We’re back again with Sesame Street Muppet performer Martin P. Robinson, performer of Snuffleupagus, Slimey the Worm, and Telly Monster.
Interview with Muppeteer Martin P. Robinson
Conducted by Ryan Dosier
MARTY: He is my favorite character. I mean, of all my characters.
RYAN: He sort of has to be.
MARTY: Well, I don’t know, he doesn’t have to be, but he is. He’s the most complex character
He’s evolved over the years. When I took him over he was a fairly depressive, psychotic character almost–really down. He has evolved into a much more complex character who can react in a much more complex way. He can still get just as depressed or just as worried, but he can also get just as elated or excited about things. When he changes from one to the other—which he can do on a dime—he does it honestly. There’s no emotional subterfuge in him. He just really feels strongly about things and reacts very strongly and instantly to whatever’s going on. It makes him very popular with the writers, which is great. He’s useful for a lot of different types of stories. A lot of the writers cite him as one of their favorites as well.
MARTY: Oh that was a good one. We had some fun with that. Joey Mazzarino, who actually wrote it and directed it, we had a bunch of the scenes [from Indiana Jones] on his iPhone. We’d look at the scenes before we shot it. He was trying to match some of the scenes shot for shot and I would see what was going on with the acting moments and try to get as much of that stuff in as we could. It was great fun.
RYAN: What about Telly’s relationship with Oscar? That used to be played up a lot more.
MARTY: Yeah, yeah, that was kind of old Telly. Telly used to kind of be Oscar’s whipping boy—his tool. It was a pretty sadomasochistic relationship if you look at it. Oscar got to torture him, and Telly somehow found being tortured useful. You know, he considered Oscar his best friend. There is of course a cautionary lesson there. We can all look back at friends we’ve had in our past and think, “Oh God, that really wasn’t a good friend at all, was it? That friend was abusive and did not have my best interest in mind, it was all about him.” I can think back to fifth grade, best friend I had back then—thought he was my best friend—but I’ve had best friends since then and I know what they’re like, and that wasn’t it.
In the same way that I’ve learned about what a friend is and is not, Telly learned. Actually, one of my favorite things about Telly is his relationship with Baby Bear. Because it’s a really good buddy relationship, they have fun together, and they respect each other, and they learn from each other and they make mistakes, but they’re buddies in the best way. You know that buddy you had when you were 12? It’s that kind of buddy. And he looks back sometimes at his Oscar years and thinks, “What was I doing? Why did I put up with that?” And there have been a few scripts over the years, since Baby Bear, where Oscar has kind of tried to wind him up again, but Telly won’t wind that way. He’s immune to Oscar now.
RYAN: This is sort of an obscure reference/question, but there was one appearance you made with the most of the cast, I think, and Fran Brill brought Zoe—the teeny, tiny Zoe puppet. How did Telly react to that?
MARTY: You’re talking about the time we had that live thing on stage up at that university in New Jersey or someplace. You’ve seen the video then, the video that the Muppet Wiki people put up?
RYAN: Yes, that one. What did he call her? A homunculus?
MARTY: A little homunculus Zoe, yeah.
RYAN: That always cracks me up!
MARTY: When I do Telly, sometimes some pretty wild things pop out of my mouth. I go to my Telly place and I free associate, and you know Telly has some pretty unusual ideas about things, and I guess I do as well. Anyone who tells you that the puppet character is not the puppeteer’s character is just lying to you. Or they’ve just gone so far into the… I wouldn’t say up their backside, but you know what I mean. I just tap into my nutty part and Telly comes up with that stuff.
When I go to Telly, which I can go to immediately, he has certain fears. When a friend of his—for whatever reason the producers decided to do that, and they’ve since undone it—but for whatever reasons, it wasn’t Telly’s reasons. And Telly can’t look at that and not comment on it because something happened and needs to be noticed, he can’t just brush it under the rug.
For years—and there’s still a twinge of it left—Telly had a fear of the Count, because he thought that the Count was the undead and was going to suck his blood. He’d seen Dracula movies and so he wasn’t sure what was going on there. It colors his relationships with characters. I have a background story for Telly. What his childhood was like, what his parents are like, how he was treated and how he reacts to things and that flavors how he looks at the world.
