Kevin Clash is an Emmy-award-winning performer and producer with dozens of TV and film credits to his name, but he's far better known as a furry red monster. Clash is the puppeteer and the voice behind Elmo, one of the most popular characters on the seminal children's television show Sesame Street, which this week marks its 40th anniversary with a series of special episodes and a two-disc DVD set, Sesame Street: 40 Years of Sunny Days. Clash spoke to TIME about becoming Elmo, the show's many celebrity guests and why even grown-ups need a Sesame Street fix once in a while.
I want to ask how you joined the show and how you came up with what you do with Elmo. The character existed before you joined?
They had a bunch of monsters and they thought, Wouldn't it be nice to make a red one? So they did. David Korr, who was a writer at the time, really took a liking to the character, and started writing him into the scripts. And of course, then they had to find somebody to puppeteer him. Brian Muehl did it for a couple of shows, and then Richard Hunt. Richard hated it. Richard originated Statler, one of the old guys in the balcony of The Muppet Show; he did Beaker and Scooter. [Elmo] wasn't his type of character; he just thought it was too cutesy and too young.
Was Elmo always deliberately going to be younger?
Actually, even when Brian performed him it was this whispery little voice. And then Richard did it, and then he gave him to me. This was one of those lucky days that I was in the Muppeteer greenroom by myself, and he threw it to me and he said, "Come up with a voice." And I said [in Elmo's voice], "Hi everybody, it's Elmo!" and he said, "O.K., fine."
At what point did you realize that Elmo was going to turn into such a big deal?
I came back in the next season, and the first bit I did the crew actually laughed. If you can get the crew to laugh on a show, you know that you're doing something. At the end of each season, the producers would get together with the writers and they'll poll what new characters worked that season. And when the research department went out with Elmo, they saw that not only were the kids being entertained by the character, but that they were learning. So they started writing more for the character. And then, of course, the merchandising came into play.
Is it your voice that we hear on the Elmo toys?
Yes. I call that job security. Jim Henson always set it up that whoever performs the character will be the voice of the character. So when you hear that voice, that's me.
Is doing Elmo something you can just turn on and off in your head, in terms of entering the character?
A couple days ago [Sesame Street Muppeteer] Caroll Spinney did a radio interview, and he brought Oscar the Grouch. The interviewers were like, "But nobody can see him." Well, we're portraying these characters. We can't just sit there as ourselves and do that voice and personality. We're puppeteers. It's kind of weird for us to sit in front of people, even if it's radio, and not have the puppet there.
Do you know how many celebrity guests there have been on Sesame Street?
I know that James Earl Jones was the first. And now we've had over 400. The most memorable were the ones that come in and have that feel for what the show has meant. I remember when Tracy Chapman came in, she was crying as she sang her song; she was just so overwhelmed by being there. Danny DeVito stood up on the steps so everybody could see him personally thank everybody for all the years that he loved watching the show. I mean, to watch Ray Charles come in and sing the alphabet; to watch Tony Bennett singing "Slimey to the Moon"; to sit there with Robert De Niro and have him teach Elmo how to act where else in this world, on television, could you get that?
There's a lot more children's television programming these days than there's been before.
At the beginning of children's programming it was Mr. Rogers, it was Sesame Street, Captain Kangaroo was still on but that was really it. Now, it's everybody. But Sesame Street has always stood apart. The statistics of how many adults watch the show who don't have children is amazing. I got one letter from a husband and wife who said when they get home and they've had a bad day, they pop in the Best of Elmo video. The guy sent me the cover to sign, to give as a 10th anniversary gift to his wife. I hope that's not the only thing he was giving. But it was really sweet.
When you do live events with children and Elmo, do they see you?
Some of the time they do. Most of the time they don't. But I'm telling you, they just see me holding their friend. They don't know me from a hole in the wall and they don't care to.
You're that guy hanging out with Elmo.
I'm the guy holding their friend. Ever since I've been doing Sesame Street that's been the case. They don't care about us.