In 1985, I was working at Sesame Street, thinking I was going to get fired any day. Nothing was working out. I was performing a lot of characters, but none of them were really gelling.
Elmo was originally built as part of an ensemble of monsters the show uses for big production numbers. We can make these characters whatever we want them to be. A puppeteer named Brian Muehl performed Elmo first, but he left the show. The job went to Richard Hunt, and he had the puppet scream with a loudmouth voice. He really didn't want to do it.
One day, I was hanging out in the Muppet Lounge -- the green room for puppeteers -- and Richard came in and started going through the Muppets. He threw me Elmo and told me to come up with a voice. Then he took me to the producer, told him he didn't want to voice Elmo anymore, and they gave the role to me. It was toward the end of the season with only two shows left. I didn't know what I was going to do with the character, but I got through it.
People at the show said viewers were skewing younger, so they wanted a younger character. During the season break I hung out with my mom, who runs a daycare center, and I tried to see what I could pull from the kids she worked with. On the first bit I did that next season, Elmo was going on an imaginary vacation. The camera guys were laughing, everyone was laughing. And I didn't lose my job.
Kids in the audience started laughing with Elmo and relating to him. Before that, Big Bird was the "every child." Now Elmo is a superstar, but the anonymity of voicing him is the best. I can take the superstar off and put him away. I have some famous friends, but unlike them, I don't need sunglasses to keep from being recognized!
I like that Elmo is so sweet and lovable and that he affects kids and adults alike. He's all about loving life and everything around him. Everybody would love to live like Elmo.
Originally published in the March 2009 issue of American Baby magazine.