20 Secrets of 911 Dispatchers

iStock.com/HHLtDave5
iStock.com/HHLtDave5

Every year, the U.S. 911 system receives about 240 million calls, and emergency dispatchers are the very first responders. They translate a caller’s situation into actionable instructions so police, fire, or medical teams can respond as quickly as possible. It’s an incredibly demanding job, with some shifts lasting up to 16 hours. That’s a lot of time spent listening to terrified callers in their most desperate moments, and it takes a certain kind of person to survive the stress. Hopefully you never have to dial 911, but if you do, here are a few things you should know about the person answering your call.

1. Most of the calls 911 dispatchers deal with aren’t emergencies.

On busy days, 911 dispatchers may get somewhere between 300 and 500 calls, and they have to answer every single one of them. However, many of them aren’t true emergencies. “Ninety-five percent are nothing calls,” says Amanda, a dispatcher of eight years in British Columbia, Canada. “They’re not people who need help. They’re people who have low coping skills. The fact you don’t know how to change the batteries in your fire alarm is not a 911 call. The fact you don’t know where you parked your car at the mall is not a 911 call. But you’ll have days where it seems that’s all you get.”

The irrelevant calls can be about anything from barking dogs to parking disputes, and in some states there are penalties for abusing the system. In 2015, a woman in Ohio was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor after calling 911 to report bad Chinese food. A man in Illinois was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct for using the emergency line to request an ambulance ride to a doctor’s appointment.

“The level of distress somebody is displaying is in no way correlated to how serious their problem is,” Amanda says. “The people who are screaming the most generally have overflowing toilets. But the calmest guy will call up and say, ‘I don’t really wanna bother anybody, but my wife isn’t breathing.’”

2. 911 dispatchers have a call hierarchy.

Emergency calls don’t necessarily get responded to in the order in which they’re received. “Calls get triaged based on the level of immediate public danger,” Amanda says. So calls involving things like weapons, kids, or domestic violence get prioritized. If you just woke up and realized your car or house was broken into, unless the invader is still there, the police are told to respond when they have a free moment.

Bill Blume, a dispatcher in Virginia since 2001, says call severity also dictates whether emergency vehicles respond with or without sirens. Life-threatening events get lights and sirens. For events that are less severe but happening now, officers go quickly but without lights or sirens. And for low-priority calls, an officer might take their time. “A low code call tells officers, ‘if you need to go get some coffee or grab lunch, it’s a good time to do it on the way to this call. No matter what time officers arrive, it won’t affect the outcome,” Blume says.

3. Butt-dials are a big problem for 911.

All over the country, cell phone owners are unwittingly dialing 911 and clogging up the lines with the muffled sounds of their pants or purse pockets. The Federal Communications Commission estimates that roughly half of all 911 calls made by cell phones in New York City are accidental, which translates into about 84 million calls per year. “This is a huge waste of resources, raises the cost of providing 911 services, depletes PSAP morale, and increases the risk that legitimate 911 calls—and first responders—will be delayed,” FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly declared in a memo.

These accidental calls may be a waste of resources, but that doesn’t mean they’re not entertaining. “We’ve had people call with the phone under their pillow while they’re having sex, or people singing while they’re driving down the road,” says Nikki, a dispatcher for nine years in Michigan.

And not all butt-dials are useless. “We once had a police chase going on and the people being pursued accidentally dialed into 911 so we could hear their conversation and let the officers know their plan,” Nikki says. One accidental 911 call in Deltona, Florida, led officers to a meth house.

4. The 911 system might give you a busy signal …

Sometimes there are more calls than dispatchers can handle, especially during emergencies that a lot of people witness, like a fire or car crash. “When you have a very public incident going on, sometimes you’ll get busy signals because there are instantly 1000 calls,” says Amanda. “The problem is that within those busy signals are some set of people calling for things that are not the public incident.”

5. … but there’s a way around it.

If you can’t get through to 911, you can try calling your local police or fire department directly through their seven-digit phone number, which you can find online. “You should have that number programmed into your phone,” says Rachael Herron, a former dispatcher in California for 15 years who is also an author. This trick lets you bypass the 911 traffic jam, but should only be used if you know your exact location, because the 911 dispatchers have better tools for locating you.

6. Whatever you do, don’t hang up on a 911 dispatcher.

The worst thing you can do to a 911 dispatcher is end the call before they answer. Every time someone calls and hangs up, dispatchers are required to call that number back. Even if you called by mistake, the best thing to do is stay on the line and explain, rather than hanging up and initiating a game of phone tag.

