Silliness holds secret of Muppet madness

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 February, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 February, 1999, 12:00am

With an athletic build and standing more than 180 centimetres tall, Kevin Clash looks an unlikely choice to play a 3.5-year-old Muppet with a high-pitched voice.

When you meet him, there's no clue to relate him to red, furry Sesame Street monster Elmo.

Clash, who was on a private trip to Hong Kong, said when he first played Elmo, he had no idea the character would prove as popular as it has become.

The muppeteer said the Elmo role was a dream come true.

'I dreamed of being part of Sesame Street when I was young. When I was 10 years old, Sesame Street was first shown on TV. I loved Big Bird very much and dreamed one day I could be friends with him,' Clash said. 'When Richard Hunt [who previously played Elmo] handed over Elmo to me, I still thought it was a dream,' he said.

Elmo is Big Bird's best friend. He first appeared as a litter monster in Sesame Street in 1979. But his popularity surged when Clash started performing him in 1984. In 1996 and 1997, more than five million Elmo toys were sold, making it the best-selling Christmas toy in the world.

'I love seeing people laugh. It is my first job and I never feel bored. I enjoy my job very much but I separate my career from my normal life. When I am speaking with a high-pitched voice, I am Elmo. When I speak in a normal voice, I am the father of a six- year-old girl,' he said.

'Never be afraid to be silly is the rule' for a successful muppeteer, Clash said.

'When I am playing Elmo, I have to speak and think like a three-year-old boy, and control the muppet to act like a kid.

'You always have to keep your eyes open and think about what kids love,' he said. 'Even when you are performing on a children's show, you have to keep improving yourself.

'If the audience like you, you are a superstar; but if they don't, you are nothing.' In the TV show, Elmo laughs at everything and is naughty. Clash said Elmo's character was the same as that of young children.

Inspiration for Elmo's behaviour came from watching his mother, a day-care worker, taking care of young children.

'I spent a few months watching her taking care of the kids and then started thinking about what I was going to do. Kids see things very positively. They love playing games, enjoy life and are very naughty. And I've put all these characters into Elmo.' About his real character, Clash said: 'I always try to look at things as positively as possible.' Spending five days a week with Elmo, Clash said he felt like a baby sitter. 'Elmo is with me almost every day. It is my job to take care of him.'