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?tag=reasonmagazinea-20"

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.