15 Secrets of Commercial Divers

Boris Horvat, AFP/Getty Images
Boris Horvat, AFP/Getty Images

Imagine some of the most physically demanding jobs available—supply line installation, construction, welding—and then imagine doing them underwater. That’s the life of a commercial diver, a rigorously trained professional who undertakes everything from bridge repairs to oil line maintenance. To get a better sense of this often difficult and dangerous work, Mental Floss spoke to several commercial divers for their thoughts on everything from the perils of decompression to swimming in sewage. Here’s what they had to say about a life in flippers.

1. DIVING DEEP CAN PRODUCE EUPHORIA (AND A WEIRD VOICE).

Commercial divers receive specialized training—either in the military or at diving instructional schools—to learn how to function hundreds of feet below the surface. The lower a diver goes, the more water pressure increases, and the greater the challenges. Jeremy, a commercial diver out of Louisiana who repairs and installs equipment for oil companies, says that working in such conditions can lead to physical exhaustion, pulled muscles, and a feeling of pressure on the lungs.

Plunging to a depth in excess of 100 feet can also result in nitrogen narcosis, which some refer to as "raptures of the deep" or the "Martini effect." It's caused when divers receive a higher concentration of nitrogen from their air supply due to the effects of the water pressure on the gas. (The air systems that commercial divers use allow them to breathe normally by providing air at a pressure equal to that of the water, but the lower they go, the denser the gas gets, and thus the higher the concentration.)

“It makes you feel drunk or euphoric,” Jeremy says of the narcosis. “The solution is to switch from a nitrogen-oxygen supply to helium and oxygen.” That cures the over-inhalation of nitrogen, but when a diver comes back to the surface or to a decompression chamber, their voice will be altered. “It’s an Alvin and the Chipmunks thing,” Jeremy explains. Some diving teams will use voice augmentation to de-scramble the high-pitched squeals when divers are communicating with the surface.

2. ABOUT HALF A DOZEN OF THEM DIE EACH YEAR.

A diver works with a cable on an underwater construction job
Boris Horvat, AFP/Getty Images

Most commercial diving is centered around underwater construction—often repairing or replacing infrastructure that facilitates water, oil, or electrical supplies. Divers are frequently charged with digging trenches to bury electrical lines using high-pressure water blasts to excavate the ocean floor. If these trenches collapse, it can result in a catastrophic situation; the cave-in can trap and bury a diver, clogging their regulator or causing them to take off their helmet in a panic, which eliminates their air supply. Jeremy says a number of divers die every year in such cave-ins.

If divers can avoid that fate, they still have to worry about a number of other ways they can meet an untimely end. “We use cranes and those can fall or drop their load on you,” Jeremy says. Cutting into “live” pipelines can also cause explosions, as can using tools that displace hydrogen from the water. In an enclosed space like a ship or supply pipe, that collected hydrogen could catch a spark and explode. “That could blow your helmet off or into pieces,” he says. All in all, 25 commercial divers died on the job between 2011 and 2014, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; another 310 suffered nonfatal injuries or illnesses.

3. THE DEEPER THEY GO, THE MORE THEY EARN.

Diving jobs vary in pay according to risk, duration, and other variables, but generally, a diver’s base pay is usually supplemented with “depth pay.” The further down they go, the more they can make.

“It’s basically about a dollar a foot,” Jeremy says. “After 150 feet, the price can double to $2 a foot. Added on to regular pay, a 12-hour day can add up.” A diver working at 300 feet might net $1000 in a shift. Saturation divers, who can go 1000 feet down and are required to live off-shift in a chamber pressurized to the surrounding water in order to avoid decompression sickness, or the “bends,” can make even more.

4. SOMETIMES THEIR SUITS ARE HEATED.

Going deeper into the water means enduring more frigid conditions. To offset plummeting temperatures, divers need a way to keep their suits warm. “Below 80 feet, it gets cold,” Jeremy says. “We either pump water into a wet suit or wear a hot-water suit.” The former allows water to come in and make contact with the diver's body, typically from a heated source at the surface; the latter has water channels throughout the suit that branch out and keep divers from getting too cold. Because hot water suits can maintain a more consistent temperature than delivering warm water from above, they are most often used at 200 feet and lower depths.

5. THEY CAN WIELD FIRE UNDERWATER.

Most tools meant for underwater use are hydraulic (involving the use of water or other liquids), since they’re largely unaffected by water pressure. Fuel-powered or pneumatic tools (those that involve the use of gas) don’t really work, but divers can still make use of jackhammers, chainsaws, and other devices you’d find in an above-ground construction job. Others, however, need to be adapted.

“In my opinion, the most interesting adaptation is the BROCO torch,” says Brian, a diver based in New England. The BROCO torch uses direct current to ignite a magnesium rod and oxygen mixture that burns at approximately 10,000 degrees and can cut through metal like butter, even underwater. (A/C, or alternating current, is what we use in our homes—but because the direction of the current reverses many times a second, Brian explains, it can freeze the diver in place while electrocuting them, making it too dangerous for underwater use.)

6. THEY MIGHT FIND DEAD BODIES.

A human skull sits half-buried in sand
iStock

According to Jeremy, many recovery dives for people suspected of drowning fall under the purview of local law enforcement. Still, commercial divers can encounter someone who’s wound up in a watery grave. “I’ve done helicopter recovery jobs,” he says, referring to crashed aircraft that can harbor passengers. Once, while working on an oil rig, he stumbled upon a dead scuba diver. “It was more of a skeleton in a scuba suit,” he says. If a diver does find a corpse, they're unlikely to ever know the history of how the body got there; such discoveries are required to be passed on to the Coast Guard for investigation.

