I Am Big Bird (and Oscar) | Muppet Monday


I hope you all had a grand weekend. It was a pretty relaxing, delightfully blustery few days in New York City, and a perfect afternoon to head to The Brooklyn Academy of Music for a showing of the I Am Big Bird documentary — spotlighting the almost 50-year career of Caroll Spinney, the man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch.

I don’t know why I was so surprised by what I saw in the film because I don’t know a ton about Caroll Spinney. It’s not because I have never been interested, either; you just don’t see it out there. Here are a few new things I learned:

  • Caroll Spinney was supposed to be on the Challenger flight as Big Bird
  • Matt Vogel (Constantine!) is his apprentice and will take over when Spinney officially retires
  • Caroll originally wanted to be an animator and was turned down for a job at Disney
  • He came dangerously close to quitting Sesame Street

One thing I never thought about that was so utterly fascinating:

  • Big Bird/Oscar the Grouch are both operated differently than other Muppets so Caroll is always kind of on his own. They talked a lot about how he wasn’t “a part of the group”

Not only does I Am Big Bird chronicle Spinney’s career but it’s also a tribute to his love story with his wife, Debra. Spinney went through a difficult divorce early in his career, married to someone who didn’t support his art. A few years later, he met Debra and their love story was just off the charts adorable and sweet. It was such an unexpected sub-plot to the documentary but I loved it because it really drove home the point about how important it is to love your life and love your work.

I also can’t say enough of the behind-the-scenes footage from Sesame Street, Follow That Bird, and even social events. There were a lot of special Jim Henson cameos (it’s always great to see new footage of him) but the real kicker was Spinney’s absolutely heartbreaking performance at Jim’s memorial service. I’ve seen it on YouTube but there’s nothing like seeing it on the big screen. I was the loud sobber on the left, guys. So difficult to watch, but also the perfect way to see how much Jim meant to Spinney.

I keep gushing, I know, but I have to mention the great animated scenes. There are a few that depict how Jim and Spinney first met, and then others that show exactly how the puppet of Big Bird works. That was so nice to see, and the animation makes it so much easier to understand the mechanics of the characters. Every time I see a documentary like this or learn more about the Muppets or puppets, I am just amazed by the dedication, talent, and arm muscles of these people. It’s such a demanding job — physically and emotionally — and here is Spinney still going at 80 years old. It’s truly amazing.

Except for some jarring scene changes and a dependence on music to drive home the emotional point (it didn’t need it), an hour and thirty minutes of Big Bird, Oscar, and, of course, Caroll, simply flies by and you feel like you could listen to Caroll tell life stories all day long. More and more, I am anxious for someone to get cracking on a Sesame Street documentary because there were so many intriguing points brought up by the cast in interviews. I am very interested in how the show has changed over time (I didn’t realize the adults weren’t a part of the show as much anymore) and even the shifting popularity of certain characters (Big Bird has nearly been replaced by Elmo). So while I wish for more documentaries, I hope you’ll find an opportunity to catch this flick. I Am Big Bird will leave you feeling inspired and dying to know more.

Thanks to Copper Pot, Carrol Spinney, and BAM for an excellent afternoon!

I Am Big Bird at BAM
Cheryl Henson, Caroll Spinney, Debra Spinney, and Dave LaMattina.
Caroll Spinney and Oscar the Grouch at BAM
Oscar wishes us a rotten evening.

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