Today on The Muppet Mindset, I’m proud to debut my interview with Muppeteer Matt Vogel. Matt is a principal puppeteer on Sesame Street and has recently started working with The Muppets as a principal puppeteer as well. For more information on Matt, be sure to check out http://www.mattvogel.com Now enough about Matt, let’s find out more about Matt!
Interview with Matt Vogel, Part 1
Conducted by Ryan Dosier
RYAN: First of all, Matt, thank you so much for agreeing to an interview with me. Second, welcome to The Muppet Mindset. Make yourself at home! Can I offer you anything? Coffee? Scones? Barbecue ribs?
MATT: Thanks, but I never eat and interview. You go right ahead and dig in, though.
RYAN: So, before we really get into it, would you mind telling some of the less-obsessed fans out there what they would know you best for? (Of course, I already know what you’re famous for, Mark.)
MATT: I’m a principle Muppeteer on Sesame Street (so I do a lot of one-time characters) and I’m Caroll Spinney’s apprentice for Big Bird. I’m also the assistant puppet captain and a director on the show. For Muppets, I’ve been taking care of Jerry Nelson’s characters (Floyd, Crazy Harry, Lew Zealand, Robin, Dr. Strangepork, etc.) and I’ve performed Sweetums quite a bit.
RYAN: How did you first get involved with Sesame Street? Did it take you a while to figure out how to get there?
MATT: The funny thing is, I didn’t know that I could actually go there. I never considered puppeteering something a person could do as a job. I’d done it as a kid for years as something I loved, but then I got more interested in acting, so puppetry moved to the side for me. I went to school for acting and made my living as an actor for a little while in Kansas City—where I’m from—but once I moved to New York, the opportunity came my way very early on to be seen by the Muppets as a puppeteer.
RYAN: It seems that a lot of Muppeteers started out watching the show themselves as kids. Were you a Sesame seed?
MATT: Yes I was. But what really inspired me to be a puppeteer as a kid was The Muppet Show. Not only did I love watching it and seeing these characters every week, but I was fascinated by what was going on underneath. Anytime I could see someone’s head or an arm sleeve it intrigued me and got me interested in what was going on. It inspired me to make my own puppets and do shows for kids in the neighborhood.
RYAN: Your big claim to fame on Sesame Street is the biggest there is—as Caroll Spinney’s understudy for Big Bird. How did you get that job? Did you have to spell ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ?
MATT: I didn’t have to spell it, but I did have to sing a bit of it for the audition. They were trying to find someone who could do live appearances so that Caroll wouldn’t have to do every one of them. When I was introduced to Caroll he stopped and said, “Vogel? Did you know your name means “bird” in German? This could be the job for you!” That was a little daunting. At the audition, he talked a lot about the Bird and his take on him and how Jim Henson had seen him perform at a puppetry festival and asked him to come to New York to talk about the Muppets. Then I put the puppet on—which was awkward and strange. I did a little of my “Big Bird impression”—which is all it was at that point. After that I met with Caroll a few more times and he coached me along—and still does to this day.
RYAN: What is it like to perform Big Bird? We’ve all heard Caroll discuss being inside the bird, but I don’t think Muppet fans have heard your perspective yet.
MATT: Being inside a puppet is a lot different than just having your arm in one. You’re performing with your whole body instead of from the elbow up. It’s hard to get an idea of where you are in the space physically, because the only thing you can rely on is the monitor on your chest that shows the camera cuts. Not only that, but there’s a disconnect with everyone around you. No one sees your face, just Big Bird, which can make it difficult to communicate with anyone or know what’s happening on set that I can’t see on the monitor. I’ve done the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for years now and it’s odd to sit there on the float and not see the crowd. I hear them and I can look out of the scrim tie Big Bird wears to catch a glimpse, but it’s mostly me looking around inside the puppet trying to keep my arm up for an hour or so with a yellow glow everywhere, while thousands of people are yelling for Big Bird to wave at them.
RYAN: Big Bird is definitely one of the most famous characters on Sesame Street and arguably one of the most recognizable television characters of all-time. What is it like to take on such an influential character?
MATT: Well, now you’ve just freaked me out. I’ve never thought of it that way before. I take the responsibility very seriously. Not only is Big Bird an icon of children’s television but also, I have a huge amount of respect for the work that Caroll has done for over forty years on Sesame Street. I want to do the best I can to honor that. Caroll, as you know, plans on performing Big Bird for as long as he can—and he should—he’s the original and to me, he is Big Bird—not just in voice but in heart. He’s the Bird I grew up with.
