NEW YORK – First, Big Bird became an unwitting player in a presidential debate that argued for clipping his wings.
Then came word that the actor who plays Elmo would take a leave of absence amid an allegation that he had had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old boy – an accusation that was withdrawn the next day.
The happy band of Muppets on “Sesame Street” has faced the sort of hot spotlight you might expect for the rowdies of “Jersey Shore.” Too often, it seems, the show has confronted hairpin detours through the mean streets of politics and scandal.
But the show’s producers can take solace in one fact: Their target audience remains unaware that even on “Sesame Street” everything’s not always A-OK. And despite the innate curiosity of children, there are many questions NOT being asked this week by Elmo’s most devoted fans.
For instance, kids won’t be asking this question, even as their elders raise it: “What made someone accuse Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash of having sex with him when he was under-age, then recant his accusation just one day after it was made public?”
Elmo’s youngest devotees would instead more likely wonder, “Who is Kevin Clash?”
By now, every grown-up who didn’t know his name already is acquainted with Clash’s longtime role as Elmo. And after the tide of media coverage earlier this week, he is recognized as a 52-year-old man who, for the first time, publicly acknowledged he is gay. Clash also swiftly denied that his accuser was under-age when they had their relationship. Sesame Workshop, which produces “Sesame Street,” said its own investigation bore out his claim that the relationship had been between consenting adults.
Clash had gone on voluntary leave from the show when, Tuesday afternoon, the former lover, now in his twenties, withdrew his charge.
On Wednesday, Sesame Workshop announced that Clash had asked for “some additional time to put this ordeal behind him.” No specific return date was mentioned.
But when Clash does return to the show, his young fans should be none the wiser concerning his absence. During this interim, their charming fantasy can presumably be preserved that Elmo isn’t really a puppet but a living, breathing little monster.
That’s because in recent months Sesame Workshop, with Clash’s participation, has been working to identify a backup puppeteer for Elmo. Just as a successor is being sought for Jerry Nelson, who died in August after decades as the man behind Count von Count. Just as an understudy sometimes climbs into the feathered suit of 78-year-old Caroll Spinney, who has played Big Bird for more than 40 years.
And just as all the Muppet creatures of Jim Henson survived his sudden death in 1990.
As fleeting as childhood – that’s how enduring Muppet heroes aim to be. Despite the personal artistry involved, a Muppet character is meant to transcend the human factor. Or, as the Sesame Workshop statement noted on Monday, “Elmo is bigger than any one person.”
Now here’s one more question kids won’t bother to ask: “Can Kevin Clash continue to star as a Muppet 3-year-old now that the world knows he is gay?”
The only reasonable answer to this non-question would be, Why not? “Sesame Street” is a tolerant place, just as are, increasingly, the real-life streets this show prepares its young audience for.
Muppets have even been drawn into the gay rights movement. An online petition not long ago called for the marriage of Muppet flat-mates Bert and Ernie.
These chums’ sexuality had long been debated by grown-ups with too much time on their hands when, last summer, matrimony was promoted as a way to make gay and lesbian kids who watch the show feel better about themselves.
The spirited chatter spurred Sesame Workshop to issue a statement declaring that Bert and Ernie are just good friends created to teach preschoolers that people can be friends with – or, at least, accept – those different from themselves. And oh, by the way (the statement added), Bert and Ernie “remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”
They continue to be puppets and good friends today.