18 Secrets of Criminal Defense Attorneys

iStock
iStock

It's one of the more thankless jobs in the legal arena. Criminal defense attorneys, who stand beside clients accused of everything from minor offenses to mass murder, must mount the most effective defense of their client possible no matter how heinous the crime. While their work enforces a person’s constitutional right to a fair trial, some observers chastise them for representing society's villains.

In their view, that’s missing the point. In addition to making sure the scales of justice are balanced, criminal defense attorneys find satisfaction in tackling cases with high stakes. "It's an all or nothing game," says Jeffrey Lichtman, a New York-based attorney who has represented John A. Gotti and accused Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. "It's win or lose. There is pressure, excitement, and responsibility in being a criminal defendant's only protector and support."

To get a better understanding of this often emotionally draining work, Mental Floss spoke with three high-profile defense lawyers. In addition to Lichtman, we talked to Chris Tritico—the subject of the first episode of Oxygen’s In Defense Of docuseries premiering June 25, and who represented Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 1997—as well as Bryan Gates, practicing in North Carolina. Here’s what they shared about life as a devil’s advocate.

1. ATTORNEYS DON'T ALLOW THEIR PERSONAL FEELINGS TO TRUMP DUE PROCESS.

Some defendants have clearly committed terrible crimes, but they still have constitutional rights—so attorneys don't let their personal feelings about a crime get in the way of a client's defense. “There’s never been a day I stood up for someone accused of a crime where I would endorse that crime,” says Tritico. “I don’t justify the act of blowing up a building and killing 168 people. But McVeigh has to be protected and his rights have to be protected. People like me have to be willing to stand up and say, ‘I will stand up for you.’ You do it for McVeigh and you do it for everyone.”

2. BONDING WITH CLIENTS IS KEY, REGARDLESS OF THE CRIME.

It can be hard to find common ground with someone accused of misdeeds that could land them life in prison or even a death sentence, but defense attorneys say that there’s usually a way to relate to their clients as human beings—and the case will be better off for it. Lichtman became friendly with Gotti by discussing family; Tritico found McVeigh to be amiable. “I wanted Tim to like me and I wanted to like him,” he says. “I wanted him to trust my decisions. It doesn’t happen every time, but the vast majority of the time, I like them.”

3. THEY RESEARCH JURORS' BACKGROUNDS.

A criminal defense attorney addresses a jury

Examining a potential juror, known as voir dire, is an art. Both defense and prosecution want people in the jury box who can be swayed, though circumstances are usually stacked against the defense. "The jury is coming in ready to convict, as no one generally supports crime," Lichtman says.

When quizzing would-be participants, Lichtman talks fast: "I’m speaking a-mile-a-minute, looking to get the potentially problematic jurors to either knowingly or unwittingly expose their natural biases so that I can get them kicked off the panel for cause. The jurors who I think can keep an open mind or are anti-police I will not question at all, because I’m afraid they’ll reveal those biases and get struck by the prosecutor when he uses a peremptory challenge [an objection to a juror]."

Once in court, Lichtman focuses on finding the one person in the box of 12 to connect with. “I look up the backgrounds of jurors,” he says. “I’m looking for anything in the background I can exploit in order to tailor my summation to something that’s happened in their lives.”

4. THEY'RE ALWAYS WATCHING THE JURY'S BODY LANGUAGE.

Keeping tabs on a jury means being able to assess which direction they’re leaning. Lichtman says body language can tell him a lot. “You can feel how a trial is going,” he says. Jurors who laugh or smile at his jokes are on his side. Jurors turning away from him are not. “You can tell who’s following you. They’re energized by your arguments.”

Evaluating how jurors are reacting allows Lichtman to make real-time adjustments to his arguments. "As I’m questioning a witness or beseeching the jury during a summation, if I see someone turn away from me, I keep that juror in mind and what may have turned him or her off, and try to rectify or address it down the road," he says. "If I have someone laughing, I know that there’s a juror who may not be acquitting my client but he or she is at least open to it, so I spend a lot of time working on them."

