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19 Awesome Responses From Reddit's AMA With Caroll Spinney

The man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch took to Reddit to answer questions about his 46+ year career on Sesame Street.

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On May 8, 2015, Caroll Spinney (the puppeteer who has brought life to Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for the last 46 years) conducted an AMA on Reddit. Here are some of his most interesting, insightful, and touching responses (warning: you'll want to have some tissues ready for the last one).

1. What does he attribute the major success and longevity of Sesame Street to?


I think Sesame Street is fascinating to a lot of people, not just children. Because we tried to make it appealing to little children and to grownups. There's a period of time in children's lives where they don't like things they perceive as "made for babies." And my daughter, Jessie, loved the puppets until she was 9 or so. And then she sat with her friends, and they said "That's such a baby show." But when she got to be 13, or 14, she said she loved watching the show and got the jokes we put in for grownups.

So the children come back.

After a little period of saying "I'm a big girl now!" or "I'm a big boy now."

So we try to make the show great for EVERYBODY who wants to watch.

It's an age between 8-14, I think, where they have to feel that they're more "grown-up" than they really are.

2. Who was his favorite guest star?


Well, for me, it was probably Waylon Jennings, because we got to be such good friends. He was a famous country singer. He was hired to play the Turkey Truck Driver in FOLLOW THAT BIRD, when I tried to hitchhike back to Sesame Street. And I spent 2 days in that truck with Waylon. And after that, I said "You have to come do Sesame Street and sing a song!"

And he did, and he wrote a song for him and Oscar to sing, and that song was called "Wrong."

Oscar loves to say you're WRONG, but usually he says "Ding-dong, you're WRONG."

And with this, he had his own song!

3. What was his take on the 'Goodbye Mr. Hooper' episode?


Well, I feel that I can show all kinds of emotions through Big Bird, through that puppet. I'm very emotional myself. And there wasn't a dry eye in the house during that scene, including me. When I finished the scene, it was a fairly long scene but shorter in the movie, it just... after I've done a long scene, the first thing I do is get out, and my face was wet with tears, and so were all the actors. The woman named Elena, who played Olivia in the movie, she's passed now, but she said "When Big Bird said 'But it's so SAD!' - that's it, I just lost it. I started bawling my head off."

Because we loved him. It's losing Will Lee. What a lovely man he was.

4. What did he think of the early Big Bird puppet?


Well, when Big Bird was first on, he wasn't very good looking.

He didn't have any feathers above his eyes. The top of his head, nothing was there! Didn't look like there was room for any brain, really. Now the features are applied much more beautifully, and he's much prettier now.

5. How has the puppet changed over the years?


Well, the early Big Bird legs were made out of a fabric that had plastic in it - a dangerous fabric - and all of a sudden, a lamp smashed, almost hit me, and the 2,000 watt bulb had TREMENDOUS heat, and it set Big Bird's leg on fire! I looked down, I see flames coming up into the suit - because there's a hoop I can look down and see my feet - and so I said "I'm on FIRE!" and it was the beginning of the show, so Big Bird was strapped to me - and now he's on fire - so one of the camera men, they didn't have any extinguishers around (they do now) - Richie King, the camera man, he's no longer a camera man, but he saved my life by smashing out the flames with his bare hands!

So now we use much safer fabrics.

6. What's the most difficult thing about puppeteering?


Well...often, the puppeteer's arm gets tired. Because the puppet has some weight. And also, besides the weight of the thing, is when you're singing a song, and some words are said over and over (as songs can do) - your thumb gets tired, and can slow down! So it gets, sometimes I've had some songs where my thumb went dead on live television. So that wasn't very comfortable. My thumb ceased to work!

7. What are the most important qualities of a puppeteer?


Good questions but difficult.

Eeet ees deefeecult!

Well, I think nobody has a job they truly love doing. And that's one reason why people say "how come you want to stay with the show so long?"

Well, I can't imagine a job that's so enjoyable. That I truly love.

And so I think that's changed me into a very happy person.

Well, it doesn't matter if you're shy, because most puppetry is done while you're hiding.

If you're shy, you can still be a puppeteer. So you can speak up, because nobody's looking at you, they're looking at the puppet.

I think it's a good idea to have a good sense of humor. And to learn how to do it, I'd practice in front of a mirror. To see if the puppet looks alive, and doing what you want him to appear like - or a monitor - years ago, I set up my first tv camera I bought, back in the late 70's, and they gave you little cords to connect it to a TV set, so I could see what I was doing with the puppet sitting with the camera and feeding it to my TV, so I could study the way he looked from the audience's point of view.

