Kevin Carlson thinks everyone should keep a set of googly eyes on them at all times. Tuck a few pairs into your wallet with your driver’s license and you’ll be all set to take on life.
“They will impress others!” Carlson insists, “You’ll always find a way to have fun with googly eyes.”
It’s not unconventional advice coming from Carlson, who describes himself as a career puppeteer. Wherever there’s a puppet, it’s safe to say Carlson isn’t too far from it. He spent 27 years, from 1992 through today, as a puppeteer for The Jim Henson Company. There he worked closely alongside Jim Henson (who “took a liking to me” as Carlson recalls), Frank Oz, and Fozzie Bear. Carlson was so close to Fozzie that he was the Muppet’s right arm.
Where else did Carlson bring his passion for puppets? He was the resident robot Conky on the TV series Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and worked on the sequence where a stairwell bannister turns into a snake for Catherine O’Hara in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice. He also voiced Timmy the Tooth in The Adventures of Timmy the Tooth, and lent a hand in Forgetting Sarah Marshall’s Dracula musical scene.
Muppets aside, the most recognizable role in Carlson’s career doesn’t have the phrase “waka waka!” associated with it. Instead, it’s another little jingle that goes “I’m lovin’ it!” — the iconic McDonald’s slogan where Carlson was a puppeteer for the McNugget Buddies.
Finding A Puppeteer Dream Job With The Help Of “Talking Hands”
Growing up in Southern California, Carlson enjoyed watching The Muppet Show and dabbled with puppets. Puppetry stuck with him because of its performance art nature. As a puppeteer, Carlson could act and be an actor but he could never be typecast. There was no limit to the roles he could play with puppets, and no limits for anyone else passionate about the work either.
Carlson attended California State University, Fullerton in the early 1980s where he studied speech communication. One day, he was running late to class. As Carlson hurried to class, he noticed a picture of talking hands tacked on a community bulletin board. He ran up a flight of stairs before curiosity got the better of him. What was it about that picture? He ran back down the stairs for a closer look. It was an audition ad for a puppeteer workshop. Carlson wrote down the phone number, went to class, and later went to the audition. 400 applicants applied for the workshop, hosted by legendary puppeteers Sid and Marty Krofft. Only 25 auditions made the cut — including Carlson. He began training to become a professional puppeteer, quickly catching the eye of another puppeteer named Tony Urbano.
Making A McNugget
In 1982, Urbano hired Carlson to help puppeteer McDonald’s commercials with him. The puppeteers worked closely with Leo Burnett, the ad agency that had the McDonald’s account and its McDonaldland characters.
Carlson’s shop duties included building the world of the McNuggets and their props and set pieces. Unlike the McDonaldland characters like Grimace and the Hamburglar resided in, the McNuggets were built on a smaller scale. They didn’t have hands, legs, or feet. A cardboard box could comfortably fit four to six McNuggets, much like how they were sold at the fast food chain.
The McNuggets were fond of their silly shenanigans and antics. They couldn’t, and wouldn’t, stay cooped up inside of a box in every commercial.
Urbano and another puppeteer named Tim Blaney created the McNuggets prototype for Leo Burnett. Carlson recalls that the McNuggets were rod puppets, lovingly nicknamed “McNuggets On A Stick.” The hand-carved McNuggets were composed of sculpted foam (think the material inside a sofa), which was whittled down with scissors. This allowed for cutting open mouths and sculpting cheeks.
Every McNugget had googly eyes. Carlson was often at the helm of the pupil-making process, using round cutouts and felt.
Making McNuggets was also harder than it looks. You couldn’t get it down to an assembly line science. “Sometimes we would get feedback that Leo Burnett wanted the ‘right’ shade of brown,” Carlson says, “We would have to re-dye them again.”