5. THERE’S A REASON THEY STAND SO CLOSE TO THEIR CLIENTS.

A criminal defense attorney stands near his client

The image of an attorney standing up next to their client as the verdict is being read is usually interpreted as a sign of solidarity, but lawyers may have another reason. Tritico says that early in his career, he took on a client charged with aggravated robbery. Despite Tritico’s advice to take a plea bargain, the man took his chance at trial—and lost. His sentence was 40 years. “I was looking at the jury as the verdict was being read and felt something moving,” he says. “He had passed out. From that point forward, I always grab my client by the arm to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Sometimes, it's the attorney who might need the assist. According to Tritico, hearing a man being sentenced to death, as he did with McVeigh, "might be the most sobering thing you'll ever hear in your life."

6. A CLIENT CAN BE THEIR OWN WORST ENEMY.

The adage about never, ever talking to police without an attorney present? It’s probably the single best piece of advice any defendant will ever get, yet many still refuse to let the message sink in. “I can’t think of anyone who has ever talked their way out of being charged,” Gates says.

It doesn’t stop there, though. Defendants idling in jail before their court dates can wind up digging themselves an even deeper hole. “They’ll write letters to people. The district attorney, at least in North Carolina, can get a copy. It might not be an outright confession, but there can be things that won’t put them in the best light. Phone calls are the same.” If they're upset with their counsel, some clients will even write letters of complaint to the DA or a judge, which might let slip some damning information that can be used against them later. “That will just devastate a case," Gates says.

7. THEY GET HATE MAIL.

A hateful message is written out on paper

Representing public figures like John A. Gotti, the son of notorious mafia figure John Gotti, often leads to attorneys being damned by association. Lichtman used to get hate mail, which later morphed into hate e-mail and other displays of contempt. “I’ve been spit on walking into court,“ he says. “I’ve been [called names] while sitting at the defense table by a witness walking off whose clock I just cleaned.” None of the vitriol has impacted Lichtman’s drive to mount the best defense possible for his clients. “I’ve never once apologized for what I do. Representing a suspected murderer does not mean I’m pro-murder.”

8. INNOCENT DEFENDANTS CAN MAKE THEIR WORK HARDER.

It might seem like an innocent client would be easier to defend. But according to Gates, having a strong belief that a client is falsely accused creates additional strain on the defense. “It’s very stressful because you’re really identifying with the person,” he says. While no attorney wants to see any client found guilty, it can be gut-wrenching to know the person might be punished for something they didn’t do. “We had one lawyer here [in North Carolina] who worked for 15 years for someone he felt was wrongfully accused, and he was ultimately able to prove it.” But that's unusual—more often, attorneys suspect their clients are innocent and have to look on as juries convict them.

9. SOMETIMES THEY GIVE THEIR CLIENTS MAKEOVERS.

A man admiring himself in a mirror in a menswear shop

If a defendant is partial to ripped jeans and heavy metal t-shirts, attorneys will often advise them to spend some time shopping. “It’s not about creating an illusion,” Tritico says. “But if someone comes in with, say, a mullet, I’m taking them to the barber. We’re buying slacks and a button-down shirt. You need to show respect for the system.”

10. THEY LOVE THE EXCITEMENT—BUT TRIALS DON'T MOVE AS FAST AS YOU THINK.

Ask a criminal defense lawyer why they chose that legal subspecialty and the most common answer is that nothing gets their blood going more than a case with high stakes. “Cases move faster and they’re just more interesting than civil cases,” Gates says. “There’s nothing worse than an extended conversation about Article 2 of the Uniform Commercial Code. It’s just more interesting to talk about a bank robbery.”

That said, no trial moves along at the speed presented by true crime documentaries or popular fiction. “Trials are not interesting to watch," Gates says. "They take a long time and many stretches are just boring. CourtTV, when they would put a camera in the court room all day? Like watching paint dry.” While many trials are over in three to five days, some take weeks or even months. In 2013, jurors spent seven weeks on the federal trial of notorious Boston gangster James "Whitey" Bulger and another five days deliberating on a verdict. (Guilty on 31 counts, including extortion and involvement in murder.)