8. What's the most challenging part of performing Big Bird?


I think some of the biggest challenges were - I would conduct symphony orchestras that were children's introductions to symphonies, and I would also sing during those, so I would do 5 different things during that hour and ten minute show!

It was TOTALLY exhausting.

I almost fell off the stage at one of those shows, because I can't see well.

But one of the times it possibly could've killed me, because it was a 7 foot drop, and I would've landed on these metal chairs whose legs were sticking up stacked.

9. Why did Snuffy go from someone only Big Bird could see to someone everyone could see?


Well, for some time, they had a lot of people who were objecting to the fact that people weren't believing Big Bird. Because you should believe, and children don't lie (I don't think that's always necessarily true - when I was a child, although I tried to be a good kid) - anyways, they decided it was better for everybody to see it. Because Snuffy was REAL.

The only trouble, I felt, was if you missed the Thursday show, you missed everybody seeing Big Snuffy. So on Friday, he was standing around talking to everybody, and they said "What happened!?" if they didn't watch it on Thursday. I think they should have had 1-2 of them discover Snuffy, to explain what it's like not to be believed when you see something you know is true.

10. How did he come up with Big Bird's snore?


Haha! Well, I didn't plan to do it. I had read the script of course, to remember it, and this was in the very early days of Sesame Street. I've never been able to talk like Donald Duck, he makes a quackquack noise out of the noise of his mouth - and I couldn't make that sound, so I didn't plan to do it, but as I did the rehearsal, I said to myself "A bird would probably sound different snoring than a human."

So I tried going snorrrrrt-whrrr-whrrr-whrr-whrrrrr!

Out of the corner of your mouth, and shake your face, it makes it break into the sound of whrrr-whrrr-whrr-whrrrrr!

I can't really do it today!

But the rest is history.

Little children love to say "Can you make the sound of Big Bird snoring please?"

11. What was a memorable moment with Jim Henson?


Well, he was a genius. He brain was always going a million miles an hour. And often we'd have lunch with him, and he wouldn't talk too much about what he was doing that day, he'd talk about future projects. We had fun driving with him in London. He had a Lotus Elite, a very fancy 4 passenger Lotus car made in England, and it was painted Kermit the Frog green. He selected that because it had hidden headlights, and when you turned on the eyes, the headlights popped up, they were round like Kermit's eyes, and they had a black dot with a curved line going through it, just like Kermit's! And it was the EXACT same color of the Kermit suit, the famous earlier one. And Jim liked to drive fast. That car had quite a history, even though it was only a day old! Jim went to pick it up and they said "We can't give it to you, it's just been stolen!"

Before Jim could pick it up!

And they used it to rob a bank.

And they caught the people within the hour, and he had the car given to him later that afternoon.

So we rode in that car, in London with him, and we were in the city, we were on city streets, we went between traffic lights we went 60 miles an hour, hahaha!

12. What does he think of Frank Oz?


Frank Oz is an incredible puppeteer. Sometimes he'll put on the puppet, say one or two lines, and then you're on the floor. He's such a serious man, that sometimes he'll put on the puppet, and it's just magic!

He can think of so many funny things to say.

13. Does he think the plot of "Follow That Bird" was too dark?


Well, it's funny, when we did it, it didn't occur to me that him being painted blue would be so sad for children!

When we'd finished the film, we had an early copy sent to us on videotape. We played it for our little nephew, Joshua.

And when he was painted blue, Joshua freaked out! He just cried, and cried, and cried. And we had to turn off the movie. And even to this day - he's in his 30's - he can't watch that movie, because it's so sad!

But I love that movie.

Not every child reacted as sadly as Josh did. But I think - I know when he was in the cage, I went to see the movie while we were in Australia, when he was caught - then the next time you see him, he's painted blue so no one would recognize him - now I think about it, having seen that much crying, I was surprised that I didn't see it would be sad.

But it has a very happy ending!

14. How do Big Bird and Oscar share a scene?


I generally pre-record Oscar's lines. And I'll get in the Bird. And with Oscar's voice pre-recorded, one of the other puppeteers will move Oscar so he can talk to Big Bird.

