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Robert Furhing, via Tribeca Film
Robert Furhing, via Tribeca Film

5 Things We Learned About Big Bird from Bullseye

Robert Furhing, via Tribeca Film
Robert Furhing, via Tribeca Film

Bullseye With Jesse Thorn is an interview show featuring the best guests you can imagine. I like to think of it as a vastly hipper version of Fresh Air. It's on NPR, and is also a free podcast (subscribe via iTunes or RSS).

At mental_floss we love Bullseye. So we're teaming up. Here's the first in a series of Bullseye interviews, transcribed, with little timestamps when each nugget of discussion begins.

The first interview is with Caroll Spinney, who has played Big Bird (and Oscar the Grouch) since 1969, when the show began. The interview also includes Dave LaMattina, who directed the upcoming documentary I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. Here are five things we learned from Jesse Thorn's interview. You can also run the SoundCloud player and jump to the times noted, if you like.

1. Big Bird's Head and Face are Operated By Caroll Spinney's Right Arm...Over His Head

(11:51) Jesse Thorn: Caroll, can you tell me a little bit about how you physically inhabit the Big Bird costume?

Caroll Spinney: Well, it's funny. It's rather low-tech mostly. I put on the bird feet, and the leggings used to be a kind of a strap that reach up and onto a belt I'd strap around me. I'd wear shorts, and the feet are attached to the legs...

Jesse Thorn: I liked seeing an actual...like, you strapping on an actual belt to help hold up your leg-pants.

Caroll Spinney: Well, then they made it more practical. They made it more like hip boots where you put on pants that are made of rubber in that case, and the feet are attached like hip boots, but this now it's all orange fleece and with those pink stripe circles around his legs. Then the rest of it is all put together in one piece, and my assistant fixes up my lower beak and a tab that you can't see which is hid in the feathers, of yellow cloth.

She can pick it up and it's made of a series of hoops, getting wider to make his size, and smaller as it goes up the neck. I lean over and they slide him over me. I reach up and put my hand in his head and wiggle my fingers into place to get the controls, so my little finger will move the eyes.

I’ve learned, since I have a monitor inside to study ... how to angle him to show either joy, or worry, or angst. My left hand goes into the left arm and the right one can move up and down because of a fishing line in a see-saw movement, but [Big Bird's right hand] can't grab anything like my left hand. Any props I use have to be picked up by my left hand.

2. He Can't See Out Of the Costume—Only A Monitor View from the Camera

Caroll Spinney and Jim Henson in I AM BIG BIRD: THE CAROLL SPINNEY STORY a Tribeca Film release. Photo courtesy of Debra Spinney.

(13:42) Jesse Thorn: Are you ever when you're in the costume, especially now and recently, worried about just simply put, your safety?

Caroll Spinney: Well, I don't think there's generally much danger, although I did have some very dangerous moments when one time a klieg light missed me by 18 inches. Weighed over a hundred pounds.

Jesse Thorn: Because you have to walk around and your only reference is a view through the camera's eyes. You can't see out of the costume.

Caroll Spinney: No, I can't, and it used to be, television wires going to the TV sets [were] like an inch and a half thick, it was a big cable. Now it's the size of a regular cable, so that's not quite so dangerous, but those are a real tripper! And I have fallen down a few times. I've fallen off a few stages. One quite a fall, one of them in Guam.

3. A Cameraman Saved Him from Being Burned to Death

Caroll Spinney in I AM BIG BIRD: THE CAROLL SPINNEY STORY a Tribeca Film release. Photo courtesy of Debra Spinney.

(Ed. note: For context, in this part of the interview, Thorn pursues the safety issues of growing older and continuing to wear and work in such an enormous costume.)

(15:06) Jesse Thorn: But not every [80-year-old man] has the problem of walking around in a giant yellow suit, right?

Caroll Spinney: You have to walk confidently, and I try to study everything that's around me, and my assistant, Lara, I'll have her aim me, because I can't see. We can remove a feather or two, but now we're in HD. You can't do that. You can even see that little spot there's a feather missing, so everything shows, but there's some danger.

One time that same klieg light, it smashed to pieces and it had been lit! So a big burning chunk of asbestos—I didn't think it burned, but it was like a glowing coal—it landed in one of those fluffy rings of pink around [my] legs and the cloth they'd used to make it was highly flammable, it turned out.

Suddenly I'm looking down inside [the costume] and I said, “Something feels hot!” I looked down and I see an orange flame and it started getting long enough to go inside the suit, and I was like, “Oh, my God.” I said, “Hey, I'm on fire,” and people were just worried because I'd almost gotten hit. It was only a matter of seconds between the hit and me being on fire, and one of the cameramen, Richie King, he saved my life. He went over and he patted the flame out with his hand. So I almost burned to death at the same time as almost being crushed to death.