11. THEY DON’T STAND UP AS OFTEN AS YOU THINK.

A serious-looking lawyer standing up and arguing her case in court

Another popular television trope is the defense attorney pacing, gesticulating, and thumping tables in an effort to exhibit some swagger in front of a jury. While rules for grandstanding vary by state, Gates says that, at least in North Carolina, he doesn’t spend a lot of time on his feet. “We have to question all witnesses from a seated position behind the counsel’s table,” he says. “We can’t pace around the room or pound on a rail. Most judges are not going to let you do a lot of dancing in front of a jury.”

12. THEY THRIVE ON CAN’T-WIN CASES.

Sometimes prosecutors are so determined to nail defendants—particularly in federal trials where ample government resources can mount suffocating cases—that defense attorneys see no obvious way to win. For Lichtman, that’s part of the appeal. While Guzman has yet to go to trial, Lichtman successfully defended Gotti against a litany of racketeering charges in 2005. “When I took on the 'El Chapo' case, I got calls from lawyers I respect saying, ‘You’re crazy, you don’t need this,’” he says. “What am I doing this for if not to take this case? How do you not want to take on challenging cases?” And the greater the obstacle, the more Lichtman prepares. “The more you work, the more you understand the facts, and the better your chances at trial.”

13. THEY BELIEVE THE BAIL SYSTEM IS BROKEN.

A car is parked in front of a bail bonds office

Jailed for a crime? You might be innocent until proven guilty, but that presumption doesn’t mean you’re free to walk the streets. Gates believes the bail system for freeing jailed clients is fundamentally unfair and designed to force plea bargains favorable to the prosecution. “They will reflexively argue for $250,000 bail when a person is unemployed,” he says. “There’s no chance a person could post it. A bondsman will charge at least $20,000.” In the Bronx, for example, the average wait time for a jury trial is 827 days. The longer someone is forced to live in a cell, the easier it is for prosecutors to make a deal—and avoid the dice roll of a jury trial.

14. PUBLIC DEFENDERS GET A BAD RAP.

While it’s true a high-profile attorney can deliver a compelling defense in exchange for a sky-high bill, the stereotype of public defenders assigned to indigent clients as being incompetent is undeserved. “It’s mostly television that gives them the bad rap of being an overworked, under-prepared lawyer,” Tritico says. “But at any of the public defender’s offices I’ve been in, they do good, solid work. It’s a rare day I see someone there who isn’t working as hard as I’m working when I’ve been retained.”

15. THE TRUE CRIME TV CRAZE IS CHANGING THEIR APPROACH.

Every week seems to bring a new docuseries obsession, from Making a Murderer to The Staircase. For lawyers addressing jurors, they have to factor in what these shows have "taught" viewers about the criminal justice system, even if it's not quite accurate. "True crime shows on TV have turned every layperson into an expert in their minds," Lichtman says. "So juries are less likely to believe expert witnesses, police officer witnesses, and prosecutors and defense lawyers because they know better."

Instead of fighting it, Lichtman leans into it. "For me, I don’t mind this new mindset because I play into juries’ natural skepticism in my theory of defense. I exploit the facts that seem impossible to believe, even when true, and beseech the jury to use their common sense gained from a lifetime of experience. And TV watching."

16. PUBLIC OPINION CAN INFLUENCE CASE STRATEGY.

Newspapers are stacked in a pile

Criminal cases can often draw local or national headlines, making prospective jurors aware of the personalities and details involved. A good attorney will always take notice of which way the public tide is turning while preparing a defense. "Public opinion has a huge impact on how I handle a case," Lichtman says. "After all, the jury is a small slice of that public opinion going into a trial, and I need to persuade them or dissuade them during my brief time before them. So it’s important to know what I’m dealing with beforehand. What are the areas of concern or preconceived notions for me at a trial that I need to develop or combat?"

Not doing so, Lichtman believes, is a gross oversight: "A lawyer who does not do his due diligence before the trial starts in learning what public opinion is about his client, or the conduct allegedly committed by his client, is a lazy fool."

17. THEY DON'T HAVE AN OBLIGATION TO DISCLOSE A CLIENT'S ADMISSION OF GUILT.

A lawyer walks away from a crowd of people

If a defendant decides to use their lawyer's office as a confessional, their counsel is under no obligation to turn around and pass that information along to law enforcement. "If a client discloses his guilt to me, I’m obligated to do one thing and one thing only," Lichtman says. "Not let him lie on the stand while under oath."

