Yes, I'm aware that Elmo is just a swath of red fur that can't talk or give a proper interview. The endless hours spent watching Sesame Street's cutest monster haven't deluded me that much (yet). But the man who created Elmo and gives him life—making millions of children giddy in the process—can talk. His name is Kevin Clash (above, all spiffed up with his creation) and he's from Baltimore! He went to Dundalk High School, graduated from Towson University and got his start doing puppet shows at the Inner Harbor. Even better: He reads Learning to Crawl!
Evan Serpick: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk
Kevin Clash: No problem. I really liked your last post [about playing the Elmo card]. That doctor was great. He gave you some good pointers.
ES: Yeah, he was great. He's since become our pediatrician.
KC: Well, there you go! I would do that, after that information. We have a wonderful research department [at Children's Television Workshop], headed by Rosemarie Trulio. When I needed some pointers when my daughter Shannon was growing up, I asked her. It's great to have those people in your pocket when you have a child.
ES: Is your daughter into Elmo?
KC: She was—well, she still is. She's 15 now. Now, I come home and she has a stack of printed-out Elmo pictures that I have to sign for her friends. So now, it's a whole different thing.
ES: But when she was growing up, I'm sure, like every kid in America, she was Elmo-crazy.
KC: It was really cute. She went through phases. Ever since she was born, Elmo was in her life. I went to a lot of show-and-tells for a lot of classes.
ES: When she was young, was it clear to her that you played this character?
KC: She went through a little chanting thing when she was about three-and-a-half. She would say 'daddy-Elmo, Elmo-daddy, daddy-Elmo!' We were so glad when she got out of that phase. Like you were saying in your article, they'll test you. She knew that I was always with Elmo, but she never really saw it as me being a puppeteer, she just saw it as two people. Then she did this thing where we would be on the phone and she would say 'Hey daddy, can I speak to Elmo?' Then I would come on as Elmo and she would say, 'Hey Elmo, I saw this doll on a commercial. It's really cool. Can you tell my daddy about it?' Elmo'd say 'Yeah, ok.' Then she'd say 'Now put daddy back on.' And then she'd say, 'Now, daddy, Elmo has something really important to tell you.'
ES: That's great. I didn't know until after I posted that article that you had Baltimore roots, and that you got your start working at the Harbor.
KC: Baltimore was a great place to grow up. I used to do Sunny Sunday down at the Harbor, where my puppet stage almost got blown into the water. We had to rig it to the stage. I used to go down every Sunday. My father would drive me down and I would put up my little stage and do my thing.
ES: How old were you at that point?
KC: Please, early teens?
ES: You started so young!
KC: Well, Sesame Street started in 1969 and I was nine years old, so I was definitely into watching Sesame, but for two reasons. One, I loved the show, but I was also trying to look at how they built the puppets and stuff like that.
ES: What about puppeteering appealed to you so early?
KC: I really don't know. My mom sewed a lot, so she taught me how to sew on a Singer sewing machine, and my dad drew a lot and he was very artistic, so I think the combination appealed to me.
ES: So, I saw that you got back to Baltimore recently for Port Discovery's 10th anniversary party.
KC: Yeah, it was great be there for that. I love Baltimore. I'll give back to Baltimore whatever they want because the city really embraced me and showed me my roots. It gave me a really nice background to come up there. Even Jim [Henson] said that. He was very pleasantly surprised how much I knew, just from being down in Baltimore. It's very neighborhoody. The Harbor was right there—a lot of stuff for kids—the Science Center, the Aquarium, all that stuff. It's great.
ES: Since I found out you were from Baltimore, I've been trying to detect if Elmo has a Baltimore accent.
KC: [laughs] I don't know if it comes out, you would have to tell me. Maybe the laugh.
ES: Obviously Elmo has become one of the most popular children's characters of all time. What do you think it is about him that appeals to kids so much?
KC: I think it's the positiveness of him, they can really relate to that. The stage that Elmo is supposed to be at—two, three years old—is the same as a lot of the kids, where everything just blows you away and fascinates you. All you want to do is have a good time. And that's why the laugh is so important, because at that age, everything is positive. And if it's not, in a second it will be. That's why the young kids relate to him. And then he has that edge, that muppet edge that Jim [Henson] always wanted us to keep, where we bring ourselves and our sense of humor into it, and that's why it works for the adults too.
ES: Yeah! There are those great moments in there. I was just watching the one where Elmo wants to be a plant like Stinky the plant and he just gets so bored by being a plant—it's hysterical!
KC: Oh, yes, yes. I think that's what's so cool. Adults get so excited when they come on the set. I remember when Whoopi Goldberg came on the set, she said she knew she had finally made it.
ES: I imagine it's a special thing for a lot of celebrities who come on the show.
KC: Oh, yeah. Also, it's very different from their lives as movie stars, where there's a whole different situation with negotiating and top-billing. When you come to Sesame Street, there's none of that. They're just coming to have a good time.
ES: And they're so charming. You get to see a side of people that's so endearing.
KC: Oh, totally! And some times the movie starts do it for their kids, because they're usually in these movies that, 9 times out of 10, they can't see.
ES: I have a neighbor whose three-year-old dressed up like a cheese this year after seeing Ben Stiller's bit on Sesame Street.
KC: [laughs] Yes! Yes! That was so funny. Yeah, we got Adam Sandler coming in next to shoot something, so we're looking forward to that.
ES: How has Elmo's character changed over the years?
KC: When I started doing Elmo, everything was very primitive, Elmo do this, Elmo do that. And we saw that that got in the way of his teaching a little bit, so he got a full vocabulary at that point and that's the only thing that really changed about Elmo.
ES: Has the voice stayed the same?
KC: Oh yeah. When I created the character, I did that voice and they loved it, so it's been the same ever since. It's getting a little more challenging for me as I get older. I wake up in the morning and I sound like Barry White. Now, it's about warming up and doing the things I need to do. I don't drink anymore, I can't be around smoke, I have to drink water more, so you find ways of doing things to keep the voice where it needs to be.
ES: You have such a deep voice. It's not a strain for you?
KC: I do a lot of audio toys and I know that I have about three hours that I can do before the highs of the falsetto starts going away. That's my limit and then I have to stop for the day.
ES: What do kids say when they see you with Elmo?
KC: They say 'Can Elmo come home with me?' It's just the sweetest. Your heart just breaks because you want to say 'Sure, you guys go home and have a play date,' but you can't do that.
ES: But they can buy their own Elmo. My son Jack has an Elmo at home and one at preschool. One day I went to pick him up and he was running around dancing with Elmo. The only way I could get him to go home was to say, 'We can go home and play with Elmo!'
KC: [laughs] It's very interesting what the pediatrician said in your article. You let them have their tantrums. It's okay to bribe. It's not detrimental to your child. I loved when he said that the child is gonna tell you 'Go screw yourself.' That was so funny. That's a child. They don't dissect anything that they say or do. I remember when I was a child and I said 'Jeez, Grandma, you got some fat feet,' because the meat was rolling over the shoes at the top. And of course, my mom was looking at me like 'You're not supposed to say that!' Kids are the best.