It’s been a weird summer for Sesame Street.It started in June, when some blowhard named Ben Shapiro published a book claiming that Sesame Street has a liberal bias (which it probably does, because Grover has yet to mention how HPV vaccines can make you retarded.) And then in August, an online petition called for Bert and Ernie to officially come out of the closet and get gay married. In both cases — I was rooting for one and jeering the other — the Sesame Workshop came out looking better than ever. They didn’t do damage control or send Bert to do guest spots on Fox News or changed anything about what they do or how they do it. They ignored Shapiro’s rantings and calmly announced on their Facebook page that Bert and Ernie “do not have a sexual orientation.” And that’s why Sesame Street is still the coolest show on TV. It won’t take shit from the Right or the Left.
With Sesame Street returning this week for their 42nd season, I called Eric Jacobson, one of the show’s veteran puppeteers. I singled him out because he does many of the classic (or “old school”) characters like Grover, Bert, Cookie Monster and Guy Smiley. And, okay fine, I thought I might be the journalist who finally got an answer about Bert’s sexuality and Grover’s blatant liberalism. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Eric Spitznagel: I’ve got to be honest, I’m a little disappointed that you answered the phone and not Grover.
Eric Jacobson: Oh, I’m sorry. If you want to interview him, that’s fine.
Are you allowed to do that? Do they let you do Sesame Street voices when you’re not on Sesame Street?
Well, nobody’s knocking on my door if I start doing character voices in the shower. The character is so much a part of the performer that it’s very hard to keep us separated. The puppets are stored elsewhere, so we don’t take them home with us. But I’m always entertaining my daughter with the characters I do on the show. It’s great fun reading The Monster at the End of This Book to her as Grover. She just loves it.
But it’s not like the happy birthday song? Every time you do a trademarked voice on your own time, you don’t owe the Jim Henson Company 20 cents?
[Laughs.] No, no, it’s nothing like that. People are always asking to hear the voice, and I’m usually very happy to oblige. Unless it’s going to cause a scene.
Like if they ask you to say something dirty?
I won’t do that. People make all sorts of crazy requests, just to push the limits. I’ve been on radio shows as the characters I perform, and inevitably you run into a shock jock or somebody who dreams of being a shock jock, and they try to trick you into saying something that’s out of character.
But you understand the impulse, right? You don’t have to be a shock jock to want to hear Grover, an icon of childhood innocence, say something inappropriately sexual.
No, I understand, I really do. But I have too much respect, all the performers have too much respect for these characters and the legacy that they’re a part of, and the legacy that we’ve inherited, to take it to that level. I just can’t go there.
I may be dating myself, but I think you do all the best characters on Sesame Street.
So you grew up in the 70s? Yeah, we’re probably the same age.
I prefer the classics from that era, like Bert & Ernie and Cookie Monster and Grover. But it seems like Elmo and Abby Cadabby and what’s his name, Murray, the new guy, they get all the best scenes. Is Sesame Street like Saturday Night Live, where there’s this intense competition for screen time, and you’re just trying to convince the writers to give Grover anything at all?
Not really. We’ve got terrific writers for the show, and they know the characters so well. Everybody who works for Sesame Street has been working for the show for a long, long time. I have complete faith in their ability to come up with good material for the whole ensemble, not just my characters. So I don’t really feel the need to push my agenda. Unless I see an opportunity. I don’t know if you saw it, but we did an Internet video last year with Grover parodying the Old Spice commercial guy.
Oh yeah, that was brilliant. “Anything is possible if you smell like a monster.”
It turned out great. I was happy to be a part of the process, and helping to come up with the concept. To be able to say “Hey, wouldn’t it be really fun to do this?” And then you hand it off to other people. It’s a really collaborative place. We’re all in service of the best idea.
I want to think Sesame Street is like that Elizabeth Berkley movie Showgirls. If Elmo gets pushed down a flight of stairs and breaks his ankle, then Grover gets the lead.
[Laughs.] No, no, it’s nothing like that. I mean, we have covered for each other when people get sick. Because when a puppeteer gets sick, the characters wind up getting sick as well. There have been shows that had to be rewritten for a different character because of things like that. But it’s never like All About Eve. We’re a pretty happy family here.
How does it work when you’re shooting a scene? You’re not just the voice, you’re also operating the puppet. So you’re on the floor, below the wall?
Or below the frame.
When you’re doing a scene with an actor, like any of the numerous celebrity guest stars who’ve been on the show, you’re essentially at crotch level, right?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I guess so.
Is that awkward? I guess it’d have to be. “Nice to meet you, Beyonce. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be down here by your groin area.”
It’s not awkward for us as performers because we do it all the time, but we do try and make it comfortable for people who are working with us for the first time. Because we’re on the ground, rolling around on dollies, we try to be careful not to roll over their feet.
The first character you did for Sesame Street exclusively was Bert, right?
And Grover. I started performing them around the same time. First just in very minor ways, to keep those characters visible on Sesame Street until Frank Oz could come back around. But Frank has enjoyed a very successful second career as a film director, so it became clear that he was not going to be around as much as anyone would have hoped, including himself. I grew into the roles and started doing them more and more.
When you’re portraying a muppet, how method do you get with it? Do you live and breathe that character? Do you think about his backstory and his life and career and relationships and regrets and financial situation?
Absolutely. It’s important to really have a sense of what their lives are like even when they’re not on camera. A lot of times, they’re still on our hands even when we’re not shooting. We continue to play as performers, and fool around with the characters and just have fun with each other. Some of the funniest stuff happens between takes.
