Sometime in the mid 1960s the young puppeteer Jerry Nelson met Jim Henson. They worked together on a couple projects in the late 60s, including a cheeky version of Cinderella that Henson produced for TV, featuring a Muppet he still referred to, in those days, as “Kermit, the frog”: an appositive, with comma and lower-case f. When Henson signed on for a new public television series for children, Sesame Street, which first aired in 1969, Nelson soon followed, starting with the second season. Although Nelson has never had the public recognition enjoyed by Henson and Frank Oz, his characters on Sesame Street are among the show’s most beloved: The Count, Herry Monster, Mumford the Magician, and the front half (and original voice) of Mr. Snuffleupagus. On The Muppet Show his regular characters included Floyd (the bass player with Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem), Camilla the Chicken (Gonzo’s great love), and Robin, Kermit’s nephew. On Fraggle Rock — which I’m less attached to than the other Henson productions — he performed Gobo Fraggle.
Nelson died just over a month ago at age 78. He had performed his Sesame Street characters through 2004, although he continued to supply their voices after that. One of the genuine pleasures of having had another kid — and this one in the age of YouTube — is that I’ve come to be thoroughly familiar, even obsessed, with classic Sesame Street. I bought Charlie a set of DVDs covering the first ten seasons, 1969-1979, before he was even born, and we still watch classic cuts on YouTube or sesamestreet.org on almost a daily basis. I sporadically post the best of them — and clips from The Electric Company, which we also watch — to this Tumblr.
When Nelson died I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. Especially when I realized just how versatile he’d been and how many characters he’d defined and performed. He gets almost no mention in Michael Davis’s Street Gang, except for an anecdote in which he tries to retire, in the late 1980s, and Henson won’t hear of it. When you consider how many characters he was holding down you’ll see why. Following his death, Sesame Street posted a terrific video playlist of Nelson’s work on its YouTube channel in tribute, but it really only touched on the major characters. Some of Nelson’s most subtle, humorous, and affecting work comes through in minor characters he played for decades. I’ve culled a short playlist of my favorites below. I wouldn’t post them here if I didn’t think they were worth your time, whether or not you have kids and whether or not you grew up watching Sesame Street or The Muppet Show. Some of them are simply exquisite. They underscore, I think, my contention that Henson and friends should be more widely recognized as among the most important entertainers of the 20th century.
From 1970: Little Jerry and the Monotones, “Mad,” written by Jeff Moss. Nelson performs Little Jerry, who is, of course, his namesake:
From 1970, his first appearance as Sherlock Hemlock, with Henson as Ernie:
From 1972: Nelson performs as Simon Soundman, one of my favorite Sesame Street characters. This is “Simon’s Song,” also written by Jeff Moss:
Nelson performed Simon Soundman for 25 years. One of my favorite of these sketches, from the mid-80s, I think, features an encounter with Bert in the park. Nelson and Frank Oz (Bert) performed together in many combinations and they seem to have had fantastic chemistry:
And “Sounds That Remind Me of You,” also from the 80s as far as I can tell, is maybe the sweetest of the Simon Soundman sketches:
Here’s another classic Nelson/Oz combo: Nelson as Herbert Birdsfoot (one of my favorite minor SS characters) and Oz as Grover. From 1978:
Yet another Nelson/Oz team that recurred for decades: Nelson as Mr. Johnson, a regular customer at Charlie’s Restaurant. This is essentially vaudeville:
Here’s a much earlier Nelson/Oz collaboration, an early sketch featuring Nelson as The Count and Oz as Cookie Monster:
Nelson played half of this memorable two-headed monster:
And he was Biff, of the construction worker duo Biff and Sully. (As with the two-headed monster, Nelson performs here with Richard Hunt, who died way too young in 1992.) This is one of my all-time favorite Sesame Street sketches:
Last one from Sesame Street: a very subtle performance as Herry Monster. I love how he interacts with the kids here:
And finally, a couple from The Muppet Show. Here’s Nelson as Floyd, together with Hunt as Scooter, doing “Mr. Bassman” (1977), a favorite of mine for obvious reasons:
And an appropriate way to end, also from the first season of The Muppet Show (1977). I believe Oz works the puppet but Nelson supplies the voice:
Check out the full range of Nelson’s Sesame and Muppet credits. Here’s one of several interviews you can find online. It’s kind of mind boggling that these characters and voices all originate in one individual. Anything here lodged deep in your psyche? Favorite clips you would have added?