Meet the Man Behind the Muppet in Being Elmo

This charming documentary explores the man who gives life to Sesame Street's loveable puppet

Credit: PBS

The voice behind Elmo, Kevin Clash’s passion for puppetry is explored in Being Elmo

Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey explores the man behind the popular Sesame Street puppet

If you bumped into Kevin Clash on the street, you’d probably have no idea who you just met. Even if you exchanged a few words, it’s unlikely you’d realize you were speaking with Elmo, the beloved red Muppet that continues to enchant toddlers each weekday on Sesame Street

Clash is the subject of a fascinating film called Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, airing this Thursday on PBS’s Independent Lens documentary series. In her award-winning film, director Constance Marks delves into the soul of a gentle, creative man who has never lost touch with his inner child — and has found great success by letting that child out to play.

Combining new interviews with vintage footage — including a little-seen episode of a 1970s show called Big Blue Marble that interviewed the puppeteer when he was still a teenager — Marks takes viewers through Clash’s creative process, his devotion to his craft and chronicles the path that eventually took him to Sesame Street.

Kevin Clash and the Origins of Elmo

As it turns out, Elmo was no overnight success. After Clash began working at Sesame Street, he created a number of puppet characters that flopped. “I tell you,” says Clash, “I went through a lot of characters, a lot of puppets on Sesame Street.” 

In fact, another more-experienced puppeteer had originally been working with furry, red Elmo, and it wasn’t going well. Frustrated that he wasn’t coming up with the right voice or character, he gave the puppet to Clash to give it a try. “I said to myself, ‘If he can’t do anything with it, how can I come up with something?’”

For inspiration, Clash observed the children who attended the daycare centre his mother ran out of her home, ultimately developing a character that was childish, playful and filled with boundless enthusiasm. As Clash tells it, he knew he was on to something while filming Elmo’s first appearance. “Once I heard the camera guys — who have seen everything — start laughing, I thought, ‘OK, maybe I’m doing something that might work here.’” 

Whether or not you’re a fan of puppets, Muppets or Sesame Street, you’ll still find yourself drawn into this utterly joyful, heartwarming film about how one man’s dogged pursuit of his passion for puppetry wound up delighting millions of children throughout the world.

Originally published in TVW. For daily programming updates and on-screen Entertainment news, subscribe to the free TVW e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the weekly magazine.