Murray may not be as famous as his amphibious and porcine companions, but he is a key reason why his TV show, Sesame Street, is still thriving deep into its 42nd season. Since 2005 the children's program has featured the adventures of the loveable monster, an oversized Elmo with an unrestrained enthusiasm and the shaggy, red fur of a neglected bath mat. An amateur reporter, Murray visits New York City's schools, interviewing students about their passions for biology, pottery and Irish dance. His unleashed exuberance has quickly made him one of the show's most popular characters, and his high-pitched, gravelly voice—like a pre-pubescent Gonzo—has become one of the show's most recognizable sounds.
Murray is voiced by Joey Mazzarino, head writer of Sesame Street, who experienced his own brush with fame this past year when his video tribute to his adopted, African American daughter—a celebration of black hair—went viral on YouTube.
I stopped by Sesame Street and spoke with Murray and Mazzarino about the joys of interviewing children, the importance of apple sauce, and why talking with me is better than spending the afternoon stuffed inside a duffel bag.
Kors: I first saw the two of you in Tompkins Square Park, shooting a scene with your lamb sidekick, Ovejita. And the looks on the families' faces were amazing. The man next to me, with a four-year-old on his shoulders, said he had never run so fast in his life.
Mazzarino: Towards us or away from us?
Kors: Towards. He said anytime his daughter sees a lamb, she shouts, "Ovejita! Ovejita!"
Mazzarino: Oh, that's excellent. I love when people know who Ovejita and Murray are. I still get a lot of "Hey Elmo!" And it's like, "I'm not Elmo."
Kors: Are they related?
Mazzarino: You know, I think all monsters share some genetic code. But they're not related in a brother/sister kind of way.
Kors: I didn't know if that was a racist question. You know, in an Avenue Q sort of way.
Mazzarino: No, no, it's okay. I'd say, all monsters trace their DNA back to [Muppet creator Jim] Henson.
Kors: Tell me about Murray.
Mazzarino: He's got an interesting story. I was in Cairo, teaching comedy writing to the producers of the Egyptian version of the show. Imagine that: I didn't speak the language, yet here I was teaching comedy writing. The show's producers had created some Muppets for us to take home, including this big, furry, red one. I told Kevin [Clash, voice of Elmo and co-executive producer of the show], "Don't give this character to anyone. I don't know what I want to do with it, but I want to do something." ... Back home we had been doing these pieces in which I, as a talking stalk of broccoli, was interviewing kids about healthy eating habits. And I thought, "This is ridiculous. Who wants to talk to broccoli?" When we started shooting that series again, I said, "Let me use this guy." We named him Murray, which was my grandfather's name.
Kors: Do kids speak differently when talking to Murray instead of broccoli?
Mazzarino: Oh, it's unbelievable. There's a weird magic to these things, especially when they're furry. Every kid has a stuffed animal. And suddenly, he comes alive. Especially when you see him out there, in the real world, interacting with people. Like, this shouldn't be happening—but it is.
Kors: Can I talk with Murray?
Murray: (Murray pops out of the duffle bag.) Hello, sir, how are you? What's your name?
Kors: Heh heh. I'm Joshua.
Murray: Nice to meet you, Joshua. Ooh, I love your hat.
Kors: Oh, thank you. It's Kermit-inspired.
Murray: Like when he was a reporter? ... That's awesome.
Kors: You're a reporter too.
Murray: Hey, you're right!
Kors: I'm wondering what you think of Joey.
Murray: Ah, he's alright. If I had to be attached to somebody, he's not so bad.
Kors: And Ovejita?
Murray: Oh, she's my best friend in the whole world. She's the only lamb I'll follow around. I won't follow any other lamb but her. At least no other farm animals.
Kors: Joey says sometimes people mistake you for Elmo.
Murray: Yeah, I get that. I'll be out on the street, and I'll hear, "Elmo! Elmo!" And I'm like, "I'm not Elmo! But I'll tell him you said hi."
Kors: But your star is rising, don't you think?
Murray: You know, that doesn't matter to me. I just like getting out on the town. Listen, I spend most of my time stuffed in a duffel bag. And let me tell you, it's not easy to breathe in there.
Kors: Joey, that's another thing that fascinated me: Murray may not have reached Elmo-level fame, but he is so popular that when kids see him on the street, they come running. But you walk down the street, and no one knows who the hell you are.
Mazzarino: That's true for all of us. When I was in college, Sesame shot on 55th and 9th Avenue. I visited the show and met Caroll Spinney, who has now played Big Bird for over 40 years. Later I saw him biking down 9th Avenue in complete peace, and I thought, "Here is the most famous man in children's television, and nobody knows who he is."
