Sesame Street has been with us for 50 years now. The classic kids’ show focuses on education, morals, and ethics brought to life through its mix of puppets and their human friends.
Characters such as Elmo, Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Bert & Ernie, Rosita, and many more are a part of our pop culture lexicon. But how much have you thought about the hands behind the puppets?
Here are a few interesting factoids about the job of Sesame Street’s hardworking puppeteers.
10. Puppeteers might spend all day on the ground.
Sesame Street characters are often at waist-level to guests and human co-stars. That means that puppeteers often have to crouch down or work in specially constructed equipment in order to get the shot right.
9. Puppeteers have a say in character design.
Sesame Street has a workshop containing “Anything Muppets.” These are ideas for potential future puppets, and puppeteers are welcome to voice their opinions for how they should develop.
8. Puppeteers might start out as right handers.
Apprentices on the show are usually partnered with an experienced puppeteer. The apprentice is expected to manipulate the character’s right hand, while their parter does the left hand and the head. This allows newbies to practice and learn through observation, so they can become great at their new gig. Dillon says,
“It’s a great training ground. You’re working directly next to a performer with years of experience. You become one character together.”
7. Puppeteers employ tricks to help characters express themselves.
Peter Linz, who portrays several characters, including Ernie, says:
“You can make them look sad by having them look down. You can get them to smile by opening their mouth. If they’re angry, maybe you close their mouth and then shake their arms ever so slightly. There are degrees of subtlety in all of that.”
6. Puppets’ eyes are crossed for a reason.
Jim Henson designed the eyes to be slightly crossed, so that when the puppet’s head is pointing directly at something, it looks like they’re looking directly at it. The crossed eyes help the puppets place focus. Linz says,
“The eyes are just two black dots against a white background. But all the characters are ever so slightly cross-eyed. There’s a triangle between the eyes and nose and a point where it looks like they’re looking right into the camera.”
It only works if the head is pointing directly toward the object of focus, though, so puppeteers have to be very careful where their puppets are looking.
5. Puppeteers make errors you’ll never see.
Puppeteers on Sesame Street definitely make mistakes, but it’s likely you’ll never see them. Often those bloopers have to do with coordinating the puppeteers on the left and right hands as they do prop-work. Carmen Oshbahr says,
“Grabbing stuff is easy, but if you want to pour something into a cup or write a letter, that’s hard. You think you’ll have a glass but just miss it.”
4. Puppeteers are generally assigned a character.
Exceptions to this rule include if someone is out for illness or if two characters that are normally assigned to one puppeteer are in a scene together. For everything else, Dillon says,
“We feel strongly each Muppet has a dedicated performer.”
3. Puppeteers work as a community.
Scenes with many puppets often require puppeteers in very close quarters.
2. Puppeteers make very sure their characters stay clean
In order to maintain puppet cleanliness, they always make sure to pick puppets up by the back of the neck. They also use blow dryers to dry off sweat from the foam interiors.
There’s also a whole job for people who take care of the puppets: Muppet Wrangler.
1. Puppeteers mourn characters that are now “toast.”
Puppets are made of foam and other materials, which have the unfortunate habit of decaying over time. They are declared “toast” when the foam starts looking like crumbs, at which point they are either replaced or rehabbed. Puppeteers often mourn these worn-out puppets.
Sesame Street puppeteers work hard to bring our favorite characters to life. Which of these factoids surprised you the most?