"The simplicity of them is what makes them successful," Clash said. "They all have some type of addiction, some thing that they're crazy about. The Count loved to count, Cookie Monster loves cookies, Telly Monster was obsessed with watching TV, Oscar loved trash."
A chief virtue of the Muppets that hasn't lasted forever, though, is Henson's steady hand on his characters. The puppeteer was in talks with Disney over the rights to the Muppets when he died, and it took 14 years before his heirs and the studio agreed upon a deal. (The "Sesame Street" characters are owned by the nonprofit Sesame Workshop and remain under separate control from Disney. Kermit, who appeared on both "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show," went to Disney in the split.)
The Muppet movies released in the years after Henson's death lacked the cultural cachet of those he guided. "They've gone through, let's say, a dry period where the movies they were putting out were not getting the home runs that the early Muppet movies did, and I think [the new movie] is showing that they've reexamined that," said Bart Roccoberton, a professor of puppet arts at the University of Connecticut. "When they started doing 'Treasure Island' and 'Christmas Carol' and things like that, I think they were trying to impose those characters into a world that they shouldn't have, whereas the early Muppet movies are about the Muppets' world."
Not everyone is happy to see what Disney has made of Kermit and company in its new film. In September, Frank Oz, who for more than 30 years performed Miss Piggy, told the British newspaper Metro that he turned down a chance to work on the studio's Muppets update. "I wasn't happy with the script," Oz said. "I don't think they respected the characters. But I don't want to go on about it like a sourpuss and hurt the movie."
Cheryl Henson is more circumspect about watching her father's characters in other creative hands, not just in the new movie — which his children are not involved with — but in other venues, like the homespun Muppet and "Sesame Street" spoofs that appear regularly on YouTube. "Emotionally, of course, we'll always feel very close to these characters and want only the best for them," she said. "We don't want to see them doing anything they shouldn't be doing. But we had to let that go. I'm more excited when I see puppet artists creating new work, their own characters, their own design. For me that is much more exciting than seeing somebody imitating my father's work."
For Clash, the demands of puppeting Elmo — as well as producing and directing at "Sesame Street," and training new puppeteers — have sometimes kept him from another, more intimate source of love, his daughter, Shannon. "When she was little she'd get on the phone and say, 'Daddy, can I speak to Elmo?'" Clash said. "When she got older she was concerned about me spending time with her and giving her time." During Clash's interview, conducted via Skype, the occasional beep of another of his contacts jumping online sounded. It was Shannon, now a freshman at the University of Maryland. "Now we're having a great time," Clash said. "We're Skyping and hanging out."
Times staff writers Gina McIntyre and Emily Rome contributed to this report.