Kors: It's the best of both worlds.
Mazzarino: Absolutely. On camera you can reach millions of people. Off camera nobody bothers you.
Kors: You did get a significant amount of attention for that video on your daughter's hair.
Mazzarino: Oh yeah. That was just ... out of nowhere. "Really? People want to talk with me about this?" I couldn't believe it.
Kors: I think the issue strikes a chord with a lot of people, especially black women.
Mazzarino: I remember when we shot it. All the African-American women in the studio came down to watch. Now, if Brad Pitt is here, people might gather around. But for this? ... After it aired, I got a call from Capitol Hill, a woman who worked for a Congressman. She said, "I'm 50 years old, I heard your song, and I began to cry." She said that message—be proud of your hair, proud of who you are--she wished it had been there when she was a kid.
Kors: That caught you off-guard.
Mazzarino: Oh, I was stunned. I went to the video's YouTube page, was reading the comments from women, and I started to tear up too. I mean, you write these things in a room by yourself, and you hope some kid sees it and gets something out of it. I hoped it would mean something to my daughter. And then to have it impact not just her but the community.
Kors: You adopted your daughter from Ethiopia.
Mazzarino: That's right.
Kors: How old was she?
Mazzarino: 13 months.
Kors: That's amazing to me because my family runs an adoption facilitation service, and it's so hard to find families who are open to adopting black children.
Mazzarino: We were hesitant at first too. How would people react? But it's been wonderful. When we do get comments, mostly it happens to my wife. People will say, "You're her mom? But your skin is different." We were worried how our daughter would feel about it. I asked her if it bothers her, and she said, "No. But I am the only one in the family who's different." We're trying to show her that there are all different types of families.
Kors: Do you think Sesame Street is helping to teach that lesson? After all, everybody here is a different color. Families here are often mixes of white humans and blue monsters.
Mazzarino: That's interesting. I never thought of the show that way. I'm not sure my daughter did either.
Kors: Is there a lesson to the Murray segments?
Mazzarino: Oh, sure. We want to show kids how exciting school can be. And when they see students doing flips, dancing, kids who are excelling at something, I think it's inspiring for them to see.
Kors: Your show produced a free series of videos for military families, Talk, Listen, Connect, which speaks directly to the children of soldiers, helping them adjust when a parent dies in battle or comes home severely wounded. I report on veterans' issues, and it's amazing how few resources there are out there for military children.
Mazzarino: I know. And with parents going on multiple tours, it's especially hard. Sesame is good that way: we take on serious stuff—dealing with war injuries, facing hunger—stuff other programs won't touch but that kids need to hear about. We did another video on end-of-life care. I was involved in that one. Elmo visits his cousin in the hospital. It was tough because I was schooled in comedy. Now the producers come to me and say, "We want to teach kids how to deal with that." I was thinking, "Can we teach that? Can we touch that?" We did, though, and it think it came out well.
Kors: Your message in those videos is that, if you're sad, talk about it.
Mazzarino: That's right. Talk about it. That your family is there for you, that you're all there for each other.
Kors: On a different note, I love the parodies. "EMC, the Emotional Movie Channel, presents Mad Men."
Mazzarino: (Mazzarino laughs.) Oh, the parodies are awesome. Mad Men was a great opportunity to teach kids about emotions. We did True Blood too and a parody of The Closer. I have a friend who's on that show and sent him a picture of the puppet. He was like, "Ah! That's my new Facebook photo!"
Kors: The idea is to get parents to watch too.
Mazzarino: That's right.
Kors: Why is that so important?
Mazzarino: Well, we're not talking about ABC's anymore. The show is pushing STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. That's our new curriculum. We decided to go for it when we saw how far behind America's students were. But to achieve it, we need the parents to get involved. We start the teaching, and the parents can extend the lessons from there. We want them to say, "Oh, they're focusing on this. Maybe I can show them more about that."
Kors: Does your daughter watch the show?
Mazzarino: She used to. She's almost six now, so she moved away from it about six months ago.
Kors: What was it like for her to watch?
Mazzarino: She loved watching it. Whenever she came to the studio, though, I tried to get her to talk to Murray. But she just lay on the ground and hugged me. She didn't want any part of that. So I let her lay on me while I interviewed other kids.
Kors: He is a big character.
Mazzarino: He is. And sometimes he's a little imposing, which can make some kids very nervous at first. So I have to be careful, especially with younger kids.
