TV critics tend to be a weary, cynical lot, but you wouldn't know it by the atmosphere in the room for this morning's press tour session for "Being Elmo," a documentary about "Sesame Street" puppeteer Kevin Clash that PBS will air as part of "Independent Lens" in April 2012. Critics eagerly lined up to pose for photos with Clash and Elmo (full disclosure: I have small kids, and therefore was not immune to such an offer), laughed at Clash's gift for improv (when I mentioned that my daughter is a big fan of the show, Elmo replied, "Yeah, I watch it too!") and were generally charmed by the whole thing. (It helped that some of the local reporters brought their kids, who spent the entire thing either cackling hysterically or just smiling at the greatest thing they had ever seen.)
I'll be live-blogging the "Being Elmo" panel.
10:18: The actual panel is starting fairly late because the PBS Kids executive wanted to make a lot of announcements, but at least that part of thing was bookended by two funny Grover bits, one making fun of the Spider-Man musical, the other with Grover as The Muppet Your Muppet Could Smell Like.
10:20: Clips of "Being Elmo" being shown. Great shot of Clash walking, unrecognized, past a street performer dressed as Elmo. My friends who saw the film at Sundance were fans. (Even Fienberg, who's fiercely Team Grover, dug it.)
10:22: 17-time Emmy winner Clash takes the stage, gives us the voices of Hoots the Owl and Baby Natasha to remind us of how they sound.
10:24: Clash talks about how important PBS was to his family growing up. Parents wanted the kids to connect with arts and entertainment. "That's how I found 'Sesame Street.'"
10:25: Critic brings up the recognition factor. Hasn't he been doing it long enough that people sometimes know him? "Once in a blue moon," Clash says, "which I'm cool with... I have celebrity friends who say, 'Why didn't I become a puppeteer?'" Says Whoopi Goldberg envies his anonymity.
10:26: Clash went through a bunch of Muppets on "Sesame Street" "that did not work at all" in his early days. He feels lucky to have inherited Elmo from puppeteer Richard Hunt (who was himself the second Elmo). "I said to myself, 'If he can't do anything with it, what can I do with it?'" he recalls. In his second season as Elmo, he got a script about Elmo imagining things, he began improvising, and the camera men began to laugh. "That's how I knew I had something."
10:29: Clash and Steve Whitmire, who plays Kermit these days, have a rivalry over who can get the newest electronic gadget first.
(I should warn you folks, by the way, that this room doesn't have power outlets and my laptop battery seems to be draining much more quickly than usual. This session has a half-hour to go, but I fear I won't make it to the end. Apologies if I miss certain bits of Clash brilliance.)
10:32: Clash tries to avoid doing Elmo's voice if he's not holding the puppet, because he thinks it freaks people out. He'll do it on phone interviews, though.
10:33: How did director Constance Marks decide on what to focus in Clash's story? She says when they were editing the film, they realized there wasn't an obvious arc to Clash in present day, so they just wanted to tell "the story of his life."
10:36: Marks shot hundreds of hours of footage, some parts of which will wind up on the DVD. Clash says one of those scenes features him meeting a 10-year-old boy who's very much like he was at age 10 and giving him a tour of the "Sesame Street" puppet shop. "This little kid was losing his mind!" Clash recalls. "He said, 'I think I just threw up in my mouth!'"
10:40: Clash recalls that sometimes his daughter would ask to speak to Elmo on the phone because she thought he'd be a softer touch if she wanted a specific birthday present.
10:41: What does Clash think of the "mangy, aggressive, smelly" Elmo in Times Square? "Everybody's gotta make a living," he says. (One of the little kids in the audience sounds dismayed at the reporter's suggestion that any Elmo could be smelly.)
10:42: Clash wasn't aware Tickle-Me Elmo was coming out back in the day, but now is more involved in the production of spin-off toys.
10:43: Did Tickle-Me Elmo elevate the character's popularity? Clash thinks so, recalls when Rosie O'Donnell had it on her talk show. "You can only have 30 seconds of a commercial, she talked about it for 15 minutes."
10:44: As a kid, Clash's classmates would make fun of his puppeteering ambitions: "'Yeah, yeah, you sleep with your puppets,'" he recalled. But when he performed at a school variety show, he'd use that puppet to heckle those same kids. "And it worked. I'm still alive."
10:45: Clash loves ad-libbing. He learned it from Jim Henson and Frank Oz, explaining, "Watching them do Ernie and Bert off-camera was the funniest thing I'd ever seen." So he can go on Jimmy Fallon's talk show and have fun teasing him. "But it's easy to get Jimmy Fallon."
10:47: Clash is fiercely protective of the "Sesame Street" brand, won't let Elmo appear in any kind of context that seems too adult. "We say no a lot," he says.
10:48: Clash loved "Avenue Q," which featured a bunch of puppeteers who started on "Sesame Street." "We went in droves, all of the puppeteers, all of the people who produced the shows, and we were so proud," he says. "It was this wonderful respect to the shows Sesame Workshop did."
10:49: Clash hasn't had voice training, but knows he can only do three hours of falsetto in a day, can't smoke or be around smokers, etc., to preserve his voice.
10:50: "I have five voices, and I switch 'em around a little bit," he says.
10:51: Clash discusses some of his earlier characters that didn't work, including "a furry beatnik," a juggling muppet, Professor D. Rabbit. "I thought, 'I'm gonna get fired every day now,'" he says, but then Hoots the Owl came early on.
10:52: Is he coming up with any new characters? He says every year there are new characters, but "We really try to keep the core of the characters and not muddy it with too many new characters." Still, there's been room to add the likes of Murray and Abby Kadabby in recent years. The scripts will feature notations for "AM," meaning "Anything Muppet" or "Anything Monster," and some of them, like Murray, get promoted later.
10:54: "If you came to 'Sesame Street,' you all would turn into 5-year-olds," he says, discussing how celebrities respond when they come to appear on the show. He got to direct Tina Fey one time, and she bought 50 pizzas for the cast the next day. Or Kevin Kline and Phoebe Cates came by and said, "We were just in the neighborhood!" Celebrities come on the show just because they love it.
10:58 Clash as Elmo says we have time for one more question. Does Clash ever go back to watch the old episodes to see how the show's evolved? "We always do that," he says. "It's why the show is what it is." They'll do elaborate showbiz parodies like "Desperate Houseplants," but it's important for them to keep in mind the basics of "what we do the show for." He has periodic lunches with the show's creator, Joan Ganz Cooney for similar reasons.
11:00: Marks and her director of photographer husband followed Clash for seven years, and her husband is "dismayed he can't follow him anymore." Clash puts Elmo on his lap, sings an Elmo-fied riff on the theme to "The Carol Burnett Show." The critics don't usually clap, but there is much applause at the end of this one.