the show. The new documentary about Clash is called "Being Elmo." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Kevin Clash, who has performed the Muppet Elmo since 1984. He turned the little red monster into one of Sesame Street's most beloved Muppets. The new documentary "Being Elmo" is about Clash and how he fulfilled his lifelong ambition of being a puppeteer.

CLASH: By the time he was in high school he was a puppeteer on local kids TV shows in Boston. From there he worked on the long-running CBS kids show "Captain Kangaroo."

GROSS: So after doing local TV shows and "Captain Kangaroo," how did you get to be a Muppeteer?

CLASH: Well, saw a show on PBS called "Call It Macaroni," where I saw Kermit Love, who helped create Big Bird and Snuffy, the Snuffleupagus, for the show. And I asked my mom, could she find a way of getting in touch with him. Well, she called the PBS station, the local PBS station, and got his number and she called and left a message and he called back and said whenever I was up in New York, come and visit him.

Well, I - that was around 12th grade and we were going up for a trip, so I went and talked to him and he said, listen, this year we're already cast for "Sesame," but there are some other projects that I have that I'd love for you to be involved in. So I started working with Kermit and then lo and behold, he asked me to do the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and - because they needed more puppeteers because the classic Muppets, Jim and all of the Muppeteers, were going to be on this other float that was promoting the first Muppet movie. And so that's where I got to meet Jim for the first time, was at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

GROSS: So when did you realize that Elmo was not only catching on, it was becoming a sensation?

CLASH: I think the research department went out, they normally go out and they watch the show with kids and see how they react to certain characters, and Elmo just I mean hit the charts as far as them really connecting to the little red monster. And also not only laughing with him and enjoying him, but also learning what they're supposed to be learning from, you know, the specific curriculum that was in the scripts with him. And so that's when I knew. Then, of course, the next step after that is I started performing him a lot more, which meant that there was a lot more scripts being written for him, so that meant that he was doing what he was supposed to be doing for the show.

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. And you describe in the documentary about you being Elmo that when you first saw one in a store and realized it was called...

CLASH: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Tickle Me Elmo, you but that doesn't make sense, the title doesn't make sense.

CLASH: Yeah.

GROSS: Explain why.

CLASH: Well, it should – me – Elmo never says - it should be Tickle Elmo, but it was called Tickle Me Elmo. But, you know...

GROSS: And you weren't in on the decision? They didn't ask you?

CLASH: No. No. Not at that time. I mean I wasn't involved like that. I was really just a puppeteer at that time. That was in '96.

GROSS: So you really didn't see this until you're in the store.

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 is for. Okay. And I bought it. Took it home and...

GROSS: You bought it. That's great.

CLASH: Yeah.


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.


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

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

CLASH: (as Elmo) That's okay.


GROSS: Thank you, Elmo. You're so reassuring.


GROSS: That's very generous of you to step in and rescue me they are. 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, that we - to keep our bodies in physical shape.

GROSS: So you're one of the producers of "Sesame Street" now. What's your title?

CLASH: Well, I'm, you know, co-executive producer of "Elmo's World." And now we're actually, you know, "Elmo's World" is going off and we're actually doing a new format so I'll be co-executive producer of that. Yeah, but also I direct the shows and stuff like that, so it's a lot of fun.

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...


CLASH: 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 okay.


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: Years.


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

GROSS: Kevin Clash, it's been great to talk with you.

CLASH: Nice talking to you too, Terry.

GROSS: And thank you, Elmo.

CLASH: (as Elmo) Thank you for having Elmo.

GROSS: The new documentary about Kevin Clash is called "Being Elmo."

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