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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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Every New Movie, TV Series, and Special Coming to Netflix in May
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Netflix

Netflix is making way for loads of laughs in its library in May, with a handful of original comedy specials (Steve Martin, Martin Short, Carol Burnett, Tig Notaro, and John Mulvaney will all be there), plus the long-awaited return of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Here’s every new movie, TV series, and special making its way to Netflix in May.

MAY 1

27: Gone Too Soon

A Life of Its Own: The Truth About Medical Marijuana

Amelie

Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures: Season 1

Beautiful Girls

Darc

God's Own Country

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous Live at Radio City

Mr. Woodcock

My Perfect Romance

Pocoyo & Cars

Pocoyo & The Space Circus

Queens of Comedy: Season 1

Reasonable Doubt

Red Dragon

Scream 2

Shrek

Simon: Season 1

Sliding Doors

Sometimes

The Bourne Ultimatum

The Carter Effect

The Clapper

The Reaping

The Strange Name Movie

Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V: Season 2

MAY 2

Jailbreak

MAY 4

A Little Help with Carol Burnett

Anon

Busted!: Season 1

Dear White People: Volume 2

End Game

Forgive Us Our Debts

Kong: King of the Apes: Season 2

Manhunt

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: Tina Fey

No Estoy Loca

The Rain: Season 1

MAY 5

Faces Places

MAY 6

The Joel McHale Show with Joel McHale

MAY 8

Desolation

Hari Kondabolu: Warn Your Relatives

MAY 9

Dirty Girl

MAY 11

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 3

Evil Genius: the True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist

Spirit Riding Free: Season 5

The Kissing Booth

The Who Was? Show: Season 1

MAY 13

Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife

MAY 14

The Phantom of the Opera

MAY 15

Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce: Season 4

Grand Designs: Seasons 13 - 14

Only God Forgives

The Game 365: Seasons 15 - 16

MAY 16

89

Mamma Mia!

The 40-Year-Old Virgin

The Kingdom

Wanted

MAY 18

Cargo

Catching Feelings

Inspector Gadget: Season 4

MAY 19

Bridge to Terabithia

Disney’s Scandal: Season 7

Small Town Crime

MAY 20

Some Kind of Beautiful

MAY 21

Señora Acero: Season 4

MAY 22

Mob Psycho 100: Season 1

Shooter: Season 2

Terrace House: Opening New Doors: Part 2

Tig Notaro Happy To Be Here

MAY 23

Explained

MAY 24

Fauda: Season 2

Survivors Guide to Prison

MAY 25

Ibiza

Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life

The Toys That Made Us: Season 2

Trollhunters: Part 3

MAY 26

Sara's Notebook

MAY 27

The Break with Michelle Wolf

MAY 29

Disney·Pixar's Coco

MAY 30

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Season 4

MAY 31

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: Howard Stern

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20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
A scene from Wild Wild Country (2018)
Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. WILD WILD COUNTRY (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary that touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights—should be your new obsession. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. FLINT TOWN (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. MAKERS: WOMEN WHO MAKE AMERICA (2013)

Narrated by Meryl Streep, this three-part series covers a half-century of American experience from the earliest days of second-wave feminism through Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court nomination in the 1990s. Ellen DeGeneres, Condoleezza Rice, Sally Ride, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and more are featured, and the series got six more episodes in a second season.

Where to watch it: Makers.com

4. THE JINX (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. One was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO

5. MAKING A MURDERER (2015)

The second major true crime phenom of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. WORMWOOD (2017)

Speaking of good conspiracies: documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. FIVE CAME BACK (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. THE STORY OF FILM: AN ODYSSEY (2011)

If you can’t afford film school, and your local college won’t let you audit any more courses, Mark Cousins’s 915-minute history is the next best thing. Unrivaled in its scope, watching it is like having a charming encyclopedia discuss its favorite movies. Yes, at 15-episodes it’s sprawling, so, yes, you should watch it all in one go. Carve out a weekend and be ready to take notes on all the movies you want to watch afterward.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

9. UGLY DELICIOUS (2018)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people through the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. JAZZ (2000)

A legend of nonfiction, Ken Burns has more than a few docuseries available to stream, including long-form explorations of the Civil War and baseball. His 10-episode series on jazz exhaustively tracks nearly a century of the formation and evolution of the musical style across the United States. You’ll wanna mark off a big section of the calendar and crank up the volume.

Where to watch it: Amazon

11. THE STAIRCASE (2004)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. (Netflix just announced that it will be releasing three new episodes of the series this summer.)

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

12. PLANET EARTH II (2016)

The sequel to the 2006 original is a real stunner. Narrated (naturally) by Sir David Attenborough, featuring music from Hans Zimmer, and boasting gorgeous photography of our immeasurably fascinating planet, this follow-up takes us through different terrains to see the life contained within. There are snow leopards in the mountains, a swimming sloth in the islands, and even langurs in our own urban jungle. Open your eyes wide to learn a lot or put it on in the background to zen out.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon

14. CONFLICT (2015)

Experience the too-often-untold stories of conflict zones through the lenses of world class photographers like Nicole Tung, Donna Ferraro, and João Silva. This heart-testing, bias-obliterating series is unique in its views into dark places and eye toward hope.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. LAST CHANCE U (2016)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. There are two full seasons to binge and a third on the way.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. VICE (2013)

Currently in its sixth season, the series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens.

Where to watch it: HBO

17. CHEF’S TABLE (2015)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. No shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. NOBU’S JAPAN (2014)

For those looking to learn more about culture while chowing down, world-renowned chef Nobu Matsuhisa guides guest chefs to different regions of Japan to ingest the sights, sounds, and spirits of the area before crafting a dish inspired by the journey. History is the main course, with a healthy dash of culinary invention that honors tradition.

Where to watch it: Sundance Now

19. THE SYSTEM (2014)

Should a jury decide if a child is sentenced to life in jail without parole? How can you go to jail for 20 years for shooting your gun inside your own home to deter thieves? These are just two of the questions examined by this knockout series about the conflicts, outdated methods, and biases lurking in America’s criminal justice system. Insightful and infuriating, it makes a strong companion to Ava DuVernay’s 13th.

Where to watch it: Al Jazeera and Sundance Now

20. BOBBY KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT (2018)

It won’t be available until April 27 (so close!), but it’s well worth adding to your queue. This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

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