“I understand how frustrating and how long it can seem when you’re sitting there waiting and it feels like nothing’s happening quickly,” says Blume, “but at same time people just don’t appreciate how much a hang-up can slow the process down.”

7. A lot of callers to 911 dispatch don’t know their own location.

The most important piece of information for an emergency operator to acquire is a caller’s exact location. After all, they can’t send help if they don’t know where you are. But because not all emergencies happen at home or near a clearly-labeled street sign, many callers simply don’t know where they are when disaster strikes. “Maybe you’re stuck in a store and you didn’t pay attention to the address,” explains Amanda. “Or on the highway people are very fuzzy about where they are. In hotels people don’t know their room number.”

This requires some investigative work on behalf of the dispatcher, and everything becomes a clue. “Any descriptors are really useful, like if it’s really close to a landmark or store,” says Amanda. If the caller spots a license plate, the dispatcher can run the number and cross-reference it with the owner’s home address. If all else fails, dispatchers can send police cars to where they think the caller is and guide the officers using the sounds of the sirens over the phone.

Experience has taught dispatchers to be extra-aware of their surroundings at all times. “I used to say ‘left’ or ‘right’ but now I say ‘north, south, east, west,’” says Nikki. “I pay attention all the time now to where I am and what’s going on around me.”

8. 911 dispatchers wish you’d call from a landline.

The prevalence of cell phones means the number of 911 calls made from landlines has decreased through the years: More than 80 percent of emergency calls now come from wireless phones. But this poses a challenge for dispatchers, because unlike a landline, cell phones are not attached to a specific address.

“The absolute number one thing if there’s an emergency, please call from a landline,” says Amanda. “If you’re in an apartment building with 35 floors, it will give us an apartment number. Your cell phone will only give us an approximate.”

But this information varies by location and carrier. “We’ve discovered that Sprint and Verizon have the most accurate locations,” says Nikki. “We were once trying to locate a man with a gun, and he had Sprint, and the map showed him on one side of a pine tree and that’s exactly where he was.” In 2018, Apple and Google also both added services that transmit location data from cellphones to 911.

9. You don’t have to say anything to the dispatcher.

In some dire emergency situations, a 911 caller may be unable to speak. For example, if an intruder is in their home, or they’re choking or having a heart attack. Dispatchers are trained to ask yes-or-no questions a caller can answer with the push of a button. “We’ll tell them to press a button if they’re in the city,” explains Martha, a dispatcher in Georgia. “If they don’t press a button we’ll know they’re in a county. Or if there’s a domestic situation, we’ll ask, ‘Is he still in the room? Does he have a weapon? Has he been drinking?’”

10. 911 dispatchers don’t know what happens to callers.

One of the hardest things about being a dispatcher is the lack of closure that comes with the job. Once the first responders are on the scene, dispatchers have to hang up and move to the next call. They will probably never find out what happens to their callers. “It is the worst part,” says Jill, a 14-year veteran dispatcher in Florida. “You have this intense moment with this person, it could be the most horrible moment of their life and you’re the first one to help them, and you never find out what happens.”

11. Dispatchers have learned that sports fans procrastinate in medical emergencies.

One guaranteed slow time for 911 dispatchers is during a major sporting event, particularly the Super Bowl. “You get no calls when the game is on,” says Amanda. “None. It’s bizarre.” But dispatchers don’t have to follow the game to know when it’s over. When the buzzer goes off, the phones start ringing. “As soon as the game is over, you’ll have 20 guys having a heart attack because they weren’t willing to call during the game,” says Herron. “It’s true every single year.”

12. 911 dispatchers are very superstitious.

One word you’ll never hear a dispatcher mumble is “quiet.” Acknowledging a shift has been particularly sedate is a quick way to get an onslaught of calls, Amanda says. Acceptable alternatives include “tranquil” and “serene.”

13. Dispatchers don’t care why it happened.

Dispatchers want to know the what and where of your emergency, but never the why. “'Why' is the one question we never ask,” says Blume. “Everyone is dying to tell us why, and the thing is that has nothing to do with determining the level of safety for our officers.”

14. They’re traumatized.

One 2012 study found 911 dispatchers are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder due to the high volume of distressing calls they receive. "This is a population of people who are routinely exposed to events that should be considered traumatic," says Michelle Lilly, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University.

“I heard a gentleman take his last breath after being stabbed,” Jill admits. “That one bothers me today and it happened seven years ago. I have a thick skin but not around my heart.”

