Weekly Muppet Wednesdays: Elmo

WMW Elmo

Written by Ryan Dosier.


Performed by…b418e-elmodancing
Kevin Clash (1985-2012)
Ryan Dillon (2012-present)
Brian Muehl (1979-1984)
Richard Hunt (1984-1985)

First appearance…
As Baby Monster, circa Sesame Street Season 4 (1972)
As Elmo, Sesame Street Season 12 (1980)

Most recent appearance…
Sesame Street Season 45 (2014)

Best known role…
3 1/2 year old, rambunctious, adorable, ticklish furry red monster; third person speaker; inhabitant of Elmo’s World

Memorable quote…
“Elmo loves you!”

Best friend(s)…
Dorothy, Big Bird, Zoe, Abby Cadabby, everyone

Louie (father) and Mae (mother)

February 3rd

Elmo is perhaps the most popular Muppet character of current years, and certainly the most recognizable by children. Elmo speaks in a high falsetto voice, almost always in the third person (“Elmo wants this” or “Elmo likes that”) and has an infectious laugh. He is ticklish, curious, friendly, jealous, proud, talented, and difficult. Elmo is the most widely seen Muppet character both on and off Sesame Street appearing often on talk shows and in every episode of Sesame Street in the form of “Elmo’s World.”

Elmo started on Sesame Street as an Anything Muppet monster in the early 1970s, much like the many random, nameless monsters who appear on the show still. The puppet was dubbed “Baby Monster” and performed often by Caroll Spinney before the character was firmly defined. It wasn’t until Season 12 in 1979 that Brian Muehl was given the character to perform and it was dubbed Elmo officially. Elmo joined the show at the same time as other new, popular characters including Telly Monster, Forgetful Jones, and the Honkers. Muehl would perform Elmo for five years, until leaving Sesame Street in 1984.

It was at this point that Elmo fell to veteran Muppeteer Richard Hunt. Richard tested out the character for a few sketches and songs, but quickly grew tired of the limiting factor of being overtly cute. Legend has it that Richard became so frustrated that he held Elmo by his arm-rods, walked into the green room, and literally threw him at Kevin Clash and told him to come up with a voice and he could perform the character.

Kevin did that and so much more. Beginning in Season 17 in 1985, Kevin Clash became Elmo, and an extreme force or children’s entertainment was starting to emerge. Kevin cites a sketch where Elmo bugs Luis with an imaginary trip he’s taking to his grandma’s house (which can be seen on the 40 Years of Sunny Days DVD set) as the moment when he truly “got” Elmo’s character. There was no stopping Elmo at this point. The character became extremely popular (puppet designer Kermit Love claims the popularity stems from Elmo’s red color) and appeared more and more in Street Scenes and in sketches and songs on the show.

Throughout the mid to late 1980s Elmo would appear alongside more established characters, making him seem younger and more naive by comparison. This set up worked in sketches alongside Kermit the Frog, Ernie, Guy Smiley, and many more. Elmo’s sketches with Kermit are a true highlight of this period. Together Elmo and the frog demonstrated “Happy and Sad,” “Loud and Soft,” and “Open and Closed.” Elmo also sang numerous songs in this period that would become classics in years to come. Songs such as “Happy Tappin’ With Elmo,” “One Fine Face” with Ernie, and “Elmo’s Song” with Big Bird and Snuffy would help propel Elmo to super-stardom.

Elmo soon became an integral part of the Sesame Street cast. He appeared in major roles in such milestone episodes as Snuffy’s reveal and Luis and Maria’s Wedding. Elmo also began appearing with celebrities around this time, a distinction usually given only to very popular characters such as Grover or The Count. Elmo got to play around with the likes of Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robert DeNiro–just the beginning of the horde of hundreds of celebrities who would hang out with Elmo in the years to come.

Around the time of Sesame Street‘s 25th Anniversary in 1994, Elmo reached the same level of popularity as mainstays including Cookie Monster, Big Bird, and Ernie. He began starring in his own home videos such as “Elmo’s Sing Along Guessing Game” and “The Best of Elmo.” He was also a largely featured player during the “Around the Corner” years on Sesame Street when, in Season 25, the show’s set expanded around the corner and introduced new characters like Zoe and Rosita. Elmo flourished among these new characters and continued to rise exponentially in popularity.

Elmo’s popularity exploded in 1996 when one key event occurred to send Elmo over the top. That event was Tickle Me Elmo, the unbelievably popular, must-have doll that laughed and shook hysterically when tickled. Tickle Me Elmo would quickly become a major sensation, selling over 5 million dolls in the 1996 holiday shopping season. The toy makers, Tyco, couldn’t keep up with demand, and shoppers all over the country were going mad to find a Tickle Me Elmo for their child. It was this major publicity for the doll that caused Elmo’s popularity to blow up. Sesame Street took notice, and Elmo became the most popular character on the show. Capitalizing on this, Elmo starred in his own Christmas special in 1996, Elmo Saves Christmas, where Elmo wished every day could be Christmas… and dealt with the consequences.

Three years later, in 1999, Elmo’s popularity would peak and he would become synonymous with Sesame Street and he appeared virtually everywhere connected with the show. Two major television specials, CinderElmo and Elmopalooza (which was the 30th Anniversary special for Sesame Street), aired on primetime network television. Not only that, but Elmo starred in his own feature film–only the second Sesame Street film ever–The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland. The film showcased Elmo on an trek through a land of grouches in search of his blanket. Elmo starred alongside new Muppet Grizzy, a girl grouch, and not many others. Oscar, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Gordon, Maria, and Telly ventured into Grouchland to find Elmo, but anyone who denies this was Elmo’s movie is kidding themselves.

