I was very sad when I heard that Muppeteer legend Jerry Nelson died last week. I met him on my very first visit to the real Sesame Street, and it was as momentous as anything else that happened that mind-blowing day. I wish I could remember exactly what I said to him, but I know it was something about having listened to his voice for practically my entire life.
I could tell that it genuinely meant something to him that I knew him and his work so well. He both wanted to hear it, and at the same time seemed to not quite be able to believe the impact he had had on a perfect stranger. It's an odd sort of fame, being a Muppeteer. But from my earliest days of Muppet fandom, he was one of the Big Four: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, and Caroll Spinney. I always particularly loved Jerry's character Herry Monster, and feel honored to have performed him on two separate occasions.
Jerry was probably the most vocally versatile Muppeteer ever, and the most musical. There was some indefinable magic in his voice that made all of his characters fun to listen to, no matter how completely different they may have sounded from each other.
In terms of Jerry's "position" in the ranks of Muppetdom, the best analogy I've been able to come up with is to the first cast of Saturday Night Live. (And yes, it's completely weird that he and the other Muppeteers were actually in the first cast of SNL. But I digress.) I propose the following:
Jerry Nelson is to Frank Oz as Dan Aykroyd is to John Belushi
Belushi was the "star" talent. He had a huge, crowd-pleasing presence, and some truly memorable characters. He was great. The "audience favorite". But look at Aykroyd. He was always there to support, to fill whatever space was left by Belushi, and to do so memorably and often with brilliance. And this is not to say that Aykroyd wasn't completely capable of headlining a project himself, which he did splendidly. But he was never the crowd-pleaser that Belushi was...and yet, if you want to talk about sheer talent and versatility, who had more of that? Belushi or Aykroyd?
A brilliant utility man. That was Jerry Nelson. I'm so grateful to him for providing an enormous amount of inspiration at a very early age, and I'm so grateful I got to tell him that.