It takes a certain kind of person to spend your adult life being associated with a furry red puppet, and apparently, that kind of person is a middle-aged black man. One of the chief impressions a reader takes away from My Life as a Furry Red Monster is that Kevin Clash is one of those rare lucky fellows who is working in exactly the right job for him. Clash’s passion and joy in operating one of the most well-known and beloved figures in modern American childhoods is clear on almost every page of this light and charming memoir of life on Sesame Street.
The book is divided into chapter headings corresponding with the concepts best embodied in Elmoland: love, joy, creativity, tolerance, courage, friendship, cooperation, learning, and optimism. Who wouldn’t want to spend their workday that way, right? Each section is a mix of personal anecdotes from Clash’s childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Stories of meeting UN chief Kofi Annan are blended with memories of growing up in Turners Station, a predominantly black suburb of Baltimore, Maryland, where Clash experienced a happy growing-up punctuated with flashes of racism, but on the whole, a healthy environment for children, especially artistic children. One of the highlights of the book for me, as a parent, came in the excellent example set by Clash’s parents, who are enthusiastic and supportive of Clash’s puppet hobby early on in his childhood. Many memoirs of artistic or creative people consist of toiling in obscurity until someone recognizes their talent, but for Clash, that recognition came from his parents, who never forced him away from the television or craft table, drove him to local schools for his puppet shows, and never urged college on him when they saw he was determined to become a professional puppeteer. I was most impressed with his memory of denuding his father’s good overcoat in order to purloin the fuzzy black lining for a bear puppet, which his parents found more humorous than infuriating. Admirable patience, Mr. and Mrs. Clash — impatient parents like me salute you for effortlessly doing what we parents are supposed to do to inspire and encourage creativity in our children.
The book’s overall cheery tone was somewhat marred for me by Clash’s reluctance to say anything negative about television and children, a hot topic in both educational and psychological circles in the age of ADD. His longtime involvement with the most prestigious name in children’s television has perhaps given him an overly roseate view of the effects of TV on children, of childhoods that are increasingly commercialized and media-saturated. In several places, Clash seems to say, “Hey, I watched a lot of TV as a kid, and look how I turned out,” even proudly declaring that his preferred position inches away from the screen did nothing to damage his eyesight, no matter what his mother said.
If you want to convince someone (or yourself) that hours of television, nose almost pressed to the screen won’t harm a child, you need to buy this book. In the same vein, the book could be a great gift for early childhood professionals and parents, as long as you’re aware of their views on television before you give them the book. I’m not saying that Sesame Street is the root of all televised evil — it’s pretty widely accepted as the gold standard in children’s television, and I wish all kids’ programming were more like it. However, these days there’s a new study about TV and children out every week, and none of the news is good, linking children’s consumption of television to attention span problems, poor concentration, stunted creativity, and childhood obesity. I’m sure the Children’s Television Workshop and all it’s major employees are well aware of these studies, and it is disingenuous of Clash to dismiss them out of hand.
Also, I found it disturbing that Clash equates his memories of television with what’s out today as if Sesame Street is the only game going. He remembers fondly Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop, Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, and H.R. Pufnstuf as a child, but is careful to say that he never “restricted his viewing to children’s television” — in fact, he boldly viewed such dangerous fare as The Brady Bunch and The Beverly Hillbillies. Shocking! Clash’s nostalgic view of television also ignores the drastic changes in programming in terms of violence and sexuality, even for children, making the debate over restricting viewing much more nuanced that Clash seems willing to entertain. I’m not arguing that shows like Jackass are so hypnotizing that they perfectly normal kids into jackasses — if you set yourself or your friend on fire, you’re a jackass no matter how you got the idea. But for young children, who have been proven unable to distinguish fiction from fact until at least six or seven years of age, the increasingly violent and sexual content of television has to be taken into account when discussing kids and television.
Another seismic shift in children’s television over the past few decades is the increase of product tie-ins and commercials, a phenomenon even the CTW has struggled with, as funding for public television is drastically slashed and shows have to deal with marketability as a serious priority in ways they did not when Clash first started taking the train to New York in hopes that Jim Henson would pluck him from obscurity.
However, it’s unmistakable that neither Clash nor his publisher wanted his biography to be anything but what it is — heartwarming, gift-sized, and cheerful, rather than thought-provoking or analytical. It’s also clear from Clash’s reminisces that Elmo, the furry red monster he has brought to life for a few decades now, has made an incredible impact on children all over the world, oftentimes the children who need love and companionship the most. Anecdotes about children living with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the AIDS epidemic in Africa and their openhearted embrace of Elmo and other Sesame Street characters left me once again envying Clash’s job. Clash has found the perfect mix of creativity, joy and significance in his work with Elmo, and My Life as a Furry Red Monster makes that abundantly clear — as I finished the book, I could almost hear Elmo’s giggle in my ears.