It is tempting to imagine a crisis breaking at Sesame Workshop the way a crisis breaks in a Muppets skit--panic, Grover running to and fro, slide whistles, the whole bit. But when TMZ reported last Monday that Kevin Clash, the voice of Elmo, had supposedly carried on a sexual relationship with an underage boy, the company's response was notable for its icy competence. Officials released a measured statement confirming that a 23-year-old had come forward with allegations against Clash; that the company had investigated and found the charges "unsubstantiated"; that it nevertheless was granting Clash a leave of absence to clear up the matter. A potential nightmare scenario was already well in hand.
Elmo & Co., for all their cuddly cuteness, are backed by a PR team that would be equally at home on Wall Street or in high-stakes politics. They've needed it. Sesame Street and its characters have been the subject of unflattering headlines throughout this fall--first with Mitt Romney's swipe at Big Bird and the ensuing meme-fest, and now the Clash scandal--but the place has long been more embattled than it might seem. "It seems so easy, doesn't it? 'They just deal with puppets,' " jokes one Workshop official. In fact, it's often anything but. There are gripes about commercialization to rebut and unsanctioned Halloween costumes to clamp down on (this year, sexy Big Bird suits were problematically popular). There was the petition, circulated last year on Change.org, to have Bert and Ernie come out of the closet, which Sesame Workshop humorlessly knocked down: "Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics ... they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation."