Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who's been voicing Sesame Street's immensely popular Elmo character for nearly 27 years, has taken a leave of absence from the Sesame Workshop after allegations surfaced that he had sex with a 16-year-old boy. While Clash admits that he did have a relationship with the accuser, he says, "It was between two consenting adults and I am deeply saddened that he is trying to make it into something it was not." In the meantime, how will Sesame Street proceed without its biggest star?
According to a statement released on its website today, Sesame Workshop said that in June 2012 they were approached by a 23-year-old man who said he began a relationship with the 52-year-old Clash when he was 16.
We took the allegation very seriously and took immediate action. We met with the accuser twice and had repeated communications with him. We met with Kevin, who denied the accusation. We also conducted a thorough investigation and found the allegation of underage conduct to be unsubstantiated.
And although Sesame says that the accuser's claims are unsubstantiated, they also note that an investigation revealed that Clash "violated company policy regarding internet usage and he was disciplined." Clash, who adamantly denies having sex with a minor, is taking a leave of absence "to protect his reputation."
Or is he just protecting Sesame's reputation? Unless you count the rumors that have hounded Bert and Ernie for decades, this is the first sex scandal associated with the children's show in its 43-year history. Elmo is Sesame Street's most popular character. Not just the show but the entire Sesame empire has seemingly revolved around the character since his popularity exploded in the 1990s. The craze alone surrounding Elmo merchandise has been iconic.
And Clash is Elmo. His 2006 autobiography is titled My Life as a Furry Red Monster: What Being Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love and Laughing Out Loud, and the 2011 award-winning documentary about Clash is titled Being Elmo. Seeing as how Muppets are operated only by the Muppeteer who created them until that Muppeteer dies, will Sesame Street simply not feature Elmo until Clash's legal issues are worked out? That doesn't seem to be the case.
The company concluded its statement by adding:
Elmo is bigger than any one person and will continue to be an integral part of Sesame Street to engage, educate and inspire children around the world, as it has for 40 years.
There seems to be a contingency plan in place to continue without Clash—who isn't just the voice of Elmo, but a co-executive producer of the show and Muppeteer Captain, who trains other Muppeteers in the company—perhaps indefinitely.
According to TMZ, Clash's accuser hired Andreozzi and Associates—the firm that represented one of the victims in the Jerry Sandusky child rape case—who sent the company a letter accusing it of trying to "discredit the victim in order to protect its employee and the image of one of its most valuable characters. This approach places a greater value on a puppet than the well being of a young man."