4. Mr. Hooper's Death Could Have Been Explained as Hooper Retiring to Florida

(17:36) Jesse Thorn: I want to play a clip that you share in the movie, Dave. It was something that I hadn't thought about since I was a toddler, I guess, or I hadn't seen since I was a toddler, and that is the show that came after the passing of the character Mr. Hooper which was precipitated by the passing of the man who played him, and Mr. Hooper's store was sort of the center of Sesame Street, and there was really a lot of questions as to how to address that this had happened, and Big Bird turned out to be at the center of it. Let's take a listen.

(Ed. note: Thorn plays part of this clip, until about the 3:30 mark.)

Jesse Thorn: It's hard for me to listen to even now.

Caroll Spinney: I'm starting to cry myself.

Jesse Thorn: What was it like when they handed you that script?

Caroll Spinney: Well, I was wondering because one of our funniest writers was the one that wrote it. He was the head writer at that time, the fabulous Norman Stiles. I thought it was probably the greatest script I'd ever seen come down to us to use and I thought it was beautifully done, because the question was: Do you tell 4-year-olds about people dying?

And they thought they we could just say, “Well, Mr. Hooper has retired in Florida,” but that was just an easy way out. So they did some research and said, “We think we can do this,” and I think they did a great job. I think it would be a good service to have that as a video to show children who've lost their grandparent or something, but anyway it really was, I think, beautifully done. One of the finest things we ever did.

5. His Hero is Señor Wences, Who Performed Until the Age of 102

(22:49) Jesse Thorn: When I started watching Sesame Street with my son, who's a toddler, I was reminded of how deep that well of love that seemed to come out of that show was and still does come out of that show, I wonder if that's part of what has kept you, Caroll, so deeply tied to this world for 45 years.

Caroll Spinney: Well, I'm kind of encouraged by the fact an awful lot of artists of performance or paint do seem to have a long life. Perhaps it's because there's a lot of purpose in life for them. It hasn't become boring.

My hero is Señor Wences. Do you remember “S'awright? S'awriiight,” and he did very funny things on Ed Sullivan, of course that's way before your time, but still sometimes you'd see his stuff. He'd performed on the very last day he lived, on stage in Madrid where he's really from, and it was basically a half puppet act and mostly a ventriloquist, but without a traditional ventriloquist’s dummy. He'd draw a face on his hand and use his thumb folded as the lower jaw and talk to Jan. Well, he performed on the last day of his life. He went home and went to bed and that was...well, he didn’t get up, but kind of a nice way to go since he was 102, and so he's my great hero. I'd love to emulate him, and I don't know if I'll be that lucky. I feel 80 definitely feels older than 79, but I'm very optimistic and optimism, I think, is one of the things that is good to live on.

(Ed. note: Here's a clip from The Ed Sullivan Show showing the Señor Wences act Spinney describes.)

Where to See the Documentary

I Am Big Bird comes out this week online, then rolls out in theaters across the country. Check out the film's website for screening dates and times.

Where to Subscribe to Bullseye

You can subscribe to Bullseye With Jesse Thorn via iTunes or any podcast player you like. It's also on various NPR stations across the country.

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10 Things We Know About The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2
Hulu
Hulu

Though Hulu has been producing original content for more than five years now, 2017 turned out to be a banner year for the streaming network with the debut of The Handmaid’s Tale on April 26, 2017. The dystopian drama, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book, imagines a future in which a theocratic regime known as Gilead has taken over the United States and enslaved fertile women so that the group’s most powerful couples can procreate.

If it all sounds rather bleak, that’s because it is—but it’s also one of the most impressive new series to arrive in years (as evidenced by the slew of awards it has won, including eight Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards). Fortunately, fans left wanting more don’t have that much longer to wait, as season two will premiere on Hulu in April. In the meantime, here’s everything we know about The Handmaid’s Tale’s second season.

1. IT WILL PREMIERE WITH TWO EPISODES.

When The Handmaid’s Tale returns on April 25, 2018, Hulu will release the first two of its 13 new episodes on premiere night, then drop another new episode every Wednesday.

2. MARGARET ATWOOD WILL CONTINUE TO HELP SHAPE THE NARRATIVE.

Fans of Atwood’s novel who didn’t like that season one went beyond the original source material are in for some more disappointment in season two, as the narrative will again go beyond the scope of what Atwood covered. But creator/showrunner Bruce Miller doesn’t necessarily agree with the criticism they received in season one.

