One! One less pioneering puppeteering genius on the planet. Ah! Ah! Ah!
Jerry Nelson, one of Jim Henson’s oldest Muppet colleagues—not to mention the man behind beloved characters from Count Von Count to Gobo Fraggle—died yesterday (August 23) at age 78. I saw it on a friend’s Facebook page and had to dig through a dozen Google News links before I found the story. To paraphrase Nelson’ Sgt. Floyd Pepper, “What in the pluperfect tense is up with that?”
I am a Muppetphile to the extreme. Like many MamaPoppers and like many of you, I remember where I was when I heard Jim Henson had died. At 13, I did an elaborate social studies project on Henson’s work with fellow MamaPop writer JiveTurkey. There were hand puppets involved. Our attachment was totally normal.
So the Muppetphile in me is always a little sad when Henson’s old pals pass away and it warrants little mention. Part of Jim Henson’s genius was surrounding himself with other geniuses: designers, performers, and comedians who gave pieces of felt a little edge, a little snark, and a lot of heart. Jerry Nelson was one of those geniuses.
Being born in Oklahoma blessed Nelson with a twangy voice, one that I think of as THE Muppet voice. Any time a shaggy-haired Anything Muppet sang a rock song, I guessed it was Nelson.
Any time a Muppet had a seriously screwy accent, I assumed it was Nelson.
Any time a Muppet had a little gravel in their felt-y throats, like they’d been up too late with the Electric Mayhem…
…or maybe had been using performance enhancing drugs…
I assumed the man behind the Muppet was Jerry Nelson.
But I bet a lot of Gen X-ers and Company didn’t know or think much about him. But were you to ask them about their childhood they would sure as Hell think about The Count, Floyd, Sherlock Hemlock, Herry Monster, Pops the Doorman, Kermit’s Nephew Robin, The Amazing Mumford, Mr. Snuffleupagus, Grover’s nemesis Mr. Johnson, Gobo, Emmet Otter. Did you catch that? He. Was. EMMET. OTTER.
So I feel like a brief tutorial is due…I want us to know more about the puppeteer who brought a gruff, heartfelt, Lebowski Dude vibe to our beloved Muppets. I want to give him, at least, the sort of obituary he’d get if he were on a reality show or something we value a hair more these days.
Jerry Nelson joined Sesame Street in 1970, five years after he stepped in for Frank Oz to play Rowlf the Dog’s right hand in Jim Henson’s earliest national TV gig: The Jimmy Dean Show. He naturally followed Henson to The Muppet Show shortly thereafter and appeared on Sesame Street as recently as 2010. He mentored another too-often-overlooked puppeteer, Richard Hunt, who died very shortly after Henson. Hunt and Nelson were a sort of mini-Henson/Oz team, playing some of my favorite Muppet duos.
So there’s your all-too-whirlwind tour of the man who could toggle from swine scientists to sweet Snuffy. From spacey rocker to Fraggle Rock. The man who saved his Ma’s Christmas by putting a hole in the washtub. Rest in peace, Jerry.