Man and Muppet
After a round of boos at a high school talent show, Vogel thought he’d put puppets behind him. Now, the seasoned Muppet performer can tell you how to get to Sesame Street, all about performing on Broadway, and winning three Emmys.
Matt Vogel can tell you how to get to Sesame Street. He can also tell you what it's like to appear in a Hollywood blockbuster, jam with Jimmy Fallon, perform on Broadway, get cut from Saturday Night Live, shake hands with Michelle Obama, and win an Emmy. (Actually, make that three.) In short, Vogel has a pretty amazing career—and chances are, you’ve never seen his face.
After all, anonymity is part of the job when you’re a professional puppeteer. For the past sixteen years, Vogel has played a variety of monsters, pigs, and chickens as assistant puppet captain on arguably the world’s most beloved children’s television show, Sesame Street. In 1996, he was invited to understudy legendary Sesame Street performer Caroll Spinney (Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch). He has gone on to perform Big Bird numerous times (most notably in the “Journey to Ernie” segments) and in live performances when Spinney isn’t available, including the 2009 Emmy awards. In 2011, Vogel’s career hit the big screen after landing several scene-stealing roles in the blockbuster hit, The Muppets. He’s spent the last year racking up frequent flyer miles, promoting the movie as a newly minted Muppeteer. Heady stuff for a guy who got his start making puppets out of T-shirts and duct tape in his bedroom in Kansas City, Kansas.
Nursing a bowl of chicken soup at a chain restaurant a few blocks away from the Sesame Street set (“One of the many fine dining establishments in this neighborhood,” Vogel joked) it was clear that success hadn’t gone to this midwestern guy’s head. During our lunch break conversation, he was as friendly and enthusiastic as the characters he plays, talking openly about everything from walking the green (not red) carpet at the premiere of The Muppets to life inside the big yellow bird suit.
“Sorry, I’m a little sore today,” Vogel said, wincing as he lifted his spoon. “I was doing Big Bird and it was a very physical piece of business, and I wasn’t doing it right so now I have a catch in my shoulder.” Vogel grinned and rubbed his arm. “Maybe I should have stretched out a little bit. But it’ll go away in a couple of days.”
It comes as no surprise that manipulating a giant bird puppet is physically challenging. After all, Big Bird clocks in at over eight feet tall.
“Oh yeah, it’s heavy,” Vogel said, when I asked what turned out to be a rather obvious question. “At least, I think it’s heavy. It’s a lot of feathers, like a thousand-something feathers. The way it works, my right hand is up in the neck. I’m opening and closing my fingers to do the beak—while I’m holding up Big Bird’s head. I actually have to hold it up the whole time. If you take your arm down, the puppet would collapse. There’s a little bit of boning up there to give it some structure, but if I were to take my hand out it would kind of flop down. Luckily we have great puppet wranglers who help us out and give us a rest. There’s also a little trigger inside the head, and you take your pinkie and push it to make Big Bird’s eyes go up and down, at the same time that you’re puppeteering it.” He closed his eyes let out an exaggerated sigh. “Caroll is brilliant at it. I’m still getting it.”
“One of the challenges of the costume is that you can’t see anything,” Spinney said, when I reached him by phone. “Big Bird is a hand puppet, but much more elaborate. Your head is down in the neck and your hand is in his head, which makes your arm nice and strong. His head weighs almost four and a half pounds. And when you’re in the costume, you see nothing. You really can’t see out.”
Vogel agreed. “There’s no frame of reference for where you are. There are no eye holes. I mean, you could move some feathers if you needed to, and you could kind of peek out, but you don’t know where you are. It’s all yellow inside, because of the feathers. You have a monitor on your chest, so you’re seeing yourself as somebody at home would see it, but still, you don’t know what’s left, what’s right.” Vogel explained further. “When you’re at home watching TV, you can see if the puppet is looking left or right. But when you’re performing it, it’s the opposite. It’s not like looking in a mirror. If I look off to the left, and then I look at the monitor, my hand is going the opposite way. It’s very disorienting.”
“So what was your original audition like?” I asked.
