PW spoke with Carroll Spinney, the voice (and body) behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, from his home in Connecticut, about the forthcoming The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch).
PW: It's quite exciting to talk to someone I grew up watching on TV.
Big Bird: Well, I'm very glad to hear that—
Carroll Spinney: Big Bird, get off the line!
PW: I had no idea you also play Oscar the Grouch.
CS: A lot of people are intrigued when they find out that I do both Oscar and Bird, since the characters are so different from each other. They realize I'm not strictly like the bird, though I hope my disposition is a lot more like his. My wife says it is.
BB: I heard that! I love that!
CS: Big Bird, will you get off the line?
Oscar: Yeah, well I'm listening. This lady is much too pleasant.
CS: Oscar, get off the phone! I'm sorry for the interruptions.
PW: That's okay. Why do you think kids relate to Big Bird?
CS: He sees the world through childish eyes, and children identify with him as a friend. I don't think as many kids identify with Oscar, although one time I got a letter from a woman who said she couldn't let her son watch Sesame Street anymore because he totally identified with Oscar. Another boy insisted on watching Sesame Street in a trash can in the living room.
PW: Has Big Bird's personality changed over the years?
CS: At first he was kind of dopey, like Mickey Mouse's pal Goofy. But then one of the scripts called for him to be more like a child. Even though he's 8'2", he's a kid.
PW: Do you consider yourself an actor or a puppeteer?
CS: I've always said puppeteer, but of course, I'm not a bird, so I've got to act him somewhat convincingly. I think I'm an actor who acts with the end of my arms.
PW: In theater, people talk about becoming one with your character. Do you think that's true with puppetry?
CS: I think it is. One time I did a show, and in between shows, [I found that some young people] had pulled one of Big Bird's eyes off and there was a huge area where they'd pulled about a hundred feathers off. My feeling when I saw him on the ground was like, "My child! What have they done to him?" I was in grief. I couldn't even look at him.
PW: What do you think of Barney?
CS: I think a lot of children really love Barney. It seems, though, that Sesame Street endures a little longer with viewers.
PW: I've heard that over the years, Sesame Street's audience has gotten younger.
CS: Yes, it has. It's amazing. Now, lots of one-year-olds have already learned a few letters. When we started, many schools did not approach the alphabet until first grade. The audience made themselves younger.
PW: Have you changed the show in any way because of that?
CS: Yes. For example, the early shows had a lot of "commercials" (for example, for the letter A). Scenes were quite short. Now research shows kids actually have a longer attention span, so we will open the show with a story that has no interference—i.e., "commercials"—at all. We also found that children really love Elmo, so now he has his own segment.
PW: You're 69 and have been playing Big Bird for 31 years. Any plans to retire?
CS: None at all. So far I'm not any weaker than I was any other years, so I feel the job is still mine. It's too exciting. It's like a childhood dream [come true].
PW: What quality should the next Big Bird possess?
CS: To be thoughtful and compassionate.