RYAN: Taking on such an iconic character like Big Bird certainly can’t be easy. Not only do you have to match the voice, but the character and heart are equally, if not more important. How difficult is this process for you?
MATT: Any time you are taking care of a character for someone else it’s a daunting task. It’s an ongoing process to keep the character consistent with how everyone knows him. It’s important to me to keep the character true to what Caroll has taught me from his perspective as the Bird, as well as what I remember from when I watched Sesame Street as a kid. One thing I have on my side is that the puppet looks exactly like Big Bird—so that helps a little. But that’s where it stops being easy. But no matter how diligent you are about remaining faithful to the original performance, bits and pieces of who you are inevitably make their way into your version of the character.
RYAN: What do you think the most important aspect of Big Bird’s character is?
MATT: I think one of the most important aspects of Big Bird is his sense of childlike wonder. He’s an Everychild. A very large, yellow Everychild with a penchant for birdseed milkshakes.
RYAN: When was your first performance as Big Bird?
MATT: My first performance as Big Bird was for a Kmart manager’s convention. It was a live event and Big Bird appeared in front of a huge letter “K” that slowly spun into position from offstage. I don’t remember much about it…but I think it may have had something to do with Sesame Street diapers.
RYAN: One of your first and biggest forays as the Bird was in the “Journey to Ernie” segments. What was the process of filming these like, since green screens were so heavily used?
MATT: “Journey to Ernie” was very physical. We did it on blue screen with very little of the cartoon artwork completed when we shot it, so most of the time I had to imagine where the cartoon characters would eventually be and what they would be doing. Sometimes they would build ramps for me to walk across like a trapeze or different sized panels for me to interact with and move. It was very challenging, but I had fun.
RYAN: Sometimes on the show you’re the one inside the Bird puppet and Caroll loops the dialogue later. What is the process of filming these scenes like? Is it more difficult than doing it without a loop?
MATT: There are a lot of times when a performer is playing more than one character in a scene and someone else has to puppeteer to pre-recorded lines or do the lines to be replaced later. If we’re doing a scene where both Big Bird and Oscar are present, Caroll performs the character with the most lines and I puppeteer the other to either Caroll’s pre-recorded line or Caroll throwing the line live on set.
RYAN: What are some of your favorite Big Bird moments? (They don’t have to be moments you performed.)
MATT: I love Caroll’s performance in Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. I think it’s a great example of how Big Bird is an Everychild. He’s curious and thoughtful and a little scared of the unknown and I just think Caroll does a fantastic job. I was also at the opening of the New Victory Theatre in New York City and Big Bird made an appearance. I remember at dress rehearsal, he came out and it really looked like Big Bird was looking right at me. Very cool moment. For my own work, I’m proud of what we did on “Journey to Ernie” because of the physicality we were able to achieve with a giant yellow puppet. Also, I did a telethon in Vancouver with Bob McGrath many years ago. I remember doing a song with Bob and then we had a moment with one of the children at the telethon named Janeece. It was one of my favorite moments.
RYAN: What about your favorite Caroll Spinney moments?
MATT: I remember working on the floor (as the puppeteers do most of the time on Sesame) and Caroll was sitting in his chair in his orange Big Bird pants. I’d only been on the show for a couple of seasons and it was very surreal. I just remember thinking, “I’m here on Sesame Street and that guy is Big Bird!” I’ve also had the pleasure of directing Caroll for a couple of Street shows in season 39, 40 and 41 and he’s just great to work with and very collaborative.
RYAN: Have you performed Big Bird off the Street in live performances?
MATT: I’ve done lots of live appearances with Big Bird. We used to do the Lincoln Center Tree Lighting (not the big Rockefeller Tree Lighting but the one up the street). A lot of times Big Bird would get to sing with a children’s choir or a prominent musician. The most recent was for the street naming in New York City for the 40th Season of Sesame Street. (Caroll was there too, but he was standing with Oscar.)
RYAN: What are the differences between a live performance and a performance on the set?
MATT: Apart from the fact that in the live performances there’s an audience…there’s a sense that there are no retakes, which I like. It raises the stakes a little and keeps you on edge…in a good way.
RYAN: You have also performed tons of Anything Muppets on the Street. Do you have any favorites?
