Thursday, December 15, 2011

Muppets Rule

Let's pause for a brief lesson in etiquette.  What do you say to a Muppet who looks you in the face and asks: "Is that your hand up my ass or are you just glad to see me?"

The first thing to understand is that a professional puppeteer is either working from a script or has some  extremely strong improvisational skills among the tools of his trade. The second thing (and I cannot stress this strongly enough) is that, despite what your petty mind and overblown ego is telling you, it's not a good idea to run around telling everyone that you think Muppets are Communists when, in fact, you collect your paycheck from one of the most venal and dishonest propaganda machines in the history of mankind.


Like a poker player's "give," accusing a puppet show of class warfare (or accusing puppets of being Communists) is a clear indication that:
  • You were starved for both attention and affection as a child.
  • You're probably treating your own children as horribly as your parents treated you.
  • You're hoping and praying that McCarthyism makes a really big comeback.
One thing is for sure: Your world view probably doesn't look anything like this:


While the corporate tools at Fox News are vehemently condemning The Muppets for shoving socialist ideas down the throats of innocent little children -- or naming their villain Tex Richman ("Help, Mr. Ailes -- they're calling me names!") -- let's do a little easy myth busting. Just because a movie's greedy, scheming, humorless villain is named Tex does not mean that Fox's airheads should assume that name is a direct reference to the Koch brothers (Koch Industries is headquartered in Wichita, Kansas).

Unlike the delusional hedge fund managers on Wall Street who think of themselves as "masters of the universe" and their cohort as sanctified "job creators," entertainment and the arts are two of the most labor intensive industries. Even if Muppets don't belong to a union (like corporations, puppets are not flesh and blood), many of the people who worked on The Muppets do. If you don't believe me, check out this list of guilds and unions whose members work in the entertainment industry.


From screenwriters, cameramen, choreographers, and make-up artists to actors, dancers, prop technicians, and costumers, a lot of jobs are created when a movie goes into production. If you don't believe me, just consider the wealth of talent that went into making The Muppets.


Despite every parent's belief that their child is gifted, true talent does not get distributed evenly at birth. a If a child's talent goes unnoticed -- or his family lacks the financial means to nurture it -- that talent may remain undeveloped (a huge amount of talent was prematurely taken from us during the early years of the AIDS crisis).

Nurturing a child's talent is easier said than done in a nation where conservatives are doing their best to eliminate the United States Department of Education, defund school and public libraries, prevent children from receiving affordable healthcare, and smugly reclassifying pizza as a vegetable served in school cafeterias. To get a good idea of the poverty and polarity of thought involved, let me recommend three recent articles:
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Although Kevin Clash did not come from a poor family, there was never any question about what he wanted to do with his life. Growing up in Baltimore, he spent many hours watching Sesame Street. By the age of ten, Kevin was starting to build his own puppets. As a teenager, he performed at Baltimore's Harbor Front and on local television.

Clash came to the attention of Sesame Street's producers after Muppet designer Kermit Love became a mentor. Since then, his characters have included SplinterHoots the Owl, Clifford, and Baby Sinclair. As Sesame Street's Senior Puppet Coordinator, Muppet Captain, and Senior Creative Consultant, he is the subject of a delightful new documentary by Constance Marks entitled Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey.

Among Clash's most  recent projects are directing and appearing in Talk, Listen, Connect: When Families Grieve and directing the Muppet segments of a PBS special entitled Families Stand Together: Feeling Secure in Tough Times.

Kevin Clash working with a puppet

Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, Being Elmo gives viewers a chance to see how Muppets are built, learn how a puppeteer finds the right voice and personality for a puppet, and discover how Elmo's character was born. They also get to see how Clash's personality has developed from childhood (in large part because he was encouraged at every step of the way by his parents, mentors, and employers). In her director’s statement,  Marks writes:
“Oddly, I never really decided to make Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey. Nine years ago, my husband James Miller (who is a Director of Photography) was shooting at Sesame Street. Our daughter Sophia was about two years old and James brought a brag book to the set. When he returned that evening, he handed me a VHS tape. To my amazement, Kevin Clash had agreed to make a tape for Sophia in which Elmo and James were looking at the pictures and addressing Sophia through the camera. Who was this man, I wondered, who took considerable time to make a tape for complete strangers? I had seen the furry red one on Sesame Street and always found him plucky and very appealing. I noticed the way the puppet was manipulated, this character was conveying a wide range of behaviors with tremendous subtlety. I was intrigued."
Puppeteer Kevin Clash with Elmo
"Years later, James called me from the set. He said 'I'm at Sesame today and Kevin Clash is here.' Impulsively, I blurted out: 'You tell that man that your wife has a crush on him and wants to make a documentary about him.' That night James came home with Kevin's assistant’s phone number. That was it. No heavy deliberations or soul searching (just an opportunity that I grabbed and thought: if he says yes, I'll figure out a way to make it work).
In an interview, Frank Oz explains that when anyone puts a puppet on their arm, they say things through the puppet they would not ordinarily say. This is true for Kevin, too. We were screening footage of Elmo and Tyra Banks (who were co-presenters at the Daytime Emmy Awards) and Tyra was wearing a very revealing dress. Elmo proclaimed 'Nice dress... Hubba hubba' as his face scrunched up in excitement. It's hard to imagine Kevin saying that, but Elmo, no problem. As Kevin's mother says in the film, 'Kevin comes alive through Elmo.'"

Anyone who watches Elmo on television (or remembers the Tickle Me Elmo shopping craze during the 1996 Christmas season) will have no trouble falling in love with this gentle spirit whose magic has captivated millions worldwide. The documentary makes a point of showing that Kevin Clash never forgot the many favors and kindnesses that were extended to him on his way up the ladder. He actively mentors young puppeteers, sharing his knowledge with them freely and frequently.

To rescue this month from the insanity of excessive commercialism and the rampant (and rancid) stupidity of fatuous fools like Rick Perry and Donald Trump, treat yourself to screenings of The Muppets and Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Life. These films will provide a much more rewarding experience than any shopping spree.  Here's the trailer:

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