Insomnia, paranoia, and grief can haunt dispatchers when they’re not manning the phone lines. Herron says she can’t drive around her town without remembering the bad things that happened at particular addresses. “I know the geography of grief,” she says. “I know which woman hanged herself in that window and which mother found her son dead in that bedroom.”

Some dispatchers survive by emotionally detaching, others by approaching their job from a mindset of positivity. “A lot of people I work with live with a lot of fear and assumptions that terrible things will happen in the world because that’s what they hear,” says Amanda. “But my frame that keeps me ok is I know that this person is having a terrible day whether I’m there or not, and anything I do might make things better. And most people never have to call us. The majority of people go through their days and nothing bad happens to them and that’s very powerful also. We have to remember the things we hear are rare.”

15. For dispatchers, kid calls are the worst.

Many experienced 911 operators develop pretty thick skins over the years. But emergencies involving children are an exception.

“Everyone hates a baby call,” says Herron. “If you get a call that a baby isn’t breathing, the whole room gets really, really quiet and all the dispatchers pull for the person giving CPR instructions. I’ve had a couple that have gone badly and those are hard to let go.”

16. Dispatchers have regulars.

If you’re lucky, you’ll never have to call 911, but some people call the number so often the dispatchers recognize them immediately and know them by name.

“We call them frequent flyers,” Blume says. “You kind of develop a relationship with them. You remember them and know how that conversation is gonna go. It may be someone prone to alcoholism or who has a history of mental illness and you know certain things that work on other calls just aren’t gonna work there.”

17. Dispatch is full of creatives.

A lot of dispatchers enter into the career through the side door, as writers or musicians looking for steady income while they pursue their art on the side. “You rarely see someone come into a job as a dispatcher where that is their career goal,” says Blume, who is an author of several books himself.

“I work with five or six people who have written and published books because that’s what they want to do but they can’t make any money doing it so they do this four days a week,” says Amanda, who took the job to supplement her magazine writing.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers make an average annual salary of $39,640, a pretty decent supplemental income. But finding the right kind of person for the job is difficult considering the high stress levels and long hours, and a lot of new dispatchers quit. “Our survival rate is one-third,” Blume estimates. “In my academy we had nine people in the beginning and by the time we were done, there were three of us left.”

18. Your dispatcher might be knitting when you call.

Dispatchers are multi-taskers who thrive on adrenaline, and that’s what makes them good at their job. They can talk a caller through CPR while simultaneously typing instructions for first responders at record speeds. But between calls and on slower days, they get bored like the rest of us, and resort to browsing social media or even knitting to occupy the time.

For some veteran dispatchers, the job has become so routine they can nearly do it with their eyes closed. Nikki admits that sometimes while she’s instructing a caller on how to administer CPR, she’s simultaneously browsing Pinterest. “I’m like holy crap I just saved somebody’s life without realizing what I was doing.”

19. Dispatchers know that tasks keep people calm.

A dispatcher’s job is to get as much pertinent information as possible from a caller, and that’s hard to do when the caller is hysterical. But there are tricks that dispatchers use to calm people, even in the most terrifying situations. “I slow my language and bring my tone way down,” says Herron. “If they’re shouting, I don’t shout back because it’s human nature, if someone else talks quietly, you listen.”

One quick way to get a panicked caller to concentrate, Jill says, is to give them something to do. “If they don’t know where they’re at, I tell them to look for a piece of mail. If you give them a small task it seems to make them focus a little more and that can de-escalate their stress a little bit.”

The most important thing is to just keep talking, Blume says, because silence can make a caller feel alone, which breeds panic. Skilled dispatchers will explain exactly what they’re doing on their end of the line and why, even if it’s boring. “I’ll say ‘standby just a moment, I’m going to enter this,’ or ‘hold on I’m going to update the units, don’t hang up.’ A lot of times those little touches can completely change the tone of a conversation. It’s all about communicating.”

20. Dispatchers are human lie-detectors.

From the second they answer your call, dispatchers are listening for signs the situation is not as you say. Callers lie to them all the time for various reasons. For example, someone might exaggerate the seriousness of their situation (perhaps by reporting that gunshots have been fired when they haven’t) to get a faster police response. In a domestic abuse situation, a victim might place the call but be unable to communicate, or the abuser could somehow end up with the phone and lie on their behalf, or hang up. The dispatcher’s job is to use strategic questions to gather any revealing information they can.

“Usually you can read into tone,” says Blume. “A red flag is if, when I call back, they say the call was a mistake, that’s a big difference than if they say it was an accident. If they say it was a mistake that gives me the impression they were trying to call on purpose and clearly there was a reason why they did it. You have to be suspicious.”

A version of this piece first ran in 2015.

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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