MATT: I loved David Letterguy and Herb the dinosaur. Hansel is a fun character to play around with. I did something for next season that I loved so much—it was an ape in an angel outfit singing about acorns (guess what the letter of the day is for that episode). I did the voice like a child singing the song in falsetto. It’s kind of odd but I loved it.
RYAN: You directed the “Murray Has a Little Lamb” segments in recent seasons. What is the process of filming these like?
MATT: Joey Mazzarino and I directed “Murray Has a Little Lamb”—as well as the “tune-ins” we did for Season 40. I love the Murray segments because we got to shoot outside. Muppets look amazing in sunlight and out in real world surroundings. It also brings a kind of reality to the characters—like you could go up and touch them. We’d shoot the scripted “clues” (which were cut for Season 40) on location in the middle of a park or on the street to help launch into the documentary about a school (like baseball school). For the “doc”, we’d go to the school and film kids doing an activity (playing catch, batting). We’d come up with a few ideas based on what we’d just shot (batting, running bases, pitching) then Joey would talk to kids and teachers which played a big part in shaping what the docs would eventually look like. Sometimes we’d come up with something physical for Murray to do (like run the bases) and figure out on the spot how to do it. I’m very proud of those.
RYAN: How well do kids respond to Murray in these segments? They seem to treat him like their best friend.
MATT: Both kids and adults love Murray when we’re out shooting those. The first time we were out with Murray not a lot of people knew who he was, but when we shot the “tune-ins” for Season 40, a lot of people and kids knew who Murray was and would come right up to him. Joey does a great job with Murray and makes him very funny and approachable.
RYAN: You’ve also directed episodes of the show. What is it like to direct all of these people who you perform with on a daily basis?
MATT: I have directed some street stories on Sesame and I love it. While there is a kind of self-imposed pressure for me to do everything right, there’s huge support from the cast, crew and production. We all want everyone to do well. We all have the same goal, which is to create a great story for the show. I’m pretty easy-going and I like collaboration, so directing my fellow performers is comfortable and conversational.
RYAN: What is it like to work with great TV icons such as Roscoe Orman, Bob McGrath, Sonia Manzanno, and so on?
MATT: The human cast of Sesame Street are the unsung heroes of the show. They’re as much television icons as Big Bird or Elmo. They’re the anchor for the audience in a lot of ways and they have to put up with the craziness that the Muppets bring.
RYAN: Are there any Muppet characters that you enjoy performing with more than others? I’m sure Grover is always a thrill to play around with.
MATT: I’m a huge Telly/Baby Bear fan. I think the shows that they are in are always funny and sharp. But, back to bringing who a performer is to a character—the puppeteers make the characters who they are (not to mention great writing and beautifully built puppets). When two performers work well together (as in the case of Marty Robinson and David Rudman) that shows through their characters. And when a script is smart or funny, it raises the bar for everyone and the show shines.
RYAN: How has Sesame Street changed during your time on the show?
MATT: Since I’ve been on Sesame Street, I have seen it change. But throughout all the changes—condensing the street story, the magazine format, utilizing computer animation—it’s still a show for pre-schoolers learning their ABCs, 123’s and basic concepts of friendship, cooperation and honesty. We have to remember that this show is an experiment. And in the experiment we teach the same things we did forty years ago, but it’s how we teach those things that has changed to reflect the way kids learn today.
RYAN: Obviously, tons of celebrities visit Sesame Street every season. Do you have any favorite memories with celebs?
MATT: The one that I think of right off the bat is the way Garth Brooks was when he came to the Street. He didn’t have any entourage or a manager with him, it was just Garth Brooks. He walked in, said hello, shook hands with everyone and was so polite, it was as if he was everyone’s colleague. When he met my mom who was visiting the set that day, he took off his cowboy hat, shook her hand very respectfully and said, “Nice to meet you, ma’am.” It was so awesome.
RYAN: What do you think is the most important message that Sesame Street can give to the next generation?
MATT: Respect your elders, darn it—or face the wrath of Elmo!
MATT: It’s so easy to go for Han Solo or Darth Vader so I’m going to say Momaw Nadon…also known as…Hammerhead. That dude’s weird lookin’. Um, just to be clear, I had to look up that one.
RYAN: And to close off part one of our interview with the fantastic Matt Vogel… Matt, can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?
MATT: I can, but I’d have to kill you.
Photos number 2, 8, and 14 taken by Paul McGinnis.
My immense thanks to Matt Vogel for this fantastic interview! Check out more about Matt at http://www.mattvogel.com/
Read Part 2 of our interview with Matt Vogel!
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org