Cultural icons are a bit like dentists and doctors. They age faster than you want, meaning that after a while you have to let go and find new ones to adopt. But not on Sesame Street. On the
pavement sidewalk with its perpetual autumn leaves and bright summer flowers, the widely recognised puppets from your childhood remain frozen in time. Oscar the Grouch is still a grumpy 43, and Big Bird ...
“They realized that Big Bird isn't the village idiot – he’s a child, with a wide-eyed view of the world. For a long time we played him at age 4. Now we see him as 6½ - and there he stays.” Caroll Spinney
Actor and puppeteer Caroll Spinney has been the man inside Big Bird and the man behind Oscar the Grouch for over 40 years. He’s been over in Belfast (with Oscar) for the last couple of days, working on the local Sesame offshoot Sesame Tree which is currently filming its second series (for transmission towards the end of the year on CBeebies).
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll
remember faintly recall previous posts about the broad-speaking Hilda and Potto (who has a Big Whizzing Machine), the Bookworms (Samson and Goliath) and the Weather Berries who all inhabit the local version coproduced by Sixteen South and Sesame Workshop. Sixteen South have another children’s show – Big City Park – that’s just started to feature daily on CBeebies. It’s “a celebration of being outdoors” and was filmed with local children in Belfast’s Ormeau Park.
Given a chance yesterday to interview Oscar, I found the grouchy, hoarding, grubby green character in surprisingly good form. He explained he was over in our big smoke to visit his distant cousin Potto.
“He loves books. I like books, but I put them under my sheet. I sleep on the big hard lumpy ones. Keeps me very grouchy.”
Muppets are very like children. They’re attention piranhas, and you can’t not look at them. While Caroll’s mouth was clearly moving, I found myself looking Oscar in the eye when talking to him. He can misbehave too: if you listen to the clip below, you’ll hear Oscar swipe at a flea in the middle of an answer!
Oscar – originally from Canada – thinks his home city of New York is “big and bustling”. Asked about Belfast, he moans:
“There’s only one problem with Belfast: it’s much too attractive. Very beautiful city. I like things that are more run down.”
Turns out that after dark, Oscar likes to go out in his rat suit to “paint the town brown”. Like any tourist in these parts, Oscar had made the pilgrimage up to the Giants’ Causeway. He sounded uncharacteristically impressed:
“I wandered around on the various levels, and I climbed all over it. I went up side and down the other. Beautiful!”
Oscar – who when you talk to him is not aware he’s on a TV show – values education. Directing his wisdom at NI children he suggested:
“Stay in school. I’m going to say some nice things, that’s not common for me. Study hard because if you really want to get a beautiful bunch of trash cans you have to earn some money. So if you don’t go to school you’re probably going to be pumping gas at the petrol station. So study. I think study’s good. But I like to study myself, I like to study rubbish.”
Landing in Belfast proved troublesome as they just kicked him out of the plane somewhere close to the city: “I bounced a while, got some new dents in the trash can”. So what’s the best thing that’s been thrown in his trash can?
“I occasionally get a broken alarm clock. Got a whole laptop the other day, but the chip was gone. So it didn’t work. I liked it!”
Oscar’s a keen recycler.
“You don’t find many hubcaps any more falling off cars, but when I do find one if it’s rusty and looks awful I put it on the mantel over the fireplace. I collect things like that, things that are normally discarded and thrown away. Why would you do that? Just because the toaster doesn’t work anymore. I keep it. I recycle it into a thing of beauty.”
Oscar was originally orange, but later turned green. I asked him if it had changed his outlook and if he recommended it? He explained that his transition had been due to a nice wet holiday in his favourite resort.
“None of the hotel rooms have a roof, so when it rains it means you can really enjoy the drizzle. And so I got so mouldy just staying there a week that I’ve been green ever since. I suppose if I ever took a shower I’d still be orange underneath.”
So would he try a shower some day? Plenty of rain in Belfast if he wanted to step outside ...
“No I like the green. It’s not easy being green!”
While it’s important not to be too enthusiastic in front of him, Oscar’s unlikely to be reading this post, so it’s safe to say that he’s a likeable character. You can find out the answer to my final question to him at the end of the first embedded clip:
“You’re grouchy, you’re a hoarder, you like a nap, I’ve got to ask, are you related to my wife?”
(The question originated with my wife, I hasten to add!)
After Oscar had gone, I talked to Caroll Spinney and his wife Debra. (You can hear some of the conversation in the second embedded clip.) An artist and a cartoonist, Caroll worked in animation (and had a job offer from Disney) before meeting Jim Henson and joining Sesame Street. It sounded more like a vocation or a calling than a career.
“I discovered doing puppet shows as a little boy. My mother had seen Punch and Judy shows as a little girl in Blackpool so she built me a Punch and Judy show for my ninth birthday a theatre and everything.” [Caroll’s wife Debra confirms that they still have it!]
“I think I’m an incredibly fortunate person to get to play characters like this and do it for over 40 years and they want me to continue ... I get to do something that I think is really great ... I have three more years of my contract, and I hope to not only fulfil that but ... Wouldn’t it be neat to play a six year old for fifty years?”
So what does Caroll think is the ongoing legacy of Sesame Street? He points to educational research and the show’s innovative approach.
“Not only is it a TV show that is very successful, it’s one that really changed people’s thinking in the way of education, so it really has a permanent mark on how children learn.”
Caroll talks very warmly about our local Sesame Tree and the skill of its puppeteers and how it compares with other international Sesame shows.
“[It] has the embodiment of what is behind Sesame Street. A lot of human frailties and action is written into these characters. The way of valuing books, reading. There’s so much to this show that I felt was to the point and yet they’ve built this lovely little world that you’d love to be in.”
Turns out that while Oscar is grouchy, his negativity isn’t ever meant to be nasty.
“I think I learned some of this from my slightly older brother who wasn’t too happy when I showed up. He was a master of sarcasm.”
When I’m 76 years old, I’d like to have the same kind of delightful childlike enthusiasm and passion that flows though both Caroll and Debra. (Though I hope I’ll not be considering signing a contract extension ...)
You can hear Oscar and Caroll talking to Marie-Louise Muir at the beginning of last night’s Arts Extra (available until 12 August), see him wish Maggie Taggart a rotten day on Newsline, and catch Big Bird and Oscar’s musings in Caroll’s book The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons from a Life in Feathers.
This post was brought to you by the letters A, I and B.
Photos (c) 2010. Sesame Workshop. All rights reserved