9 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Chefs

iStock
iStock

We think we know chefs. We eat out multiple nights a week, watch chef-centric reality TV shows, and consume gossip about their personal lives. But they aren’t all the hot-tempered characters we see on TV. In fact, the successful, high-profile ones rarely are. They’re in the kitchen to feed people, to surprise diners and make them happy. They’re there to work. Mental Floss spoke to chefs across the country to learn what really goes into their jobs and lifestyles—and why they all seem to love fast food burgers.

1. MORNINGS ARE THEIR QUIET TIMES.

Cooking in a restaurant kitchen is taxing, physical work—so many chefs start their mornings with exercise and a healthy breakfast to prep their bodies and minds for the day.

Daniel Humm, executive chef and co-owner of New York’s Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad in New York and Los Angeles, dedicates his mornings to getting outside, since he’ll spend most of the day under fluorescents. “Most days start with some activity: a run in Central Park, a yoga session, a bike ride around the city or along the Hudson,” Humm says. “It sets me up for success and gives me space to get away, to wander in my thoughts and clear my head.”

Chefs who do dinner service are usually working in the kitchen until midnight or later, and mornings provide the best opportunity to spend time with their families. Erling Wu-Bower, executive chef and co-owner of Pacific Standard Time in Chicago, spends mornings in the garden with his son Max. “Then I get in the car, roll the windows down and listen to sports radio while I drive to work,” he says.

Michael Solomonov, executive chef and co-owner of Zahav and CookNSolo restaurant group in Philadelphia, says every day for him is different. “But it consistently starts off by drinking too much coffee and then working out, or dropping my kids off at school and then working out,” Solomonov says.

2. THE HOURS ARE BRUTAL.

An overly busy restaurant kitchen
iStock

If you see a chef in their restaurant, that's usually because they're out in the dining room, possibly delivering a theatrically prepared dish or shaking hands with VIPs. But that’s a tiny fraction of how they spend their days. Chris Shepherd, co-owner and executive chef of One/Fifth and Underbelly Hospitality in Houston, gets to his restaurants around 8:30 a.m. every morning and then works until closing time. Sometimes that means 16-hour days. (In the industry in general, 70-hour work weeks aren't uncommon.)

“I don’t think people know the hours that go into the job,” Shepherd says. “It’s long. It’s definitely a labor of love: the hours, the money, everything. I always feel like I’m running late for something.”

3. SUCCESS REQUIRES MUCH MORE THAN JUST BEING A GOOD COOK.

While expertise in the kitchen is obviously required, there are many other responsibilities and skills that go into being an exceptional chef: hospitality, time management, even communication skills. Wu-Bower says that now that he’s a restaurant owner as well as a chef, he’s picked up a variety of other roles: amateur plumber, handyman, and glass polisher, to name a few.

And then there's being a good boss. “A successful chef needs to be able to lead a team, to inspire, to critique and to praise,” Humm says. “It’s about managing people just as much as it is about putting together a menu and having the ability to cook delicious food.”

Wu-Bower says he focuses on being a mentor and teacher on a daily basis. “There is a team behind every chef,” he says. “I work with a big network of farmers, purveyors, designers, dishwashers, cooks, and so many more every day. They all contribute hugely to what our guests taste on their plates.” In other words, a chef's ability to cultivate relationships might just show up in your dinner—whether in the form of a difficult-to-find ingredient or an extra-sparkling plate.

4. THEY’RE MASTERS AT TIMING.

How do a chilled ceviche and a hot bowl of soup arrive to the table at the same time at the right temperatures? It's all a matter of communication between the chef, cooks, waiters, and diners, which is facilitated by an expeditor, or kitchen liaison. “The expeditor orchestrates the timing of everything that happens in the kitchen,” Wu-Bower says. “It’s a dance choreographed in the moment.”

Dishes are often prepared at different stations, or designated areas for certain types of food. The stations vary in required serving temperatures and length of cooking time; for example, a cook working the grill station needs a different amount of time to prepare a dish than a cook on a salad station. “Communication is essential between the kitchen and the dining room,” Humm says. “Without it our timing would never work. Our team knows the cues for when to get dishes ready, how long a dish may take to prepare, and there’s a constant conversation between the kitchen and dining room to ensure we don’t miss a beat.”

5. THEY DON’T MIND IF YOU SEND A DISH BACK.

A chef staring intently at a dish of salmon
iStock

Chefs are perfectionists. If a dish arrives to a diner's table and he or she doesn’t like it, chefs don’t get angry; they want to make it right. “First is understanding why [they sent it back]: Did they dislike it? Was there an aversion? Was the temperature wrong?” Humm says. If a diner doesn’t like the flavor, Wu-Bower tastes the dish right away to find out what is going on. Then the chef decides if the dish can be recovered—cooked again, correctly—or if the diner would prefer something else entirely.

