As they push for unionization, craftspeople at the The Jim Henson Company say they are treated as an underclass, subject to abuse and unsafe conditions: “The job of the wrangler is eating sh** and taking blame.”

Seth Abramovitch, The Hollywood Reporter

On his first day on set in November 2019, a puppet wrangler on Disney+’s Earth to Ned — a talk show spoof starring an alien puppet and produced by The Jim Henson Company — was told by another, more senior wrangler not to address one of the show’s star puppeteers, Kevin Clash, directly.

“Amongst other puppeteers, he’s known to be very bubbly and kind,” he recalls being warned of Clash. “But when it came to wranglers, I was told he tends to be condescending and nasty.”

sesame street character puppets

Puppet wrangling is an on-set position unique to Henson and Henson-adjacent companies like Sesame Workshop and the Muppets. It is a highly specific subspecialty that requires a varied set of skills, not the least of which is knowing how to build and repair puppets. There are only about 25 people in the world who work as full-time wranglers — and they are currently seeking union representation, something that has eluded them since the job first emerged with the rise of Sesame Street and The Muppet Show in the late 1970s.

A wrangler is a puppet builder who also works on set. “You’re the talent coordinator for a puppet, basically,” says Rachel Burson, a wrangler who has worked on shows like Comedy Central’s Crank Yankers (not a Henson production, but run by Victor Yerrid, a regular Henson puppeteer). Continues Burson, “You make sure the puppet’s in the right outfit, holding any props that they need to be holding and rigged to do any specialty moves. And then you are standing by a monitor while they’re filming, to make sure it looks good.”

Clash is best known for creating and voicing the iconic Sesame Street character Elmo. In 2012, four men filed civil lawsuits accusing Clash of having sex with them when they were minors — leading Clash, who denied the claims, to resign from Sesame Workshop “with a very heavy heart.” One of the accusers alleged that at age 16 he’d attended a 2004 crystal-meth-fueled sex party at Clash’s apartment in New York City. He filed his lawsuit in Pennsylvania; the three other accusers filed similar lawsuits, alleging similar activities, in New York. All the cases were later dismissed, the six-year statute of limitations on the allegations having expired.

Clash kept a low profile for several years, eventually resurfacing in Los Angeles, hometown of his friends Brian and Lisa Henson.

Brian and Lisa are heads of The Jim Henson Company, where they continue the innovative puppetry work pioneered by their father, the late Jim Henson. (The Jim Henson Company does not, however, work on arguably his most famous creation, the Muppets, stewardship of which transferred to Disney in 2004. Fabrication of Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie and the rest is contracted to Puppet Heap, a New Jersey-based company founded by former Henson workers. Fabrication of Sesame Street’s characters including Big Bird, Cookie Monster and the Count still falls to The Jim Henson Company, which also manages its wrangling staff.)

Lisa and her brother put Clash to work on various Henson Company productions — first on the R-rated 2018 feature The Happytime Murders, then on the 2019 Netflix series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance and Disney+’s Earth to Ned in 2020. Most recently, he worked on Henson’s Fraggle Rock: Back to the Rock, the 2022 Apple TV+ reboot of the fantasy series.

Read More