The Path to Becoming a Puppeteer on Children's Shows

Daniel Hautzinger
David Rudman on the set of 'Jack's Big Music Show.' Photo: Courtesy Spiffy Pictures
David Rudman on the set of 'Jack's Big Music Show.' Photo: Courtesy Spiffy Pictures

This is Part 2 of a story about Spiffy Pictures. Part 1, about the origins and making of their PBS Kids series Nature Cat, can be found here.

David Rudman, the portrayer of Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster and a co-founder of the children’s TV production studio Spiffy Pictures, constructed his first puppet in the fourth grade. “I made a sculpture for an art class out of a tin can,” he recalls. “And I thought, ‘It would be so fun if this could move. I wonder if I can make its mouth move and the wings flap.' I had so much fun turning it into a puppet and cracking people up with it that I just kept building them. A hundred later, I had a room full of stuff.”

A half-completed puppet by David Rudman. Photo: Courtesy Spiffy PicturesA half-completed puppet by David Rudman. Photo: Courtesy Spiffy Pictures “I remember a lot of foam,” Scott Scornavacco says. Scornavacco is Spiffy’s business manager and a childhood friend of Rudman. “A lot of rubber cement. There were compartments all around your room, each with a few puppets.”

Rudman says that, “I would look at a Nerf ball and think, ‘I could make something out of that.’ I still have bags full of my early puppets in my attic, probably just disintegrating.”

As Rudman tells it, puppet-making and performing were hobbies that continued much longer than anyone expected. “I would do shows for birthdays and at school, and I just kept getting good support and encouragement from people,” he says. “So it was like, ‘I could stop doing this – or I could keep doing it.’ In middle school, I thought, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t do this anymore.’ But then someone asked me to do a show. Then I got to high school and it was like, ‘Alright, I’m in high school, I can’t do puppets.’”

Again, someone entreated a performance. The principal of the school gave his support, granting Rudman the keys to the auditorium in order to rehearse. At the end of the school year, he and a group of friends staged a revue for the entire school that included music and sketches. The production became a formalized, yearly event that Rudman put on every year of high school. “We would push the boundaries a little bit with some weird stuff,” he remembers. “My last two years it was really good. So I’m thinking, ‘I could stop doing this now. Or I could keep going and see what happens!’”

David Rudman braves a deluge of fake snow on the set of 'Jack's Big Music Show.' Photo: Courtesy Spiffy PicturesDavid Rudman braves a deluge of fake snow on the set of 'Jack's Big Music Show.' Photo: Courtesy Spiffy Pictures The summer after graduating from high school, Rudman auditioned at Jim Henson’s Muppet workshop in New York and received a summer job. As the summer dwindled, he made an audition tape for Henson. Two weeks into his freshman year at the University of Connecticut, he received a phone call asking him to come back to New York and meet with Henson, who had loved the audition tape. He was eighteen years old.

“I was ready to quit college,” he says. “Two weeks is enough.” But both Henson and Rudman’s dad advised him to finish school, working with the Muppets on breaks. When he graduated with a degree in acting and art in the mid-1980s, he therefore easily slipped into more work with the Muppets and Sesame Street. He now plays Baby Bear and several other puppets, and in 2001 he took over the role of Cookie Monster from the legendary Frank Oz, when Oz entered semi-retirement.

In the early ‘90s, Rudman ran into an acquaintance in Manhattan who had just started working at Nickelodeon. Aware of Rudman’s work with the Muppets, she asked him to pitch some ideas for short vignettes to air between shows, called interstitials. His brother Adam had recently graduated from college with a minor in creative writing, and the two teamed up to create a short-form series named Hocle and Stoty.

Adam and David Rudman with Jon Stewart on the set of 'Jack's Big Music Show.' Photo: Courtesy Spiffy PicturesAdam and David Rudman with Jon Stewart on the set of 'Jack's Big Music Show.' Photo: Courtesy Spiffy Pictures “We shot three test pilots in a studio,” David recalls. “I think I built all the puppets. It was really low budget and we just did it all ourselves.” The brothers made twenty-four episodes of the goofy series, which centered on two grotesque puppets wearing bowler hats. They also created a shadow-puppetry interstitial for MTV called Jean-Claude Lethargic that ran during Beavis and Butthead, and one for Comedy Central titled Life’s a Drag that featured cigarette pack puppets.

“We actually took real cigarette packs and put faces on them and bad teeth, and we put a smoke tube up them so that they were coughing and hacking,” David remembers, laughing. “Smoke would just billow out,” Adam says.

From there, the Rudmans moved into creating animated and live-action shorts for Sesame Street. David also got Adam an audition as a writer at the series, even though he had never written for a children’s show. At the end of three elimination stages, the only people left were Adam and the celebrated children’s author Mo Willems. Both of them ended up writing for the show. “That’s where I learned everything: how to write for kids, and adults, and families, and TV,” Adam says. “That was the beginning.”

In the early 2000s, the Rudmans finally got the chance to create a long-form project. Curious Buddies, their first effort, was a twelve episode direct-to-video show released by Nickelodeon in 2004. Filmed in the brothers’ home town of Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago, it featured four main puppets interacting with live children. “Nick wanted to do their version of Baby Einstein,” Adam says.  

Doing puppetry for a TV show can get crowded. Photo: Courtesy Spiffy PicturesDoing puppetry for a TV show can get crowded. Photo: Courtesy Spiffy Pictures As they moved into long-form TV, the Rudmans changed the name of their production company from Rudling Productions to Spiffy Pictures. (“When we go into movies, we’re changing our name again,” Adam jokes.) It was at this time, too, that Scornavacco joined the team. “They just needed somebody to handle the business,” he says. “Suddenly the budgets are real, it’s not short-form stuff,” Adam explains.

Curious Buddies was followed by two more shows that mixed live-action and puppetry: Jack’s Big Music Show for Nickelodeon, and Bunnytown for the Disney channel. Then came the arrival of a young producer from Boston and the creation of the animated series Nature Cat for PBS Kids, which you can read about in part 1 of this profile. On June 19, 2017 they premiere their most ambitious project yet: a 44-minute Nature Cat special titled “Ocean Commotion.” Joking aside, movies may not be that far off – and it all started with a talking tin can.