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August 8, 2008

Interview: Sesame Street’s Matt Vogel

Filed under: Feature,Interviews — Tags: , , — Ryan Roe @ 6:00 am



On Wednesday, I reviewed You Can’t Rock Sittin’ Down, the new album by the Mighty Weaklings, a band that includes Sesame Street Muppet performer Matt Vogel (He’s the one standing in front of the playground in that picture). Today, ToughPigs.com is pretty darn happy to present an interview, conducted via e-mail, with Mr. Vogel himself.

TOUGH PIGS: How did you come to be involved with Sesame Street? What was the first thing you did on the show?

MATT VOGEL: In 1994, I answered an ad in Backstage looking for a left-handed puppeteer. I’m not a left-handed puppeteer — but I am left-handed and I thought that was close enough. The job was to be the secondary performer of a full-body Coca-Cola Polar Bear puppet that Muppets had built for live appearances. I met with John Henson (the primary performer) and soon after started doing polar bear appearances.

My first Sesame Street gig was for a home video called Tell the Truth. I played some background characters with Stephanie D’Abruzzo. My first season on Sesame Street was in 1996. I did a lot of right-hand work, but also got to do some small characters including one of Kingston Livingston III‘s Crew Four.

TP: Was it intimidating for you coming to work alongside Sesame veterans like Jerry Nelson and Fran Brill?

MV: Both Fran and Jerry are such great performers and they were very welcoming to me right from the beginning. They made me feel comfortable and at ease… but I was–and still am–in awe of them. So, I wouldn’t say that I was intimidated. Although I did see Fran wrestle a mountain lion. Not intimidating, but impressive.

TP: How and at what point was it decided that you would become the alternate Big Bird? Was the audition process open to any puppeteers beyond the Sesame cast?

MV: They were looking for someone to perform Big Bird at live appearances when Caroll Spinney was unavailable. So, Caroll held a workshop/audition with a few of the Sesame Street puppeteers. I’d never met Mr. Spinney before and when I was introduced to him as “Matt Vogel”, he shook my hand and said, “You know, your last name means ‘bird’ in German, this might be the job for you.” That was a bit intimidating. Caroll told us his history with Sesame Street and Jim Henson and then he had us each put on Big Bird and give it a shot. That was very intimidating– trying to sound like Big Bird right in front of the man who IS Big Bird. After that, I met with Caroll one-on-one a few times to work on Big Bird. Even now, Caroll continues to give me pointers and I consider him one of my mentors.

TP: Was Journey to Ernie your first gig as Big Bird?

MV: Well, my first real job as Big Bird was a live appearance in front of an auditorium full of Kmart managers. Seriously. Big Bird was revealed behind a giant revolving K (for Klassy).

My first Big Bird appearance on Sesame Street was not “Journey to Ernie”, but I think it was in a scene with a bunch of other characters and I said only a line or two.

TP: How are the Journey to Ernie segments produced?

MV: We shot those on a huge blue screen. I would only see a rough sketch of what the final animation would look like, I’d have to imagine the action that would be animated later. I found “Journey to Ernie” to be challenging because of how we had to shoot it, the physicality of the segment, and the fact that being inside Big Bird is disorienting– you only see what the camera’s shooting. There’s no peripheral vision, it’s like you’re working in a yellow bubble.

TP: Have you ever taken a crack at being Oscar the Grouch?

MV: Oh, sure– at home for my kids when I’m cranky. But I’ve never done it seriously.

TP: You were Big Bird for the Sesame Street segment with Laura Bush. What was that like? Did the Secret Service have to frisk the bird?

MV: The First Lady came to the Street prepared and she was very sweet. The Secret Service did not frisk Big Bird, but they did shake down Elmo.

TP: What’s your favorite Sesame Street thing you’ve done? Do you have a favorite character you’ve performed on the show?

MV: I’ve had a lot of opportunities to perform some fun characters on Sesame Street. Some of my favorites are Howie Eatswell from the “Meal or No Meal” sketch, David Letterguy, Hansel (of Hansel & Gretel), and Herb the Dinosaur. But I also do a lot of right-hand work on the show and some of my favorite times are assisting puppeteers like David Rudman, Steve Whitmire, Jerry Nelson and Frank Oz.

TP: What kind of hilarious or fascinating anecdotes can you tell us from behind the scenes at Sesame? Come on, you must have a million of ’em.

MV: I was doing a live appearance as Big Bird with Penny Marshall for a new Sesame Street kid’s clothing line. We were hosting a fashion show in front of a bunch of press and children. As Penny Marshall walked on stage, she lost her footing and grabbed Big Bird by the right wing– ripping it off the puppet! In front of everyone– Cameras, reporters, children!

There she was, standing there with the wing in her hands. She quickly realized what had happened and hid the wing behind her back. Neither of us knew what to do so I just said, “Don’t worry. It’ll grow back.” And we went on with the show.

TP: How much ad-libbing happens on Sesame Street? Or is it pretty much stick-to-the-script for maximum educational value?

MV: The puppeteers all respect the writers and the work that goes into the scripts on Sesame Street. When there is ad-libbing, it’s something that wouldn’t impact any educational point. Sometimes a puppeteer will change a word or switch the order of a sentence to make more sense to their character or the scene, but if someone really wants to change something major (which has happened) then there’s a discussion with the director, the writer– who’s always on hand– and the producers.