Like what? Do they talk like actors? “Oh god, I need to call my agent,” that kind of thing? Or is it personal stuff? “Ernie won’t get off my back about cleaning out the garage.”
Sure, sure, all of that. And we’ll talk to the crew as well. We’ll have actual relationships with people on the crew. There’s one cameraman who’s been there since day one, and we’ll give him all sorts of grief over a poorly composed shot or something. We live to play.
Who in the cast does Bert think is a jerk?
A jerk? I don’t think he thinks anyone is a jerk.
Who does he not get along with?
He gets along with everybody.
Oh come on! You’re telling me he likes everybody in the cast? There’s nobody he secretly wishes would get fired or quit for a higher paying gig at Yo Gabba Gabba?
I think it’s clear that he doesn’t always get along with Ernie. They’re best friends, but I think Ernie disappoints him many times. He doesn’t live up to Bert’s hopes and expectations.
I’m sure you’re aware of the online movement this last summer to get Bert and Ernie married. Do you have an opinion about what did or didn’t or should’ve happened?
[Long pause.] You’re going to have to talk to our PR department about that.
But you’re the guy who plays Bert. You don’t have any thoughts about his sexual orientation?
If you know the genesis of the characters, it’s an absurd idea. They’re like The Odd Couple. Just think of it like that. It’s Felix and Oscar from The Odd Couple. That’s what I believe the inspiration for Bert and Ernie was. If you look at the history, when the show first aired, that makes sense.
Fair enough. I understand your hesitation. You’ve got a lot of responsibility with these characters.
I really do.
Not just Bert and Grover. You’ve also played Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, and Sam the Eagle. If it turns out you’ve also done Bugs Bunny and the Six Million Dollar Man, then you’ve basically provided the voices for all of my childhood TV memories. Is that daunting?
It can be, yeah. And I don’t take any of it lightly.
If you get the cadence or the pitch wrong, an entire generation cringes.
Exactly! I’m very diligent about getting the voice to sound as close as I can. But I’m also aware that people aren’t just reacting to the voices, they’re also responding to how these characters move. I’ve spent a lot of time working with Frank Oz, and studying with him and learning his unique approach to puppeteering. But I’m also realistic. I know that I will never be Frank Oz and there will always be audience members who will compare us and be disappointed in my interpretations. My goal ultimately is to entertain, and make these characters as recognizable to audiences who grew up with them as possible.
The Sesame Street set, it’s like a real city block, right?
It can seem pretty realistic. Sometimes I feel like I do live on Sesame Street. The people that I work with, they’re my friends. They’re my family. My daughter’s godfather works on the show with me. I met my wife working on Sesame Street.
Really? That’s cool. Who does she play?
She played a production assistant. [Laughs.]
That’s exactly my confusion in a nutshell, and I don’t think I’m the only one. I forget that Sesame Street is just a TV show. It feels like a real place.
Oh, I agree. I get a little wrapped up in it too. It’s a very real place to me. We used to have wrap parties on the set. The lights would be turned down low, and it felt like it was after hours and the sun was setting and we were having this big ol’ block party on Sesame Street.
But how real does it get? If someone, hypothetically, wanted to live there permanently, would that be possible? How much detail has gone into the Sesame Street set? Could you feasibly sublet one of the apartments? Is there a room with an adult-size bed and plumbing and a working stove?
Um. [Laughs.] Your wife didn’t kick you out of the house, did she? It sounds like you’re looking for a place to crash.
She didn’t, but depending on your answer, I may be moving out anyway.
I suppose you could curl up in Big Bird’s nest, but I don’t think it’d be too comfortable. It’s a set. You can’t really walk into any of the buildings, except for Mr. Hooper’s store and the laundromat. You can walk into 1-2-3 but you’re not going to get too far before you run into a wall.
That’s not surprising, but it is disappointing.
I understand. But it’s still pretty amazing. I remember the first time I walked on the set. You come through a back entrance, and you don’t realize where you are until you’re right there in the middle of the street. It’s a pretty awesome experience. It’s like that Woody Allen movie, Purple Rose of Cairo. It really feels that way. It’s like stepping into a fantasy world that you know so well from your childhood.
I guess I should ask Grover at least one question. Do you need to conjure him up or something?
No, he’s right here. He’s always with me.
If it’s okay with you, I’d like to ask Grover about his liberal agenda.
(Long pause.) His what?
Did you read that book by Ben Shapiro? Primetime Propaganda? I’m just curious if Grover would like to formally respond to the accusation that he’s trying to turn children into Left-leaning zombies.
[Laughs.] Really? C’mon. That’s the question you want to ask him?
If he could just tell me how much of the show is written by James Carville.
No, I’m sorry. I’m very protective of these characters, and I just can’t have them answer a question like that.
That’s fine. How about this: Could you say something as Grover for my son? He’s six months old. Just tell him that it’s time to go to sleep or something.
Sure, sure, I could that. What’s his name?
(As Grover.) Charlie! Charlie, it is time for night-night, okay? So, kiss your mommy and daddy goodnight and have sweet dreams, okay? I will be in your dreams when you go to sleep. And we will fly through the air together, how about that? I will wear my super cape and you will wear yours and we will fly through the air.
That’s great, thank you. So listen, if it’s okay with you, I’m just going to pretend that whole Grover speech was actually meant for Ben Shapiro. You don’t mind, right?
[Laughs.] No, no, sorry
(With a terrible Grover impression.) “Go to sleep, Ben. Stop talking and go to sleep.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com.)