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Robert Furhing, via Tribeca Film

5 Things We Learned About Big Bird from Bullseye

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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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20 Things You Might Not Know About Mr. Show
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HBO

You never need an excuse to look back at Mr. Show with Bob and David, but given that today is co-creator Bob Odenkirk's 55th birthday, now seems to be as good a time as any.

1. BOB ODENKIRK AND DAVID CROSS’S FIRST MEETING DID NOT GO VERY WELL.

Following four years of writing on Saturday Night Live, Odenkirk was in Los Angeles in 1992 as a writer for the Chris Elliott Fox cult classic Get a Life. David Cross was a comedian in L.A. after performing for years in Boston. One boring afternoon, Cross asked friend and fellow stand-up Janeane Garofalo if she knew anybody that played basketball. The two went to Odenkirk’s house, and Garofalo introduced David to Bob and then asked if he wanted to play basketball. He said no.

2. ODENKIRK AND CROSS FIRST WORKED TOGETHER ON THE BEN STILLER SHOW.

Despite their inauspicious beginning, the two ended up having numerous fruitful collaborations, starting with their work on The Ben Stiller Show. Odenkirk was a writer/performer on the short-lived but Emmy award-winning sketch show with Garofalo, Stiller, and Andy Dick. Cross was brought in in the middle of the show’s 13-episode run as a writer.

3. THE CO-STARS FIRST PERFORMED ON STAGE TOGETHER AS "THE THREE GOOFBALLZ."

Odenkirk and Cross performed sketch comedy together at the Diamond Club in Los Angeles, with a third improviser that, the joke went, would either be deceased or out elsewhere getting high.

4. "THE THREE GOOFBALLZ' WAS ALMOST THE TITLE OF MR. SHOW

Odenkirk also pitched the title Grand National Championships, but David Cross was never a fan of it.

5. JACK BLACK, SARAH SILVERMAN, AND OTHER FUTURE STARS APPEARED ON THE SHOW BEFORE THEY WERE FAMOUS.

Black was in four episodes of Mr. Show, starring in the classic Jesus Christ Superstar parody “Jeepers Creepers.” Silverman was a performer in 10 episodes. Mary Lynn Rajskub, best known as Chloe on 24, was a featured actress in the first two years. Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants, was a series regular for a majority of the run. Scott Adsit, a.k.a. 30 Rock’s Pete Hornberger, was in six episodes.

6. PATTON OSWALT WARMED UP THE MR. SHOW CROWD.

In addition to performing stand-up before tapings and keeping the studio audience interested in between scenes, Oswalt played Famous Mortimer in the episode “Operation: Hell on Earth” (but was credited as “Patton Oswald.”)

7. HOMELESS PEOPLE WERE NOT KIND TO THE ORIGINAL SETS.

Because the pilot episode was shot at a “down and dirty,” small Central Hollywood club, the sets had to be placed outside, where homeless people defecated on them.

8. YOU MIGHT ALSO RECOGNIZE SOME OF THE WRITING STAFF.

Dino Stamatopoulos was already on the original writing staff of Late Night with Conan O’Brien and had written for David Letterman before writing for Cross and Odenkirk. He would later create three shows and play Starburns on Community. Writer/performer Scott Aukerman co-created and executive produces Between Two Ferns, and created and stars on Comedy Bang! Bang!. Writer/performer Paul F. Tompkins hosted VH-1’s Best Week Ever! and currently hosts the satirical debate show No, You Shut Up!, where he moderates discussions by a panel full of puppets. Bob Odenkirk’s brother Bill has written ten episodes of The Simpsons.

9. THE DIRECTORS OF LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE LEARNED HOW TO DIRECT COMEDY FROM MR. SHOW.

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton were known for directing music videos like The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” and Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing,” and decided to direct two Mr. Show episodes to expand their filming vocabulary. The husband and wife team were behind the camera for the classic sketch “Monk Academy.”

10. ONE SKETCH WAS INFLUENCED BY LOUIS C.K.

One of the first sketches in the show’s history involved Odenkirk playing a priest forced to do rather unpleasant and un-priestly things. The idea sprang from a conversation David Cross had with fellow young Boston comic Louis C.K., where Louis talked about annoying people that try to claim a prize on a bet that their friends never agreed to in the first place.

