Forty years ago this month, a children’s show with a format patterned on the sketch comedy series Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In was broadcast for the first time, proving education could also be entertaining. Sesame Street has since become one of the most popular children’s shows in television history, winning 122 Daytime Emmy awards. The biggest stars in the world have visited the ‘street’ helping children learn the alphabet and numbers, and this year isn’t any different, with such performers as Ricky Gervais, Hugh Jackman and Adam Sandler dropping by to impart their wisdom. Even the First Lady, Michelle Obama, stops by to celebrate the beginning of the series’ 40th year.
At the Television Critics Association tour last summer, I had the pleasure of talking to Eric Jacobson and David Rudman, puppeteers who respectively portray Grover and Cookie Monster on the show. Both took over their characters from the iconic Frank Oz, who created them four decades ago.
When did you take over playing Grover?
Eric Jacobson A little over 10 years ago. Frank Oz originated the character back in the early days of Sesame Street. Grover was there from Season One. I’d been working as a puppeteer on Sesame Street for a number of years, and when it was decided that due to Frank’s very busy schedule directing movies, that they wanted to start bringing someone new into the role. So here we are 10 years later. Frank still comes in once in awhile, every couple of years, to do one or two things. It stills means the world to him, and he tries desperately to put it into his schedule.
How did you get the job of doing Cookie Monster?
David Rudman I’d been working for the Muppets since 1981. I started right out of high school. I worked for Frank for years and years, and I think when he became less available, with his blessing, they wanted to keep the characters going and so we had to find some replacement puppeteers for him. We had a core group and we all went in, put the characters on, and played around, and Frank picked who he wanted to take each character. Eric does most of Frank’s characters, he does Grover, Bert, Miss Piggy, and I do Cookie now. Frank did Grover and Cookie, so they were never really together, so now they have separate puppeteers we can have scenes with Grover and Cookie together.
Do you think that went into the planning on Frank’s part about who took each character?
David Rudman I don’t know if it did, I think it was more who ‘got’ the character. It’s more than just the voice, the voice is a big part of it but these characters are so much more than a voice, it’s their personality and little subtle character things that are part of the whole package of who these characters are.
Do you feel you have enlarged on Grover’s character now that you’ve done him so long?
Eric Jacobson Certainly over the 30 years of Franks’ consistent portrayal of Grover, he did evolve. I try not to do anything that new, but obviously being somebody different, my personality is going to show through. It’s inevitable.
You do the voice and the puppetry for Grover?
Eric Jacobson Yes, it’s always been a tradition that Jim Henson started, the puppeteer would provide the voice and embody the character in all aspects. It’s something that I’ve done for a long time and there are a lot of disciplines involved to be sure, it’s quite challenging, but really fun.
Do you have a favorite character that you play?
Eric Jacobson I do have a soft spot for Grover.
I hear there are only two Cookie Monster puppets in existence.
David Rudman There are only two puppets of the Cookie Monster. The more worn and dirty they are the better they look on television. The new characters almost look like toys sometimes, because they’re so clean and so fuzzy. These feel more real on camera.
Do you feel like he’s your character now?
David Rudman Yeah, I definitely feel more comfortable with him over the years. In the beginning, I was just trying to do what Frank did. I was thinking about his voice, I was thinking about a lot of things, but over the years I’m thinking less and less about that and just more about making him funny.
Do you tell people what you do?
David Rudman Well, that’s the other good thing about this job. We’re on TV all the time, we’re doing these characters but no one knows who we are, so we can walk down the street and no one says, ‘Hey, that’s Cookie Monster!’