1 The Muppet Mindset: Interview with Legendary Muppeteer Jerry Nelson, Part 4

Aug 5, 2011

Interview with Legendary Muppeteer Jerry Nelson, Part 4

Ryan Dosier - It is always more than an honor to me when I get the chance to correspond with Muppeteers and ask them questions I've been wanting to ask ever since I found out who the talented men and women were that bring to life my favorite characters. Arguably, Jerry Nelson, whose fourth and final interview segment we're thrilled to post today, is the one who I've had the most questions for. Someone who has been a part of Muppet history almost since the beginning and who has brought life to countless wonderful, memorable, and delightful characters... Jerry is the epitome of Muppeteer and I, personally, and all of us here at The Muppet Mindset are beyond thrilled to welcome you to Part 4 of our interview with Mr. Nelson as we discuss his work on Sesame Street and provide some closing thoughts.

Be sure to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of our interview with Jerry Nelson.

Interview with Jerry Nelson
Part 4

RYAN:   We’re back once again with Jerry Nelson for the fourth and final part of our interview. Today’s subject is Sesame Street. Jerry, what was the first Sesame Street sketch you worked on?

JERRY:   You don’t really expect me to remember this do you? This happened over forty years ago, my friend. Can you remember every little detail of anything that happened that long ago? Call me up when you are forty-one and tell me what you remember. I may have that in the files, but the colored wheel is spinning and spinning. If it ever pulls the file up I’ll let you know but I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you. I do remember that we had just finished shooting The Great Santa Claus Switch in Toronto, when Jim asked me if I would like to work on Sesame Street in the second season. I had not worked the first season.

RYAN:   What is it about The Count that makes him one of the only characters you continue to perform?

JERRY:   Well Ryan, counting just never seems to go out of style. I mean it’s not as if they said, "What character would you like to keep doing?" Gush gush, gee, I would like to keep doing the Count until I fall off this mortal coil, please. With diminished physical capacity, I am lucky to be doing anything. I thank Sesame Workshop for letting me continue doing what I love.

RYAN:   In the beginning The Count was a rather frightening, foreboding presence. How did you change a vampire with the power to hypnotize Bert into a charming, passionate, truly awesome character?

JERRY:   I stopped relying on cliché darkness, and allowed the Count’s charming, passionate, truly awesome self to shine through.

RYAN:   The Count has had flings with a few different women (including Susan Sarandon). Can you tell us which one he fancies the most?

JERRY:   Flings indeed! A gentlecount never tells, Ryan. They each had their own charm and beauty.

RYAN:   What are your favorite Count songs?

JERRY:   "The Song of The Count," "Batty Bat," "Counting is Wonderful," "Coconut Counting Man," "Count on Me," "Bones," "Eight Beautiful Notes," "The Count's Lullaby," "I Want to Count," "Zig-Zag Dance," "Transylvania Polka," "The Number of the Day Waltz," "The Lambaba," "I Could Have Counted All Night," "Hands" (been werry good to me), "How Deep is Your Bathtub," "Cloud Nine," "Baby You Can Count on Me," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Little Miss Count Along," just to name a few and last but certainly not least... "Count Von Count's Continuous Country Cookin' Downhome Diner."

RYAN:   Which characters do you think The Count works with the best?

JERRY:   He has just two criteria. They must be either foam and fur fabric or flesh and blood. Other than that he’s not too picky.

RYAN:   What does The Count think of the Twilight craze? Does he enjoy counting the insane teenage girls?

JERRY:   You know the answer to this, Ryan, Count Von Count enjoys counting absolutely everything and anything, he can find or you can name.

RYAN:   Does The Count have a favorite number?

JERRY:   Of course! Doesn’t everyone? 34,969.

RYAN:   Where did the idea for thunder and lightning to accompany The Count’s counting come from?

JERRY:   You would have to ask Norman Stiles that question, I think it was he, or possibly Jon Stone?

RYAN:   The Count has also hobnobbed with a good amount of celebrities on the show. Who were some of your (and his) favorite celebrities to work with?

JERRY:   Harry Belafonte, Madeline Kahn, Whoopi Goldberg, Maya Angelou, Alison Krauss, Susan Sarandon, Jon Stewart, Dave Winfield, Mookie Wilson, Trisha Yearwood, to mention a few.

RYAN:   In recent years you’ve dubbed The Count’s voice while someone else performs him. What are the difficulties that come with this?

JERRY:   Matt Vogel does the puppet work with the Count. Matt worked with me doing right, and often both hands for a long time so he knows the way I work. Of course we rehearse and he can pick up the rhythms of speech from that. Matt is a very talented puppeteer in his own right, so most of the time there are no real difficulties. People often remark about how smoothly it all works.

