Being Elmo

Until a couple years ago, I never gave much thought to who was behind the high-pitched voice of our beloved Elmo. But if you had asked me, I would have guessed a woman. Probably a white one. And boy would I have been wrong.

Honestly, I did a double-take when I learned that Elmo was a black man. It didn’t matter to me; it just wasn’t what I had expected. And ever since I saw him (with Elmo) on YouTube, doing an interview on some British talk show, I have been intrigued by his story.

Being Elmo is a look at the life of Kevin Clash, the man behind the muppet who stole our hearts.

(There’s also a book called MY LIFE AS A FURRY RED MONSTER. I’m not sure if I feel the need to read it anymore, since I imagine much of the content would be the same as this documentary.)

I adored every second of this film. Unlike some documentaries, Being Elmo gives you a “character” to latch onto, to root for — and that’s what makes it stick.

We start with Kevin’s humble childhood in Baltimore, with parents who were surprisingly supportive of such an unusual endeavor. (Meanwhile his siblings didn’t get it, and many of his peers mocked him for it.) We laugh when young Kevin cuts up his father’s coat to make his first muppet. We marvel when he puts on shows for the neighborhood kids. We cheer when he gets his first job at a local television station. And we cry (or at least I did) when he goes to New York City to meet Frank Oz and Jim Henson.

Throughout the film, I felt SO inspired by Kevin’s single-minded focus. His passion. His work ethic. I found myself wondering if I could honestly say that I put in as much time, effort, and love to my writing as he did to his puppetry. (No.)

But then the film switches gears and reveals what Kevin sacrificed to become such a success: his family.

At some point he married the girl he had been dating since 19, and they had a daughter. But Kevin was always traveling, entertaining other children with Elmo, and becoming a bigger and bigger part of Sesame Street (writer, producer, director). Unfortunately that kept him away from his wife — they eventually divorced — and worst of all, from his daughter.

I don’t necessarily get the impression that he would go back and change things, but he did seem to regret that he couldn’t be more present as a father. That he couldn’t “have it all.”

That made me wonder about how I want to live my life. Do I want to become so dedicated to my writing that there’s no room for anything else? (No.)

But maybe that’s just what some people are destined for. Like, isn’t the work that Kevin was doing important enough to justify his absence? His family might say no, but when I think about all the children who benefit from Sesame Street — all the dying kids who just want a hug and kiss from Elmo — I have a hard time agreeing.

(I’ve seen this idea of personal sacrifice in other stories, albeit fictional ones. Like The Santa Clause with Tim Allen. Or the heartbreaking romance between Olivia Pope and President Grant on Scandal.)

Anyway. All this is a really long way of saying that Being Elmo is an awesome documentary about a really interesting, quiet figure who has undoubtedly touched your life, even if you had no idea. Also, it shows you that there is SO much more to puppeteering than just sticking your hand in a muppet and making a funny voice.

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4 Comments

  1. I didn’t grow up watching Elmo, but this post makes me think: Literature and media often feature the concept of regret by those who neglect their family to pursue their career. The moral is almost always: Family comes first. However, it’s interesting to view it with the other lense, that what they’re doing is important enough for them to sacrifice their family for it. Neither is inherently the “right” choice. You just rarely ever see the portrayal of the latter.

  2. I never would have pictured this man as being the voice of Elmo, either!

    I have two other similar books. One is by Yeardley Smith on being the voice of Bart Simpson. And the other is about the person in the Big Bird suit. I haven’t read either yet, but they’re sitting on my TBR pile.

  3. My partner read… I think it was Barbara Walters’ autobiography… and she said that one of the most interesting points that Walters makes is that she says it is impossible to have a super successful show business career, a good marriage, and be a good parent. She says that she’s tried it every which way, and it can’t be done. Unlike Clash, Walters says that you can have two of those three (so one could have a super successful show business career *and* be a good parent), but all three are impossible.

  4. Emy-
    Good point! Hmm… a theme worth exploring, perhaps.

    Juliann-
    The public must be calling for our beloved “comic” figures to be unmasked! Maybe it’s related to the resurgence of the superhero trend?

    Sonje-
    Interesting declaration from a powerful figure. Unfortunately I do think “having it all” is a myth our generation has been sold (and there was a great article on that here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-can-8217-t-have-it-all/9020/#.T-TH_vVmlAo.facebook) and now we’re having to learn to renegotiate the idea, aiming for “balance” instead of equality between the spheres of our lives. (And each person’s balance may be different based on their personalities, values, priorities, etc.)

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