“Being Elmo”: Stories From the (Sesame) Street
by Justin Senkbile
I think we can imagine how hellish high school must've been for a kid obsessed with “Captain Kangaroo” and all things Jim Henson. But Kevin Clash was one such kid, and he made it out alright. Nowadays, besides being the man behind the ubiquitous and apparently ticklish Elmo, Clash has the pleasure of being able to list “Muppet Captain” as one of his several job titles at Sesame Street.
Clash's story, documented through interviews, archive footage and a tad of animation by directors Constance Marks and Philip Shane in their film “Being Elmo”, is a classic rags-to-riches one. From his working class Baltimore neighborhood, Clash came up through homemade puppets and local TV in the late-seventies, to actually working on “Kangaroo” and fielding offers from the Muppet King himself.
When Clash finally arrived at Sesame Street, in the mid-eighties, Elmo was a rarely used puppet. Eager to develop a solid character to bring to the show, he threw out Elmo's preexisting caveman-esque personality (a clip reveals him to have been something like Animal's cousin), and created the childlike little creature we know today.
It took off quickly, and Elmo was already pretty popular before his convulsing doppelganger terrorized frantic parents during the 1996 holiday shopping season. On the Tickle Me Elmo subject, Clash is politely grateful for all the good vibes, even if he's quick to point out that the character, who always speaks in the third-person, would never say “me”.
He's a strikingly normal guy, complete with a family life and a handful of regrets. So it begins to feel like we're just seeing a film about a man with a cool job, which naturally leads us to wonder what the point of it all is. But Elmo is something different, and that becomes clear the moment we see Clash and his puppet in a room with a kid. We can only speculate on what the child is thinking or feeling, but the change that takes place in the puppeteer is obvious.
“Being Elmo” is a movie about following your dreams, sure. But it's also the story of a man compelled to touch lives in some positive way, whether by simply coaching an aspiring young puppeteer, or bringing Elmo by to see a terminally-ill child (there are many of these requests, he tells us). For Kevin Clash, being Elmo is noble work.
“Being Elmo” is playing at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, 13th and R streets, through December 22nd