This Thanksgiving Disney’s long-awaited Muppet reboot will finally be in theaters. Jason Segel’s splashy homage to Kermit and Co. may have a googly eye on the multiplex, but there’s a whole other muppet caper currently making the art house rounds. Being Elmo:A Puppeteer’s Journey tells the true story of Kevin Clash, the 51-year-old puppeteer behind the voice and performance of Elmo, the perpetually tickling star of Sesame Street. The 80-minute documentary plots how a diehard childhood Jim Henson fan went on to become one of the Jim Henson Workshop’s master craftsmen–and how he transformed a crimson-coiffed monster into a worldwide phenomenon more famous than that green guy.
In the documentary, Clash is credited with much more than just performing as Elmo and getting some fabric to talk. Clash essentially built the lovable character from scratch, including the famous piece of felt’s now-signature sound. “Every puppeteer has a catchphrase that gets them into character,” says Clash. “For me, it’s Elmo’s laugh.”(He then unleashes a series of Elmo’s trademark high-pitched squeals as proof of concept.) “Everyone has a different little regime,” he continues. “But once you’ve made that connection, you know who that character is every time you put them on.”
Clash has since gone on to be a multi-Emmy-winning co-executive producer for Sesame Street and the current “captain” of Jim Henson’s cadre of marionette-cum-puppet creations better known as the Muppets. And, thanks to 1996 Christmas sales of the “Tickle Me Elmo” doll (and myriad merchandise sense), he is reportedly the highest-paid Muppeteer ever.
But what sets the efficiently told documentary apart isn’t its love for all things Elmo–it’s the surprisingly candid look at how Kevin Clash chased a strange and seemingly impossible dream and eventually caught it: from performing alongside luminaries like Jim Henson to turning a discarded ball of red fur into a multi-billion-dollar phenomenon.
As the current Muppet Captain, Clash isn’t just sitting on-set gleefully tittering as Elmo. Being Elmo shows the veteran puppeteer working behind the scenes on-set and even mentoring foreign Sesame Street performers from around the globe. “The simplicity of the character is really important for Sesame Street,” Clash says. “You can clearly see everything that Elmo is: two eyes, a nose, no ears, no tongue. He’s very, very simple.”
Clash’s industrious reputation and charismatic whimsy as a performer caught of the eye of Being Elmo director Constance Marks. “We went into this six and a half years ago thinking we were going to do a ‘slice of life’ type film,” says Marks. “It wasn’t initially our intention to make it biographical.”
Marks began the project in 2002 shortly after her husband, James Miller, a director of photography working on-set at Sesame Street, returned from a day of shooting. Miller returned to the homestead bearing a simple gift for Marks and their 2-year-old daughter: a single, non-descript VHS cassette. It contained a snippet of footage showing Miller casually flipping through their daughter’s baby photo album with Elmo. Miller and Elmo then started to chitchat about the photos while occasionally breaking the fourth wall and addressing the toddler directly through the camera.
Marks was instantly taken with Clash. More importantly, the uncanny expressiveness of Clash’s personalized performance had piqued Marks’ interest as a documentary filmmaker. A few years later, Marks started pulling strings to get the project off the ground.
As Being Elmo would eventually prove, Clash’s own history was less about basking in the multi-billion-dollar glow of the titular puppet, and more about the risk taking that comes with being an individual with both humble beginnings and lofty dreams.
Clash has been a handheld performer since he stitched together his first puppet. As a precocious 10-year-old growing up on the outskirts of Baltimore, Clash had wandered into his parents’ closet and taken a pair of scissors to his father’s winter coat.“I ended up making this little black monkey that I called ‘Moankey,’” Clash says. Six years later Clash had amassed 85 puppets, which he continued to stash in his parents’ bedroom.
Clash’s developing acumen in both puppet construction and performance landed him a spot on Captain Kangaroo, and it caught the attention of Muppet designer (and Jim Henson colleague) Kermit Love.
The doc is at its best while it’s tackling this crucial chapter of Clash’s career. At one point the film shows a rare television appearance featuring a 17-year-old Clash practicing with Love for an educational children’s show called Big Blue Marble. The footage depicted an awkwardly adolescent Clash being guided by the seminal puppeteer as they candidly discuss fabrics, hand-positioning, and even the secret to building seam-free puppets like the Muppets.
Of course, this rare look into Clash’s past was just the first of many collaborations between the young puppeteer and Jim Henson’s camp. In 1979 Love reached out to Clash again for puppeteering work for the Muppet’s float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade. The prestigious gig gave Clash the opportunity to finally meet Henson face-to-face, and it lead to an offer to work full-time for Sesame Street. As it turned out, the road to Sesame Street was paved with sacrifice. “At the time, I was actually working on two other shows,” says Clash. “I basically had to tear up two contracts to make it onto the show.”
Having your fame and fortune be from playing Elmo wasn’t the easiest task for the up-and-comer either. “[Puppeteer] Brian Muehl did this little red monster that I believe they called ‘Baby Monster’ at first,” he says, “but when Brian eventually left, a puppeteer named Richard Hunt took over, but he didn’t like performing the character.”
Clash just happened to be the only other person in the show’s prep area–called the “Muppet Room”–when Hunt had decided he’d had enough. The frustrated performer tossed the gig to Clash, who transformed the character into the big red ball of energy viewers recognize today.
It wasn’t an entirely effortless transition. Clash still had to further develop the persona, and have it cleared by Sesame Street producers.“The character came together instantly. It just clicked,” says Clash. “I did the voice for one of the producers and it just really connected. Nobody knows these things, though. There’s no crystal ball.”
But there is critical success. The film has been a critic darling at festivals like Sundance and SxSW Film. Clash sees this exposure as affording him more opportunities to new ways to reinvent the craft. “With all the new materials and manufacturing technology, there’s always something new to try when developing and building puppets,” he says. And always another crop of kids to appreciate them.