The power that Elmo wields over a certain small person in my household is truly awesome. In the eight or ten seconds it takes to fumble for a remote and summon a googly-eyed red head onscreen, even the most epic of tantrums can be counted on to give way to near-catatonic docility. I have mixed feelings, to say the least, about this power and about Elmo in general. But this post is not about my feelings. Whether you love or hate the Little Red Menace — a slur oft used by Sesame purists — this much is undeniable: Elmo has taken over a certain niche in the cultural ecosystem, and he has done so with remorseless, all-consuming, hamstring-pulling, rib-cracking force. Since his triumphant Tickle-Me blitzkrieg in 1996, he has triggered riots, divided a nation like no children’s character ever before, forced otherwise able parents into abject dependence, and (if the direst predictions are to be believed) set off the first stages of a Muppet mass extinction. Elmo, in other words, is doing something right. My question today is: what is that something, and where did it come from?

[Note: if you don’t have a Sesame-aged kid and this all seems a bit hysterical, try Googling ‘Death to Elmo,’ ‘Elmo is Evil,’ ‘Nazi Elmo,’ etc. The anti-Elmo movement is a passionate and inventive one. From the blog You Just Made My List: ‘He strolls around the neighborhood like he’s John Gotti, forcing all other puppets to live under constant fear of being whacked…Somehow through a series of back-alley deals and intimidation Elmo has risen through the ranks to control the Sesame Street territory…’]

The short answer is that it came from two things, utterly independent and more or less equally unpromising at their births circa 1970: a bland red puppet in Jim Henson’s creature shop, and a syrupy falsetto voice in the head of a dreamy Baltimore kid named Kevin Clash. It wasn’t until fate brought the two together in the early eighties — after the puppet had done an undistinguished stint as ‘Baby Monster,’ gotten himself banished to cold storage for a while, and resurfaced with a few husky-voiced bit parts — that Clash, newly arrived at Sesame Street, pinned a personality to Elmo and created the juggernaut that is with us still. Simple: two acts of creation, one act of inspired recombination, and two and a half decades of relentless exposure.

But anyone who has followed Sesame Street for long enough may agree that this answer obscures a longer, more dynamic, more interesting story– one that explains today’s Elmo as the product of a long, gradual series of largely unconscious decisions, in response to an ever-changing set of pressures arising from his cultural environment. In short, there is an evolutionary story to be told (of the sort that Stephen Jay Gould once told, with far more authority than my own, about Mickey Mouse).

In this evolutionary history, there are several major events — macromutations, a biologist might say — that punctuate the emergence of today’s Elmo within the multifarious family of Muppets. The first was the idea of redness. This was simple enough: there was no red Muppet; Sesame Street valued diversity; and it was a trivial matter to throw together a freshly furred variant on a standard bauplan, a close spinoff of Grover, Cookie Monster, and the others. (Still, it’s worth noting that even this ‘definitive’ trait took a good decade to fully stabilize. Elmo’s first appearance in print, in the 1981 book Circus of Opposites, clearly shows him in a dark orange.)

The proto-Elmo of these years was referred to as a ‘background Muppet’ or ‘ensemble Muppet,’ meaning that he had few lines, little personality, and little aside from his color to differentiate himself from his kin. A representative appearance from this era is the 1979 bit ‘Me Lost Me Cookie at the Disco,’ in which he’s featured as a backup dancer in Cookie Monster’s musical tale of woe. Yet the red Muppet had already begun (albeit in fits and starts) to acquire childlike traits, notably a highly simplified vocabulary and an insistence on repetition, which either encouraged or were encouraged by his christening as ‘Baby Monster.’ Still, the emphasis was clearly on monster: his voice (which changed as he was passed off between several different puppeteers) was deep and throaty, and his manner often alarmingly insistent. Watch Baby’s performance as one of the Furtones in the 1980 number ‘We Are All Monsters,’ or his cameo in the classic Monsterpiece Theatre skit ‘Me, Claudius,’ and prepare to be unsettled.

There’s an unanswered and crucial question here. Why did the red monster become Baby Monster, of all things? Intriguingly, there was an earlier Baby Monster, a purple, horned, fanged Muppet who eased into a predictable extinction after Season One of the show. So when proto-Elmo arrived, a latecomer to an ensemble already crowded with ‘adult’ Muppets, there was a niche waiting to be filled — and, by happy accident, he had certain predispositions to fill it. Among them were his relatively juvenile facial features, with (by Muppet standards) large, closely set eyes and a large, round head. But there was also his convenient complexion. Red, after all, is typically the first color babies learn to distinguish, and the first color term to appear in the evolution of a language. If one set out to design a monster specifically to appeal to the very youngest consumers of culture, one could hardly start from a better place.

When Kevin Clash appeared on the Street in 1985, he found himself in an exceptionally right place at an exceptionally right time. Baby Monster, now officially rebranded Elmo, was still hanging around the set, making the most of his opportunities but still in search of a solid identity. His then-performer Richard Hunt, who preferred playing eccentrics like Don Music and Forgetful Jones, was looking to dump the red Muppet on someone else. And most significantly, it was during this period that the Sesame folks were becoming aware of a seismic shift in their audience: more and more early preschoolers and toddlers were tuning in, forming the cultural equivalent of a volcanic island just lurching above the waterline, clamoring for colonization.

The final major step in the evolution of the modern Elmo was, of course, Clash’s unmistakable falsetto. But even the voice wasn’t transformed in one fell swoop. In skits from Clash’s first couple of seasons — check out Yo-Yo Ma’s guest appearance or the ‘Loud & Quiet‘ bit with Kermit — Elmo still has a slightly harsh edge to his voice, and in place of the familiar bubbly laugh is an almost sinister chuckle. His personality has more of an edge to it as well: he is repeatedly portrayed as something of a pest, endearingly curious but often mildly obnoxious, in a manner very familiar to any parent. Enthusiasts of a certain generation sometimes point to this creature as ‘the real Elmo,’ lamenting the loss of spunk, or spontaneity, or mischief. But it’s clear that Clash’s creature had a good bit of evolving still to do, if he hoped to become maximally ingratiating to the culture at large.

