LOS ANGELES — The documentary "Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey" opens this week, about every toddler's favorite red monster and the man who brings him to life, Kevin Clash.
One of the joys of watching Clash in action — besides marveling at how effortless he makes it all look — is seeing how seamlessly he relates to both children and adults. And the segments he does with celebrities, as Elmo learns a lesson or explains a new word, are among his best. So here's a look at five of the greatest celebrity appearances over the four-plus decades "Sesame Street" has been on air. As the mother of a 2-year-old son, compiling this week's list was one of the most enjoyable yet.
— Stevie Wonder performs "Superstition" (1973): This sort of thing doesn't happen on "Sesame Street" anymore. Sure, they have plenty of top artists perform all the time. But this is young Wonder at his thrilling best, singing one of his most enduring songs with a full band behind him, and the energy is just incredible. Check out the little kids playing maracas on the stairs and rocking out on the fire escapes. Plus, the clip is nearly 7 minutes long — which would be unheard of today on any type of TV show — and it even features a shout-out to Cookie Monster. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ul7X5js1vE )
— Ricky Gervais sings a lullaby to Elmo (2009): A great example of how Clash skillfully straddles the line between appealing to kids through Elmo's innate sweetness and making adults laugh with more knowing, playful humor. When Elmo's having trouble falling asleep at night, Gervais shows up with a guitar to sing him a lullaby about the letter N. The song starts out with harmless words like nice, nuzzle and nightcap, but it eventually gets noisy as Gervais cranks it up for the chorus. He is, as always, hilarious. But also be sure to notice the variety of expressions Clash coaxes out of Elmo's furry, red noggin. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jc20vMz0V7Q ). Also check out a clip from the interview The Associated Press did with Gervais and Elmo during that shoot. It's hysterical: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kr9_5uZn6ds ).
— Lena Horne sings "Bein' Green" with Kermit the Frog (1974): This clip is so lovely, so delicate and yet so powerful, it makes me want to cry every time. It's a classic "Sesame Street" song with its poignant message of self-acceptance. But here, Horne sympathizes with Kermit, who looks so lonely and forlorn at the beginning of the song in Jim Henson's masterful hands. By the end, he's singing along with her, having taking the lyrics to heart: "It's beautiful, and I think it's what I want to be." Horne made several appearances on "Sesame Street," and this performance exemplifies her beauty and grace. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPvZR6DTbq8 ).
— Johnny Cash sings "Nasty Dan" to Oscar the Grouch (1974): Can you imagine a more perfect collaboration than this? With a knock of his black guitar on Oscar's rusty, dented trash can, Cash sings a song that's music to the grouch's ears. Oscar is transfixed by such lyrics as: "He'd growl and yell and I heard tell he never took a bath." At the end of the song, Cash deadpans, "Have a rotten day," and he's off with the same quiet cool he had when he arrived. Cash showed up a few times on "Sesame Street" but this one stands out because it's quirky and strangely sweet. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H75eQX006jA )
— Liev Schreiber and Naomi Watts explain the word "exchange" with Elmo (2011): This is a recent one — from the current season, actually — but it cracked me up so I had to include it. Schreiber, Watts and Elmo have various toys to trade with each other, but the running gag is that Schreiber keeps getting nudged out, and he becomes increasingly exasperated. It's funny because Schreiber and Watts, who are a couple with kids in real life, are just so cute together — he's 6 feet and 3 inches and she's petite and they have this fuzzy, red puppet bopping around in between them — but also because these are serious actors doing a scene involving purple balls and stuffed ducks. (http://www.youtube.com/user/SesameStreet?blend=1&ob=4#p/search/0/q1v6Cj_12DM )