RYAN:   One of my favorite Sesame Street moments in recent years is the "Outrageous Makeover: Home Addition" sketch with Grover and Mr. Johnson. What was it like to perform this hilariously fun sketch?

JERRY:   It was hilariously fun, Ryan, as they most always are. I can’t think of one that wasn’t and I’m not going to try.

RYAN:   Why does Mr. Johnson keep going back to Charlie’s Restaurant? Is the food really that good?

JERRY:   Would you rather for him to have never gone back? I don’t think so.

RYAN:   Is Grover really a bad waiter/salesman/exercise instructor/airplane steward/etc.? Or is Mr. Johnson just a difficult customer?

JERRY:   It is simply perfect chemistry for teaching and comedy. You’ve got this poor sap who continues to somehow always become saddled with furry, cute, adorable, inept Grover, who through his mistakes repeats the objective lessons, each time frustrating Mr J in (and you know it’s coming) an ever escalating temper, to the point of collapsing. Comedy.

RYAN:   Can you talk to us a little bit about Herry Monster? How was his character developed?

JERRY:   Herry is my tribute to Jimmy ("da nose knows") Durante, who, when I was growing up, was one of my favorite comedians. "Good night Mrs. Calabash, where-ever you are!" Remember to think radio here.

RYAN:   What was it like to work with real kids like John-John? Was John-John still thrilled to see Herry when they were reunited after he had grown up?

JERRY:   Kids can amaze you. John-John certainly did. He was so into it. Many times children are very shy, but they found a few like John-John that were just right there. Hmm, the reunion, I’m not sure "thrilled" is the word I would use here. It was certainly a happy moment for myself, Herry, John-John, his mother and others in the studio.

RYAN:   What are your favorite Herry moments?

JERRY:   The song, "I Can’t Help It," in the course of which, he destroys the Fix-It Shop. By the end of the song the shop is a shambles. The Special Effects Team, get kudos for that one and I had a ball. Scenes like that you rehearse over and over because it’s going to happen for real in only one take.

RYAN:   Whatever happened to Biff and Sully?

JERRY:   Biff is retired and worrying about the economy, social security and medicare. I don’t know for sure, but I heard that Sully is playing piano in a lounge out on City Island.

RYAN:   I know that you really enjoyed Sherlock Hemlock. What were some of your favorite aspects of his character?

JERRY:   He was so totally clueless. It was so much fun to play him unconditionally confident of his complete solution. I liked him best with Watson the dog trying to tell him at each step of the way what the real clues were and Sherlock’s lame restructuring when the truth is revealed.

RYAN:   One of the greatest moments in Season 40 was your cameo alongside Herry, Mr. Johnson, and Sherlock Hemlock. How did that come about?

JERRY:   I was visiting the set with my grandson and it just sort or happened, as I recall. I’m not saying that is what happened, just that is what I recall.

RYAN:   How has Sesame Street changed during your time on the show? How has it remained the same?

JERRY:  Segmentilization. Elmos World, Where’s Ernie. They still do great spoofs, which used to be called "inserts."

RYAN:   What does Sesame Street mean to you?

JERRY:   Do you mean aside from being part of a great career and contributing to children’s education and the uses of what was a new media in my lifetime?

RYAN:   If you had to pick one, what would you say is your favorite Sesame Street moment?

JERRY:   Being on set to hear Ray Charles sing, "It’s Not That Easy Being Green." Being in studio to share 40th Anniversary cake with my family of friends, who are my coworkers. Working with the best in the business. All that and more.

RYAN:   Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

JERRY:   I think you take the N, Q or F train to 36th Street, or is it Avenue? Ask my driver. He knows the way.

RYAN:   What would you like to be remembered for? If you could shape your legacy, what would it be?

JERRY:   Jerry Nelson. He was mostly on time.

RYAN:   Jerry, before we finish, I promised myself that if I ever got the chance I would personally thank you for autographing both a photo of The Count and a picture I drew of you surrounded by your characters for me. They are proudly framed and hanging on my wall. So thank you so much for that, sir.

JERRY:   Is that the one with the cowboy boots? No, that one is Smig’s, which I have on my wall.

RYAN:   Well Jerry, unfortunately those are all of the questions I have. I just have to thank you for everything. Thank you for inspiring me to be a better person, for putting music in my heart, and bringing laughter to my life. I’m sure I speak for Muppet fans everywhere when I say that once again I wish I could stand up and applaud you.

JERRY:   Thank you, Ryan. If you think I made you a better person, you were a better person to begin with. You have my permission to applaud me any time you see me.  Thank everyone else for bothering to read these rambles.

We can't thank Jerry Nelson enough for taking the time to talk to us. Jerry is a true treasure... one we're so glad he shared with us throughout the course of this four-part interview. Thank you, Jerry, for all you've done and continue to do!

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, muppetmindset@gmail.com


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