Playlist for Jerry Nelson (1934-2012)

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 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?

14 responses to “Playlist for Jerry Nelson (1934-2012)”

  1. T-Mo says:

    Thanks for this appreciation, Bryan! The videos are great and really take me back to watching Sesame Street and The Muppet Show when I was a lad. Beyond Henson and Oz I never learned a thing about the cast of human beings behind and under the felt and foam. It’s great to know a bit more.

    Funny, when I was a kid I never realized that “Hey, Mr. Bassman” was a parody of the Holy Modal Rounders’ “Hey, Mr. Spaceman”. I didn’t put it together until just now. The Muppets may have served as a basis for my affinity for this song and band. I wonder how many other Muppets’ songs were takeoffs on tunes by underground, drugged-out weirdos. I love it!

  2. Bryan says:

    I’m glad you liked the playlist. I didn’t put together the extent of Nelson’s contribution until I started reading about him after his death. I knew his name, but thought of him most as The Count. When I read that he had also played Camilla the Chicken looked up his Muppet Wiki page and was floored by everything else he does.

    “Mr. Bassman” was a hit in the early 60s by a guy named Johnny Cymbal, so the Rounders were playing off that. But Henson and crew were pretty freaked out themselves so I wouldn’t be shocked if they knew both versions. I do know that their music direction played a huge role in my musical formation.

  3. Bryan says:

    P.S. Aren’t those Simon Soundman sketches particularly great? There’s a whole slew of them.

  4. swells says:

    Fantastic tribute here. I haven’t had a chance to watch them all, but in answer to your final question, that “Mad” song is lodged so deep that it plays in my head fairly regularly (mostly when I’m talking about being mad but not actually mad). It’s so ubiquitous that I don’t think I’ve consciously noticed it’s there for many years. Also, I remember my mom taking me to a friend’s house for the big event that was this new revolutionary show coming on TV: the first episode of Sesame Street. Huge lifetime fan.

  5. KS says:

    THAT is so much fun! Thank you for taking time to put it together, BW. I will be checking out old SS clips and letting nostalgia bathe over me all week. Makes me wish I had kids so I had a proper excuse to watch it all over again.

  6. Rachel says:

    Loving this! Grover is my spirit animal.

  7. T-Mo says:

    Ooh, the schooler gets schooled! I had never heard of Johnny Cymbal. Cool tune and it explains a few things about the Holy Modal Rounders.

    I don’t have a recollection of the very first episode of SS, but I do recall quite distinctly watching the opening sequence with the music and wanting so thoroughly to BE those kids scampering around on the playground. “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?” always made me feel a little wistful, like the place didn’t actually exist, a Never Never Land or Utopia.

  8. Eric Jones says:

    Love it, Bryan. Thank you.

  9. LP says:

    4 and 7: RB and I have the Sesame Street pilot on DVD… It came with a coffee-table book celebrating 40 years of the show. We watched the first bit, and it is BIZARRE! Very meandering and unscripted. TV has changed so much since then.

    Shall we have a viewing?

  10. Bryan says:

    8: Hey, Eric! Glad you liked it.

    9: That episode is so great. Gordon introduces Sally to Sesame Street. But the amazing thing is how many classic segments appeared in that very first episode. Sooooooo good. It was meandering but they were also super self-conscious about repetition. That show was researched to death by child psychologists in advance to figure out how best to use the medium to teach kids basic literacy. And the music!

    So yeah, anyway. Episode 1.

  11. LP says:

    10: One of the most amazing bits is the six-and-a-half-minute ode to cows and milk, seen here, with a ditty sung in a lilting tenor by a cross between Donavan and Nick Drake. “Hey, cow… I see you now… waiting for miiilking tiiiime… waiting for giiiving tiiiiiime…”

    Six and a half minutes! And at a pace that you never see anywhere on TV anymore in the post-MTV era. It’s charming, but it also comes off as a long ad for the dairy industry.

    “chewing the grahhhhss so greeeen…”

  12. Bryan says:

    That’s Lorne Greene narrating, too. Love it. One reason it meanders is that they repeat information. Sesame Street was really big on repetition in the early days. Sometimes they’d show the same segment back to back, just to reinforce the content. It gets a little annoying now, but they felt like it was an important teaching tool. One such case involving the content of this post: The first appearance of Simon Soundman, in this sketch with Ernie.

  13. Bryan says:

    Here’s another great meandering sketch. 5+ minutes of jazz-fueled bike riding. Another sign of its datedness — look at the freedom these kids had to haul their assess all over the city with no adult supervision.

  14. Dave just showed me the milk video, or the 2 minutes of it we could stand, and I said “this is like the worst Nick Drake song ever.”