Kors: Where did you come up with that voice?
Mazzarino: I don't know. I just looked at him. It's in there somewhere: in those wide eyes, that big smile. I just love this guy. I feel like I've found my voice with him. I've done voices for other puppets before him, but I never really connected with them, not like this. And the way he connects with kids, it really is magic. I remember Murray was interviewing this girl—an older girl, probably about 11. She said to me, "Don't worry, I'm not going to tell anybody the secret." I said, "What secret?" She said, "That you're under there." By the end of the interview she was inviting Murray over to her house to play.
Kors: Oh, that's so sweet. You know, I told my family and friends that I was coming to Sesame Street, and they gave me some questions to bring to Elmo, which I have to repeat for you.
Kors: My niece Lea, she just turned five. This summer she went to Disneyland. And she wanted to know ... did Elmo know that?
Mazzarino: (Mazzarino laughs.)
Kors: I don't suppose Murray knew that.
Murray: Uh, no, I didn't know that, Joshua. But I'm glad she loved it.
Kors: Have you been to Disneyland?
Murray: I have been there in spirit.
Kors: In spirit? Guess it's hard for a Muppet to get plane tickets.
Murray: Oh, you bet. Soon as I get on a plane, though, I'm going to Disneyland.
Kors: The other question comes from my best friend's daughter Katie. She's four. And she wants to know, does Elmo have apple sauce?
Mazzarino: (Mazzarino laughs.) I think he does. I think Elmo likes apple sauce. He likes all his fruits, especially the red ones.
Kors: Murray, what about you? Do you like apple sauce?
Murray: Eh ... I'm more of a carrot man myself.
Kors: Well, I thought that was great because if she just discovered apple sauce, of course she'd want a friend who shares the same passion.
Mazzarino: I know. I had a conversation about this with my daughter. One of the first things she was into was shoes. She'd come up to you and go, "Shoes! Shoes! Shoes!" I wrote a whole episode about shoes, where Abbey was all excited because she got her first pair of shoes. It's a connecting thing: you have shoes; I have shoes; we both have shoes!
Kors: And the idea that Elmo would know. It's sort of like, "I know about your life, so it stands to reason that you know about mine."
Mazzarino: Right. I try to remind myself, you're in their house every day. And they have this relationship with Murray. So to see him in public, it's like he's leapt off the screen. He breaks down that glass barrier and comes right into their world. ... That's what's so special about Murray. You see Mickey Mouse on TV, and it's supposed to be magical to see him at Disneyland. But he doesn't look the same. He's six feet tall; he doesn't talk. But Murray, when he's in your world, he looks and talks the same. He's the Murray you know.
Kors: Murray, do you ever worry about the show's future? Earlier this year conservatives in Congress moved to cut PBS's funding. Does that concern you?
Murray: I don't know. What's "funding"?
Kors: It's the money you receive to make the videos you make.
Murray: Uh, no. I'm not that worried.
Kors: That's good. ... Joey, what got you into puppetry?
Mazzarino: Well, I was going to Fordham, studying economics and theater because my parents wouldn't send me to school for just theater. During the summers, I'd work at a nursery school, where I'd watch Sesame Street with the kids. One day this Muppeteer, Camille Bonora, came to school to give a guest lecture on improv comedy. And I told her, "I watch Sesame Street." She played a character called Meryl Sheep, with a real Sophie's Choice accent and everything. We had a great conversation. Soon after that she brought me by the studio. I met Jim Henson. And I was basically awestruck. I didn't know what to say to him.
Kors: He let you watch the show?
Mazzarino: Yeah. It was an epiphany. Jim was doing a scene with Richard Hunt, [who played Scooter, Beaker and Statler, the grumpy critic], and he just breezed onto the set, made everybody laugh. And I was like, "That's it. This is my tribe. These are my people." It was suddenly so clear. I was in theater basically to meet girls. It wasn't a passion. Then all of a sudden, it was like, this is where I need to be.
Kors: Didn't your mother say, "Ay, you could be a doctor. You could be a lawyer"?
Mazzarino: Oh, I know. My parents thought I was insane. I lived at home and would go to class, come home at night, build really bad puppets in the basement, and any waking hour I had I'd be in front of a video camera, teaching myself technique. It took a year just to get the basic technique down.
Murray: I did not. They didn't let me out that day. They don't let me out for many celebrities. But I did get to meet Mark Ruffalo. He was the best!
Kors: They only let you out of the bag on special occasions.