“One day I was asked, ‘Hey, how’s your Big Bird?’” Vogel said. “And I was like, ‘Um, I’ve never done it before. Ever. In my life.’”
“Wait,” I said, interrupting him. “You didn’t do the usual actor thing and go, ‘It’s great!’”
“Oh yeah, I’ve totally got that,” Vogel said, laughing. “No way! I had never even tried it before. So I got a bunch of Big Bird CDs and just tried to lock into it. It’s a very unique voice to Caroll. It was very weird to do the voice in front of the actual Big Bird. Very weird. I mean, your voice sounds so different inside your head than it does in the real world. And inside my head I sound awesome. In the real world—not so much. But I thought I was in the area.”
According to Spinney, Vogel was much closer than that. “The producers were very interested in having someone who could not only be in the bird and handle it well, but could also sound like Big Bird so that people wouldn’t be disturbed and say, ‘Well gee, that’s not the Big Bird I know.’ Matt is the closest I’ve heard anybody do the voice.”
“But the thing that got me in the end,” Spinney continued, “I didn’t know who he was when I decided that he was the guy to do it, and I said, ‘What’s your name?’ Well, ‘vogel’ is the German word for bird. So when I heard that his name was Matt Vogel, I said, ‘My God, you were born to play this!’”
Vogel might have been a natural, but growing up, puppets weren’t exactly a one-way ticket to popularity. So how did a tall, boyish puppeteer become a real life movie star? It started with duct tape and a dream.
“I was a huge Jim Henson fan, and a huge fan of Sesame Street, but more so of The Muppet Show. I was about seven when that show came out, and I noticed that sometimes when I’d be watching, I’d see part of a person’s hand or some rods. I was just so curious about what was going on below the frame. And so I started making my own puppets out of old T-shirts and masking tape. I was a third grader. I had no idea how to sew or anything like that. I just made a mouth out of cardboard and folded it in half. My dad made a huge, six-foot-tall puppet stage with a curtain behind it, and my brother and I did shows all through grade school. But then came junior high,” Vogel said, sighing. “I was in ninth grade and there was a talent show. One of the teachers helped me write a puppet show for it.”
“And how did that go over?” I asked.
“It did not go over well. Actually, I won the talent show—to a round of boos,” Vogel said, dropping his head in mock shame. “And I was like, ‘that’s it. I’m done.’ And what’s weird is, as a puppeteer, you’re always hidden. But what I decided to do was to put down the puppets and go onstage where I could be seen. So I got into acting classes at Theatre for Young America in Kansas City [Missouri] and immediately felt like I fit in. The kids were just like me. I immediately started doing shows there and taking classes, and I loved it. It was like, ‘I’ve found my family.’” Vogel broke into a big grin. “It was great.”
He continued to play the part of a serious actor while at Webster University’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts. Bruce Longworth, head of the acting program at Webster, had fond memories of Vogel when I reached him by phone in St. Louis.
“I directed Matt when he was in As You Like It. He played Orlando and he was really, really good,” Longworth said. “He had a tremendous quality when he was a student. He was fearless, and he had a great sense of humor. He didn’t monitor or care how he looked in that really exciting way. He was really charming and winning to watch.”
“I was going to be an actor,” Vogel said, when I asked about his post-college career plans. “I had done some shows in Kansas City and as I went through college I thought, ‘I could go back there and make a pretty good go of it.’ So I thought I would do that. Then just for the fun of it I thought, ‘I’ll make a video and send it to Jim Henson Productions.’ I figured, why not? I got the name of somebody and sent my tape and didn’t hear anything. Then finally, I got a note back that said, ‘Thank you very much. We appreciate your interest in the company, but I’m sorry...’ So I went back to Kansas City, did some shows, then I decided to try out New York for awhile.” It was on his way to New York that Vogel’s wife caught sight of the ad that would change his life.