“The Great Basketball Playoff”
One of Carlson’s favorite McDonald’s commercials to puppeteer was 1986’s “The Great Basketball Playoff.” The 30-second spot features Ronald playing b-ball against the McNuggets. (Standing straight up, the McNuggets are no taller than Ronald’s big red clown shoes.)
A McNugget referee blows a whistle and the game begins! Ronald makes the first basket through the hoop. The McNuggets, meanwhile, make their own basket. It’s a literal basket made of straw perfectly McNugget-shaped.
Oh, those wacky McNuggets! Gotta get your head in the game, gang! The McNuggets in the bleachers are blowing horns and waving banners.
The crowd’s going wild! Ronald dunks another hoop, while a McNugget driving a barbecue sauce truck enters the auditorium. Interesting. He unloads a few barbecue sauce containers, just the right size for a McNugget to dunk itself inside. All five players go for a “dunk” in the BBQ sauce. Ronald slyly comments that they didn’t even dribble – and the McNuggets erupt in giggles.
Shooting “The Great Basketball Playoff”
“We usually shot a 30-second commercial in one day,” Carlson says. Puppeteers would begin setting up at 7 AM the day of the shoot. The shoots closely followed storyboards created by Leo Burnett art director Rich Seidelman. Carlson looks back at these storyboards as “the road map for shooting.”
Every setup for McDonald’s commercials was an intricate process, but “The Great Basketball Playoff” was elaborate in a blink and you might miss it kind of way.
If you watch the commercial closely, you’ll notice the basketball court has slots in the flooring. It’s a trick floor. The slots were covered using sliding mechanisms. This made it appear as though the McNuggets could waddle through. Four or five puppeteers were crouched underneath the basketball court’s table where they used rods to direct the McNuggets where to go next. McNuggets that leapt from the bleachers into the BBQ sauce took a few practices from a marionette.
How many McNuggets could the average puppeteer manage at a time? “We juggled two in each hand, sometimes three,” Carlson recalls, “The speaking McNuggets had one person that did their dialogue.”
Going “Under The Table” For The McNuggets
Carlson was one of four or five puppeteers under the table. Sometimes there would be five or six puppeteers. Lest anyone feel alarmed by these squishy working conditions, Carlson has assured me that it was actually a lot of fun.
“We worked like actors and the director would direct us on what to do — under the table, of course,” Carlson says, “We were puppeteers. Sometimes we had to squeeze into tiny areas, but we laughed through the uncomfortable moments.”
Carlson also credits Urbano for keeping morale high on set.
“Tony was the kingpin for us puppeteers,” Carlson remembers, “He gave us so many opportunities and guidelines for how to act on set. He kept a lot of us working and paid as principle actors during the commercials. These commercials aired often and nationwide, which made a huge difference in my career.”
Outside of the McNuggets, Carlson’s exposure to the rest of McDonaldland was limited. He did one commercial with the Fry Kids. He also helped create a talking bowling pin for a later McDonald’s commercial.
What’s Kevin Carlson Up To Now?
Today, Carlson trains puppeteers. He teaches a class on film and TV puppetry and helps people audition for puppet-centric shows like Avenue Q.
“The thing about puppetry is you really have to love it,” Carlson insists, “It’s like playing an instrument. Sure, you can make noises but can you make music? If you don’t have a theater background, or the ability to perform and ham it up, then puppetry isn’t for you.”
Even without a proper theater background, it’s entirely possible an introvert can become a great puppeteer if they are able to tap into their inner child. “Some people are quiet and mild-mannered, but then they get a character and get wacky. Tim Blaney is one of those people! He’s introverted, but you give him a puppet and he turns into a kooky, wacky nutball. The transformation… It’s hysterical.” Carlson says.
“As a puppeteer, you watch people. You’re seeing what the audience sees, and as such you can adapt immediately. The ability to do, to become, all these different characters from Muppets to McNuggets drew me in from the beginning. Puppeteers make characters work and delight audiences worldwide because of it.”
Image credits: McDonaldland. Filming In McDonaldland