The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch) review
Carroll Spinney's played the roles of both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch in every episode of Sesame Street since 1969, all well as in various specials, feature films and promotional appearances. In 2003 he published a book of his memories and anecdotes, which I review now in my tradition of well-after-the-fact Muppet reviews. Read on.
The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch): Lessons From a Life in Feathers has got to be among the most cumbersome titles ever assigned to an unwilling book. From what I understand this title was decided upon by the publisher, who thought the book would sell better if disguised as a sort of Sesame self-help.
Which I'd like to say does the book a disservice, but Carroll Spinney gives us a large amount of moral and humanist lessons from his own experience, and presents them in such a caring and simple way that it becomes difficult not to want to learn from this book. It's subtly instructive for a memoir, which works in the book's favor, and really helps one to connect with the author...a very famous man who nobody actually knows.
"It's the Bird who's famous, not me," Spinney writes toward the end of the book, and he's right. For every one person who recognizes his name, twenty thousand recognize Big Bird's. And he makes it very clear that he's not disappointed by this at all; after all, it's Big Bird who's been helping to bring children of all races together for years...Spinney is under no delusion that he's a saint. He does, however, hold Big Bird to a high reverence, and clearly feels privileged to have known the character from the inside.
It's not a long book...only about 150 pages with illustrations...and it can easily be read in an afternoon which, again, complements the message of the book rather than detracts from it. A memoir at heart, The Wisdom of Big Bird is more about getting across to his audience the lessons he's learned from from over thirty years of working with children, and Spinney speaks surprisingly little about himself; he takes every opportunity to climb back into the bird suit and give Big Bird the stage again.
Which isn't to say the book is lacking in fascinating tidbits about the Muppets and about Sesame Street. His memories of Jim Henson are particularly affecting, and his account of Henson's memorial celebration moved me to tears. The genuine love and awe that Spinney and the other Muppeteers had for him was immense, and Spinney makes no attempt to hide or mask that love. One suspects that Henson's sudden death is as surprising to Spinney today as it was the morning he was told.
On the lighter side, though, there are interesting anecdotes about the development of Big Bird's character. When this book was published there was no way to see the original raggetty version of Big Bird, but thanks to Sesame Street Old School Volume One, which I will review at some point, I swear, we see that Spinney was not exaggerating at all when he describes just how unweildy and unlovable the original version of this character was:
They kept writing for him like he was the village idiot. He didn't have a clue about anything, and it seemed that he had no real purpose on the show except as a comic diversion. Certainly, he had no educational value. [...] If Big Bird had remained the original dumb, goofy character, he would not be on the show today.
The kinship he's built up with the Bird over the years is a running theme in the book, and it's a kinship he's never taken for granted. When the Bird is honored, Spinney is honored, and when the Bird is insulted, Spinney is insulted.
Probably my favorite moment in the book is his account of "finding" Oscar's character...that is to say, the point at which he really understood who Oscar was.
"Oscar is a complicated character," Spinney writes. "He's sometimes misunderstood, even by the writers and people who work on the show. He's not a villain, he's not horrible, not into spiders and ghoulish stuff, and although he can be rude and mean, he fundamentally has a heart of gold. He's just a Grouch, that's all."
He illustrates this as follows, with a story from his friend Gunther, shedding more than a little light on the interior workings of the character:
There's a story a friend of mine told me [...] that I think helped define Oscar's character. [...] He was from southern Germany, and as a child he had had two neighbors: a very self-righteous woman on one side and a very grouchy man on the other. The woman told everyone how important and good she was because she always went to church and was very pious. The man was such a grouch that if your ball landed on his side of the fence, you would never get it back.
As World War II was nearing its end, food distribution stopped in Germany and people were forced to go to the dump to look for something to eat. Gunther and the man from next door both spotted a dented can of peaches at the same second, but the man stepped back as the little boy rushed for it. "You take it," he said. "You're probably hungrier than I am." Then the pious woman screamed like a Valkyrie, pried the can out of Gunther's fingers, and ran home with it. She was the "proper" person, but the grouch let the child have the food. That's what Oscar would do. As grouchy as he is, he would always let a hungry kid eat before he did.
The book is written in a simple style, influenced no doubt by Spinney's many years of communicating with children, and, very much like the show on which Spinney made his impression on the world, it never talks down to its audience. It's moral, but not preachy. Spinney recognizes that there are many types of people in the world and that it's up to them to make their own decisions about what constitutes right and wrong.
But he knows that the Bird, at least, has always done him right, and has taken him around the world, to the White House during six different administations, gotten him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and caused him to be officially named a Living Legend. This is a book that teaches appreciation by example, and proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Jim Henson picked the right man for the job.