Defendants don't often testify on their own behalf anyway, but that kind of admission would make sure they don't. "It’s not the defense lawyer’s obligation to do anything but fight the government’s evidence. The search for the truth in a trial does not necessarily include me, the defense attorney," Lichtman says.

18. CLIENTS SOMETIMES WANT ADVICE BEFORE COMMITTING A CRIME.

A gavel rests in front of law books

It is legally and morally forbidden for lawyers to counsel anyone on the best way to commit a crime, but that doesn’t stop people from asking anyway. "I get it a lot, even today," Lichtman says. "'If I do this, is this OK?'" Lichtman will tell them what’s legal "up to the line" and no further. "All the advice is legal and above-board. I treat every conversation as if someone is listening."

All images courtesy of iStock.

13 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Movie and TV Extras

EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images
EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

Background actors are the unsung heroes of television. Without them, most movie and TV scenes would be empty and unrealistic. But while we’re obsessed with movie stars, we never hear much about the people moving around behind them—because by design, we’re not supposed to pay them any attention. Here are a few insights on what it’s like to get paid to blend into the background.

1. Extras Are Not Professionals.

The chances of using background acting as a foray into stardom are pretty slim. “You’re not gonna get your big break as an extra,” says Claire Beaudreault, who has been an extra on shows including Orange Is The New Black, GIRLS, and Law & Order: SVU.

Most of the people you see in the background of a film or TV show have other jobs and are just doing extra work for fun. “I didn’t do it because I saw it as some backdoor into acting or anything,” says Jason Feifer, who was an extra in a scene of the 2004 film Jersey Girl. “But there are definitely people who do that.”

And there are always a few extras on set trying desperately to stay in front of the camera. “It’s a silent vie for control,” says Dillon Francis, a Los Angeles-based actor who was an extra on the movie Easy A back in 2010. “It was kind of interesting to watch. These guys would learn where the camera was going and redo their vector so they walked in front of it.” That’s a quick way to get a slap on the wrist from the director or a production assistant.

2. Extras Have to Do a Lot of Hurry-Up-and-Wait on Set.

Days on set can be excruciatingly long, sometimes lasting more than 15 hours and starting at odd times or ending at the crack of dawn. And a lot of that time is spent just sitting around waiting to be used in a scene, or repeating a single shot a dozen times. “There are days you get to set and you wait and wait and you never get used,” says Amy Rogers, a regular extra featured in TV shows including Homeland and Banshee, “or you work all day and the footage never gets used.”

Extras spend their down time in a designated “holding” area reading or playing card games. On the set of Easy A, which was set in a high school, extras had to wear backpacks stuffed with bubble wrap to make them seem full. “A fun way to distract yourself in downtime was to open up your backpack and pop bubbles,” Francis says.

3. What Looks Like Booze On Camera Isn't Actually Alcohol.

A glass of apple juice spritzer
stephanhartmann/iStock via Getty Images

While posing as party-goers in bar scenes, extras need something to fill their cups. But film sets are no place for drunk actors, so the props team uses a number of tricks to fool the camera, some less appetizing than others. Apple juice is a good substitute for beer, according to Beaudreault: “Or it’ll be seltzer with a little food coloring in it. There will be bottles that have been cleaned out and their labels removed and fake labels put on.”

“Vinegar is sometimes used to approximate the texture and viscosity of booze,” Rogers says. “You’ll stand there with a glass of vinegar for eight hours.” And because filming can be a long and mind-numbingly repetitive process, nobody has time to replace melting ice cubes, so they’ll use gelatin ice cubes. Or, for the ultimate cheat, plastic wrap can be put in a cup filled with water to resemble crushed ice, according to Gale Nemec, who teaches a workshop for background actors. (This approach also apparently makes for festive centerpieces.)

4. Smokers Get Paid More.

When actors smoke on set, they’re usually not sucking on real cigarettes. On Mad Men, for example, the actors smoked herbal cigarettes that didn’t contain nicotine or tar (which is great, considering Jon Hamm reportedly smoked 74 of them shooting the pilot alone).

