Recently I took one of those online quizzes that are so fascinating (because ultimately the subject is me and who isn’t totally fascinated by themselves?). This particular one informed me that of all the Sesame Street characters, I was Oscar the Grouch.
I don’t really mind this, nor am I that surprised. Oscar was always my favorite as a kid. Inspired by this netvalation (it’s like a revelation you get through an ethernet cable), I decided to watch I am Big Bird: The Carol Spinney Story. Because Carol has played not only Big Bird for longer than I have been alive, but he’s also The Man Behind the Grouch.
I now have to say that Carol has been added to my list of personal heroes, along with people like Mahatma Gandhi and John Lennon. Not just extraordinary, but extraordinary for having endured extreme human cruelty and emerged a kinder, better person than most of us. After an abusive childhood and a terrible first marriage, he met the love of his life and then after Jim Henson he met his current wife (ba dum bump; in fact he and his wife are adorably in love onscreen and one of the most delightful parts of this film).
What I found striking about his time at Sesame Street is that Carol is a man apart from the other performers. This is true in both the physical and the emotional sense. Muppet performers crouch beneath a stage together to perform, but due to the nature of Big Bird and Oscar, Carol has to perform inside what is essentially a bright yellow isolation chamber or from behind a trashcan. There’s a kind of camaraderie between the puppeteers from which he is perpetually and continually absent. So absent that he spent his first year at the Muppet Studios thinking about quitting every day. And if you’re tempted to forget how massive the Muppet group can be, just look at the size of the crowd on this 1985 album (do not look for this; this is made up). That is a big group from which to be excluded.
Despite his self doubt and his sadness, he powered through his early challenges in the context of the show to become one of the most beloved performers in the world. He pushed the idea of Big Bird being essentially a big kid so he could be the voice through which the youngest viewers explored the biggest concepts. He came up with the idea of Oscar being grouchy but not cruel so he could be deserving of empathy and kindness even if he didn’t always display it himself. He’s living proof that success is not incompatible with class and kindness and according to my netvalatory experience, I would apparently not be the person I am today without him (hear that parents? It’s not your fault- TV raises your kids). For all of this and more, I want to thank the world for putting Carol Spinney in it.
You don’t have to tell me. I know how to get to Sesame Street.