On Sesame Street itself, Elmo was literally given half of the show for himself when a new segment, Elmo’s World, debuted in Season 30, also in 1999. Elmo’s World is a 20-minute segment seen in every episode of Sesame Street for the past 12 years. It features Elmo inhabiting a world drawn entirely by crayon in which he plays with his goldfish, Dorothy, messes around with Mr. Noodle, and every day presents a different subject. The subjects have ranged from friends to balls to penguins to ears. Elmo is joined by various Muppets who help him explain the various topics every day. He also checks his email on his computer where he has emails from other characters including Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and more. Elmo’s World has spawned over 60 episodes and continues to entertain millions of children daily. It’s rumored that Elmo’s World will be replaced by another Elmo segment in Season 43.

Elmo held on to a major amount of popularity throughout the 2000s, appearing in nearly every Street Story in each episode of Sesame Street along with countless segment, songs, and off-Street appearances on talk shows, live events, and more. For Sesame Street‘s 35th Anniversary in 2004, Elmo starred in yet another television special, Elmo’s World: The Street We Live On, an hour-long Elmo’s World segment in which Elmo was thinking about Sesame Street. This same year Elmo starred in another 35th Anniversary special on DVD, What’s the Name of That Song? In 2007 Elmo starred in his second Christmas special, Elmo’s Christmas Countdown in which he and Abby Cadabby help Stiller the Elf save Christmas.

Elmo was a major part of the celebration for Sesame Street‘s 40th Season in 2009 and continues to promote every new season of the show as well as nearly everything else that has to do with Sesame Street. Elmo is constantly starring in new Sesame Street episodes and DVDs, making live and on-screen appearances, and appearing on a limitless amount of merchandise.

Elmo has been performed by Kevin Clash since 1985 and Kevin is a crucial and irreplaceable part of Elmo’s immense popularity. Elmo and Kevin have become inseparable, sometimes indistinguishable, as they’ve propelled each other to huge notoriety. All because of one tiny monster, Kevin Clash is one of the most recognizable and beloved names in puppetry in this day and age. In 2006 Kevin wrote his autobiography, My Life as a Furry Red Monster, which chronicled his life, his starts in puppetry, and his fame with Elmo. As if that weren’t enough, in 2011, a feature length documentary film, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey was produced and released. The film profiles Kevin Clash and showcases his work educating and entertaining millions.

Not since Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog have a Muppeteer and a Muppet become so accepted in mainstream culture. Kevin Clash and Elmo have appeared multiple times onscreen at the same time, including interviews with Oprah, Rove, and various other occasions. Kevin has won a staggering seven Emmy Awards for his performance as Elmo on Sesame Street. Kevin is a giving and caring performer with Elmo, making phone calls to children as Elmo and visiting children’s hospitals with Elmo just to cheer them up.

Over the years Elmo has performed a multitude of songs. Here are just some of the monumental number or numbers:

  • “Elmo’s Song” with Big Bird and Snuffy
  • “Happy Tappin’ With Elmo”
  • “One Fine Face” with Ernie
  • “Three” with Herry Monster and Prairie Dawn
  • “Slide (Pride)” with The Goo Goo Dolls
  • “Two Princes” with Telly Monster, Zoe, and The Spin Doctors
  • “Share” with both Ernie and Zoe
  • “Tu Me Gustas” with Luis
  • “A New Way to Walk” with Grover, Zoe, and Destiny’s Child
  • “Songs”
  • “Nearly Missed” with Rosie O’Donnel
  • “You Tickle Me” with Grover, Zoe, Herry, Rosita, Telly, Baby Bear, and Frazzle
  • “Take a Breath”
  • “A Song About Elmo” with Adam Sandler

Elmo is by no means universally beloved. There are numerous older fans of Sesame Street who credit Elmo for “ruining” the show. If you ask me, I’d say that the show is not even slightly ruined–as long as it meets its goal of entertaining and educating children, Sesame Street will never be ruined. If you ask me, I’d say that Elmo saved the show. When Elmo soared to popularity, Sesame Street was facing major competition in the form of purple dinosaurs, blue dogs, and other new forms of children’s entertainment. Elmo emerged and got a firm footing at the forefront of children’s entertainment, all in the name of Sesame Street.

Elmo represents a new era of Sesame Street, one he’s happy to share with Big Bird and Grover and Oscar and everyone else. Elmo may be the face of Sesame Street nowadays, but the heart and soul remains with him and everyone else. Children love Elmo, there is no denying that, and because they love Elmo, Elmo became popular. Elmo is the greatest teacher in America. He educates children and they don’t even realize it. They just want to say the alphabet or count to ten with their friend Elmo. He’s a teacher, he’s a friend, he’s a comic, he’s a straight man, and he’s everything in between. Elmo represents not only one of the greatest children’s entertainers of all time, but one of the greatest television characters of all time as well.

Elmo has appeared with hundreds of celebrities, seen on millions of dollars worth of merchandise, loved in hundreds of episodes of Sesame Street, watched in numerous videos and DVDs, starred in five television specials, a feature film, and a documentary, featured in hundreds of books and video games, adored by millions of people all over the world… Not bad for a 3 1/2 year old monster. It doesn’t look like Elmo will be stopping anytime soon. His fans won’t allow it. Thank goodness, because the lovable furry red monster is a crucial part to the education and entertainment of children all over the world. There is nothing more noble.

Elmo loves us, and we love him. It’s love that makes Elmo who he is. Why does Sesame Street need Elmo? Because Elmo is Love. Plain and simple.

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, muppetmindset@gmail.com

2 thoughts on “Weekly Muppet Wednesdays: Elmo

  1. Great article, very logical and well thought out. šŸ™‚

    Regardless of what anyone thinks of Elmo, in all probability he DID indeed help keep Sesame Street on the air.

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