John Tartaglia – When Ryan asked me if I’d want to contribute anything to The Muppet Mindset in response to Jerry Nelson’s passing, I had to really think about what that would be. First, it is a great responsibility to have the opportunity to say something about someone as amazing as Jerry. Secondly, it is difficult to encapsulate how much Jerry meant and means to me and so many of us who had the great privilege of working and playing alongside him.
We are a lucky few that are able to say that we are Muppeteers. Lucky because not only do we get to do what we all dreamt of doing, but because we’ve gotten the chance to meet and work with so many of our Muppet heroes we grew up idolizing. Heroes like Jerry. Those of us who are a part of the younger generation of Muppeteers were literally raised by the brilliant material that Jerry, Jim, Richard, Frank, Dave, Carroll, Fran and all the original gang created and performed. Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock, The Dark Crystal, Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas, etc.–these hours and hours of entertainment were everything to us and our childhoods. And Jerry was always there–his voice and puppetry such an ingrained part of what made the Muppets, well… magical.
Fraggle Rock was what did it for me. I can still clearly remember catching my first episode of it on an HBO free preview weekend, and there was Jerry as Gobo Fraggle. Of course, I didn’t know who Jerry or any of the Muppeteers were at the time (you’ll have to remember that this was the 80s, long before one could Google, or IMDB someone and their careers. Yes, this time actually existed…), but I remember being so amazed by the puppetry in that show–how lifelike and gorgeous all of those performances were. And something radiated from Gobo that spoke to my core–honesty and truth and spirit. Once I got my first Fraggle Rock record, I stared at that back cover for hours. As the album played I-d memorize those names–“Featuring Jim Henson’s Muppets: Kathryn Mullen, Karen Prell, Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Richard Hunt, Jerry Nelson.” Reading it over for the 100th time one day it hit me–this guy, Jerry, does HOW MANY VOICES? Gobo Fraggle, Pa Gorg, Marjory the Trash Heap…Wait, he does all of them? And he sings that amazingly, too? It had just never occurred to me that one guy could do all that.
But, that’s just what Jerry did. He was a master of character and voices and performance. Whenever Jerry was on the set of Sesame and you were alongside him, you were not only lucky enough to be sharing the screen with the best of the best, but were in many ways getting the ultimate masterclass in character and comedy. As we all know, Jerry played a multitude of one-shot Anything Muppets and Whatnots in addition to his principal characters. And somehow, every one of those one-shots seemed so fresh and unique and just as multi-layered and hysterical as the next–oftentimes several in the same scene! I loved watching him work from take to take and how each time it still seemed brand new and still made us all laugh.
Jerry was also the ultimate “cool.” Not just in the hip and laid back way (though he certainly was that!) but also in his approach to people. I remember nervously and eagerly meeting him for the first time and feeling immediately calmed and welcomed by his presence. He had that ability to make everyone feel welcome and important and valued. And it was always a blast when we’d be lucky enough to be entertained by his incredible singing and strumming at wrap parties and other special events.
Though in recent years Jerry had stopped physically puppeteering his characters for Sesame Street, he still voiced them while the fantastic Matt Vogel would lip synch to them live. When we did Jim Henson’s Musical World at Carnegie Hall this past April, we felt that it wouldn’t be a true representation of Jim’s worlds if Jerry wasn’t somehow a part of it, so we asked him to perform his classic announcer voice. It was a thrill to hear his unique, incredible voice booming throughout that famed hall and the audience certainly let us know they felt the same way. We were so happy Jerry came to see the show, for in many ways it was a celebration of his Muppet worlds and all he had contributed to them as much as it was a celebration of Jim’s. It was also the last chance I got to see Jerry.
It will be so odd to walk onto the set of Sesame Street this season and not have Jerry stroll in at some point, smiling and laughing with the crew. It’s hard to think that he’s no longer here with us in being. But, I keep remembering a lovely and simple email I received from Jerry a couple of years ago. I had been a part of a reading of the live stage adaptation of Emmett Otter’s Jugband Christmas and had written Jerry to tell him how excited I was for Emmett to be a live show and to tell him, for the first time, how much his work had meant to me. How so many of the lessons and truths he spoke on Fraggle Rock had shaped me as a person and how much I respected his work and his talent and how much I loved being a part of this new world of Emmett. And in his cool and cosmic way, Jerry responded by saying to take it in, enjoy it as much as possible, and that life is good and to reflect on just how lucky we all are. Well, truer words have never been spoken–those of us who knew Jerry Nelson in person or through his talent are the luckiest of all–and we’re all much better because of it.
Huge thanks to our good friend John Tartaglia for contributing this wonderful piece.
The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, firstname.lastname@example.org