“My wife saw an ad in Backstage with a photo of Kermit the Frog. It said, ‘Can you measure up to be a Muppet?’ and it was asking for people to come in that were my height, my size, left-handed. So I sent a letter and got a call. Turns out, it was John Henson, Jim’s youngest son. John was playing a Coca-Cola polar bear for corporate events and he was looking for someone to fill in for him when he couldn’t perform. So they told me to come in for an audition.” I asked if auditioning for Jim Henson’s son was as intimidating as it sounded. “Oh, I was freaking out!” Vogel said. “I was freaking. But I was trying to keep it cool,” Vogel laughed. “After the audition, John goes, ‘Want to come to lunch?’ I was like, ‘yes!’ And not long after that he brought me in and I started doing it. Then somewhere along the line he said, ‘So, do you want to be a puppeteer?’”
“Did you?” I asked.
“Honestly, I didn’t know. I never thought about it before. Although I was already Equity, I would go to the open calls like all the other actors. Sometimes I’d take my headphones off and listen to the cacophony of insecurity. ‘I worked with the director on such-and-such…’ ‘I did Phantom with so-and-so…’” Vogel sighed, defeated. “That’s the acting world. You’re just trying desperately to get a job. But I was a huge Muppet fan. I had an entire room in my home in Kansas City that was filled with Muppet memorabilia. And there I was in New York City with an opportunity to make a new tape to send to somebody at the Jim Henson Company. I figured, ‘You’re this close. Why not try?’”
Right hand man
Luckily, the second time was a charm. Vogel was soon welcomed into the Sesame Street family, but he didn’t exactly explode onscreen—at least not at first. “When they bring you in you have these workshops, but you don’t do characters right away. You learn to use the monitor, you assist somebody, you do the right hand—“
Stop right there. The what?
“A lot of characters like Oscar or Cookie Monster—they all have live hands. The main performer’s hand is in the head.” Vogel paused to strap on an imaginary hand puppet, then continued. “So David Rudman is in Cookie Monster’s head, and his left hand is the ‘live’ hand. You know how Cookie Monster can eat or pick up a cup?” Vogel mimed a very Cookie Monster-ish hunt for a cup. “Live hand. So the main performer is standing up and the ‘assist’ is next to them, and you’re looking at the monitor and trying not to pull focus from the main puppet. You don’t want to be doing things,” Vogel waved his arm wildly, “that the main performer would not want you to do. When I started I was paired with David Rudman who plays Baby Bear and Cookie Monster, and for the Muppets he plays Janice and Scooter. I love to assist him. I’ve been doing that for a long time. I don’t actually do Big Bird that often anymore. I do a lot of work for the Muppets now.”
Ah, yes—the magic word. And how did that particular dream come true?
Vogel’s eyes lit up. “Jerry Nelson, one the great performers of the Muppets, I guess you could say he kind of grandfathered those roles to me. So that’s Robin—Kermit’s nephew—and Floyd, Lew Zealand, Crazy Harry. All really great roles that Jerry created on The Muppet Show. And I also do one role that Richard Hunt created, Sweetums, because I have experience inside a giant puppet,” Vogel said, grinning. “And also Uncle Deadly. That’s a character that Jerry performed during The Muppet Show that didn’t really go very far, but James Bobin and Jason Segel remembered him fondly and so they wrote a part for him in the movie.”
Walking the green carpet
All in all, Vogel ended up playing eight different characters in The Muppets, including 80’s Robot and Rowlf’s bad-dog alter-ego, a ‘Moopet’ named Roowlf. Shooting the movie was a dream come true for Vogel. (The word “fun” came up repeatedly.) So how was his first red carpet experience?
“It was… fun?” he answered carefully. “Um, it was fun.”
“That sounded hesitant.”
Vogel leaned in. “Okay, I will tell you one thing. All the Muppet performers and their families were walking down the green carpet and you know, we had Jason Segel, Amy Adams was there, and I don’t know, a lot of people were there, lots of really great people. And so they stopped and talked to interviewers, like celebrities do. And we were like, ‘We’re gonna walk the green carpet!’” Vogel said excitedly. “And as we were going out we see the flashbulbs flashing, and we kind of stand there and…” Vogel’s voice trailed off as he imitated a photographer slowly lowering his camera. “Nothing. I mean, everybody else who was there had a little sign that said who they were. Like, Jason Segel’s people had a sign that said ‘Jason Segel,’ even though everybody knew it was Jason Segel,” Vogel said, laughing. “We didn’t have a little sign. We were totally unprepared. So it wasn’t exactly a walk of shame, but nobody knew who the heck we were. And why would they?” Vogel shrugged good-naturedly. “But then we got down to the end of the carpet and I looked over to where fans were and they knew who we were. And so I went over and signed autographs and took a picture and talked to some people.” Vogel smiled. “Having people that knew who we are, and having them be so excited, and we were so excited—that was the coolest part, I think.”
