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.”
At the center of Sesame Street’s crisis responses since 1998 has been executive vice-president Sherrie Rollins Westin, a veteran of the first Bush White House and a former assistant secretary of HUD. Westin was married for a time to Republican grandee Ed Rollins, campaign manager of Reagan-Bush ’84 (and briefly this cycle for Michele Bachmann, arguably the most Muppet-like of the GOP field), and it’s an irony of her current position that she applies combat skills learned in Republican politics to prevent conservatives from turning her fuzzy charges into symbols of big-government excess or sexual depravity. She’s joined by general counsel Myung Kang-Huneke, previously a litigator for ABC and the ever-challenged New York City Housing Authority. The team also includes former Newsweek CEO Tom Ascheim. A puppetry club this is not.
Workshop officials would speak only anonymously for this piece, stressing the team atmosphere at the company’s Lincoln Center headquarters and the reach of its operations. “It’s a nonprofit organization that’s in 150 countries, that deals with educational outreach, deals with production, with licensed products, with philanthropic development, deals with Washington in terms of education issues,” one said. “You’re never prepared for this type of situation,” another added, when I asked whether they had ever game-planned for a possible pederasty scandal.
Prepared or not, last week the team performed more capably than recipients of bad press in seemingly more rough-and-tumble fields often do: Consider Anthony Weiner and his self-portraiture, and how his bungled attempts to make that problem go away left his brand with more long-term damage than Eliot Spitzer suffered for frequenting prostitutes. The Kevin Clash story, denied oxygen by the Workshop, fizzled a day after it began, with a lawyer for the accuser releasing a statement saying that this was “an adult consensual relationship” and refusing further comment. “Elmo is bigger than any one person,” the company said on Monday. It also helps that he’s got some brawlers watching his back.