Editor’s Note: Judy Gold is a stand-up comic in New York, actress, writer and winner of two Emmy Awards. She is the host of the podcast “Kill Me Now,” available on iTunes or at judygold.com/podcast. She is also the author of “Yes I Can Say That,” forthcoming from Dey Street Books. Follow her on Twitter @JewdyGold. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Big Bird made me a grouch.
Allow me to explain. At the start of my formal education, classmates called me The Jolly Green Giant. And then five days before my seventh birthday, everything changed. The first episode of “Sesame Street” aired, and my alter-ego was born. Big Bird.
People loved Big Bird because he was so sweet, but before anyone could focus on his kindness, they had to acknowledge and get over the fact that he’s 8 feet, 2 inches tall. In the first episode, Gordon tries to introduce his new neighbor Sally to Big Bird, but he cannot see her because she’s so short. When Gordon lifts up Sally so she can be seen, Big Bird gets scared because he thinks she’s an 8-foot-tall girl, and he tells them that he nearly laid an egg. What is so frightening about a tall girl?
Practically every single day I was in school, someone called me Big Bird. They’d shout it in the hallways, in the schoolyard or when I was walking home from school. They said it for the sole purpose of making me feel bad because of the way I looked, or as my mother told me, “They are just jealous of you Judith! They wish they were as tall as you.”
The result was that every morning when I had to get up and go to school, I turned into a grouch. Oscar and Big Bird were my yin and yang. I grew up to be a comedian, and now I am Big Bird in life and Oscar when I’m doing stand-up.
Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who brought my yin and yang to life on “Sesame Street” before stepping down in 2018, died Sunday at 85. His passing made me think back to how Big Bird and Oscar shaped my life, first as a child and later as an adult.
Spinney made Big Bird a 6-year old boy. A wise, gentle, kind-hearted and gracious child. When he walked onto Sesame Street, everyone was his friend and no one judged him because of his looks. He was and will remain beloved for generations to come.
But as one of the tall girls even Big Bird seemed to be afraid of, I can assure you that if Big Bird lived any place other than Sesame Street, where growing up is all about being “smarter, stronger and kinder,” his life would have been completely different. Maybe he would have been a lot more like Oscar the Grouch.
By the time I was 13, I was already 6 feet tall. I grew an additional three inches in high school. The old adage “Act your age, not your shoe size,” which was uttered frequently by my teachers, didn’t apply to me since those numbers remained the same up until my last year of middle school. Needless to say, I was teased and bullied because of my height all the way up until I left the suburbs for college (and never went back).
Mr. Spinney couldn’t save me or other kids who struggled to fit in from being targeted by bullies, but his characters still helped a lot of us find our voices. He spent his adult life playing some of the most recognizable characters ever to grace our TVs and theaters. His puppeteering prowess was exceptional. He is being remembered as a remarkable human being. And yet, when he walked down the street, practically no one knew who he was. And he didn’t mind that at all.
There’s something to be said for blending in without sacrificing your sense of self. And whenever I think back to those school days, I remember what Big Bird said: “Bad days happen to everyone, but when one happens to you, just keep doing your best and never let a bad day make you feel bad about yourself.”
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Caroll Spinney and I had a lot of similarities, too. He was his own person, but people knew who he was only when he was Big Bird. As a person and a performer, I still wish that people would know me for me, and less as the tall girl who got called “Big Bird” (and still gets called out callously from time to time for her size as an adult). I know Spinney would have hated that his 6-year-old bird had a name that made it easier for kids to bully 7-year-old me.
Spinney was – like Big Bird still is – all goodness. Spinney, just like Big Bird (and me), had one goal – to make other people feel happy.