by Muppet writer Joseph Bailey
Jerry Nelson was a good friend of mine for almost 40 years. For 20 of those years, Jerry was my co-conspirator in that sublime, benign anarchy that was Jim Henson’s Muppets. If you strung together all the material I wrote and Jerry performed it would fill many, many hours, if not days. Most of it broke down into two categories:
The first was material I had sweated over, somehow gotten past my boss, and hoped for the best in the studio. Jerry, in true Muppet fashion, would always find a way to make it work. Second were those very rare occasions with ideas that I felt were spot on and then honed to perfection, only to watch Jerry make them more perfect in performance.
But, I don’t have to remind anyone how talented Jerry was. Thousands of examples exist on video. So, let me tell a little of what went into Jerry’s performances.
Firstly, I’m sure Jerry would want to be remembered as an actor, for that was really his craft. Puppeteers are usually referred to as “performers” or “entertainers.” But the truth is, they’re really actors. Granted, they work in the theatre of the very, very absurd. But all theatre is an illusion and you can’t find better illusionists than puppeteers.
Spencer Tracy was once asked by a young actor what was the secret of acting. “Just don’t let them catch you doing it,” Tracy replied. The reason Jerry’s characters were so believable and so much fun was that you never caught him “acting.” And, lest you think humor takes a back seat to “drama,” when the great classic actor, Edmond Booth, was on his death bed, he was asked if dying was hard, he replied, “No. Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Jerry Nelson made comedy look easy.
I’ve said that writing for the Muppets was like handing them a loaded blunderbuss and putting them in the vicinity of a barn door. They always hit it although not necessarily on the side I expected. So, if there’s a shortage of barn doors in this world, an awful lot of them are Jerry Nelson’s fault.
Jerry was also a tremendous vocal talent. He could sing on key in all of his dozens of voices. After performing a traditional English music hall song as a cockney busker Muppet, Jerry got a prolonged ovation from the English studio crew for the authenticity of his cockney accent. He was that good.
Besides being a singer and musician, Jerry was also a composer. Even I didn’t know this until Jerry produced a CD of his own musical material in 2010. It’s called “Truro Daydreams,” after the small Cape Cod town he loved so well. It is truly the poetry of Jerry Nelson.
Although he never used this talent with the Muppets, Jerry was also an accomplished marionetteer (if there is such a word.) At a party at Caroll Spinney’s, I watched Jerry pick up a marionette that Caroll had acquired in his travels. The puppet was a simple silk handkerchief with five rings. There was a ring stuffed on each corner suggesting hands and feet. One in the middle of one side created a “head.” Absentmindedly, Jerry took the controls and manipulated the little character with amazing grace and fluidity.
Since the Muppets never used marionettes, I asked him where he had learned the art. Jerry told me his first puppet job was working with Bil Baird. At his audition, Baird gave him a gangster marionette armed with a tommy gun. Jerry made the puppet aim the gun directly at Baird and say, “Awright, Baird! I think you’d better hire this kid!” Jerry got the job.
Now, let me tell you a little about Jerry Nelson the man. Jerry was warm, friendly, caring and eminently approachable. If it weren’t for Jerry and Richard Hunt, I’m not sure I would have survived my first few weeks working on The Muppet Show in London. I knew nothing of the city, which is a jumbled maze of streets, all of which seemed to have the same name. But Jerry and Richard would pick me up in Richard’s rusting Ford Cortina and carry me off to the best steaks, coldest beer, and coolest jazz in town.
Jerry also never took fame and celebrity seriously. No matter what, he remained the kid from Oklahoma. One night, the Muppets were at a party in the penthouse suite at ATV headquarters in London. ATV was the English company that produced The Muppet Show. Jerry had made a record of the A.A. Milne poem, “Halfway Down the Stairs,” as Kermit’s nephew, Robin the Frog. The record had gone platinum and Lord Lew Grade, who owned ATV, threw the party to celebrate.
At that particular time, we had just arrived in England and were working full time in the studio and running around trying to find a place to live. So, we had no personal time at all. After six or seven extremely laudatory speeches about Jerry’s incredible talent, he turned to me and said, “If I’m such a big international recording star, how come I’ve been wearing the same pair of socks for three days?”
On a flight from London to New York, Jerry was seated next to the famous actor, Al Pacino. After they introduced themselves, they got into a conversation about show business and fame. Pacino said he liked being famous and how it had made his life easier. Jerry agreed, but countered by saying that he could play guitar and sing all night in any beer joint in Hoboken and never worry about being recognized by aggressive fans. When the plane landed, Pacino was mobbed by passengers and crew for autographs and photos. Jerry told me, “I grabbed my bag from the over-head, patted him on the shoulder, said, ‘See you later, Al,’ and walked off the plane.”
There is a story of Jerry spending hours entertaining the young daughter of a studio hand who was suffering from double pneumonia. Sadly, Jerry had a lot of experience entertaining sick children. That’s because Jerry had a daughter, Christine, who suffered from cystic fibrosis. She died at 21 in 1981. Jerry loved her so much I’m sure he would want me to tell you about her. Jerry told me about the night Christine died. It was one of those moments in life you never forget.
I knew Christine and she was truly Jerry’s daughter. She was bright and beautiful and very funny. Because of her illness, Christine spent many stints in the hospital. But, when I went to visit her, instead of the standard hospital gown, she would be flitting around the ward in purple jogging shorts.
She also had a gag that she would pull whenever there was a new nurse on the floor. Christine had a stash of apple juice. She would fill urine sample bottles with it. When the nurse came to collect a urine sample, Christine would look at it critically and say, “I don’t like the looks of that. I think I’ll run it through again.” Then, to the horror of the new nurse, she would knock back the sample in one gulp.
So now, I like to think that Christine and Jerry are together again with Jim and Richard and the rest of the gang in some ethereal Truro. It’s a little known fact, but there is an official Muppet Theory of Death. It goes like this: When a Muppet person dies, he is met on the Other Side by the late puppet designer Don Sahlin, who presents him or her with a rubber chicken. (Okay, it’s weird. But it beats the hell out of eternal damnation.) I’m sure Jerry has his rubber chicken and has already found a voice for it.
2.) How has Jerry influenced your work and your life?Jerry was honest. He wore his heart on his sleeve. And lucky for us he could make his sleeve talk and sing. That incredible voice. That chuckle. The way he made you feel that we’re “so damn lucky to be able to do this for a living.” He made you want to join the fun, which is what I’ve been trying to do ever since.
3.) If you had to define Jerry Nelson in five words or less, what words would you use?I’m here to have fun.
My first or second season on Sesame Street, I was right-handing for the Count. I was new and inexperienced and apparently doing too much with the right hand. Suddenly, fiercely and without warning, the Count slapped his right hand with his left. It was a valuable lesson in right-handing that I’ll never forget!
2.) How has Jerry influenced your work and your life?
Jerry was the star of my all-time favorite Jim Henson production, “Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas” which I must have watched dozens of times when it first came out. I will forever strive to live up to the incredible example of his character work. And that VOICE!
3.) If you had to define Jerry Nelson in five words or less, what words would you use?
Cool. Musical, Far-Out, Kind, Deep