7. THEY CAN WIND UP FEEDING FISH.

A school of fish swim in the ocean
iStock

“We encounter marine life all the time,” says Mike, a commercial diver who now works primarily in and around the Great Lakes. “When working the ocean, if we are cleaning off marine growth, sometimes you will get some fish that come up and eat what you are cleaning off.” Mike says that commercial divers frequently spot sharks, barracudas, and other potentially dangerous sea dwellers, but the animals generally don't care much about humans. They’re even less likely to approach if the workers are using torches.

8. THEY SOMETIMES SWIM IN UTTER FILTH …

A common component of commercial diving, HAZMAT (hazardous material) diving involves working in contaminated water. That could mean anything from a lake affected by nearby lawn chemicals to checking equipment at a nuclear reactor. If it could kill or poison you, a diver has probably swum in it.

This kind of work requires a special approach. Brian says that those who venture into higher-risk HAZMAT diving usually wear a positive pressure diving helmet; since the pressure inside the helmet is greater than the pressure in the water outside, the helmet helps keep hazardous material from entering. HAZMAT divers also wear a rubber dry suit that fully seals the diver's entire body, unlike normal wet suits, which allow water to make contact with the wearer. Support staff will also decontaminate the HAZMAT diver after the job, scrubbing their suit free of harmful materials before the diver undresses.

9. … INCLUDING SEWAGE.

An overhead shot of a sewage treatment plant
iStock

Those stories you may have heard about people diving into sewage treatment plants to repair equipment? Those would be commercial divers, who occasionally brave the psychological challenge of being submerged in poop. Because it's usually impossible to see in a sea of feces, divers will study reference photos of empty tanks before going in. They'll suit up in sealed dry suits and typically will weigh themselves down in order to sink through the dense liquid; once they're in position, they work by feel. “Both the sewage jobs I dove on, it was repairing a masticator blade,” Mike says. “Picture a giant blender that makes solids less solid. I don't do it anymore because of the health risks.” A rip or tear in a diver's suit can introduce a litany of dangerous bacteria into their body: In addition to your standard Salmonella and Cryptosporidium parasites, such vile muck can also harbor hepatitis, Norwalk virus, E. coli, and assorted fungi [PDF].

10. DAWN SOAP IS A LIFESAVER.

Dawn dishwashing liquid is a must-have on diving expeditions. It can get diving suits and skin free of oil, and can even help divers cope with parasitic pests. When Jeremy was working on a mile-long pipeline near New Orleans, the shallow water resulted in workers getting infested with parasites carried by nutria, a semiaquatic rodent. “The hookworms will dig into your skin, die, and leave a big red mark,” he says. Splashing Dawn soap gets rid of the itch immediately. (If irritation persists, divers might need to seek anti-inflammatory treatment from a dermatologist.)

11. THEY WORRY ABOUT BEING SUCKED INTO A VACUUM OF DEATH.

Divers are frequently in violation of the laws of nature. Humans, after all, were never meant to thrive (or survive) underwater, particularly at more pressurized depths. Many divers fear encountering Delta P, or differential pressure—a vacuum that’s far higher in pressure than their current environment, and is created by intersecting water bodies as a result of opening a channel like a pipe. “Delta P is vacuum-like suction much like you would imagine from when the cabin of an airplane ruptures, but at a much greater magnitude,” Brian says. “It can be very difficult to detect until you are already too close, and can trap the diver at depth or even kill them instantly.” The unfortunate crab in the video above is an example of how differential pressure can ruin your day.

12. THEY SOMETIMES GO DIVING INSIDE WATER TOWERS.

Those water towers you see in populated areas that stand on stilts hundreds of feet up in the air? Townships need to periodically check them for sediment levels to maintain water quality. That’s when they call in a commercial diver, who needs to add "not afraid of heights" to their skill set. “You have to climb all the way up, get into your wet suit, measure the sediment with a ruler, and clear it out with a [suctioning device called an] airlift." Jeremy says. And that's not the only lofty prospect for a diver: Jeremy notes that some oil rigs stretch 100 feet in the air. Divers without seniority may be expected to carry out repairs or work at or near the top, instead of actually diving.

13. THEY CARRY KNIVES.

A diver straps on a knife
iStock

No, it’s not to duel with sharks. “While diving, I carry a razor-sharp knife for emergency purposes only,” Brian says. In an urgent situation, it could be used for "cutting anything from old fishing line to my own dive umbilical—the air hose and lifeline.” The latter rarely happens, unless the diver gets it snagged or it becomes compressed. In the event of a hose failure, divers have a "bailout bottle," a supplemental tank they can switch to in case of emergency.

14. THEY CAN BE UNDERWATER BUT NOT ACTUALLY IN THE WATER.

A diver works with a torch underwater
iStock

Not every dive requires divers to swim while working. For jobs that require meticulous attention to detail for repair or where welding is required, diving teams can set up positive pressure habitats that isolate the problem area and allow the diver to work out of water. “You use air pressure to push water out of the habitat, which is in two pieces,” Jeremy says. Inside, a diver would trade their helmet for a welding mask. Because it can take a day or more to set up the habitat for a job that might take only one or two hours, habitat work is used only in cases where there aren't any other options.

15. THEY STILL GO SWIMMING FOR FUN.

Like anything done recreationally, diving can begin to seem routine if it's performed on a daily basis. While some divers get their fill of water by working 12-hour days for weeks at a stretch, some still enjoy going under in their free time. “While my career has definitely diminished the novelty of being in such an alien environment, I still love to dive recreationally,” Brian says. “Commercial diving is exhausting work, typically in dark, low-visibility water with a particular task in mind, while recreational diving is often more about exploration and sight-seeing. I would argue that the difference is not unlike a professional runner going on a beautiful hike in their free time.”

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."

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