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11 People Who Bring the Muppets to Life

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HowStuffWorks

The Muppets have experienced a changing of the guard over the years. As the Muppeteers who gave life to the iconic felt and foam creations have passed away or moved on in show biz, the personalities of every Muppet have been carefully handed down to performers who will care for them well. Here are the faces—both the original and the new guard—behind your favorite Muppets.

The Original Owners

Jim Henson: Kermit, Dr. Teeth, Rowlf, Waldorf, the Swedish Chef

Frank Oz: Animal, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Sam the Eagle

Muppet Wiki

The Current Lineup

1. Leslie Carrara-Rudolph: Abby Cadabby


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Even though she had no puppeteering experience, Carrara joined the cast of Muppets Tonight in the mid-90s based on the strength of her voice work. When they were looking for someone to perform a fairy character being developed at Sesame Street several years later, Kevin Clash (Elmo, see below) called and asked her to audition. She calls Abby "Gracie Allen meets Daffy Duck."

2. Eric Jacobson: Bert/Grover/Animal/Fozzie/Miss Piggy/Sam the Eagle

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Jacobson has taken over most of Frank Oz's characters since 2001. In 2007, Oz explained why he transitioned all of his characters over to Jacobson:

I had done this for 30 years, and I had never wanted to be a puppeteer in the first place. I wanted to be a journalist, and really what I wanted to do was direct theatre and direct movies. As an actor and a performer, you feel limited because you're not the source for the creation, and I wanted to be the source... I've always enjoyed, more than anything else, bringing things to life, whether it be characters or actors in a scene or moments in movies. I've done so much with puppets, that I've wanted to work with actors.

3. Caroll Spinney: Big Bird/Oscar the Grouch

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Caroll Spinney originated the role of Big Bird and he's still going strong. When he's in a scene with both Big Bird and Oscar, he has his assistant play the Grouch, but continues to provide both voices.

4. David Rudman: Cookie Monster/Janice/Scooter

Chicago Tribune/Theo Wargo

Rudman started working with the Muppets when Richard Hunt helped him get a summer internship with the Muppet Workshop in 1981.

5. Matt Vogel: Count von Count/Robin the Frog/Floyd Pepper/Lew Zealand/Sweetums

Until his death in 2012, Jerry Nelson continued to provide the voice for Count von Count. Since then, Vogel has taken over both puppetry and voice duties. Vogel has also taken the helm of most of the other Nelson Muppets. In 2010, Vogel told the Muppet Mindset that he finds it most difficult to replicate the Robin voice. "The voice is so much like Jerry’s that it makes it nearly impossible to get there.  Sometimes the more 'character voice' it is, the easier it is to do," he explained. Vogel also makes occasional appearances as Big Bird.

The Muppet Mindset

6. Kevin Clash: Elmo

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I'm sure I don't need to tell any of you that Kevin Clash recently resigned from this position due the sex scandal lawsuits. While it's speculated that one of the Elmo understudies will pick up the role, no replacements have been officially announced yet.

7. Steve Whitmire: Ernie/Kermit/Wembley/Sprocket/Rizzo the Rat


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An 11-year-old Whitmire wrote a letter to Jim Henson, asking questions about puppetry and performing. Less than 10 years later, Whitmire was a regular performer on The Muppet Show. He took over Kermit when Henson died in 1990.

"I was just overwhelmed by the request," Whitmire has said. "It was a huge honor, and it also just scared the daylights out of me, the thought of trying it."

Coincidentally, he shares a birthday with Henson: September 24.

8. Fran Brill: Prairie Dawn/Zoe

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Brill, by the way, may be better known to some as Lily, the beloved sister of Dr. Leo Marvin in What About Bob? Brill also plays Kami, the HIV-positive Muppet from Takalani Sesame.

9. Marty Robinson: Snuffleupagus/Telly Monster/Slimey


Muppet Wiki

Robinson married fellow Sesame Street employee Annie Evans in 2007; they had their wedding and the reception on set. The ceremony included Caroll Spinney heckling them in character as Oscar. Best. Wedding. Ever.

10. Dave Goelz: Dr. Bunsen Honeydew/Gonzo/Waldorf/Boober Fraggle

Christopher Fong/Puppetvision

Along with Spinney, Goelz is one of the only original Muppet performers who is still at his post. He started with Henson Associates as a part-time Muppet builder and suddenly found himself performing just three years later. He has said that he first found Gonzo's "voice" when he made the blue alien tell a chicken that she had nice legs during the second season of The Muppet Show.

11. Bill Barretta: Dr. Teeth/Rowlf/Swedish Chef/Pepe the King Prawn


I Heart the Muppets

Barretta took over many of Jim Henson's non-Kermit voices after Brian Henson encouraged him to join the company. The two of them had worked together at Sesame Place. I apologize in advance, because you're going to have this stuck in your head all day now: Barretta also performs "Mahna Mahna."

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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