11. HBO ONLY CENSORED THE SHOW ONCE.

Throughout four years and 30 episodes, the lone note Odenkirk and Cross got from HBO was to get rid of a line where one character tells another to have sex with a baby. Odenkirk admitted that being told to edit it out “wasn’t too much to ask.”

12. THEY ONLY RECEIVED ONE VIEWER COMPLAINT.

The only angry letter that Odenkirk and Cross were ever made aware of was from a military veteran who was offended by the sketch in “Who Let You In?” where Cross’s performance artist character attempts to defecate on the American flag. The two stars actually called the viewer and discovered that he didn’t watch the entire sketch, and therefore never realized that Cross’ character was never able to actually go through with it.

13. ONE SKETCH WAS CUT FROM THE SHOW SIX TIMES AND NEVER MADE IT TO AIR.

A sketch called “Party Car,” a joke on old, low-quality shows filled with '70s celebrities was cut from half a dozen scripts and never filmed. It would have featured Nipsey Russell, Zsa Zsa Gabor, (or reasonable facsimiles), and a baby in a balloon-filled car.

14. BOB ODENKIRK GOT IN TROUBLE FOR USING A PICTURE OF HIS DEAD GRANDFATHER.

Because the sketch “Old Man In House” needed a photo of an old man, and the elderly gentleman was not the butt of the joke, Odenkirk thought it would be fine. Instead, some Odenkirks were “very upset.”

15. CROSS WAS PAYING OFF HIS STUDENT LOAN DEBTS THROUGHOUT MOST OF THE SERIES.

David Cross and Amber Tamblyn
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

Despite executive producing and co-creating a series on television, Cross had trouble paying off his student loan debts from his time at Emerson College. Figuring that the person calling from the bill collection agency wouldn’t believe that he couldn’t pay if he knew his job status, Cross pretended that he worked at Mr. Show as a messenger.

16. ONE PERSON WAS GIVEN A "SPECIAL THANKS" IN THE CLOSING CREDITS OF EVERY EPISODE AS A JOKE.

As Cross once explained, Rick Dees was thanked in the credits of the pilot episode, even though he was “certainly nobody we would ever thank, or be in a position to thank.” Some personalities that were thanked for no discernable reason were Greg Maddux, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, Gabe Kaplan, and Howard Zinn.

17. HBO CHANGED THE TIME SLOT FOR ITS FINAL SEASON, AND IT WAS "DEMORALIZING."

After airing Fridays at midnight for the first three seasons, HBO moved the show to Mondays at the same time, confusing some loyal viewers, and the ratings decreased as a result. Bob Odenkirk told a reporter that, after 30 episodes, HBO was still treating the cast and crew as “second-class citizens,” and that they were “demoralized” by the slot shift.

18. BOB AND DAVID TOLD A STUDIO AUDIENCE THAT THEY HAD JUST WITNESSED THE FINAL EPISODE, AND THEY WEREN'T JOKING.

“Patriotism, Pepper, and Professionalism,” the 40th and final episode of Mr. Show, was taped on November 21, 1998. After the final sketch was filmed, Odenkirk and Cross made their announcement, although the show’s cancellation wasn’t made official for another few months.

19. THERE WAS A MR. SHOW MOVIE THAT WENT STRAIGHT TO VIDEO.

Run Ronnie Run focused on David Cross’s redneck criminal character Ronnie Dobbs. It was filmed in 2001, but never made it to theaters. Bob Odenkirk admitted that the movie wasn’t perfect, but he blamed the poor quality on director Troy Miller, for not allowing himself and Cross to edit the movie.

20. THE TWO HAVE REUNITED A FEW OTHER TIMES.

David Cross and Bob Odenkirk star in 'W/ Bob and David'
Saeed Adyani/Netflix

In 2002, Bob, David, and Mr. Show writer/performers Brian Posehn, John Ennis, and Stephanie Courtney (Flo in the Progressive commercials) toured the country to perform some of the show’s sketches and material from their unproduced screenplay Mr. Show: Hooray For America! The next year, Odenkirk guest starred as Dr. Phil Gunty on a season one episode of Arrested Development, alongside Cross’ character Tobias Fünke.

