Exploiting the Archives: Frank Oz is Kind of a Dick
As regular readers of this website are no doubt aware, I am unhealthily obsessed with the long-running children’s television program Sesame Street. Like most folks, I really got into it in my early forties through my son Declan, although at this point I’m probably a bigger Sesame Street fan than he is.
Being a Sesame Street super-fan as an adult in 2018 has required more than a little mental gymnastics. It requires being able, for example, to separate Elmo, that furry red icon of unconditional love and acceptance from the sordid sex scandals that led his puppeteer and soul, Kevin Clash, to part ways with the television institution for everyone’s benefit.
On a less dramatic note, being a crazed Sesame Street die-hard has involved separating characters like Grover, Gonzo, Animal, Fozzie Bear and Cookie Monster, all of whom I absolutely adore, from Frank Oz, the brilliant puppeteer, director and entertainer who, like many creative geniuses, is kind of a dick.
Oz’s prickliness wouldn’t bother me so much if I hadn't experienced it firsthand. You may notice that there are no interviews on Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place. That’s because I hate doing interviews. They were always a source of incredible pressure and anxiety back in the days when I was a proper professional pop culture writer, with a job and benefits and everything.
I would be sick with nerves the whole night before an interview, and throughout the conversation I would be overcome with self-consciousness and self-awareness. In-person interviews were the worse. If you really hit it off with an interview subject and did an interview you were proud of, it was a powerful natural high. More often I would just experience an overwhelming feeling of relief that the interview was over.
When an in-person interview did not go well, however, and you stumble all over your words like a rank amateur, it’s the worst feeling in the world. That was how I felt talking to Oz for I believe Death at a Funeral. I made the rookie mistake of asking a question about the new Star Wars movies and providing the voice for Yoda.
I forget exactly how I phrased it but I was inexact and even incorrect in my word choices and Oz was clearly, palpably offended at the implication that he was nothing more than a voiceover guy like, I dunno, Will Smith in A Shark’s Tale and not a genius craftsman, one of the greatest, most influential and most beloved puppeteers of all time.
It was my fault. I should have been more precise but after that awkward exchange everything was charged with a distinct tension. When I got back to the office that afternoon I said to my boss, “I think Miss Piggy just tore me a new asshole.”
So I was not surprised to see Frank Oz push back hard against a Sesame Street writer saying that he wrote Bert and Ernie as a couple. Frank Oz is not Cookie Monster. He’s not Grover. He sure as shit isn’t Animal. He’s a profoundly talented (the dude would get a lifetime pass for directing Little Shop of Horrors alone) man who is also an old man who came of age at a time where the very idea that he’d be asked to endorse the notion that a pair of child puppets are a gay couple would be absolutely absurd and surreal.
Besides, within the world of Sesame Street, Ernie is an irresistible, bittersweet figure of imagination and play and Bert is a monobrowed, precociously middle-aged middle manager type with a weird fetish for paperclips. It makes sense he'd be squeamish about exiting the closet.
I will continue to love what Frank Oz has created. Me love Cookie Monster. Cranky man’s statement no change that but I will continue to look a little askance at Oz, who is one of the reasons why I don’t really do interviews anymore even though I’m pretty good at it, and when it goes right, it feels wonderful and validating.
Oh well. That’s what the podcast is for, I suppose, but I can assure you we will not be having Oz on as a guest any time soon, and that’s not because I don’t think the guy’s a genius. He is. And that’s a big part of why he intimidated the shit out of me.
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