If you watched Sesame Street between 1978 and 1982, you’ve certainly seen a lot of Michael Earl (formerly credited as “Michael Earl Davis”). And even if you missed those years, which included his work as the regular performer for Mr. Snuffleupagus, you’re quite familiar with the impression he left on the show, having originated characters like Forgetful Jones and Polly Darton.
Michael Earl was nice enough to join us in a Q&A about his puppetry career, and mostly his tenure at Sesame Street. Let’s see what Michael has to say, shall we?
ToughPigs: How did you get started as a puppeteer?
Michael Earl: When I was five my father took me to a street fair in San Francisco where I saw my first puppet show. In that moment, I knew I wanted to be a puppeteer when I grew up. I began asking for puppets as gifts for my birthdays and Christmas. By the time I was eight, I was making puppets and putting on shows at home. At 13, I began putting on birthday party puppet shows and apprenticing at the puppet theater at Children’s Fairyland in Oakland, CA, where I met Lewis Mahlmann who introduced me to the San Francisco Bay Area Puppetry Guild. There I met Mike Oznowicz, Frank Oz’s father. No one told me that Oz was his son, however.
TP: How did you first get involved with The Jim Henson Company?
ME: When I was 17 I attended a National Puppetry Festival in San Luis Obispo, CA. There I met Kermit Love whose week-long class I was taking. When I registered for the class, Caroll Spinney was the teacher, but he dropped out and Love stepped in to teach. At the end of the week workshop, I approached Love and asked him how someone gets a job with the Muppets. He told me I didn’t want to work for the Muppets because it was very political. Being a teenager in 1977, I didn’t even know what “political” meant. Love looked at my puppets, liked them and invited me to come to New York to help build puppets for a project at Radio City Music Hall. At lunchtime, I was sitting with Mike Oznowicz who asked me what my plans were now that I was out of high school. I told him I was thinking about moving to LA to work for Tony Urbano or Bob Baker (I loved marionettes) or, perhaps New York since Kermit Love had just offered me a job there. It was not until Jim Henson’s funeral did I know that Mike had called Jim and Frank telling them about me, urging them to hire me, which they did, sight unseen for The Muppet Movie. I had just turned 19.
TP: What was it like taking over a character like Mr. Snuffleupagus from the legendary Jerry Nelson?
ME: Jerry was my favorite Muppeteer. He was very fatherly, in a good way. Very helpful to me as a young Muppet performer. Nevertheless, when it came time for me to do the voice of Snuffy on my own, with Jerry in the studio, I was extremely nervous. This was his character I wanted to do it justice.
TP: Likewise, what was the process in passing Mr. Snuffleupagus along to Marty Robinson?
ME: There was no process for me. I was not privy to Marty’s hiring prior to my exit. I didn’t meet Marty till we both were on the set of The Muppets Take Manhattan, where we shook hands for the first time and told each other how we each had heard stories about the other; he heard stories of me on Sesame Street and I heard stories about him at Bil Baird’s Marionette theatre where Marty had preceded me.
TP: What were some of your least favorite parts about working on Sesame Street?
ME: Snuffy was very hard on my voice. I was studying singing at that time and my voice teacher one day asked what I was doing to my voice. She could hear the hoarseness in it. I told her I was Mr. Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street, that it was my job to talk in that low, raspy, nasal sound. I never did learn how to produce that voice in a healthy manner. And the puppet is very hot when you’re inside. Two people breathing, sweating, moving around under the studio lights. Not pretty. They were always asking me if I wanted to step out and cool off. I usually would opt for staying in and getting it over with as quickly as possible.
TP: Can you talk about the process it took to create characters like Forgetful Jones and Polly Darton?
ME: Aside from Caroll Spinney doing Big Bird and Oscar, Brian Muehl and I were doing most of puppetry on Sesame Street in 1978-80 as the main Muppeteers were in London most of the year doing The Muppet Show. Jim, Frank, Jerry and Richard would come once a season to do Muppet inserts, a week of just puppet pieces for Sesame Street, where all the sets would be built up off the floor so we could stand. What a joy, because the rest of the year, Brian and I would have to crawl around on our hands and knees performing various Anything Muppets. So the writers invited us to one of their meetings and began to write specifically for Brian and me. They asked us what kind of voices we could do. I said I did a pretty good southern accent. Soon Forgetful Jones was born. I wanted a “hook” for my character the way Cookie Monster and the others had saying they always said. For Forgetful, it was “Oh yeah, I forgot.”
TP: How did it feel to see the characters you originated live on in the hands of other puppeteers?
ME: Well, it wasn’t the same, you know. Each puppeteer does it a little differently.
TP: Who were your favorite characters to perform?
ME: I enjoyed the two other characters I inherited from Jerry Nelson: Slimey the Worm and Poco Loco. They were both really fun! I actually went to a pet shop and studied parrots in preparation for playing Poco Loco. I also enjoyed doing right hands for Ernie and Cookie Monster.
TP: What were your responsibilities on the set of The Muppet Movie?
ME: I got to be one of the 12 main Muppets in group scenes. I am in Fozzie Bear in the close-up in the ghost town scene where Kermit is confronting Doc Hopper. Boy, that was an interesting day. I remember sitting in the puppeteer trailer next to the screenwriter who was rewriting the scene we were about to shoot, freehand. The scene was shot on the same street they shot High Noon on. They spent most of the day digging a big hole in the street for us to get into, and then they had these big fans they threw dirt into to create a dust bowl effect. By the end of the shooting day we were all black with dirt. It was fun though. Also, that was the same day that Jim Henson was away for much of the day at Edgar Bergen’s memorial service where Kermit the Frog gave the eulogy. One of my main memories of that movie shoot was the finale, with 150 extra puppeteers. I was lucky enough to be given Big Bird to play in that scene. At the wrap party, the shop foreman asked me if I was aware of the politics surrounding me. I said I was not. He told me Kermit Love had threatened not to send “The Bird” for the finale unless I performed him. Yikes! I had no idea. Years later, Kermit confirmed that with me.
TP: What did you do on Muppets Take Manhattan?
ME: Group scenes. I’m in Cookie Monster in the finale.
TP: How about on The Dark Crystal?
ME: I feel very privileged to have been part of the development of this amazing project. Jim asked me, another puppeteer, and two dancers to work together for a few weeks. Our task was to figure out body combinations that could become unique puppets in the film. Then Brian Froud would come in and sketch “skins” on us in his sketchbook. It was thrilling!
TP: Did you have any other favorite moments when working on other Muppet productions?
ME: I got to play a giant singing carrot in an episode of Little Muppet Monsters. It was a love song between the carrot and an old lady Muppet, play by Kathy Mullen. Totally wacky and fun!
TP: What led to your departure from Sesame Street?
ME: Karen Prell called one day and said she had just been let go from Sesame Street, and that I should call Jane Henson to make sure I still had a job. So I called Jane who assured me I did. Two weeks later I got a call from Muppets asking me to come into the office. There I was told there were budget cuts and that Richard Hunt was coming back to Sesame Street. I asked if Richard would be taking over Snuffy. I was told, no. “So you’re going to have to hire someone else to play Snuffy? What about the budget cuts? This makes no sense.” Unsatisfied with her reason, I headed over to CTW to ask some questions. I spoke with producer Lisa Simon who told me that I hadn’t improved enough; that Jim or Frank needed to help me more but they were always in London so it was a catch 22 situation. Then I walked down the hall to producer Dulcy Singer’s office. I had known Dulcy at the Muppets before she took the job at CTW. I asked her to level with me. She lowered her eyes and paused. Then she said Jon Stone (the director) put pressure on Henson to get rid of me due to the fact I wasn’t taking direction well enough. In my defense I was 20 years old and had very little coaching along the way. And there was never a warning. Just a layoff as they called it. Ah ha! Politics had gotten the best of me – just as Kermit had predicted. The good news was I was also told that this decision did not come from Jim, who told them to tell me that even though Sesame Street didn’t work out for me, that I would always be welcome at the Muppets. Thank you Jim for 12 more years of freelance employment!
TP: What are some of your favorite non-Muppet performances?
ME: Dr. Ticktock in Ticktock Minutes for Mississippi Educational Television. That was a series of 50 PSAs I got to write the scripts and lyrics for that aired on PBS. Ticktock Minutes (available on CD and DVD from Sony/BMG) ultimately received 12 regional Emmys, one National Emmy, two Parents’ Choice Awards and numerous other honors. I myself was honored with a Best Performer Emmy, as well as three Best Collaborative Composers Emmys that I share with collaborator, Randy Klein.
TP: What are you working on these days?
ME: Puppet School is my passion these days. After a 30-year career in TV and film I now teach the new generation of puppet performers. Actually, I’ve been teaching them all along. For example I coached and mentored Drew Massey and Camille Bonora back in the day. And many others successful puppet pros. But Puppet School is a new venture, only one year old this month. I started it with my friend and now business partner, Roberto Ferreira. Together we are building a fun place that produces smiles and lots of “Muppet-style” puppetry. We have two additional teachers: Christian Anderson who was in Avenue Q on Broadway and on tour for 4 years – he teaches a theater puppetry class for us; and Derek Lux teaches a Professional Puppet Making class at Puppet School. And we have recently been hired to co-produce a new web-series called Larry & Lydia which is fun, funny and a joy to work on. So watch for that!
TP: Finally, is there a message you’d like to pass along to all the Muppet fans out there?
ME: I share your enthusiasm for the new Muppet Movie’s Thanksgiving release date! In fact, Puppet School is organizing a group in LA and in NYC to go, with puppets, to see the movie together! Come join us! And if you’re interested to learn how to puppeteer for TV and film “Muppet-style‚” we have new classes starting soon in New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle!
Many thanks to Michael for joining us for this chat! And thanks to Dave Hulteen for his additional help!
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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com