Avenue Q star John Tartaglia gets G-rated with Johnny

Until Johnny and the Sprites hit the Disney Channel, John Tartaglia was best known for playing foul-mouthed, sexually active puppets in the Broadway musical Avenue Q. But this new, G-rated career path didn’t come out of nowhere: Johnny has ten years of Sesame Street under his belt, and he first developed the sprite characters when he was a bored teenager. We met Mr. Tartaglia for coffee to chat about the bizarro world of puppeteering and his new under-twelve fan base. – Gwynne Watkins

So, the president of Disney approached you to do a children’s show after seeing Avenue Q. Which is crazy, because there’s such a history of children’s TV shows being pulled because of “adult” things the stars have done off-camera – and here you are on record, making puppets do incredibly obscene things.

I always say that Avenue Q was the chance to kind of like do all those things that we used to do between takes on Sesame Street – completely wrong and inappropriate things – but they’re fun. But my heart really has always been in children’s television, because that’s what I grew up wanting to do. So I think what he saw was that, yes, I was doing this show that was definitely for adults. But it also had this childlike element to it. For me, it was almost a relief because I didn’t feel like I had to cover anything up; I didn’t have to say, “Oh, I never did that show! What are you talking about?”

I’m sure that every kid playing with puppets dreams about working on Sesame Street – and you were one of the youngest people they ever hired. What was it like to work there?

When you grow up and you idolize something for so long, you only see the sheen and the glimmer, you don’t really see the reality of it. I didn’t picture it as work. I pictured it as this wonderful family who sat around playing with puppets all day in front of television cameras. And in some ways, it is that. But it’s a job, it’s a machine. I went through a hazing process. Also it was a hard adjustment, getting to know the people that I grew up knowing as characters or as puppeteers, as co-workers. You know, Sonya Montana, who plays Maria – I grew up with “Maria,” and she was my friend. And all of a sudden I’m on the set working with her and I have to call her Sonya.

Did you do play any especially bizarre roles on Sesame Street ?

Oh, God yeah. I mean, name it, I did it. It’s such a weird thing when you go to Radio City Music Hall for the opening of the Christmas show one year, and they say, what are you doing in the show? Oh, I’m Elmo’s right hand. You have to explain that to people. You know, Hey mom! I’m at Radio City Music Hall! I’m going to be part of the show, I’m going to be Elmo’s right hand! And there’s always weird things like that. Through the Muppets, I got a call once to do this never-aired David Bowie music video, where the Jim Henson Creature Shop out in London built these beautiful, life-sized mannequins of David Bowie. And to be in the middle of Central Park in this lime-green suit, walking around with a David Bowie-thing strapped to your waist – I remember just being like, What am I doing with my life?

During the run of Avenue Q, you did a lot of publicity with Rod (the gay Republican puppet modeled after Sesame Street ‘s Bert). Is there one event that stands out in your memory?

There are two things that stand out the most: one was when I did Hollywood Squares with Rod, and the other is the night at the Tonys where I did that bit with Hugh Jackman.

Now that Johnny and the Sprites in on the air, little kids must approach you all the time. Do they ask you funny questions?

Omigod, constantly. I had one little girl who was fascinated by the fact that I had a banjo on my wall, in the background of the show. We never talk about it, never mention it, but she saw that banjo. One little girl asked why I wasn’t wearing my purple shirt that I wore in the episode she saw. They always want to know where the Sprites are, and I always say they’re taking care of the Grove. Because it’s kind of true, but also because I always hate to say, “oh, they’re taking a nap,” because kids are smarter than that. And you can’t say, “they’re in a box somewhere in Manhattan Mini Storage.”

Tagged as: ,

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, profile photo and other personal information you make public on Facebook (e.g., school, work, current city, age) will appear with your comment. Learn More.