“People talk about how we're beyond the book, but we're not really," Miller told Newsweek. "The book starts, then jumps 200 years with an academic discussion at the end of it, about what's happened in those intervening 200 years. We're not going beyond the novel. We're just covering territory [Atwood] covered quickly, a bit more slowly.”

Even more importantly, Miller's got Atwood on his side. The author serves as a consulting producer on the show, and the title isn’t an honorary one. For Miller, Atwood’s input is essential to shaping the show, particularly as it veers off into new territories. And they were already thinking about season two while shooting season one. “Margaret and I had started to talk about the shape of season two halfway through the first [season],” he told Entertainment Weekly.

In fact, Miller said that when he first began working on the show, he sketched out a full 10 seasons worth of storylines. “That’s what you have to do when you’re taking on a project like this,” he said.

3. MOTHERHOOD WILL BE A CENTRAL THEME.

As with season one, motherhood is a key theme in the series. And June/Offred’s pregnancy will be one of the main plotlines. “So much of [Season 2] is about motherhood,” Elisabeth Moss said during the Television Critics Association press tour. “Bruce and I always talked about the impending birth of this child that’s growing inside her as a bit of a ticking time bomb, and the complications of that are really wonderful to explore. It’s a wonderful thing to have a baby, but she’s having it potentially in this world that she may not want to bring it into. And then, you know, if she does have the baby, the baby gets taken away from her and she can’t be its mother. So, obviously, it’s very complicated and makes for good drama. But, it’s a very big part of this season, and it gets bigger and bigger as the show goes on.”

4. THE RESISTANCE IS COMING.

Just because June is pregnant, don’t expect her to sit on the sidelines as the resistance to Gilead continues. “There is more than one way to resist," Moss said. “There is resistance within [June], and that is a big part of this season.”

5. WE’LL GET TO SEE THE COLONIES.

A scene from 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Hulu

Miller, understandably, isn’t eager to share too many details about the new season. “I’m not being cagey!” he swore to Entertainment Weekly. “I just want the viewers to experience it for themselves!” What he did confirm is that the new season will bring us to the colonies—reportedly in episode two—and show what life is like for those who have been sent there.

It will also delve further into what life is like for the refugees who managed to escape Gilead, like Luke and Moira.

6. MARISA TOMEI WILL APPEAR IN AN EPISODE.

Though she won’t be a regular cast member, Miller recently announced that Oscar winner Marisa Tomei will make a guest appearance in the new season’s second episode. Yes, the one that will show us the Colonies. In fact, that’s where we’ll meet her; Tomei is playing the wife of a Commander.

7. WE’LL LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF GILEAD.

As a group shrouded in secrecy, we still don’t know much about how and where Gilead began. That will change a bit in season two. When discussing some of the questions viewers will have answered, executive producer Warren Littlefield promised that, "How did Gilead come about? How did this happen?” would be two of them. “We get to follow the historical creation of this world,” he said.

8. THERE WILL BE AT LEAST ONE HANDMAID FUNERAL.

A scene from 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Hulu

While Miller wouldn’t talk about who the handmaids are mourning in a teaser shot from season two that shows a handmaid’s funeral, he was excited to talk about creating the look for the scene. “Everything from the design of their costumes to the way they look is so chilling,” Miller told Entertainment Weekly. “These scenes that are so beautiful, while set in such a terrible place, provide the kind of contrast that makes me happy.”

9. ELISABETH MOSS SAYS THE TONE WILL BE DARKER.

Like season one, Miller says that The Handmaid’s Tale's second season will again balance its darker, dystopian themes with glimpses of hopefulness. “I think the first season had very difficult things, and very hopeful things, and I think this season is exactly the same way,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “There come some surprising moments of real hope and victory, and strength, that come from surprising places.”

Moss, however, has a different opinion. “It's a dark season,” she told reporters at TCA. “I would say arguably it's darker than Season 1—if that's possible.”

10. IT WILL ALSO BE BLOODIER.

A scene from 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Hulu

When pressed about how the teaser images for the new season seemed to feature a lot of blood, Miller conceded: “Oh gosh, yeah. There may be a little more blood this season.”

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6 Surprising Facts About Nintendo's Animal Crossing

by Ryan Lambie

Animal Crossing is one of the most unusual series of games Nintendo has ever produced. Casting you as a newcomer in a woodland town populated by garrulous and sometimes eccentric creatures, Animal Crossing is about conversation, friendship, and collecting things rather than competition or shooting enemies. It’s a formula that has grown over successive generations, with the 3DS version now one of the most popular games available for that system—which is all the more impressive, given the game’s obscure origins almost 15 years ago. Here are a few things you might not have known about the video game.

