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The Man Behind Elmo

It’s probably silly to walk into Kevin Clash’s office expecting to see anything other than a grown-up’s office—a desk, a phone, a computer and an ergonomic chair. But because Clash has spent the last two decades providing the voice and personality of Elmo, “Sesame Street"'s wildly popular 3½-year-old red monster, there’s the expectation of something a bit more exotic, perhaps a red fur-covered chaise lounge. Instead, there are walls painted with a muted teal and an unspectacular office setup, though the huddle of eight Daytime Emmys (less the one he left in Baltimore) tends to draw attention to itself.

Exploding expectations is so large a part of Clash’s life now that he could legitimately list it on his resume. Many people wouldn’t expect the person who voices Elmo to be 45 years old, or tall, or broad-shouldered, or male, or black, but Clash is all those things. Of course, he’s also profoundly successful and grateful that a certain red Muppet fell into his lap.

Well, actually, it fell into his hands. So goes the story that begins Clash’s appropriately titled new memoir “My Life as a Furry Red Monster.” A junior puppeteer-in-training at the time, he was challenged to give voice to Elmo, who was then just a puppet in cold storage, the remains of a failed attempt to introduce a red Muppet to the show (“Sesame Street” values diversity in puppet hiring).

Elmo has since become a cultural phenomenon responsible for a riot-sparking toy (Tickle-Me Elmo), his own mini-show within “Sesame Street” (“Elmo’s World”) and one puppeteer’s exhaustion. “It’s nonstop for me, even on the weekend,” says Clash of his work schedule, which, in addition to performing, also includes casting, direction and even musical arrangement. “Right now I have 14 scripts I have to go through, and I’m casting actors for a home video. I just cast a carrot and an orange.”

Despite a career always threatening to encroach upon his personal life, Clash says he tries his hardest not to take the job—or the puppet—home with him. Though it’s clear that when someone loves a job as much as Clash loves playing Elmo, there’s barely a division between business and pleasure, even when there should be. “I can revert back to my childhood very easily, sometimes to a fault,” he says, breaking into an endearing laugh that’s not as over-the-top as Elmo’s but still pretty infectious. “In certain ways, it trickles into me as an adult, and I get that Peter Pan syndrome so it gets in the way sometimes. But you can’t be that 24/7 or else you’d have no money, you’d have no life, because you have to be an adult sometimes.”

He seems like an adult all the time, actually, if perhaps a giddy, giggly one. Still, Peter Pan never had as much responsibility as Clash, who carries a large portion of the workload for the “Sesame Street” juggernaut, now approaching its 38th season. “No single person has been more responsible for the continued success of ‘Sesame Street’ over the last decade than Kevin Clash,” says Sesame Workshop president and CEO Gary Knell in an e-mail. “Elmo is Elvis to young children.” So what’s the little monster’s appeal? “Elmo is so successful because everybody wants to be like Elmo,” Clash says.

Well, maybe not everybody. Granted, the Elmo character has enjoyed remarkable longevity compared to former children’s favorites such as Barney and the Teletubbies, whose popularity peaked, then plummeted amidst swells of backlash. But Elmo isn’t without opposition. In a piece that ran in mid-August called “ Elmo Is an Evildoer ,”  Los Angeles Times editorialist Joel Stein took the character to task for ruining the “Sesame Street” he remembers as a child, writing that the character is vapidly cute, needy and self-obsessed. Judging from the response he got, he’s not the only one who thinks so. “I’ve written plenty of columns before and I usually get all hate mail, but the reaction to this was almost totally positive,” Stein says. “There’s a whole nation of people that hate Elmo who were just thrilled that I wrote this. Parents can’t stand Elmo.”

Kristin Scott, a mother of an infant son and frequent contributor to the Web site Blogging Baby, is one such parent who agreed with Stein’s column and thinks the new “Sesame Street” values creating blockbuster characters more than providing educational value. “I feel bad slagging Elmo, but I think he does more harm than good,” Scott says. “The show used to have a lot more of the Count, a lot more foreign-language segments, but now it’s just Elmo spouting banalities.”

Clash, meanwhile, seems to find Stein’s piece funny and tends to be sanguine regarding Elmo hatred. Still he admits to some concern about the character’s becoming overexposed. “We were concerned about how much publicity there was for Tickle-Me Elmo,” he says. “But the majority of people still love the character.” Even Stein, who hates the character, gushed about Clash, having seen him in action during a visit to the set that later spawned his missive. “To my dismay, he’s supertalented and really cool, even though he’s foisting evil upon the world,” Stein says. “But then I realized was [that] Elmo is so huge because the guy is so talented. He seems like a good guy with a lot of talent who created something evil.”

For detractors hoping the release of Clash’s book is signaling an Elmo in winter, Clash has bad news. He insists that he is far from retiring. He’s basing his career track on the puppeteers he works with, some of whom work well into their 70s. And even when he does move on, the Elmo character will likely continue without him, just as Kermit the Frog went on after Muppets creator Jim Henson died. “I don’t own Elmo. I’ve helped this character become successful, but if I pass away or I go onto something else, someone else would do it,” he says.

Note that he cites death first in his order of reasons why he would part with Elmo. The room gets heavy when Clash mentions Henson, who died of pneumonia in 1990. When he says Jim’s name, as he does often, it’s with a voice filled with reverence, in the same way people say names like Lennon and Kennedy, and its clear that death is something he’s thought about, but his own, not Elmo’s.

For now, Clash is vibrantly alive, creating a pop-culture phenomenon, not to mention a lot of work for himself. He seemed all too pleased to enjoy a three-day weekend recently with his daughter, Shannon, some of the precious little downtime he’ll have leading up to the new season of “Sesame Street.” Then, it’ll be back to the routine, laying horizontally in a rolling cart, with one arm extended in the air, doing that unmistakable falsetto until he’s nailed his segment, or until that voice causes his throat to close up, which happens after about three hours. It’s not easy being green, but being red doesn’t sound like a piece of cake either.