Non-union extras usually get paid minimum hourly wage, but according to Rogers, they get a small pay increase if they’re asked to smoke in a scene. “They call that a ‘bump’ in the business,” she says. The same rule applies if your car is featured in a scene. “They want boring cars that will never be noticed on screen,” says Steve D’Avria, an extra in The Hunger Games and Homeland. “My 2003 Toyota Camry has been in more TV shows than I have. You get a whole $20 for it.”

5. Extras Have Been Wearing the Same Duds for Days ...

On a film or TV set, continuity is key. To create the illusion that a scene is happening in real-time, rather than over a series of hours or days, every little detail must remain the same in each shot and from every angle. Extras are meticulously examined for accidental inconsistencies in their wardrobes. “You’ve gotta wear the same clothes every day,” Rogers says. “The production assistant will take your picture for continuity to make sure you haven’t taken off a necklace or something. For the Homeland finale, I wore a pair of leggings and a raincoat for a solid week.”

6. ... And They Usually Have To Bring Their Own—The Blander, The Better.

Row of men's shirts in blue colors on hanger
Tatiana Dyuvbanova/iStock via Getty Images

Background actors are usually expected to bring their own clothes to set unless the production has a large wardrobe budget. And if you were to peek into the closet of a regular background actor, you’d see hangers upon hangers of gray and dark blue clothing items. Muted colors are preferred on set to make sure extras are as unremarkable as possible. Shirts can’t have any visible logos, and white clothes are discouraged because they “have a tendency to shine like a beacon on camera,” Francis says.

If you resemble one of the principal actors, you’re probably not going to get much camera time. “On Homeland, you’ll never see them place anyone near Claire Danes who has the same hair color as her,” Rogers says.

And pro tip: never look at the camera. “One guy in The Hunger Games kept staring at the camera and they finally just told him he had to sit down,” D’Avria says.

7. Wardrobes for Extras Get Recycled.

If an extra has to wear an elaborate costume, there’s a chance it’s been used before on another set. “One outfit I wore for Insurgent was worn on Pirates of the Caribbean,” says Dawn McHargue, who has also appeared in The Hunger Games, Iron Man 3, Nashville, and Necessary Roughness.

8. Extras Are Great Mimes.

Extras often need to make a scene appear alive and bustling while at the same time remaining totally silent on set so as not to interfere with the actors’ dialogue. This means pretending to conduct a conversation without actually making any noise, and every extra seems to have their own method. “I’m either pretending to flirt with someone or gossiping about something,” Beaudreault says. Also, dance scenes are often filmed in silence and the music is added in later.

While filming a crowd scene for the movie Jersey Girl, Feifer says he spent hours pretending to applaud and cheer. “They would do entire takes where the audience would go through the whole motion but we wouldn’t clap. We would fake clap but not actually get our hands to meet.”

9. For Actors, Seasons Are Irrelevant.

It’s amazing what a little fake snow can do to transform a summer day into a winter wonderland. “Sometimes when you’re shooting a winter scene, everyone is in heavy jackets and hats and gloves and it’s actually 100 degrees outside,” Nemec says. “You can gauge whether it’s actually cold or not if breath is coming out of the actor’s mouth. If not, it’s a good bet they’ve put snow on the ground and it’s hot as all get out and everyone is playing like it’s cold.”

For indoor scenes, air conditioning has to be turned off to eliminate background noise, which makes for a sweaty situation. Between takes, overheating extras strip their layers off to cool down.

10. The Movie Stars Are Off Limits for Extras ...

“As a general rule, don’t speak to them unless they speak with you first,” advises casting director Tona B. Dahlquist.

While filming on one movie, McHargue and her fellow extras were told to avoid looking the star in the eye. “They were very adamant that we were not to go near him or touch him or we would get kicked off set immediately,” she says.

But occasionally extras get a candid glimpse of a movie star’s true personality. For example, while filming The Hunger Games, D’Avria saw Jennifer Lawrence chilling at a card table munching on M&Ms, and watched Josh Hutcherson (who played Peeta) ride around set on a BMX bike.

On the flip side, Francis was the victim of one star's on-set meltdown. “She sees me standing there and she freaks out, saying something about how she’s had a rash of stalkers lately and I’m within a 50-foot perimeter,” he says. “She’s glaring at me from the tent and a PA runs over, moves me a few feet away and says ‘sorry’ and runs away again.”

