The iconic puppeteer talks his new documentary, where he doesn’t do “the voice” and the secret behind Elmo’s dance moves.
(Photo: Courtesy Constance Marks Productions)
In a children’s entertainment world driven by Pixar animation, superstar Kevin Clash still thrives in the soulful, human performance world of The Muppets. As the voice and performer behind Sesame Street’s popular and beloved character Elmo, Clash is now the subject of Constance Marks’ documentary, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. The film, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, chronicles the 51-year-old Baltimore native’s beginnings of wanting to be a puppeteer. We see his meteoric rise as a star performer under puppet legend Jim Henson to becoming the world’s favorite furry little red monster.
BET.com chatted with Clash about his documentary, his “crazy” work schedule behind the scenes and outside of Sesame Street and if some people are still stunned that Elmo is a Black man.
So how does a boy from humble Baltimore beginnings, who dreamt of living in a fantasyland, grow up to not only work in and help create one, but become an iconic superstar in the process?
Whatever you dream about, whatever you wish, dreams do come true, if you really just focus on it and don’t let things get in the way. If there’s something you truly want to do, just go for it. I’ve met people who have had the support of their family like I did with my parents, Gladys and George. Once you have the support of your mom and dad, you can go far — if you listen to them. And even if you have parents that are not supportive, you can still accomplish it. I’ve met people that have had that challenge and it all really stemmed from the people themselves. If you really want to do it, focus on it and do it.
Did you worry about anything the Being Elmo documentary would reveal about you or your work?
I was concerned about how much behind-the-scenes stuff was shown and if it would confuse people. Like showing [the] Ernie [Muppet] — just the head of him, with no eyes and everything being built. But so far we haven’t gotten any type of confusion about anything that has been shown. I mean, they got it. And I was really surprised about that.
Do you ever whip out Elmo’s voice in unexpected real-life moments?
I do it more with kids sometimes. I stopped doing it in other situations. I was in the store with my daughter once and she told the salesperson, “My daddy is Elmo.” And the storekeeper goes, “Okay.” And I go, “No, I really am. I am Elmo.” And I said, [in Elmo’s voice] “Hello, its Elmo!” And the clerk goes, “Really? Really?” And I was like, “C’mon baby” to my daughter so we could leave, because the salesperson thought I was crazy. So I don’t do that anymore.
Everybody should know by now but are there still some people surprised that Elmo is a Black man?
Not that much anymore. I did the Oprah show, where she revealed it and I’ve been doing interviews over the years now, so I don’t think it’s that surprising as it used to be. But occasionally it still happens. And some people just go, “Wow, he’s a brother!”
All of the Muppets are colorful and raceless, but you always perform Elmo with a whole lot of hipness and soul. Is that done on purpose or is that you seeping into Elmo?
It’s purposefully done because it’s within me, except for the fact I cannot dance to save my life. My feet just don’t work that way. My sisters Anita and Pam could dance. My brother Georgie was okay, but I always had two left feet. But Elmo can dance. I can do it up with my arm — my arm can dance. I love all kinds of music. I grew up with Earth, Wind & Fire and when dances like The Bump and The Robot were popular — later it became The Elf and The Cabbage Patch. So it’s always fun to make Elmo do all of this.
In addition to voicing and performing Elmo, you’re also a Sesame Street creative consultant, writer, director and producer. How do you do it all?
It just comes naturally to me and it just happened that way. It was not ever something that I thought I couldn’t do. And I don’t know any other way of working at this point. I also cast the secondary characters for each script and train the new puppeteers we hire on the show. Other puppeteers or directors usually don’t want to voice characters in episodes they are directing because it’s too much for them. But once I’m thrown into it, I just do it. It’s become second nature to me now.
And is it true you do all Elmo appearances and performances yourself? You have no understudy voice actor?
No, not yet. My schedule is really crazy, but so far I’ve been able to do everything. Carroll Spinney, who does Big Bird, is 78 years old, and there used to be a lot of traveling and PR appearances that had to be done with Big Bird, so he auditioned an understudy because he couldn’t be everywhere. But so far we’re doing well with Elmo. We haven’t had to do that yet.
Sesame Street has been on the air for 42 years and has won more Emmys than any other show in television history. Where do you keep your boatload of trophies?
I keep them in the office at Sesame Workshop. I used to have some at my house and I just didn’t have any room for them anymore. Then I started giving them away. I gave one away to my mom. I’m going to have to start giving away more. But it’s nice to have them — it’s sweet. It means that your peers like what you’re doing.
Being Elmo is now playing in theaters nationwide.