Muppets have always been important to me. Like most kids born in the 70s or later, I grew up on Sesame Street. I can remember watching The Muppet Show at my grandparents house back when I was too young to understand a lot of it. As I explained in my origin story, I first met two out of three of the Ladies at Muppet Trivia, which is coming back in less than two weeks. And my first solo post for blog was about the ill-fated Henson project Little Muppet Monsters. (Speaking of which some new information on why the show failed has surfaced since I wrote about it. Apparently, Marvel Productions hadn’t completed the animated segments for most of the episodes of the show, leaving the majority of the season half finished and unairable. CBS decided to air a second episode of Muppet Babies in the timeslot. The ratings were way better than those for Little Muppet Monsters and the show’s fate was sealed. Anyway…) My love for things Muppet has waned and waxed over the years, but it’s always been there.
As an adult, I’ve become more interested in the behind the scenes aspects of the Muppets. I’ve heard the argument that seeing how it’s all done takes away from “the magic” somehow. But for me, knowing about the work that goes into making a Muppet production and the people who do it actually enhances the enjoyment I get from it. I still enjoy watching Muppets solely for what’s on the screen and never thinking of them as anything but real. But with scenes or shows or movies I watched before, it’s equally fun to notice when Jim Henson mildly flubs a line as Ernie and just keeps going (around the 1:15 mark), or what Frank Oz has Cookie Monster do to emphasize the beat at the start of a song (this one). And honestly, how does imagining the puppeteers running around during this number do anything but make it better?
So when I first heard about the plan to make a documentary about Caroll Spinney, I was immediately on board.
Caroll Spinney, for this who aren’t familiar with the names behind the Muppets, is the performer who brings Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to life. And yes, I said “brings” because he’s still playing these two characters as the show prepares for its 46th season. The documentary, appropriately titled, I Am Big Bird, offers viewers an up close look at both Spinney’s years as a puppeteer and his life outside of felt, foam, and feathers. The film began as a Kickstarter (which I happily contributed to), went through a longer than expected production process (not uncommon for a Kickstarter project), and had its world premiere last April. Though my Kickstarter reward package included a digital download of the film, I opted to see it with The Red Menace and Smalerie at the Brattle Theater.
The movie itself was just about everything I could have hoped for (except for “seven hours longer”) Directors Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker have done an amazing job of giving the viewer an in-depth view of the often intertwined career and personal life of Caroll Spinney. While I envy their access to the piles of rare and candid photographs and the hours of behind the scenes footage that must have been combed through in the making on the movie, I don’t envy the nearly impossible task of picking out the relatively few clips and pictures that best supported their narrative. (I’m hoping to see some additional footage in the special features of the upcoming DVD, particularly from the making of A Muppet Family Christmas.) The final film beautifully balances a clear love and respect for its subject with a commitment to showing the various ups and downs of Spinney’s life. There’s plenty about the magic of Big Bird and how he has educated and captivated countless children over the decades. But there’s also plenty about the work that goes into making Big Bird come alive and the very human people responsible for it, people who weren’t always the one big happy family that the Sesame Street character were. And while the movie runs with the premise of its title, drawing parallels between Spinney and the eternally youthful, curious, and sweet-natured Big Bird, it does also show those little bits of Oscar in him too.
Speaking of Oscar, we got a special treat after the movie. Since we attended one of the two opening night shows, there was a Q&A with the directors, Spinney’s wife Debra, and Spinney himself. We were also told their might be a “special guest” and when this guy poked his head in from backstage, the audience went insane.
One of the particular joys of puppets is their ability to react with the real world in a spontaneous way and Oscar did not disappoint. Throughout the Q&A, Oscar talked with audience members, teased Spinney about his early difficulties keeping in rhythm with his fellow puppeteers, and fell nearly comatose during the parts that bored him, prompting Spinney to check the grouch’s pulse. I did work up the courage to ask a question about behind the scenes silliness, but I’ll refrain from sharing the answer, as I don’t want to destroy anyone’s perceptions of Ernie. (Ask me in the comments if you’re curious.)
While the Muppets and other Henson creations have been the subject of numerous “making of” featurettes, there are not nearly enough documentaries devoted to the performers and other creative talents who bring these characters and worlds to life. I Am Big Bird is exactly the kind of movie I’d like to see about all of the major Muppet puppeteers, though many are sadly no longer around to be interviewed for such a project. Whether you’re lifelong Muppet fan who can’t get enough Muppet knowledge or you wouldn’t know Big Bird from Little Bird, you should absolutely check out I Am Big Bird.
As I mentioned up at the beginning of the post, the triumphant return of Muppet Trivia is less than two weeks away! If you’ve been to Muppet Trivia or any Comicazi trivia event before, you know how much fun they are. If you’ve never been, then this is a perfect opportunity to see what all the excitement is about. Just $1 gets you paired up with a randomly selected team to test your Muppet knowledge against our latest set of trivia questions. Since you’ll be competing as teams and we cover a wide range of Muppet related topics, even people who aren’t Muppet experts can participate and have a great time. We’ll also be selling Muppet themed snacks to help offset the cost of running the site. We start at 8pm on June 6. Come join us for a great night of Muppety mayhem!