11. ... And Social Media Is a Good Way for Extras to Get Blacklisted.

Young people taking photo with smartphone
YakobchukOlena/iStock via Getty Images

Phones aren’t allowed on set and photos are strictly forbidden. “While filming Insurgent, there was a girl who took a picture of the set and shared it,” McHargue says. “Lionsgate security came from California to Atlanta and they took her away. She will never work on a set again. She’s blacklisted.”

If you’re sneaky, you can swipe a harmless item from set as a keepsake. While filming The Hunger Games, D’Avria says there were signs in the bathroom that said, “Flush the toilet or you’ll be sent to the Hunger Games.” “I borrowed that sign as a souvenir,” he says.

12. The On-Set Catering Is Pretty Good.

Vats of catered food
kckate16/iStock via Getty Images

The quality of food on set varies depending on budget, but generally, extras eat some amazing grub brought in by professional caterers. “The food on Iron Man 3 was the best food I’ve ever had,” McHargue says. “We ate with the cast and crew and we had anything you could think of: the best steak, shrimp, lobster, and crab. The buffet table, you couldn’t see the end of it.”

The catch: You often don’t get to eat lunch until about 3 pm and dinner starts at 10 pm, according to D’Avria. Extras are advised to bring a few snacks to hold them over until feeding time.

13. Extras Can't Watch TV Like Regular People.

Once you know how a movie is filmed, it’s hard to watch it with fresh eyes. “I can’t watch TV anymore without looking at the background actors and seeing who’s doing it right and who’s doing it wrong,” Nemec says.

15 Secrets of Sesame Street Puppeteers

Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
Abby Cadabby, Suki Lopez, and Elmo (L-R) on Sesame Street
HBO

For 50 years and more than 4500 episodes, Sesame Street has been imparting valuable moral, ethical, and social lessons to young audiences using a sprawling cast of puppets. The Sesame characters—Big Bird, Elmo, Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, the Count, and others—have become instantly recognizable to generations of viewers. But behind every memorable character is a human performer, one tasked with juggling the technical demands of puppet operation without losing the humor and heart that makes their furry counterpart so memorable.

To get a better sense of what goes into this unique skill set, Mental Floss spoke with three veteran Sesame Street performers during the show’s semicentennial celebration. Here’s what they had to say about crossed puppet eyes, grooming habits, and enjoying a long career finessing felt.

1. Sesame Street puppeteers usually get started lending a (right) hand.

Though there’s no definitive set of directions for puppeteers to get to Sesame Street, a number of performers selected to work on the show begin as apprentices with one specific task: operating the right hand of characters alongside the veteran cast members. “A lot of performers will almost only do right hands for a very long time,” Ryan Dillon, the puppeteer behind Elmo, tells Mental Floss. “Some characters, like Cookie Monster, require two performers with two practical hands.”

Dillon started working on Sesame Street in 2005 at the age of 17. He performed as a right hand and as supporting characters for years before scoring the Elmo role in 2013. Throughout that training, he accompanied the main puppeteer, who uses their dominant (usually right) hand to control the mouth and the other to control the left hand. The newcomer will manipulate the right, a duty informally known as right handing. “It’s a great training ground,” Dillon says. “You’re working directly next to a performer with years of experience. You become one character together.”

2. Sesame Street puppeteers have tricks for making their characters emote.

Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird (L-R) appear in a scene from 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Abby Cadabby, Elmo, and Big Bird delve into fine art.
HBO

Peter Linz, who portrays Ernie (among other characters) on the series, tells Mental Floss that getting a puppet to exhibit a personality takes some finessing. “You have to show the entire range of human emotion through something that doesn’t have an expression,” he says. Linz, who also teaches classes on puppeteering, says that there are some techniques to get puppets to show off their mood, however. “You can make them look sad by having them look down. You can get them to smile by opening their mouth. If they’re angry, maybe you close their mouth and then shake their arms ever so slightly. There are degrees of subtlety in all of that.”

