Matt Vogel has earned 2 Emmy Awards as the director of Sesame Street, and that’s arguably only his second most impressive accomplishment on the show. Two of the show’s OG puppeteers have tapped him to play iconic characters — Carroll Spinney’s Big Bird and Jim Nelson’s Count von Count — which is the kids’ TV equivalent of Stephen Colbert getting David Letterman’s slot.
We caught up with Vogel after taping on the current season wrapped to talk about playing both characters, as well as the unexpected ways that the show helps him at home.
Each season, Sesame Street focuses on a theme and this year it’s been executive function and self restraint. How do you weave that into your work?
In terms of the curriculum, the writers and producers and research team all discuss different topics. Long before [the puppeteers] get a hold of scripts, that stuff is decided upon. Then, the puppeteers and performers and research team come up with different hand gestures or visual indicators. So, for something like executive function, let’s say someone says, “Hey, Elmo, you need to calm down!”, we attach a visual to that — the puppet might start hugging himself a little bit. That’s a take away from the research that we help them get across. When kids watch multiple times, they start to recognize the gestures.
“They ask weekly, ‘Can I go to work with you?’, which was cool until I realized they were just trying to get out of school.”
Ever use any of the stuff you develop as a puppeteer in your own home as a parent?
I have 5 kids from 13-years-old down to 2-years-old. I live in a crazy house and not only do I have to try and impart things on my kids any way I can, I have to use it on myself sometimes. I find myself going, “Calm down” and hugging myself quite a bit.
What about working on the show in general — is working on a show for kids helpful when you’re living in a house full of kids?
We’re working at breakneck speed on Sesame Street, it’s a lot of material in a little time, so you have to have patience. There’s art, lighting, sound all working together to try and accomplish something. I’d like to think that’s something I put into action in my own home. We have a lot of people in our family and running it is like a little production. My wife’s the producer and I play my part. So, patience; I’m not always successful, but that’s what I strive toward.
Are you kids impressed with your job?
When they were younger, they thought everyone’s mom and dad worked at Sesame Street and everyone went to work with Elmo and Big Bird. As they got older, they realized it’s a different kind of job and now they ask weekly, “Can I go to work with you?”, which was cool until I realized they were just trying to get out of school. But my oldest son is fascinated with making TV. He makes his own films with kids in the neighborhood.
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You’ve been the understudy for Carroll Spinney who, as Big Bird, is arguably the most famous Sesame Street character of all time. What did you learn from him?
He’s a wonderful guy. The thing that I take from Carroll is the joy that he gets from being, not just Big Bird, but also Oscar. He gets to play a 6-year-old kid who happens to be a bird and who’s happy and ecstatic about life; and the next minute, he gets to play the grouchiest character on Sesame Street. I recognize that in him — he loves his job. I try to emulate a little of his joy in performing my own voices.
“It’s a rare thing to do, to take on these characters, and we take it really seriously.”
Jerry Nelson, who created Count von Count, among many other characters, hand-picked you to carry on for him before he died. That must be a big honor but also a lot of pressure.
There’s a small group of performers who work on Sesame Street, and it becomes a family. There’s a huge amount of trust built up, and when someone passes away, their characters need to live on. It helps if you sound like them, but the essence of the character, and staying true to that, is more important. I can’t sound like Jerry Nelson; my voice is different. I do a lot of his characters and on some I can get close, but he had such a unique, rich voice that it’s difficult to replicate. I hear his voice in my head when I’m speaking as the Count; I know what’s coming out of my mouth doesn’t sound like Jerry, but it has some of that music. That’s the element of trust — it’s a rare thing to do, to take on these characters, and we take it really seriously.
Does playing the Count make you better at helping your kids with math homework?
I was never a big math person growing up, but I do love the obsession that The Count has; Cookie Monster is obsessed with cookies and The Count loves numbers. Numbers are fascinating, and as a kid who struggled with math I wouldn’t have acknowledged that. But as an adult, the wild abandon with which The Count dives into numbers and counting, it rubs off on you a little. Numbers are fascinating, but that can be hard to impart on your kids. My 6-year-old loves math, so that’s good because I can help with it, finding easier ways of adding and subtracting. The Count would love to help, but you can’t let him because he’d never finish. He’d start counting the number of problems and then the number of pages and then the notebooks and the pencils — he’d just start counting and he wouldn’t stop.