Sesame Street Confidential

The story behind the rise of Bert, Ernie, Big Bird, and a kids' entertainment juggernaut

Sesame Street, the children's TV show that debuted in November 1969 and is still going strong, is part of the wallpaper of contemporary popular culture, a fertile source of memories, motifs, music and more to virtually anyone under 45 in the United States—or the 119 other countries in which the series airs.

How ubiquitous is Sesame Street? Consider this: Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, anti-American demonstrators in Bangladesh flooded the streets waving posters of Osama bin Laden seated next to the show's popular yellow muppet Bert, who along with rubber-ducky enthusiast Ernie makes up one of the most relentlessly chaste same-sex couples since J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson shuffled off their mortal coils. In their rush for images of their new hero bin Laden, the demonstrators had unwittingly downloaded pictures from one of countless Bert Is Evil websites that photoshop the famously fussy character into scenes with history's greatest villains (Bert has been spotted with Hitler, Stalin and Mao, among others).

Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, by former TV Guide columnist and editor Michael Davis, is an exhaustive account of how we got to Sesame Street. Written in cooperation with the woman behind the show, Joan Ganz Cooney, it charts the program from its conception in the waning days of the Great Society. "Sesame Street," Davis writes, effectively created modern educational programming by asking, "If television could successfully teach the words and music to advertisements, couldn't it teach children more substantive material by co-opting the very elements that make ads so effective?"

Cooney had been a successful producer of well-regarded but little-watched public television programs. Aiming especially to reach low-income and minority kids, she pulled together a cast of veterans from such shows as Captain Kangaroo, while assembling educational researchers to guide the pedagogy of the new show. No contributor was more important than Jim Henson, the muppet master whose laid-back hippie persona masked a bulldog businessman who never fulfilled his dreams of succeeding with a mature audience. Although much discussed in the book, Henson, who died unexpectedly in 1990 at 53 from "a runaway strep infection gone stubbornly, foolishly untreated," remains an almost completely enigmatic character.

Some of the best passages in Street Gang recount behind-the-scenes stories, such as the time in the mid-1970s when Cooney secured an extension of federal funding for the show by successfully petitioning the patron saint of limited government, Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.). And given the general uplift of the show, it's always compelling to read about nasty backstage wrangling, including an early '90s brouhaha when the show's politically correct research director insisted that for a particular muppet skit "the part of a chicken should only be played by a chicken."

Yet Street Gang is mired in unnecessary details, endless litanies of names and prose that is several shades more purple than the skin of Count von Count, the show's obsessive-compulsive, mathematically inclined vampire. "Jon Stone approached a typewriter in the same way that a concert pianist approached a Steinway," Davis writes in a typical flourish, describing a co-producer of the show. Elsewhere, he intones that when Cooney decided to wean her production company off federal assistance, "she had unwittingly made a kind of Sophie's Choice. Sesame Street would survive, The Electric Company would not."

Worse still, Davis seems quick to repeat every positive claim ever made about Sesame Street, from singer and frequent guest-star Judy Collins's recollection that the show gave her "a spark, a will to live" during her boozy years in the '70s to a public broadcasting honcho's assertion that, "This is the most important thing since the discovery of the atom bomb."

While there's little doubt that Sesame Street has great market- and mind-share, whether on TV or in the nation's toy stores, it's far from clear that it has succeeded in its self-declared mission of preparing preschoolers for K-12 education. Indeed, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which has tracked students since the early '70s, reports that there has been precious little increase in reading and math test scores among the generations raised on "Sesame Street" (despite the more than doubling of inflation-adjusted expenditures per pupil over the same period). That's not a knock on a show that continues to entertain millions of viewers, but a truly "complete history" certainly would have grappled with such questions in a more critical fashion.

Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.tv and Reason.com. A version of this appeared in the January 25, 2009 edition of The Washington Post.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • ...||

    this thread brought to you by the letter "A" and the number 9.

  • ||

    "she had unwittingly made a kind of Sophie's Choice. Sesame Street would survive, The Electric Company would not."

    That's what killed Electric Company?

    HEY YOU GUYS

  • Tym||

    Bert is evil.

  • Tym||

    Bert and Ernie are gay.

  • Ernie||

    "Bert and Ernie are gay."

    No, just good friends.

  • ||

    You want to know how fucked up modern society is. A year or two ago they put the original two or three seasons of SS out on DVD. The DVDs had a parental warning on them that they were for nastalgia purposes only and were not suitable for viewing by young children unsupervised. No shit. The old shows showed a little girl doing things like going home with a nice man and having breakfast with him and his wife. We can't have kids seeing that. We must make sure kids all assume that every man they meet is a preditor. We are really screwed. You know.

  • ||

    Sometime after 9-11, they had an invertview on the internet with Evil Burt in his cave in Afghanistan. It was hysterical.

  • Jeff Balla||

    Is there not supposed to be a link to the Washington Post article?

  • Paul||

    '90s brouhaha when the show's politically correct research director insisted that for a particular muppet skit "the part of a chicken should only be played by a chicken."



    Say what?

  • ||

    Bi-curious good friends.

  • Mr. Hooper\'s Corpse||

    You don't wanna know what else Bert did with those pigeons.

  • economist||

    "'Bert and Ernie are gay.'

    No, just good friends."

    It's nothing to be ashamed of, Ernie.

  • Tym||

    '90s brouhaha when the show's politically correct research director insisted that for a particular muppet skit "the part of a chicken should only be played by a chicken."

    Also, the cookie monster is now the vegie monster because he is diabetic.

  • stuartl||

    "This is the most important thing since the discovery of the atom bomb."

    Huh? After years of digging, Professor Clueless finally discovered an atom bomb.

  • DADIODADDY||

    I understand that Big Bird tastes just like chicken. At least that's what Bert told me...

  • ||

    C is for Capitalism, that's good enough for me. And no enterprise is more capitalistic than "Sesame Street." Don't they still make billions of dollars in merchandising and videos (Tickle Me Elmo was THE toy to get in 1996)?

    Seriously, I think PBS needs this show more than it needs PBS. And in the 1990s, when the GOP called into question the funding of PBS, the press framed it in terms of "O NOES!! EVIL REPUBLIKKKANS ARE GONNA KILL BIG BIRD!!!!" Seriously, does PBS show anything that there isn't already a niche cable channel for?

    John, I saw those DVDs. They've always been overly sensitive about things like that. The reason that the humans now know Snuffleupagus is real is because in 1985 when they still thought he was Big Bird's imaginary friend, it was assumed by CTW that the humans not believing Big Bird about Snuffy would send the idea to children that if they were sexually molested then adults would not believe them. This was around the same time as the Kern County, CA and McMartin Preschool trials.

  • Scarpe Nike||

    is good

  • caibutou||

    thank

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