Interview: Caroll Spinney (I Am Big Bird)

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Since 1969, Caroll Spinney has entertained children all over the world as Sesame Street’s most loved character, Big Bird.

This month saw the release of I Am Big Bird, an intimate and heartwarming documentary that chronicles Spinney’s life both in and out of the yellow-feathered suit. We caught up with Caroll to have a chat about the documentary, the evolution of puppetry and Punch & Judy….

Hi Caroll!  You’re best known for playing Big Bird but you’ve had many characters over the years – Picklepuss, Mr. Lion, Bruno The Trashman, Oscar The Grouch….  

Yes, well Picklepuss was how I got this job, when Jim Henson saw me doing my show. He hasn’t worked since though. When I open the box he usually looks pissed off at me… its dark and boring in there. There were a few characters I created on the show that are no longer there. One was Granny Fanny Nesslerode, she was very funny but didn’t track well with the children so she was dropped.

Bruno The Trashman was the only muppet that I ever designed. A couple of years ago I said “how come we never do Bruno anymore?” Well, the material is foam plastic and after about seven or eight years, the stuff just sort of turned to powder. He just sort of faded away into a pile of dust. Perfect for a horror movie.

Do you miss any of those lost characters more than others?

Well, Bruno was very handy because I could walk Oscar onto a stage without having me walk out there. I’ve been hiding all these years.

For many people, Sesame Street remains the greatest and most loved kid’s TV show of all time. How you do feel that children’s TV has changed over the years, especially with regards to mixing education and entertainment?

When we started our show, children’s shows were typically like “good morning boys and girls, we’re gonna have a goody goody time,” with grownups pretending they were young children wearing a little bow in their hair or something. They looked like silly grownups kind of talking down to the kids. That’s something I think Sesame Street never did. I think it made a new approach to children and their television and also, it genuinely taught them things. Not a real effort was ever made in that way before.

It’s really satisfying to me that Sesame Street made it in the UK because my Mother was born in England. I kind of think of it as the Mother country, so I’m pleased we made it there too.

I read that you were first inspired by Punch and Judy shows in Blackpool right?

Yes, very much so. My Mother used to see Punch and Judy shows in Blackpool when she was a little girl for a haypenny. That would have been about 1909 or 1910. She left England in 1911 and never was able to come back. I loved seeing real Englishmen doing the Punch & Judy show because they keep it purely ‘punch.’ I only stopped doing mine because it’s so violent. Last time I did it, I think the little children were shocked because you know, he beats everybody up and all that…. but if I hadn’t started with Punch & Judy I don’t think I would have been anywhere.

I also really admire Senor Wences. He was a ventriloquist and he’s my hero in a way. He performed on the very last day he was alive. He did a show onstage in Madrid, went home, had dinner, went to bed and then never woke up. But he was 102! That’s what made him so special to me.

The work done by Jim Henson Studios, The Muppets and Sesame Street is often seen as the golden age of puppetry on television. Do you think that puppetry has become less prominent in recent years due to CGI?

Well, people have asked me if computer generation is going to put puppetry out of business. I don’t think so. I often talk to audiences with Oscar on my hand and he’s immediate. Something computer generated takes months to make a scene, it has to be written and carefully constructed whereas puppetry is right there, right then. So I think there will always be room for puppets and new ways to approach puppetry.

Big Bird was a unique kind of puppet. He was based on a dragon that used to sell canned chop suey on television in the states. Basically it was a dragon suit that becomes a hand-puppet from the neck up, and that’s how Big Bird works. My arm is in his head and my little finger move his eyelids, which helps the viewer clearly pick up on his thought process. So, a costume that becomes a puppet at the top – I’m not aware of anybody who created a puppet like that until Jim did it. I’m sure there will always be new innovations in puppetry as the years go on, it won’t just be CGI. Puppets come and go. When I was trying to break into television there weren’t very many puppets and they said “animation is the thing.” Then Jim came along, and the puppets on Sesame Street were more popular than the animation.

Aside from your TV work, you’re also an artist and animator too. Is any of your art widely available and where could people read your WWII-era comic strip Harvey?

Well, I have a hundred copies of different episodes of Harvey. He was sort of a sad sack, a loser, he was always getting the stripes ripped off his uniform because he screwed up. In the end, when I came home from being stationed in Germany I had him promoted to General. I’d like to have it published because I could fill a whole book.

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I’m sure plenty of people would like to have a look at those old strips.

Well, I think it would probably only be out of interest because of my fame, if I have any. Because of Bird and Ocar. The thing is, those characters are famous and I’m not.

They give one Emmy a year called the Lifetime Achievement Award, and I got it one year. They wanted me to come up on stage and have a nice retrospective, but they said “he can’t have any time on stage because he’s not famous.” Well he’s the most famous puppet bird in the world! They said “yeah, but he’s not famous.” This movie might have some effect on that in a positive way.

Are you happy with the movie (I Am Big Bird) and how has it been received so far?

Yeah, I couldn’t believe it could be that good, it’s really been excellent. I think it’s very human, or more so than a lot of documentaries. I think that’s one reason why it’s been so successful.

Is it nice to get some recognition out of the suit?

Yeah, it is nice. It didn’t bother me when I didn’t get it, but it is nice having it now in, it’s kind of enjoyable in the bottom of my days. I’m 81 now, and “my voice hasn’t changed much.” (Big Bird’s voice) So, you know, he still sounds like the same guy.

I saw your Birdman spoof ‘Big Birdman’ this year and it was a great idea. What was the motivation behind it?

Oh yeah, we did that on a lunch break. Our head writer Joey Mazzarino wrote that and I thought it was pretty clever. Actually, I didn’t really enjoy the movie that much, so it was kind of fun to spoof it.

There’s no secret loathing of Big Bird then?

No, I have total respect for Big Bird as a created character. I think he’s fun to watch, but Oscar is the funnier of the two I think.

Do you have any advice for any budding animators and puppeteers?

Yes, in the States there’s a group of puppeteers who belong to this club called the Puppeteers of America.  If I hadn’t have joined that then I wouldn’t be on television today. I don’t know what the equivalent is in the UK, but there must be puppet groups that you can look up on the internet and join. You gain so much by seeing other people do their puppet work, it can broaden your approach to puppetry and increase your chances of making it too.

Thanks very much Caroll, it’s been a pleasure. Have a nice day over there!

It’s a pleasure, thank you very much. Oscar, do you have anything to say?

“Yeah, have a rotten day.”(Oscar’s voice)

“Oh, Oscar. Never listen to the grouch!” (Big Bird)