15. How much room is there in Oscar's garbage can?


Well, it seems to have as much room as we want to imagine! Because an elephant lives down there, and a funny little dog, who was very grumpy, but he hasn't been on for 10 years... a swimming pool... a bowling alley... how could you have all that in a trash can?

I don't know! But he claims he does, and he believes it! Hahaha!

16. What compromises were made for Big Bird's guest appearance on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood?


Well, see - other people make arguments in favor of us being totally honest, that does not fit with my feeling of the joy of being a little child. I've seen a child discover me - we thought we were alone in a park, filming a scene outdoors on some great stretches of rock, we had to do a shot for a China film - and a little boy came along, and he saw me take Big Bird off! And he screamed, and cried, and I said "Quick!" - he looked so funny with his little legs, running away, crying and crying - and I chased after him, with the costume back on- and I said "Little boy, I'm okay" and he said "I thought that man was hurting you, Big Bird."

When children see that Big Bird - Mr. Rogers wanted me to lift the puppet which is so big I have to get inside, off - it's a series of hoops that create the shape of Big Bird, and then there's netting and feathers, they're all real feathers so he looks nice and real - we found out that children would NOT have liked seeing Big Bird take it off on Mr. Rogers. I said "I'm sorry, I can't do that!" Jim Henson didn't want me to do it either.

So we made a compromise with Mr. Rogers.

And that was that I would just go to the Make-Believe Land, and say "OK, this is Make-Believe" and have some other puppeteers - a good friend of mine, Bob Brown, would show how HIS puppets worked - little marionettes on strings - they don't look so real anyway, like Big Bird did to little kids.

We're not trying to fool them, we're just trying to entertain them, and let them know that their friend Big Bird is not just a man in a giant suit.

17. What's the weirdest appearance Big Bird has made?


Well, one time I was in Georgia, at a small TV station, surrounded by children - Big Bird was sitting on an ottoman - and his pupil let go, and left him with one eye with a black pupil, and one eye blank white! I saw what happened on a monitor, through some feathers we pulled off, and I said "Oh you better stop!"

Well, there I am on television, and one eye is blank. And I said "You can't show this! You'll have to stop." It wasn't live TV, it was on tape, and they wouldn't stop, so I said "I have to apply a new eye" and they said "No, we think it's funny!" and I said "No - It's barbaric - the kids are saying Big Bird's eye fell out!"

It's never just a puppet.

Because I feel that's diminishing what Big Bird does. He's not just a puppet.

18. What behind-the-scenes story does he keep close to his heart?


We were in a different studio, doing a special show, and this girl came up to me, and she had her little cousin on her hip - she was only 3 years old - and I started chatting with her.

And I was falling in love with her. Turns out I'd met her before, but I'm not good at recognizing people at all.

Turns out we met 3 different times, and each time, I didn't know it was the same girl.

Turns out we ended up together anyway.

Getting to be Big Bird was the second greatest thing that ever happened to me. She's the number one.

19. What has been his most meaningful interaction with a child as Big Bird?


Okay, here's one.

This is a very sad story, but it's real.

I got a letter from a fan who said his little boy, who was 5 years old, his name was Joey, he was dying of cancer.

And he was so ill, the little boy knew he was dying.

So the man, in his letter, asked if I would call the little boy. He said the only thing that cheered him at all in his fading state was to see Big Bird on television.

So once in a while, he wouldn't see Big Bird on some days, because he wasn't necessarily in every show. So he asked could I telephone him, and talk to the boy, tell him what a good boy he's been.

So I took a while to look up a phone, because this was before cell phones. And they got a long cord to bring a phone to the boy.

And I had Big Bird say "Hello! Hello Joey! It's me, Big Bird!"

So he said "Is it really you, Big Bird?"

"Yes, it is."

I chatted a while with him, about ten minutes, and he said "I'm glad you're my friend Big Bird."

And I said "I'd better let you go now."

He said "Thank you for calling me Big Bird. You're my friend. You make me happy."

And it turns out that his father and mother were sitting with him when the phone call came. And he was very, very ill that day. And they called the parents in, because they weren't sure how long he'd last.

And so his father wrote to me right away, and said "Thank you, thank you" - he hadn't seen him smile since October, and this was in March - and when the phone was hung up, he said "Big Bird called me! He's my friend."

And he closed his eyes. And he passed away.

And I could see that what I say to children can be very important.

And he said "We haven't seen our little boy smile in MONTHS. He smiled, as he passed away. It was a gift to us. Thank you."

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