About a year ago my daughter developed a deep affection for that furry red monster from Sesame Street, Elmo. I admit at first I was skeptical: Isn’t that the annoying little Muppet, you know, the one with the irritating laugh? But my wife and I quickly learned the power that the YouTube video of “Elmo’s Song” had in calming down an irate toddler, so we grew to appreciate Elmo.
About the same time, the documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey was released. I’m a little behind the game here given the documentary is no current event, but I feel obligated to write something about this absolutely, positively Gospel of a film. The documentary tells the life story of Kevin Clash, the puppeteer genius behind Elmo, and his journey from an unlikely childhood fascination with puppets to being the Jim Henson protégé who would develop Sesame Street‘s most prominent character.
Watching Being Elmo, it’s hard not to notice the theme of grace in Clash’s life. It clearly played a large role in leading and inspiring him to develop Elmo into a representation of one-way love. Indeed, the first two-thirds of the film have very little to do with Elmo and more with Clash’s path to Sesame Street, featuring some key events and people who informed what Elmo would later become.
In an opening scene, Clash recounts the pivotal moment when he first watched Sesame Street as a child and was struck by a particular Bert and Ernie segment, which helped little Kevin from the hoods of Baltimore to recognize he was someone special. Can anything good come from Baltimore? Yes, said Bert and Ernie, and this unexpected act of love completely changed Clash’s life, sparking an interest that would eventually become his life’s vocation:
Just as soon as it came on, I was glued. That was it. It was more like my neighborhood. There was Blacks and Whites, and Asians, and Latinos. Then I saw the Muppets. Ernie looked right in the camera and said, ‘Hey, Bert, come here. There’s someone special I want you to meet.’ … What? Who me? You’re talking to me? Unbelievable. I mean, I was just magnetized to these characters … And I was like, ‘Wow. How are those puppets made?’
And so he embarked on a childhood journey, leading through adolescence, to discover how exactly those puppets were made. He began by experimenting, attempting to recreate puppets like the ones he saw on Sesame Street, and he had his parent’s unconditional support along the way—often times at their expense.
Like Bert and Ernie, Clash’s parents were agents of horizontal grace in his life. One memorable scene from the documentary has Clash telling the story of when he cut up his father’s coat to construct a monkey puppet. After completing his project, he feared his father’s wrath but instead was met with tacit support and acceptance of this unusual hobby:
One day I got this urge. I saw my dad’s trench coat. Inside, there was this black fur. I thought, ‘Wow, that would make a great monkey.’ I just went off. I was entranced. I cut it up, and I made this puppet called Moandy. I put the puppet in my mom and dad’s dresser. That’s when I started getting really concerned about what he would do to me, so I hid. When I heard my name, I was like, ‘Oh, no. Here it comes.’ He said, ‘What is his name?’ And I said, ‘Moandy.’ The next thing he said was, ‘Next time, just ask.’ I was like, ‘Phew!’
It was at about this point that Clash’s parents began to embrace his puppet hobby wholesale as something quite special. While his peers were out playing sports and participating in other typical activities, Clash was performing puppet shows for his mother’s daycare with a stage his father helped him build (much to the dismay of neighbors and peers who thought Clash’s fascination was perverse). At one point, his parents’ entire house, including their own bedroom, was completely occupied by plastic shelving units for storing Clash’s puppet creations. In short, this unbridled and unconditional support for their son’s unique hobby had a direct impact on his flourishing as a puppeteer from a very early age.
Clash’s mother knew someone he looked up to, perhaps even more than Henson, was Kermit Love, the designer of Sesame Street and the Muppet Show‘s oversized puppets such as Big Bird, so she tracked him down in New York City. Her contact led to Love welcoming Clash into his workshop. Clash and Love were an unlikely pair: The elderly and successful White puppet master, who looked an awful lot like Santa Claus, and the Black teenager from the streets of Baltimore with a puppet hobby. But Love took him in like a mother hen, taught him everything he knew, introduced him to Henson, and eventually led him to Sesame Street and other Henson productions. Like Bert and Ernie, and Clash’s parents, Love was yet another figure of unconditional love and support that not only led to his flourishing but would contribute to his redevelopment of Elmo’s essence.
As a junior member of the Sesame Street cast, Clash was tasked with trying to figure out if he could do something with the as-of-yet unsuccessful Elmo puppet. So Clash embarked on a retreat back home to his parents’ house in Baltimore for a week.
I really wanted to succeed, so I went back to Baltimore, hoping that this character can hold its own with Ernie and Bert, Big Bird, Cookie, all those wonderful characters that are legendary to us now. When I got back home, I knew that there was something that I had to think about to really get somewhere with bringing this character to life. And so I thought about what Frank [Oz] always said when he was creating a character. He said, ‘Find one special hook for that character. Like with Fozzie Bear, he said he really focuses on the Vaudeville comedian when he performs Fozzie. And he said Miss Piggy is a truck driver wanting to be a woman. And so I kept those things in mind as I hung out with my mom and the daycare kids. I watched the kids and thought about that specific essence, that one thing that would say this is Elmo to me. And then I got it—the one thing that is just right for Elmo … I knew that Elmo should represent love.
Or as, fellow Sesame Street puppeteer Martin P. Robinson, the man behind Mr. Snuffleupagus, explains: “Elmo loves you, he just loves you. And when he says that, you get it.” Better yet, as John Ziemann explains: “I always say, Elmo is not Kevin. Elmo is Mr. and Mrs. Clash. They’d be supportive whatever Kevin did. Kevin has put this into Elmo.”
Ziemann’s explanation hits the mark right on—that Clash put his parents into Elmo, but Clash also put the likes of Bert and Ernie, Kermit Love, and all his distilled personal history of horizontal grace into Elmo. And it is perhaps for this very reason—Elmo representing unbridled love—that he has become the Sesame Street character most beloved by children around the world. Say what you will—just as I was once annoyed by him, perhaps Elmo irritates you too—but it is often a child’s dying wish with the Make-a-Wish foundation to meet Elmo. Clash and Elmo grant these wishes, too, which is captured in the documentary. Of course in the end, the grace of Elmo is not the same thing as the vertical grace of God, but it certainly points to God’s undeserved love for the unlovable, and there is something to be said for Elmo’s success in this regard—Elmo seems to be onto something when bestowing love to no matter whom in a spirit-crushing world.