Murray: Yeah, on special occasions they throw me a bone.
Kors: Which can be a hazard in itself. I mean, a big bone probably wouldn't fit in that bag.
Murray: A bone? There's not enough room in the bag for all of me. I'm so cramped up there, when I travel, my legs have to travel separate. It's tough out here for a Muppet.
Kors: Murray, is there any message you want to pass on to the kids?
Murray: I just want them to enjoy life. And stay in school. School's awesome. I want them to love words too. I'm fascinated by new words.
Kors: That's right. You're a linguaphile.
Murray: A what?
Kors: A lover of words.
Murray: I am a lover of words! I give them big kisses, those words. I love them so much.
Kors: When we first met in the park, you had just discovered the letter "u."
Murray: Oh right. I found an umbrella and a ukulele. All kinds of things start with the letter "u." Like underpants! I enjoy underpants. I enjoy them, but I don't wear them. ... Maybe if people gave PBS more funding, they'd provide me some underpants.
Kors: I have to tell you both how weird it was being out there, on set. Like you're going back to a place that's so familiar, but you're there for the first time.
Mazzarino: Oh, I know. I've been here 21 years, and up until just a few years ago, when Carol was above me playing Big Bird, I was instantly five again. I'd be laying on the ground, and I know I'm talking to Carol. And all of the sudden I'm saying, "I love you, Big Bird. I just love you." You have to remind yourself.
Kors: Good. So I'm not the only one.
Mazzarino: No. In fact, you know who's reaction was really amazing: Michelle Obama. She came to do a piece on fresh foods, and she saw Roscoe [Orman, who has played Gordon since 1974], and she walked up to him and said, "Can I give you a hug?" And he was like, "Yes. Of course." You could just tell, in her life, this place meant something special to her.
Kors: My family and my best friends have been with me for so long, I can hear their voices. Sometimes I don't need to seek their advice because I already know what they're going to say. Have you gotten to that point with Murray? Does his dialogue appear in your mind like, "Oh, I know what he's going to say about this."
Mazzarino: You know, he is just so much me. Me as a five-year-old. Or at least, what I could have been at five if I hadn't been so afraid of life, like my parents taught me to be. He's that part of me I should have been. Excited about everything. Unrestrained. Not hiding when a baseball's thrown my way. "Sure, I'll play that," not "Don't do that. It's dangerous." Murray, he'll get out there and do anything. While my mother would say things like, "Whatever you're going to do, you're going to get injured." And: "If you go out to play and don't check in within an hour, I'll assume you're dead."
Kors: I think we might be brothers. I still get calls like, "Oh my god, it's 11 o'clock. Why are you not in bed?"
Mazzarino: Yep. That's my mom. ... I just grew up fearing life. Murray doesn't.
Kors: He doesn't have any family on the show.
Mazzarino: No. He doesn't. A lot of our characters don't. But the humans on the show, they're supposed to feel like a surrogate family for these characters. I think that's what grounds the show in reality. You have adults, not puppets, giving the advice.
Kors: Murray, is there any advice you'd like to give? Anything about yourself you'd like us to know?
Murray: Oh, I don't know. I'm not that deep.
Kors: How old are you?
Murray: That's a good question. I'm somewhere between 5 and 50.
Mazzarino: Monster years are different. Characters like Elmo and Big Bird, they're rooted in childhood. But Ernie and Burt, they're like adults. Grover, he works in a restaurant. He's a taxi driver sometimes. He still seems like a kid. But he's probably in his 40s or something. With Murray, he goes out on the street, so he's got to be older. Otherwise, what's he doing out on the street alone?
Kors: Murray, any question you want to ask me?
Murray: Yeah. When you do reporting, do you go around the world?
Murray: Where's the most exotic place you've ever gone?
Kors: Oh, now you sound like a first date.
Murray: Dates ask that a lot?
Kors: Oh yeah. They always want to know, "Where do you go? Where have you been?" I cover the U.S. mostly. But I've been to Barcelona and Canada. Not exactly exotic places.
Murray: How did you get into this? Because I think journalism is fascinating. When I grow up, I want to be a real journalist.
Kors: Maybe you should go to Columbia Journalism School.
Murray: Good idea! Do you think I'd get in?
Kors: You have to have good grades. Excellent application essays. And you have to be well versed on the news. Do you ever read the Huffington Post?
Murray: I read the Huffing-and-puffing-ton Post. The Big Bad Wolf runs that one.
Kors: Oh, that's powerful journalism.
Murray: It sure is. Stories that will blow you away.
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