Get tickled by Elmo

Documentary tells the story of how Kevin Clash got to Sesame Street and beyond

This review was originally published in The Concordian, Vol. 29 issue 14 (Nov. 29)
It has also been picked up by the Canadian University Press newswire 

Kevin Clash had an enormous impact on your childhood.
The name doesn’t ring a bell? He’s the man behind and under the scenes at Sesame Street and the puppeteer responsible for making Elmo one of the most beloved characters of all-time and the children’s show’s biggest star.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey tells Clash’s story, from beyond-humble beginnings in Baltimore, Md., to being one of the most sought puppeteers in the world; from dreaming about being on Sesame Street, to running the show.

Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, the 80-minute documentary includes interviews with Clash’s parents, George and Gladys, Frank Oz, Cheryl Henson and Rosie O’Donnell, among others. Clash is so humble; his shyness makes you wonder how someone like him can voice Elmo, a three-and-a-half-year-old furry red monster.

There isn’t a moment in the film that seems lost. Every interview and archival video helps to tell his story. But to say that the documentary only tells Clash’s story would be inaccurate: it also tells Elmo’s, who wasn’t always as popular as he is today. In the ‘70s and early ‘80s, before Clash had his hand in him, Elmo spoke like a caveman and the puppeteers and writers on Sesame Street dreaded coming up with storylines for him. No one knew what to do with Elmo until 1985, when Clash gave the puppet the high-pitched falsetto and iconic laugh that made Tickle Me Elmo one of the most popular and best-selling toys in history.

In the doc, Rosie O’Donnell, who had Elmo on her talk show regularly, says she got a call from television mogul Aaron Spelling asking her if she could get him a Tickle Me Elmo doll. In less than a decade, the red monster no one wanted turned into the Sesame Street character no one could get enough of.

Sesame Street producers wanted to get another puppeteer to meet the demand for Elmo appearances, but Clash refused. For 26 years (and counting), he has been the sole voice and hand for Elmo in North America. Frank Oz said his inspiration for Miss Piggy was to think of her as a truck driver who wanted to be a woman. Clash thought Elmo should represent love. People love Elmo because Elmo genuinely loves people.

When he was 10, Clash created his first puppet, a monkey named Mundy, by re-purposing one of his father’s favourite suits that he found in his parents’ closet. From then on, he was hooked. He wished he could crawl through his family’s television set and onto Sesame Street and work with Jim Henson, his hero and inspiration. He continued making puppets with the materials he could find and afford, but he realized that the eyes were never quite right, and the great furs, threads and fabrics were too expensive. “With the Muppets,” he also realized, “you never saw the seams.”

Though his puppets weren’t perfect yet, Clash was getting work on a local children’s television program. Suddenly, the people teasing him at school about playing with dolls were silenced. On a high school trip to New York City, he broke from his group to meet with Kermit Love, the man who built Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus and would later introduce Clash to master puppeteer Jim Henson. There, he learned that the secret to the Henson stitch was using fleece; the fabric is fantastic at hiding seams.

Being Elmo is a must-see, and not just for nostalgia’s sake: it is an inspiring look at a man who followed his dreams when naysayers mocked him. It’s a feel-good, happy film that will have you smiling from beginning to end with just enough emotional punch to tug at your heartstrings. Check your pulse if scenes of terminally ill children meeting Elmo don’t make your eyes water. There is no doubt that Clash has come a long way from his Baltimore days financially, but there is also no doubt that Clash would be doing what he does even if he wasn’t getting paid. In Being Elmo, he finally receives the credit he deserves.

Check out the trailer to Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

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