Will Elmo Sex Case Damage the Sesame Street Brand?

This week brings some unfortunate news from Sesame Street: Big Bird may be fine, but the future looks uncertain for Elmo. Puppeteer Kevin Clash, the voice behind the furry red monster and the subject of the award-winning 2011 documentary Being Elmo, stands accused of improper sexual conduct with a minor. The Sesame Workshop granted him an open-ended leave of absence to resolve related legal matters.

Clash, who is openly gay, acknowledges having a relationship with the man, now 23. The two differ, however, on the accuser’s age at the time of the affair. In a statement, Clash said that “I had a relationship with the accuser. It was between two consenting adults, and I am deeply saddened that he is characterizing it as something other than what it was”. The accuser has not denied the consensual nature of the relationship; he and his lawyer simply assert that it began while he was only 16 years old.

The Sesame Workshop first learned of the accusations several months ago and conducted an independent investigation. Yesterday a spokesman stated, “We met with Kevin, who denied the accusation. We also conducted a thorough investigation and found the allegation of underage conduct to be unsubstantiated”. The accuser’s law firm sees things differently, claiming that Sesame Workshop aims to “discredit the victim” in order to preserve the Elmo brand.

Clash’s publicist declined to comment further, and we can certainly see why: In order to clear his name, the puppeteer has no real choice but to let the legal case run its course. The story will almost certainly taint the public’s perception of Mr. Clash even if he’s vindicated–and it will certainly prove a big impediment to an otherwise charmed career.

But will it damage the Elmo character or the larger Sesame Street brand?