“It’s never a time to be defensive, but always an opportunity to make improvements,” Humm says. “We think of how we can recover that experience for the guest and get them back on track.”

Sending a dish back may actually affect tomorrow’s dining options. Solomonov says he encourages candid feedback from guests and servers so they can adjust their menus. “It’s an opportunity to assess our dishes and see what needs to be changed or improved,” Wu-Bower says. “We treat it as a learning experience.”

6. THEY TEND TO CARRY KITCHEN TOOLS AROUND WITH THEM.

Humm always has a fish thermometer. Wu-Bower has his peeler, fish scaler, and a mini spatula. Shepherd has kitchen spoons, palette knives, and blue tape. “Spoons for stirring, plating and, ‘hey, let me get in on that,’” Shepherd says. “Palette knives are for picking things up and moving them around. And you got to have the blue tape. You got to label everything.” Solomonov also has a good spoon and a small, offset spatula. “I think carrying a knife is maybe illegal?” he jokes.

7. THEY HAVE TO CONSCIOUSLY SCHEDULE MEALS.

A chef slicing pickles to put into a wrap or taco
iStock

It’s hard to find time to eat as a chef. They may take meetings over a midday meal—Shepherd tries to have lunch with one of his chefs every day—and they taste items while the food is being prepared, using single-use plastic spoons to check seasonings, sauces, grains, and desserts. But that’s about it if they aren’t careful.

The hardest meal to schedule is dinner, because after 3 p.m., it’s usually crunch time at a restaurant. It’s hard for everyone to stop what they’re doing and eat, even the pre-service “family meal” that kitchens usually prepare for their staff members before the rush begins. (Such meals might feature new dishes, staff favorites, or simple, comforting food that might not be on the menu.) “Even if you bring food in for them, you see them run off real quick and jam it in their face and then go back to work,” Shepherd says. “That’s part of [working conditions] that need to be addressed at some point.”

8. THEY DON’T COOK AT HOME MUCH, UNLESS IT’S FOR THEIR KIDS.

Chefs have demanding schedules and are around food all day—and they’d rather spend their free time doing other things besides making elaborate meals.

Shepherd cooks breakfast at home a few times a week, but only cooks dinner once a month. “Not enough!” he says. He makes sandwiches, or rice and beans, or grills some chicken thighs, chars some corn, and tosses together a salad for himself and his girlfriend. “I always cook simpler at home because I don’t like making messes. I’m a one-pot guy.”

Humm travels a lot and doesn’t have much time to cook at home. “But when I do,” he says, “I enjoy a quiet meal of roast chicken or a simple pasta and salad. I also love to cook breakfast for my daughters when they’re visiting.”

Other chefs also enjoy cooking for their children. Wu-Bower and his son make pasta together. Solomonov says he goes through phases. “I really enjoy home cooking; I find it very therapeutic,” he says. “But also incredibly satisfying to get my kids to actually enjoy my food.”

They also need to be health-conscious. Chefs don’t have a choice in what they are tasting throughout the day, but can make their own dining decisions at home. “We’re not eating crap late at night after service,” Shepherd says. He’d prefer to just have yogurt after work. “Inevitably if you go have a couple of drinks, you’re like, ‘pizza sounds really good, doesn’t it?’ You always end up regretting it and kicking yourself the next morning.”

9. THEY STILL LOVE TO EAT OUT.

A group of friends clinking glasses over a meal
iStock

When dining out, chefs aren’t necessarily looking for five-course meals, but they are drawn to cuisines they don’t cook in their kitchens. Humm likes to dine at Asian restaurants, especially sushi. “I’m really quite open, though I do like to order what’s in season or specific to a city or that restaurant’s specialty,” Humm says. “You want to get a taste for the place you’re in.”

Wu-Bower doesn’t need to go far to get a diverse dining experience. “I live in a neighborhood in Chicago—Pilsen—that’s really exploding with new restaurants and it’s been fun to try them all,” he says. His favorites? Thai and Vietnamese. Solomonov also reaches for sushi, Thai, and Vietnamese when he’s out. “And hot dogs,” Solomonov says. “Because America.”

Chefs also do have a reputation for enjoying greasy fast food when they get the chance. “I just slammed a corn dog and it was delicious!” Wu-Bower says.

But like any other restaurant guests, it’s the surprise on the plate, the hospitality they receive, and the time with others that they really love. “My favorite thing about eating out is enjoying a moment with friends or family,” Humm says. “The convivial spirit of sharing a table, hands reaching for dishes, and the conversation that ensues. That’s what I love."

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