RYAN: What does Sesame Street mean to you?
MARTY: Ah, that old one. The one that really has no answer. It’s kind of home, personally. It’s where I go to be with some of my best friends and laugh my butt off all day long—that’s my job. My wife is one of the writers there, so she comes in and we speak the same language as far as work goes. She has her side of it and I have my side of it. We’re entering into her busy season now, my busy season will be in the fall after she’s written what she’s going to write. It works out well that way. I’ve been very pleased and proud to have that kind of work consistency with something that’s profound and meaningful and has never gotten tiresome whatsoever. I love my work with Sesame International that I’ve done and all the traveling.
There are those aspects of it—all those kind of practical, human aspects, what I think you’re really asking is what is the deeper meaning to me. As far as the show goes, it’s really great to have my job and my work be something that is of substantial meaning to humanity. There’s no question that I am influencing kids’ lives in a positive way, no question whatsoever. That’s not just my crazy opinion; it’s hundreds of millions of people’s crazy opinion. Likewise my work with Sesame International, and doing that all over the world… I have personally made huge differences in people’s lives, by the puppeteers that I’ve trained and hired and set loose upon the children of their countries.
Sesame has given a really strong anchor of profundity and meaning to my life so that I don’t worry about that. We kind of worry, as humans, whether you’ve made a difference, whether what you’re doing really counts. Being involved with the show, I know what I’m doing counts, so I can kind of relax in a certain way; it’s kind of weird. I don’t worry about that stuff anymore so I’m kind of relaxed in my personal life, which means I’m a better husband, a much better father, a better human being than I would be otherwise if I was all bunged up with worrying about my dumb job. I think anyone could do that with any job that you really love and that you consider a useful, honorable thing. It doesn’t have to be wiggling dollies on Sesame Street, it just happens to be what I do and I really love what I do. The feedback, the positive feedback, is great.
RYAN: That’s just incredible. I think all of that makes so much sense because what you do does make such a difference to so many people. It’s mind boggling to think about. I think it’s just amazing.
MARTY: Yeah. God, we have fun! It’s such hard work. It is so hard. Anyone who thinks that they want to be a puppeteer, it’s so much fun… yeah, but it is just astoundingly difficult. It’s not for the faint of heart. When you’re in a studio that costs $20,000 a minute or whatever it costs to produce with a studio full of the best equipment in the world, and the most highly trained people in the world, and all the people who support the show that aren’t actually in the studio… When you’re in there and you’ve got a puppet on your hand and all the cameras are focused on you and the guy says 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and points at you, man, you’ve gotta deliver. You can’t be thinking about the weight of the world on your shoulders, or what it costs per second for production time, or everything that’s gone into it. You’ve got to think about what your intent is, who your character is, where you’re going with the scene, that you’ve done your homework, that you know what’s going on. When that finger points at you after 1, it’s a huge responsibility.
RYAN: I imagine that has to be some strange mix of freeing, very liberating, but also very serious, you have to get it done.
MARTY: Yeah, oh yeah. It’s the weight of the world, it’s very serious. What makes it crazy is that you take it seriously, but you can’t take it seriously. You gotta free your mind, take the serious things into consideration—as in you’ve done you’re homework and you know what you need to know to get the job done. To get the job done you’ve got to jump into joy, into this positive good zone. I say it to every puppeteer I’ve ever trained: If you’re not having a good time doing it, nobody’s gonna have a good time watching it.
Watching those guys do Stuffed and Unstrung, that’s just astounding to watch. It’s everything I was talking about times a thousand for that type of thing when you don’t have a script and you don’t know what you’re partner’s gonna do, and you go ahead and jump into it with all you’re worth anyway.
RYAN: And in that case you don’t really even know your character that well.
MARTY: Right! You’ve gotta invent your character, it’s just amazing. I trained with them for awhile and it was some of the most difficult training I’ve ever done. It was just mind boggling how frightening that was, which probably kept me from the place where I was free with it. I was just too concerned. It’s just astoundingly difficult.
Check back next Friday for our third and final installment of our interview with Martin P. Robinson where we discuss almost everyone he works with, share some stories, and a whole lot more.
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org