Caroll Spinney Waves His Hand in the Air

Aug 6, 2015 by Nickelodeon on The Nickelodeon Blog
An archival photo of Caroll Spinney at work.

I Am Big Bird is a meditation on aging in the way that all documentaries about an under-appreciated artist’s work are. Caroll Spinney has puppeteered Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch for several decades now, his efforts literally hidden from view. In a sense, this has been for the mystique and full anthropomorphization of his creations; but as we get to know Spinney through interviews, recollections, and archival footage, we see that his personality has so imbued the Muppets that such separability is merely redundant. Maybe the purpose was to separate not creator from creation, but Big Bird from Oscar the Grouch.

The documentary’s project is to show us the life of someone who has given himself over to a child’s-eye view of the world, but has had to split himself between the naive and the cynical, to, in a sense, perform a polarity. Once we are shown the performer nearing the end of his career, we see their imbrication in each other, that optimism and pessimism are not opposites so much as correctives continually playing off of each other. Spinney is an emblem for how neither a boundlessly hopeful nor a ceaselessly disappointed worldview can compete with the complexity of lived experience. The audience of Sesame Street, as we all have been at some point, learns this through the sympathetic appeal of two contrasting characters. When we were little, though, we didn’t know that someone had already figured it out, and was showing us. Now we know better, and can pass it on. And there is Caroll, arm in the air, and there is his understudy, mimicking his movement.

—Mike Opal