This is Part One of a two-part series celebrating Caroll Spinney’s two most famous characters on the occasion of his retirement.
There’s something magical and miraculous about the mundanity of Big Bird. He does things that other birds do, such as eating birdseed and preening his feathers. He also does things that kids do, like roller skating or playing hide-and-seek.
Unlike most Muppets, there’s no need for Big Bird to hide behind a low wall or a counter or inside a giant bathtub. There are no telltale cables trailing off him, and he is unfettered by marionette strings and arm rods. Big Bird walks freely among us, as an equal.
I never had any illusions about Big Bird being a puppet. Looking at him, I could figure out basically how he worked. But I didn’t spend a lot of time contemplating it either, because as a child, the fantasy was much more appealing to me than the reality.
(Now, as an adult, the reality of how Big Bird operates is at least as fascinating to me as the fantasy.)
Big Bird’s appeal is nearly universal, due in no small part to Mr. Spinney’s sweetness and gentleness, but Big Bird’s situation is very particular, almost unique on Sesame Street. There is a depth and dimensionality to Big Bird that most of the other characters on Sesame Street (Muppet and human alike) lack. The essence of most Sesame Street Muppets can be boiled down to a single character flaw: Cookie Monster is gluttonous, Telly is neurotic, the Count is obsessive-compulsive, Ernie is mischievous, Bert is uptight, and as for Forgetful Jones and Oscar the Grouch…well, it’s right there in their names, isn’t it?
Neither Big Bird nor Elmo has a real definable flaw. Each plays the role of the “everykid” for children in the audience to relate to. Yet there is a difference. Elmo is the kid from the stable home and functional family. He lives contentedly with his mother and his father and his goldfish, and he doesn’t have any problems that can’t be sorted out within the span of an hour.
We don’t know a lot of details about Big Bird’s backstory, but what we do know is tragic and troubling. Big Bird occasionally mentions his parents, but they’ve never been seen. We don’t know if they are still alive, and if they are, why they aren’t around to care for their son. Apart from his parents, Big Bird’s closest relative seems to be his Granny Bird, but she’s not around most of the time either, although at least she occasionally comes to visit. The adults on Sesame Street function as a foster family for Big Bird, and yet, Big Bird lives outside in a nest, not indoors in an apartment with foster parents such as Susan and Gordon or Maria and Luis.
Whether it was intended or not, I think Big Bird represents the kids who have been let down by adults, who have been failed by the system, and who are out there on the fringes without a real place to fit in.
Furthermore, I think it’s the implied troubles in his shadowy backstory that give Big Bird depth and dimension. Unlike Elmo, I don’t think Big Bird takes it for granted that he deserves to be loved. I think that Big Bird believes that love is something that he has to earn, and therefore, I think he feels a pressure to be good. Whereas Elmo, Grover, Bert and Ernie may take things like food, warmth, shelter, and friendship for granted, I think Big Bird appreciates these things because he knows from experience that nothing in life is guaranteed, and what you’ve been given today may be taken away from you tomorrow.
This is analysis that I’ve done as an adult. As a kid, I didn’t think about these things on a conscious level, but I think I nevertheless realized the uniqueness of Big Bird’s situation and the melancholy inherent to his character.
When I was four years old, I received the Sesame Street Sing-Along album as a Christmas present. In it, Big Bird sings a song called “Everyone Makes Mistakes.” It was written by Jeff Moss, which makes it one of many instances in which Jeff Moss wrote a song that told me something I needed to hear.
In this case, however, what I needed to hear was slightly different from what Jeff Moss actually wrote. What I heard when I was four was, “If you spill a glass of milk all over the floor / Well, your mom and dad still love you, just as much as they did before.” Listening to the song again as an adult, I was shocked to discover that the lyrics are actually, “your mom and dad still like you, just as much as they did before,” a subtle but distinct difference.
To be clear, I’ve never received anything but unconditional love from my parents and the rest of my family. But I was a sensitive child, and when people in my family reacted to me with anger, as my mom in particular did whenever I spilled something, it used cause me anxiety. So when Big Bird explained that people in your family still love you even when they’re angry with you, it was a burden lifted off my shoulders that I hadn’t even realized I’d been carrying.
And because of who Big Bird is, I think that the message had more resonance coming from him than it would have had coming from any other Sesame Street character.