On April 28, puppeteer Caroll Spinney, the man who has brought Big Bird to life since Sesame Street's 1969 debut, will be honored at the Daytime Emmys with a Lifetime Achievement Award. At last week's nominations event, TVGuide.com chatted with Spinney about his fine-feathered friend's big night but alas, not before he put away his other alter ego, a certain green Grouch. (Kids, click away now before I traumatize you with too much about Sesame Street's inner workings.)
TVGuide.com: I see that you just packed Oscar away in his duffel bag....
Caroll Spinney: That's what he likes best. That way, he doesn't have people bothering him.
TVGuide.com: How has your job changed over these 37 years?
Spinney: Well, it used to take six months to a year to do Sesame Street, but now it's only a few months, because we don't have the budget to make as many. We used to make 110 new shows; we now do one for each letter of the alphabet.
TVGuide.com: The days of 110 episodes must have been grueling for you.
Spinney: They really were. And I live out in the country, so I didn't really like being in New York for that much time.
TVGuide.com: In response to the recent child-obesity awareness, Sesame Street dove into this whole "nutrition-focused" thing in which Cookie Monster goes around saying, "Cookies are a sometime food." Do you like it when the show changes with the times like that?
Spinney: I think it's smart, although we really addressed similar things way back in the early '70s. Some educators and doctors have pointed out that Cookie Monster is just a fanatic for cookies, but he several times in the past has referred to eating some good broccoli or whatever. Me, I've never taken a bite [of broccoli] I can't stand the stuff! [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: What was your reaction when you were told you'd be getting a Lifetime Achievement Emmy?
Spinney: I was delighted and surprised.... It's kind of neat. Last year it was Merv Griffin, who was big in his day. Luckily, I'm still getting to do what I do. I've still got time to go on my contract. I hope to be doing it well past the 40th year. [Sesame Street hits that milestone in 2009.]
TVGuide.com: That was my next question: Are you ever tempted to turn over the feathers to someone else?
Spinney: Not at all. I really wouldn't want to.
TVGuide.com: Do you feel in some ways that playing Big Bird has kept you young?
Spinney: I think it has. For one thing, you have to be in good shape, physically.
TVGuide.com: But when Big Bird roller-skates, that's not you, is it?
Spinney: Yes, it is. As a teenager I roller-skated all the time.
TVGuide.com: Do you feel that Oscar the Grouch is just misunderstood?
Spinney: Yeah. He's not really a villain. There are an awful lot of grouches who people run into in their daily lives, and he's just the example "that it takes all kinds." At least when he's grouchy, he's funny. I think that helps him get by. Otherwise he'd get a pie in the face!
TVGuide.com: Whenever there is news like Bush proposing massive PBS budget cuts, do you get personally invested in it?
Spinney: Yeah. I think it's a shame, only because the children are the future, and I hate to see short cuts made that will cause PBS to suffer. They really work hard at making sure that children have good stuff to see.
TVGuide.com: I can't imagine a TV landscape without the little educational children's programming there is.
Spinney: Right. PBS has had to fight for its survival, because there are some people who just feel that we shouldn't have to spend money on arts. Even Einstein said "Science without art is sterile."
TVGuide.com: John Lawson [president-CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations] recently said that he can only go to the mat with PBS members so many times before they stop taking him seriously.
Spinney: He's right. Although I don't think our show receives much government help anymore; we get a percentage of the [Sesame Street] toy sales. But there are so many children's shows now, and there aren't just Sesame character toys and games to buy there are dinosaurs and Teletubbies and they have toys, too. You're even up against, as far as [budget-supplementing toy sales goes], like, Power Rangers. If kids buy those toys instead, that takes away money that can go to educational shows. The [revenue from toy sales] really does go into our budget. We're not like those charities that don't get much of that money.
TVGuide.com: Getting back to the April 28 Daytime Emmys: Do formal-wear shops make tuxedos big enough for the 8-foot-2-inch-tall Big Bird?
Spinney: If you saw him today [on ABC's The View], he only wears a limited part of the tuxedo just the dickie but he has cuffs, too, if it's a really fancy occasion. He has tried to wear a top hat, but his feathery head doesn't hold hats very well at all. [Laughs]
TVGuide.com: Along those same lines, are people ever surprised that you aren't taller?
Spinney: Yeah. In fact, one time there was this huge crowd waiting outside [a venue] where Big Bird had made an appearance, and they all wanted autographs, but it was kind of a scary crowd, with everyone pushing. When I came out [sans costume], they said, "You! You must be Big Bird!" I said, "Do I look tall enough to be Big Bird?"