Linz says the audience does part of that work themselves, projecting their own feelings onto a puppet. The ultimate proof might be in the example of Miss Piggy. While not a Sesame Street cast member, Linz says it’s telling that people often seem to believe the vivacious and flirtatious porcine character bats her eyes. “She can’t,” he says. The puppet doesn’t have that ability.

3. Not all Sesame Street puppets can perform the same tasks.

Sesame Street utilizes three major varieties of character. There’s the full-body puppet, like Big Bird and Snuffleupagus; “bag” puppets with two articulated hands, like Cookie Monster; and hand-and-rod puppets that have arms controlled by thin rods. “Elmo is a hand-and-rod puppet,” Dillon says. “[The difference means] some puppets can do things others can’t. Cookie Monster can pick things up. Elmo can, but it takes longer. You need to stop [filming] and attach something to his hands with tape or a pin.”

4. Sesame Street puppeteers rely on a key design element to connect to their audience.

Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
Grover, Oscar the Grouch, and Elmo.
Zack Hyman/HBO

It can be difficult to communicate that a puppet is able to focus a pair of fixed eyes on something, whether it’s another character, an object, or the audience. But Linz says that the Sesame Street crew and the rest of the Muppets were designed by Henson with that in mind. “The eyes are just two black dots against a white background,” he says. “But all the characters are ever so slightly cross-eyed. There’s a triangle between the eyes and nose and a point where it looks like they’re looking right into the camera.” It’s a sensitive illusion. Turning the puppet even slightly, he says, and they will wind up looking at something else.

5. Sesame Street puppeteers can spend their entire day crouched on the floor.

Being a Sesame Street puppeteer requires more than just having performing chops. On set, characters that may be at waist level with their human co-stars are operated by performers crouched below frame, often on wheeled boards called rollies. “The first day or two, your back and everything else is sore,” Dillon says. “It engages your whole body. Your arm is up in the air performing.” Some actors, Dillon says, have developed knee issues as a result of a career bent over. Fortunately, not every scene requires contortions. Some sets are built raised so performers can stand up straight. Other times, they’ll have to situate themselves horizontally. Scenes set on a stoop usually mean the performer is lying down behind the steps.

6. Sesame Street puppeteers have input into character design.

Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita (L-R) pose with fans of 'Sesame Street'
(L-R) Elmo, Abby Cadabby, and Rosita pose with fans.
Zack Hyman/HBO

Lurking in the offices of Sesame Workshop is a puppet factory that, according to Dillon, houses a number of "Anything Muppets"—blank designs that may one day be used as the template for a brand-new character. In 1991, performer Carmen Osbahr got an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of conceptualizing a character when she helped originate Rosita (top right), the first regular bilingual Muppet on the series. “They had a meeting and asked what I had in mind,” Osbahr tells Mental Floss. “I was able to tell them I wanted a monster and I wanted live hands because I wanted to be able to play a musical instrument. I wanted her to be active and colorful. I didn’t want a petite, tiny little monster.” Both Osahr and Rosita have been a presence on the show ever since.

7. Sesame Street puppeteers have material for a blooper reel, but you’ll probably never see it.

Puppet manipulation takes concentration and effort. Occasionally, the cast of Sesame Street can find themselves flubbing a take. According to Osbahr, that’s often due to trying to coordinate left and right hands. “The main thing is props,” she says. “Grabbing stuff is easy, but if you want to pour something into a cup or write a letter, that’s hard. You think you’ll have a glass but just miss it.” Performers can also fall off their rollies, sending their counterparts tumbling out of the frame.

8. Each Sesame Street character has a dedicated puppeteer—with a couple of exceptions.

Actress Amanda Seyfried (L) appears on 'Sesame Street' with Abby Cadabby
Actress Amanda Seyfried with Abby Cadabby.
Richard Termine/HBO

When it comes to Sesame Street characters, there is one sacrosanct rule—aside from right handing, no puppet will have more than one puppeteer. “We feel strongly each Muppet has a dedicated performer,” Dillon says. “If there were two or three Elmos, you would see a copy of a copy.” However, illnesses or personal appearances can make that rule difficult to follow every time. If Dillon can’t make a shoot, a performer will step in to operate the puppet, with Dillon going in to provide the voice later.