The paparazzi may not have known who the Muppet performers were, but Jimmy Fallon certainly did. An avowed Muppet lover (fun fact: he’s a particular fan of their 1979 Christmas album with John Denver), Jimmy asked if he could perform a song with Kermit and Robin for his 2011 Christmas episode. Vogel, performing Robin, found the experience particularly thrilling.
“That was so fun because we sang it live. We usually sing things to a track because, you know, you’re watching yourself on the monitor, you’re performing and acting, so it’s kind of difficult to also sing in tune,” Vogel laughed. “But this time Steve Whitmire and I just sang it live and it was fun. Super fun. I don’t feel comfortable with the character of Robin yet,” Vogel admitted. “I’m still working at it. Robin really is Jerry Nelson’s voice, just a little higher. And it’s hard, because he has a voice that you can’t imitate. So I’m trying to get the… I’m trying to hone in on the essence of the character and do my best with that and try to hear little things in how Jerry says things so that I can try to replicate them. So Robin’s the hardest one for me. But I thought that I was pretty close, for me, doing that song.”
The actor underneath
I can’t help wondering if all the anonymity in puppetry is hard at times, especially for someone who trained for a life on the stage, but Vogel seems to take it in stride. “It’s kind of… it’s not weird, exactly. But we’re anonymous. I mean, it’d be great if more of us were able to do interviews and be known for who we are. Kevin Clash has a movie out called Being Elmo and it’s amazing. It’s really about all our stories. Because all puppeteers have a connecting thread, and that’s Jim Henson. We’re all doing this because we were inspired by him. Kevin, thankfully, has written books, he’s done interviews as himself, so at least people go, ‘Wait, there’s somebody underneath there!’ Kind of like when I was a kid and I saw The Muppet Show and wondered what was going on underneath. But it’s an anonymous gig.”
I asked Spinney for his take on the subject. “We’ve had some people come along who seemed like they might become pretty good puppeteers, once they got used to the work, but they had this desire to be seen and known as themselves. And a puppeteer has to realize that, in most cases, you’re not very well-known. I’ve been described as ‘the most unknown famous person in America,’ because what child in the last forty years hasn’t known Big Bird? I walk into any place and nobody even knows who I am.”
“But isn’t that hard as an actor?” I asked Vogel again. “I mean, you finally make it to Broadway (the 2003-2004 cast of Little Shop of Horrors) and you’re trapped inside a giant plant costume.”
Vogel thought for a moment. “I don’t know. I think I’m comfortable being hidden. I mean, certainly at the end of the show I liked being able to open up the mouth of Audrey II and wave at the audience. I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t been able to get that recognition. And when I walked down the green carpet, was I a little disappointed because nobody was like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a Muppet performer!’ Yeah, I was. Because I think it could be misinterpreted that anybody could perform these characters—that anybody could be Kermit or Miss Piggy. I mean, the performer who’s doing these characters is doing them because they’re the right person to do them. But do I feel badly sometimes? Yeah. Sure. But I know it’s not about me—it’s about those characters. And that’s who I would rather have people be fascinated by. Because those characters are ultimately more interesting than I will ever be. You know what I mean? What I’m really doing,” Vogel continued, “underneath everything else, is being an actor. I’m just below the camera frame.”
In March of this year, Vogel and his fellow Muppeteers finally got a bit of well-deserved recognition when The Muppets received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Greeted by plenty of strobing cameras and fans, the Muppet performers posed in front of a star bearing the names of the characters they help bring to life. “There were uber-fans and regular people with things for us to sign. It went on for a half an hour. I have never signed so many autographs. It really verified that what we do is rare and special, and that there are people who do know who we are—and that it means something to them that we are kind of the souls of these characters.”