TP: According to Muppet Wiki, you voiced Scooter and Janice in the Muppet Race Mania video game. What was that like? If you’re at liberty to say, is there a particular reason that was the only time you played those characters?

MV: I did voice Scooter and Janice for the Muppet Race Mania game. There were only a few lines and I think I was cast to do it because they hadn’t made any official recasting choices for those characters at the time. I had a good time doing it, but I never thought it was a recast, just a one-time job.

TP: So… your band. Why the name “the Mighty Weaklings”?

MV: The band was originally just me and my songwriting partner, Michael Ray Escamilla. We wrote and played goofy songs at parties and for anyone who’d listen. It was never really anything taken very seriously. The name The Mighty Weaklings was the winner we picked from a list of about fifty names we’d written down. But as the band has evolved and grown in numbers, the name really suits us.

The name is a dichotomy– and so are a lot of our songs. It’s kind of how we do everything. Like we wanted to do a kid’s album, but we didn’t want to sound like a kid’s album.

TP: You Can’t Rock Sittin’ Down is billed as a “rock album for kids.” Did you approach the songs as rock songs first and kids’ songs second?

MV: I’m a parent of four children, so I’ve heard lots of kid’s music. But after we’d done Jack’s Big Music Show and decided we wanted to do our own kid’s record, we wanted it to sound different from what was typically heard. The band already had a guitar-centric rock sound, so we knew the end result would be a rock album for kids.

We also wanted to make sure that parents could listen to it as much as their kids. The songs came about happened in a few different ways. Some were influenced by what I saw my kids were interested in (“Super Hero”, “Bug Town”) and some were my thoughts about what being a kid was like (“Grumpy Song”, “It’s Sunny When You Share?”). Sometimes I knew what the song sounded like and other times Michael would noodle around with guitar riffs that would find the melody.

For “It’s Sunny When You Share”, I asked Joey Mazzarino to write it with me because he’s a really funny writer and I knew he could help make the song what it needed to be. On “Fallin’ Down”, our drummer, BJ Hemann, had the idea and the sound of the song and together we wrote the lyrics.

TP: Were you influenced at all by the kids’ rock music that They Might Be Giants and Barenaked Ladies have done? The Mighty Weaklings’ material seems to fit in the same sub-genre.

MV: I’m a huge fan of Barenaked Ladies and They Might Be Giants. I’ve listened to them for years and my kids listen to them, too. We’ve been told we have a similar sound to both bands but we all come from a lot of different musical tastes including Van Halen, Ben Folds, Metallica, Billy Joel, Guns & Roses, Journey, Neil Diamond — you name it — and they all influence our music in one way or another.

TP: Jerry Nelson makes a great cameo on the song “Mr. Grumpy.” How did that come about? Did you have him in mind when you wrote those spoken interludes?

MV: Jerry’s a good friend of mine and I knew that I really wanted him to do something on the album. I thought the spoken word part on “Grumpy Song” would be awesome if Jerry did it, so I asked him and he agreed. We recorded it in his dressing room at Sesame Street during Season 39. We’re so honored to have him on our CD. It’s one of the highlights of the album for us.

TP: What kind of feedback have you gotten on the new album? It seems like parents would dig it just as much as kids.

MV: We’ve gotten great feedback for our album. People say their kids sing and dance along with all of the songs and laugh at the spoken word bits, which was one part of our goal — obviously, you want the kids to like the music. The other part of our goal was to have parents say that they like listening with their kids — which we’ve also heard.

We plug it as one of those CDs you could enjoy if you’ve got kids, know someone with kids, or ever were a kid yourself. It’s not available everywhere, so we’ve had to rely on word-of-mouth to help us and it seems to be working. We’re hopeful that by the end of the year, every kid in America will have a copy of You Can’t Rock Sittin’ Down. And The Mighty Weaklings will not rest until that happens! Unless, of course, there’s something really good on TV.

TP: There are several of those funny spoken word bits between tracks on the album. How did you decide to include that? Was it all scripted?

MV: We put the banter on the album to act as little intros into the next song but they’re also intended to give you an idea of the personality of the band members. Each of those bits are scripted, but it’s a pretty accurate picture of how each of us fits into the band dynamic. All five of us are trained actors, so doing the scripted parts were fun and kind of second nature to us.

TP: Finally, here’s a very important question: Having worked intimately with all of them, what is your favorite letter of the alphabet?

MV: Wow. You know, I’d love to come right out and say I’m an “R” guy through-and-through — or a really big fan of ?”E”. But I can’t. To be honest, I think committing to a single letter in today’s rocky economy is foolish and can only spell trouble. So while I’d love to proclaim “L” my favorite above all letters — or tell you that I invest all of my free time in only “U” — I’d be lying. I just try to play the field with my letters and hope that at the end of the day the numbers don’t get too jealous.

Click here to comment on this article on the Tough Pigs forum!

The Mighty Weaklings album You Cant Rock Sittin’ Down is available at CDBaby.com and iTunes. You can check out mightyweaklings.com for more.

by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com

 



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