1. ITS INSPIRATION CAME FROM AN UNLIKELY PLACE.

By the late 1990s, Katsuya Eguchi had already worked on some of Nintendo’s greatest games. He’d designed the levels for the classic Super Mario Bros 3. He was the director of Star Fox (or Star Wing, as it was known in the UK), and the designer behind the adorable Yoshi’s Story. But Animal Crossing was inspired by Eguchi’s experiences from his earlier days, when he was a 21-year-old graduate who’d taken the decisive step of moving from Chiba Prefecture, Japan, where he’d grown up and studied, to Nintendo’s headquarters in Kyoto.

Eguchi wanted to recreate the feeling of being alone in a new town, away from friends and family. “I wondered for a long time if there would be a way to recreate that feeling, and that was the impetus behind Animal Crossing,” Eguchi told Edge magazine in 2008. Receiving letters from your mother, getting a job (from the game’s resident raccoon capitalist, Tom Nook), and gradually filling your empty house with furniture and collectibles all sprang from Eguchi’s memories of first moving to Kyoto.

2. IT WAS ORIGINALLY DEVELOPED FOR THE N64.

Although Animal Crossing would eventually become best known as a GameCube title—to the point where many assume that this is where the series began—the game actually appeared first on the N64. First developed for the ill-fated 64DD add-on, Animal Crossing (or Doubutsu no Mori, which translates to Animal Forest) was ultimately released as a standard cartridge. But by the time Animal Crossing emerged in Japan in 2001, the N64 was already nearing the end of its lifespan, and was never localized for a worldwide release.

3. TRANSLATING THE GAME FOR AN INTERNATIONAL AUDIENCE WAS A DIFFICULT TASK.

The GameCube version of Animal Crossing was released in Japan in December 2001, about eight months after the N64 edition. Thanks to the added capacity of the console’s discs, they could include characters like Tortimer or Blathers that weren’t in the N64 iteration, and Animal Crossing soon became a hit with Japanese critics and players alike.

Porting Animal Crossing for an international audience would prove to be a considerable task, however, with the game’s reams of dialogue and cultural references all requiring careful translation. But the effort that writers Nate Bihldorff and Rich Amtower put into the English-language version would soon pay off; Nintendo’s bosses in Japan were so impressed with the additional festivals and sheer personality present in the western version of Animal Crossing that they decided to have that version of the game translated back into Japanese. This new version of the game, called Doubutsu no Mori e+, was released in 2003.

4. K.K. SLIDER IS BASED ON ON THE GAME'S COMPOSER.

One of Animal Crossing’s most recognizable and popular characters is K.K. Slider, the laidback canine musician. He’s said to be based, both in looks and name, on Kazumi Totaka, the prolific composer and voice actor who co-wrote Animal Crossing’s music. In the Japanese version of Animal Crossing, K.K. Slider is called Totakeke—a play on the real musician’s name. K.K. Slider’s almost as prolific as Totaka, too: Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the Nintendo 3DS contains a total of 91 tracks performed by the character.

5. ONE CHARACTER HAS BEEN KNOWN TO MAKE PLAYERS CRY.

A more controversial character than K.K. Slider, Mr. Resetti is an angry mole created to remind players to save the game before switching off their console. And the more often players forget to save their game, the angrier Mr. Resetti gets. Mr. Resetti’s anger apparently disturbed some younger players, though, as Animal Crossing: New Leaf’s project leader Aya Kyogoku revealed in an interview with Nintendo's former president, the late Satoru Iwata.

“We really weren't sure about Mr. Resetti, as he really divides people," Kyogoku said. “Some people love him, of course, but there are others who don't like being shouted at in his rough accent.”

“It seems like younger female players, in particular, are scared,” Iwata agreed. “I've heard that some of them have even cried.”

To avoid the tears, Mr. Resetti plays a less prominent role in Animal Crossing: New Leaf, and only appears if the player first builds a Reset Surveillance Centre. Divisive though he is, Mr. Resetti’s been designed and written with as much care as any of the other characters in Animal Crossing; his first name’s Sonny, he has a brother called Don and a cousin called Vinnie, and he prefers his coffee black with no sugar.

6. THE SERIES IS STILL EVOLVING.

Since its first appearance in 2001, the quirky and disarming Animal Crossing has grown to encompass toys, a movie, and no fewer than four main games (or five if you count the version released for the N64 as a separate entry). All told, the Animal Crossing games have sold more than 30 million copies, and the series is still growing. In late 2017, the mobile title Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp was released for iOS and Android. It's a big step for the franchise, as Nintendo is famously selective about which of its series get a mobile makeover. A game once inspired by the loneliness of moving to a new town has now become one of Nintendo’s most successful and beloved franchises.

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