In 2012, Odenkirk, Cross, and Posehn went on a six-city tour to promote their book filled with more unproduced material. Bob and David appeared briefly together the next year on an episode of Aukerman’s Comedy Bang! Bang! In 2015, 20 years after Mr. Show's debut, Netflix premiered W/ Bob and David, a five-episode sketch comedy show created by and starring the duo.

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30 Memorable Quotes from Carrie Fisher
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Just days after suffering a heart attack aboard a flight en route to Los Angeles, beloved actress, author, and screenwriter Carrie Fisher passed away at the age of 60 on December 27, 2016. Though she’ll always be most closely associated with her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher’s life was like something out of its own Hollywood movie. Born in Beverly Hills on this day in 1956, Fisher was born into show business royalty as the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds.

In addition to her work in front of the camera, Fisher built up an impressive resume behind the scenes, too, most notably as a writer; in addition to several memoirs and semi-autobiographical novels, including Wishful Drinking, Surrender the Pink, Delusions of Grandma, The Best Awful, Postcards from the Edge, and The Princess Diarist (which was released last month), she was also an in-demand script doctor who counted Sister Act, Hook, Lethal Weapon 3, and The Wedding Singer among her credits.

Though she struggled with alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness, Fisher always maintained a sense of humor—as evidenced by the 30 memorable quotes below.

ON GROWING UP IN HOLLYWOOD

“I am truly a product of Hollywood in-breeding. When two celebrities mate, someone like me is the result.”

“I was born into big celebrity. It could only diminish.”

“At a certain point in my early twenties, my mother started to become worried about my obviously ever-increasing drug ingestion. So she ended up doing what any concerned parent would do. She called Cary Grant.”

“I was street smart, but unfortunately the street was Rodeo Drive.”

“If anything, my mother taught me how to sur-thrive. That's my word for it.”

ON AGING

“As you get older, the pickings get slimmer, but the people don't.”

ON INSTANT GRATIFICATION

“Instant gratification takes too long.”

ON THE LEGACY OF STAR WARS

“People are still asking me if I knew Star Wars was going to be that big of a hit. Yes, we all knew. The only one who didn't know was George.”

“Leia follows me like a vague smell.”

“I signed my likeness away. Every time I look in the mirror, I have to send Lucas a couple of bucks.”

“People see me and they squeal like tropical birds or seals stranded on the beach.”

“You're not really famous until you’re a Pez dispenser.”

ON THE FLEETING NATURE OF SUCCESS

“There is no point at which you can say, 'Well, I'm successful now. I might as well take a nap.'”

ON DEALING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS

“I'm very sane about how crazy I am.”

ON RESENTMENT

“Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die."

ON LOVE

“Someone has to stand still for you to love them. My choices are always on the run.”

“I've got to stop getting obsessed with human beings and fall in love with a chair. Chairs have everything human beings have to offer, and less, which is obviously what I need. Less emotional feedback, less warmth, less approval, less patience, and less response. The less the merrier. Chairs it is. I must furnish my heart with feelings for furniture.”

“I don’t hate hardly ever, and when I love, I love for miles and miles. A love so big it should either be outlawed or it should have a capital and its own currency.”

ON EMOTIONS

“The only thing worse than being hurt is everyone knowing that you're hurt.”

ON RELATIONSHIPS

“I envy people who have the capacity to sit with another human being and find them endlessly interesting, I would rather watch TV. Of course this becomes eventually known to the other person.”

ON HOLLYWOOD

“Acting engenders and harbors qualities that are best left way behind in adolescence.”

“You can't find any true closeness in Hollywood, because everybody does the fake closeness so well.”

“It's a man's world and show business is a man's meal, with women generously sprinkled through it like overqualified spice.”

ON FEAR

“Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.”

ON LIFE

“I don’t want life to imitate art. I want life to be art.”

“No motive is pure. No one is good or bad-but a hearty mix of both. And sometimes life actually gives to you by taking away.”

“If my life wasn't funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.”

“I shot through my twenties like a luminous thread through a dark needle, blazing toward my destination: Nowhere.”

“My life is like a lone, forgotten Q-Tip in the second-to-last drawer.”

ON DEATH

“You know what's funny about death? I mean other than absolutely nothing at all? You'd think we could remember finding out we weren't immortal. Sometimes I see children sobbing at airports and I think, 'Aww. They've just been told.'”

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