The past few months have been like paradise for my son the Muppet fanatic. During the summer the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY opened an exhibit about Jim Henson’s Fantastic World, with films of interviews about the entire oeuvre and an enormous variety of Muppet paraphernalia (including the original Kermit and the Muppet designed for Mayor Bloomberg). In addition, the Muppet movie is coming out in November, and last Friday saw the release of the documentary Being Elmo, about Muppeteer Kevin Clash. Finally, we received word that Frank Oz, who is the man behind Bert, Animal, Yoda, Fozzy Bear and Miss Piggy (among many others) was going to speak at the moving image museum. It’s a good time to appreciate the fuzzy and blue (and orange!).
Now that I’ve experienced some of these events, I’ve seen some interesting things, and I was surprised at how they relate to my writers.
The Muppets movie hasn’t been released yet, though its Facebook page is counting the days (as indeed it did the weeks and months before) with interesting and not-at-all-annoying updates that don’t beat us over the head with breathless anticipation but still keep it in our heads.
Being Elmo is a bit of a different animal (hah hah!). It’s a documentary, for one, rather than a caper, and it debuted at Sundance and other film festivals. It tells the story of Kevin Clash, the incredibly talented—and tall—and African-American!—man who plays Elmo. Clash frequently tells of having people come up to him and saying “I didn’t know that Elmo is black!” to which he responds “Elmo isn’t black—he’s furry and red! I’m black.” (Side note: A couple of years ago, we had the opportunity to visit Sesame Street’s studio in Astoria and watch the show as it was filmed. Kevin Clash was directing, and it really is amazing and disconcerting to see him act as Elmo, in that voice, finish a scene, tuck the puppet under his arm, and speak like Kevin.)
Again, I’m not sure whether it was simply a fun confluence of events, but on Sunday in the space of two blocks there was a screening of Being Elmo and the Frank Oz speaking event—the number of forty-somethings (and30-somethings, and…) in Kermit t-shirts and Fozzy caps was remarkable.
The Frank Oz event was not simply sold out—it was sold out AND the simulcast in another theater in the museum was equally packed. According to the president of the Jim Henson Legacy foundation, who introduced Oz, part of the reason for that is that he “never does this kind of thing. He never goes to the Star Wars conventions, never goes to ComiCon, never makes the rounds.” After listening for the next two hours, I think I understand better why he doesn’t. He thinks of himself as a director, a performer; not a publicist. He doesn’t feel like he needs to go on tv and be asked, over and over, to “do” Animal or Bert. He tells a great story, and is a serious artist. But the time his eyes lit up and he truly became animated was when a boy not more than eight asked if Oz would sign his Fozzy doll. Oz called him up to the stage and not only told the boy stories but showed him how incredibly difficult it is to stand there with one arm up and act.
Last night, after our weekly Sing-off watch-fest with the kids (Go Afro-blue!), my wife and I turned on Jon Stewart, who announced that his guest was Kevin Clash, who was there promoting Being Elmo. When Clash came on, he simply took over the program. He was comfortable, charming, very funny, and had no problem whatsoever telling the story, in character, of how a stewardess once asked him to tell the passengers on an airplane to take their seats, and how his daughter used to ask Elmo to ask him to buy her stuff. It was dynamite, and would have made me want to see the movie even if I didn’t have all three kids begging for it.
So where’s the lesson? Well, it’s this: I have clients who love the stage, who are willing to travel around the country to speak, who are active on social media and understand how to use it; who are effortlessly witty and charming and instinctively draw the market toward them—the Kevins, as it were. Others are more reluctant, who prefer to have their body of work tell their story, who will appear occasionally, but entirely at their own terms, who can’t stand the idea of guest-blogging or tweeting or posting regularly on Facebook or maintaining a website. The Franks, as it were. They can certainly still reach their market. You just need to look harder for them.
(For the funniest two minutes ever on the Muppet show, click below)