Kristy is working on her review for the new R-rated naughty puppet film The Happytime Murders as we speak (so keep your eyes peeled!), but one element caught her eye: the fact that Kevin Clash plays a couple of puppety characters. Remember him? For decades, he was the puppeteer behind Sesame Street’s Elmo, in addition to a number of other characters. He gained a lot of recognition thanks to the 2011 documentary, Being Elmo, which revealed the man behind the muppet. And then he gained a completely different kind of attention in November of 2012, when 3 men came forward and accused Clash of sexually abusing them when they were minors.
The details of the accusations are somewhat hard to parse. The first accuser, Sheldon Stevens, claimed he met Clash when he was 16 and the two stayed in contact for a number of months before they eventually had sex. Then their sexual relationship continued sporadically as Stevens entered adulthood. Stevens would go on to recant the accusation as part of a settlement deal, saying that what he experienced was an “adult consensual relationship” with Clash that didn’t turn sexual until he was 18. In later interviews, he claimed this was a lie, and he was pressured into the settlement.
The other two accusers had similar stories of meeting Clash through a gay phone-chatline when they were teenagers. They claimed that they dated Clash and engaged in some sexual contact, though they didn’t have intercourse until later (after they reached the age of 18). Though they depict their experiences as consensual, in retrospect they came to view Clash as a “predator.”
For his part, Clash acknowledged his relationship with the first accuser but said it was between consenting adults. When the other accusers came forward, Clash chose to resign from his position with Sesame Workshop. By 2014, the three lawsuits raised by the accusers had all been dismissed and Clash was cleared of the sex abuse charges. But not because Clash was found innocent or anything — it was because the accusers filed too late, and the statute of limitations had run out. At the time, though, there was a sense that the accusers were opportunistic and the dismissal of the charges was a sort of justice for Kevin Clash — though perhaps the public sentiment would have been different if the case was happening now, in light of #MeToo.
After that, it’s not really clear what happened with Clash. According to IMDb, he’s credited with voicing Elmo for Sesame Street in a few episodes from 2013 and 2014, though perhaps those were pre-recorded. He had some non-Muppet puppeteer gigs in 2016. And now he’s the puppeteer behind two credited characters in The Happytime Murders — and maybe more, per this quote from star Melissa McCarthy in an interview with Collider:
Were there puppet mishaps? What do puppet bloopers look like?
McCARTHY: They’re pretty great! They get tongue-tied because they stay in character. It’s going to be the best blooper reel, ever, because the puppeteers don’t present themselves by saying, “Oh, I messed up!” They’re like, “Oh, my god, I don’t know my line!” They totally say that. The puppet is always active. We did a bunch of stuff for Kevin Clash, who does a bunch of puppets. He oversees everything. For heaven’s sake, we have the guy who created Elmo and he’s saying terrible things. We’ve destroyed that for people. But, it’s really funny how they always stay in it. You have this great footage of the puppets doing bloopers because they never come out of it. It’s pretty interesting.
The film was directed by Brian Henson, a man who presumably knows Clash pretty well after all this time. And look, I’ll be honest — I’m not sure what I think about this turn of events. After all the conversations we’ve had about what “due process” looks like in the #MeToo era, here is a man who went through the legal process and came out of it free and clear (even if it was based on a technicality). And in this case, he hasn’t slipped into his old job as if nothing ever happened. It’s been a few years, and now? He may still be a puppeteer, but at least his work is aimed at adults. He ain’t Elmo anymore. That feels almost appropriate, all things considered.
But just because the accusations are a few years old and the dust has settled, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention to how and when accused predators enter back into the public sphere. Let’s not just apply our newfound vigilance to the current accusations, because face it — this shit has been going on for a long time.
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