That evolution, an ongoing process, has taken twenty-five years so far. The rough edges of Elmo’s voice have been slowly worn down, yielding to a sugar-sweet lilt that is slower and more exaggeratedly melodic than ever, and that features more of the ultra-soothing, downward-sliding tones that a mother uses when placating a baby. Elmo’s current persona is a comparatively patient, polite one, eager to please, to participate, and to nurture. Having perfected the real baby, Elmo has moved on to play the ideal baby: one with just the right helping of parental characteristics; one whom toddlers will worship, and parents of all stripes will gladly indulge.

Physically, the changes in the Muppet itself have been subtler. Notably, Elmo’s hair seems to have gotten shorter and smoother, so that his sheer shagginess — verging on a mustachioed look in some of the early skits — no longer gives away his monstrosity. Of course, there’s only so much you can do with a Muppet, and for that reason Muppetdom is not the best place to look for cultural evolution (at least evolution in any Darwinian sense, which depends on ample replication and variation). But to leave it at that would be to ignore something big, an event (a ‘release event,’ as an ecologist might say) that began about fifteen years ago and has revolutionized Elmo’s history altogether. What happened was that Elmo’s genotype shed its felt-and-foam body and became a mobile abstraction, a commodity, a consumerist phenomenon. Elmo, to a greater degree than any Sesame Street character before him, is no longer tied to a specific medium. He lives on cereal boxes, in coloring books, on tubes of toothpaste, on T-shirts and inflatable beds and Halloween buckets. It is here, reproducing freely and promiscuously in this jungle of plastic, far from the stultifying constraints of the Sesame Workshop, that Elmo’s evolution has taken off. And the results have been predictable:

The trend toward cuteness has been triumphantly consummated. Elmo’s nose has been shortened and rounded into the pug-nose of the infant; his head has become all but a perfect sphere; his body has been shrunk, the corners softened, the limbs plumped. The fur gleams invitingly; the eyes are so big, so bright, so close-set and forward-facing that they practically fuse into one searing beacon. Small wonder that kids can hardly look away.

All of these changes, as it turns out, can be accounted for within the framework of a phenomenon known in biology as neoteny: the retention of juvenile characteristics, for whatever reason, into adulthood. Neoteny can be a powerful mechanism for adaptation in certain environmental situations. For instance: many salamanders live the aquatic life when young, with the help of feathery external gills, powerful tail fins, and dwarfed limbs, but venture forth onto dry land when the time comes. But once upon a time, a population of salamanders stumbled into a cave in Mexico, and found there a bonanza of underwater opportunity, with little land to speak of and little reason to claim it. So what did they do? They decided not to grow up. Their descendants are the bizarre axolotls, Peter Pans of the amphibia, which have dutifully served as the textbook case of neoteny for years. Significantly, similar things happen to those species that join forces with humans. It’s no secret that people like cute, friendly, submissive animals, and find them easier to work with. So whether it happens through ‘artificial’ or natural selection (not such a rigorous distinction as it seems), most pet and livestock species come to hold on to many of the hallmarks of their youth.

The fact that children’s characters tend to take a similar route should not be surprising, since cuteness — in addition to ingratiating a creature with its herder or master — is one of the most foolproof strategies for survival in the dog-eat-dog world of the iconosphere. In fact, no character is immune. Certainly not Garfield, the neotenized cat:

Or Betty Cooper, the neotenized wholesome teen heartthrob (note that neoteny can be a factor in sexual selection, too, since youthful traits can connote fertility):

Many of Elmo’s veteran compatriots have suffered similar fates, notably the defanged Cookie Monster:

And, of course, there is the amply documented fossil sequence leading from Steamboat Willie to the cutesyfied Mickey of Disney World and the Mouse Club. If Elmo stands out amongst this company, it is only because he has so thoroughly forsaken his creaturely heritage and assimilated himself to his target, the three-and-a-half-year-old child. There is no longer anything remotely monstrous about Baby Monster.

Or is there? Consider Vestigipoda, an Asian genus of phorid fly (co-discovered by, of all people, an entomologist named Disney) that plies a particularly grotesque trade. Adult Vestigipoda retain juvenile characteristics, as do the axolotls — but not their own. In a heroic effort to pick up a free meal, they have shed their wings and all but stumps of their legs, inflated their bodies into bulbous white blobs, and ultimately mastered the art of infiltrating ant colonies under the guise of ant larvae. (In the picture at bottom, the critter in the center is an adult fly, surrounded by her unwitting models.)

What an evolutionary perspective allows us to consider is the possibility that Elmo’s adaptations are beneficial only to Elmo — that, in mastering the art of self-perpetuation in today’s cultural environment, he has ‘learned’ to take advantage of our unconscious preferences and instincts, while providing little or nothing in return. As I see it, the great Elmo debate (which promises to rage on for some time) revolves around the question of whether Elmo is more like a cow or a Vestigipoda — a harmless, domesticated thing, providing intellectual sustenance and fertilizing the cultural ground in his wake; or a ruthless parasitic (or, worse, predatory) mimic, monopolizing our collective attention by aping the things we hold most dear.

I’m not arguing for one or the other. I see both potentialities, in fact, in the little red monster, and I suspect that even Kevin Clash might agree (though he might not put it in quite these terms!). But I do know that the answer to that question, should it ever be answered, may reveal much more about ourselves than it does about Elmo.

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