The cast can also cover for one another if a scene requires two characters who are normally operated by the same actor. Both Bert and Grover, for example, are played by actor Eric Jacobson. If the two share screen time, Dillon might step in to perform one of them, with Jacobson recording his lines later.

9. Sesame Street puppeteers have a specific way of handling their puppets to keep them clean.

Day after day of manipulating puppets can lead to issues with cleanliness. Performer sweat can dampen the foam insides, while body oils and other contaminants can affect their fur coats. To avoid being dirtied, Linz says performers and production members try to pick up the puppets by the scruff of their necks. “We don’t want to put our oily hands on their faces,” Linz says. Puppets are also usually delivered to and from the set by a team of “Muppet wranglers,” and stored in the workshop where they’re built and maintained. To dry out a puppet, they’re sometimes placed on a wooden stand. A hair dryer set on low might also be used to dry a sweaty interior.

10. Sesame Street puppeteers work very, very closely together.

The characters from 'Sesame Street' are pictured
The puppet cast of Sesame Street.
HBO

Owing to the frequent proximity of puppets in frame, Sesame Street puppeteers are usually working near or virtually over other performers. “We try to be very aware and conscious of the people around us,” Dillon says. “Mistakes happen. Elmo has big feet, and Abby Cadabby has big feet, so you’ll often hit the other person with a foot. It doesn’t hurt.”

11. Guest stars will talk directly to Sesame Street characters—not just the puppeteers.

Sesame Street has played host to many guest stars over the decades, from actors to First Lady Michelle Obama. According to Osbahr, their human guests will often address the character even off-camera. “Most everybody who visits us talks to the character like they’re alive,” she says. “The moment we bring a character down [to rest], we have a conversation, but it’s great to have a relationship with a character and a celebrity. They’ll talk to Elmo, Rosita, Cookie Monster, and we’re talking to them right back.”

12. Sesame Street puppeteers can take years to get fully comfortable with a character.

Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster on the set of 'Sesame Street'
Actress Blake Lively (L) poses with Cookie Monster.
Zack Hyman/HBO

For many performers, it can take years before they feel like they’re fully inhabiting their character. “You can be so focused on doing something right, you forget to have fun with the character,” Osbahr says. “By the fourth season, that’s when I started letting go, taking risks, having fun. You stop having to think about it.”

Fortunately, it’s not uncommon for performers on Sesame Street to spend decades on the show, which means there's plenty of time to adjust. Carol Spinney, who portrayed Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, retired in 2018 after 49 years as a cast member. Osbahr says the familial atmosphere encourages longevity. “I’ve been with this group of people for 30 years,” she says. “We’ve shared a lot of incredible memories together.”

13. Sesame Street puppeteers can sometimes mourn a puppet who is declared “toast.”

Made of foam and other delicate materials, Sesame Street puppets have a shelf life. Depending on use, wear, and handling, they might last a few years before needing to be replaced. Linz says two new Ernies have recently been made after one began sloughing off foam inside, a symptom the production calls “toast” because the foam resembles toast crumbs.

Even with replacements, the legacy of characters can still live on. Linz uses an Ernie with the same mouth plate that was used by Jim Henson as far back as 1982.

14. Sesame Street puppeteers have to work backward.

Actor Anthony Mackie appears on 'Sesame Street' with Cookie Monster
Actor Anthony Mackie with Cookie Monster.
Jesse Grant/HBO

The most surprising aspect of working as a Sesame Street puppeteer? According to Linz, it’s the fact that performers often have to essentially work backwards. Because they’re crouched below the camera frame, puppeteers need to watch a monitor placed low to the ground to see what the camera sees. “When you move your arm to the right, the arm on the monitor moves to the left,” he says. “You’re seeing the image the audience sees.”

15. Yes, Sesame Street puppets are technically Muppets.

Sometimes there's confusion over whether the puppets that appear on Sesame Street actually constitute Muppets, or whether that term is reserved for non-Sesame projects like The Muppet Show or other endeavors featuring Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the others. According to Dillon, any Henson-birthed or -inspired puppet is a Muppet. “It’s become a catch-all term for puppets,” he says. “It’s a brand name, like Kleenex. Jim Henson came up with the name. A Muppet is used for characters that he came up with."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER