NEW YORK (AP) — First, Big Bird became an unwitting player in a presidential debate that argued for clipping his wings.
Then came word that the actor who plays Elmo would take a leave of absence amid an allegation that he had had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy – an accusation that was withdrawn the next day.
The happy band of Muppets on “Sesame Street” has faced the sort of hot spotlight you might expect for the rowdies of “Jersey Shore.” Too often, it seems, the show has confronted hairpin detours through the mean streets of politics and scandal.
But the show’s producers can take solace in one simple fact: Their target audience remains blissfully unaware that, even on “Sesame Street,” everything’s not always A-OK. And despite the innate curiosity of children, there are many questions NOT being asked this week by Elmo’s most devoted fans.
For instance, kids won’t be asking this question, even as their elders raise it: “What made someone accuse Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash of having sex with him when he was under-age, then recant his accusation a day later?”
Elmo’s youngest devotees would instead more likely wonder, “Who is Kevin Clash?”
By now, every grownup who didn’t know his name already is acquainted with Clash’s longtime role in voicing and animating Elmo. And after the tide of media coverage earlier this week, he is recognized as a 52-year-old man who, for the first time, publicly acknowledged he is gay. Clash also swiftly denied that his accuser was under-age when they had their relationship. Sesame Workshop, which produces “Sesame Street,” said its own investigation bore out his claim that the relationship had been between consenting adults.
Clash had gone on voluntary leave from the show when, Tuesday afternoon, the former lover, now in his twenties, withdrew his charge.
Neither Sesame Workshop nor Clash has said when he might return to the show. But presumably he could be back soon, with his young fans none the wiser.
Until then, their charming fantasy can be preserved that Elmo isn’t really a puppet but a living, breathing little red monster. That’s because in recent months Sesame Workshop, with Clash’s participation, has been working to identify a backup puppeteer for Elmo. Just as a successor is being sought for Jerry Nelson, who died in August after decades as the man behind Count von Count. Just as an understudy sometimes climbs into the feathered suit of 78-year-old Caroll Spinney, who has played Big Bird for more than 40 years.
And just as all the creations of Jim Henson survived his sudden and untimely death nearly a quarter-century ago.
As fleeting as childhood – that’s how enduring Muppet heroes aim to be. Despite the personal artistry involved, a Muppet character is meant to transcend the human factor. Or, as the Sesame Workshop statement noted on Monday, “Elmo is bigger than any one person.”
Now here’s one more question kids won’t bother to ask: “Can Kevin Clash continue to star as a Muppet 3-year-old now that the world knows he is gay?”
The only reasonable answer to this non-question would be, Why not? “Sesame Street” is a tolerant place, just as are, increasingly, the real-life streets this show prepares its young audience for.
Muppets have even been drawn into the gay rights movement. Remember, an online petition not long ago called for the marriage of Muppet flat-mates Bert and Ernie.
These chums’ sexuality had long been debated by grownups with too much time on their hands when, last summer, matrimony was promoted as a way to make gay and lesbian kids who watch the show feel better about themselves. (The marriage could happen, its advocates reasoned, since Sesame Street is theoretically in New York, where gay marriage had just become legal.)
The spirited chatter spurred Sesame Workshop to issue a statement declaring that Bert and Ernie are just good friends created to teach preschoolers that people can be friends with – or, at least, accept – those different from themselves. And oh, by the way (the statement added), Bert and Ernie “remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
They continue to be puppets and good friends today.
Meanwhile, to judge from Twitter, Elmo was still on many people’s minds on Wednesday. Posted comments included lots of wisecracks, including jokes tying Elmo to the current real-life scandal of Gen. David Petraeus. Others expressed relief that Clash had been cleared.
Kids, of course, didn’t care or even notice. They love Elmo now the same as ever, this character they know as a fellow child and kindred spirit. And all the better that he’s fuzzy and red.
EDITOR’S NOTE – Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore(at)ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier