It’s mid 1971, and in a lounge-room in Grafton, NSW, Australia, a wide-eyed five year old is sitting cross legged in front of his family’s TV set early one morning, unable to take his eyes off the program on the screen before him.
He had only just been introduced a matter of a year before to television – his first experience of the medium had been a rocky one with the young boy screaming in fright at the strange lady who sang from within the small box in the corner of the room; he couldn’t see any way she could have crawled inside there and was understandably and suitably freaked out – thanks to a childhood largely spent in the countryside of then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) where his parents had served as missionaries.
Now an avid viewer, he was a convert to the power of television to entertain and delight, and thanks to a visionary group of people in New York in the late ’60s who believed television also had the power to teach everything from literacy to ethics and social skills to young, impressionable children, educate.
The program that so entranced him on that Australian winter morning was Sesame Street, a program which had first gone to air in Australia on Monday 4 January 1971 after premiering in the USA on 10 November 1969, and the people who made it possible for this young boy to be both entertained and edcuated in equal measure were Joan Ganz Cooney, a talented public TV producer and Lloyd Morrisett, trained as an environmental psychologist and now vice-president of the Carnegie Corporation.
They had conceived the idea of Sesame Street over a simple dinner party between close friends Cooney, Morrisett and TV producer Lewis Friedman (who inspired Cooney’s belief in the power of television to educate) in 1966, according to Michael Davis, author of Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street:
“Sesame Street began as a flash of brilliance that struck like a bolt from the gods. Cooney was its mother of invention, while Lloyd N. Morrisett, a well-connected vice president at the Carnegie Corporation, was its financial godfather. Sesame‘s moment of conception occurred at a dinner party at Cooney’s apartment, when Morrisett and his wife were discussing how their three-year-old daughter, Sarah, had become transfixed by television. She would sit in front of a test pattern at 6:30 a.m., waiting for the cartoons to appear at 7:00. It was the same thing millions of kids were doing across the country.”
Convinced that television could be much more than just a simple electronic babysitter, Cooney, Morrisett and a small team of similarly-inspired souls came together several days later to engage “in an outpouring of ideas on how to master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them … ‘What if you could create content for television that was both entertaining and instructive? What if it went down more like ice cream than spinach? What if we stopped complaining about the banality we are allowing our children to see and did something about it?'” (Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street)
These initial brainstorming sessions set in train a three year odyssey to assemble the Sesame Street team, a one-of-a-kind group of visionary indivisuals that would come to include Jim Henson, the main responsible for Big Bird, Grover, Kermit and a slew of other puppets that would come to symbolise, as much as anything, this bold new programming initiative about to launch itself on American television screens.
He was the one who came up with what once he termed a “delicate balance between fun and learning”, the man responsible for bringing about “the two-tiered audience that was essential to Sesame’s vast and immediate appeal”:
“Kids watched in rapture, but parents watched, too, often laughing to the winking references to pop culture, song parodies, and outrageous puns that came out of the mouths of the Muppets.” (Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street)
But Cooney, Morrisett and Henson were not alone in their innovative brilliance, soon joined by people like scriptwriter/lyricist/poet Jeff Moss, writer/producer/director Jon Stone and Joe Raposo, a man Davis called “the musical prodigy who provided Sesame Street with its signature sound and sing-along melodies that endure to this day.”
Their fateful coming together was one of those kismet-laden happenstances that profoundly changed the lives of children the world over for the better, including one small boy in a country town in Australia (you’ve probably guessed by now that was me) who realised that this medium he had once been so afraid of was a magical and beneficial thing in the hands of people who intuitively knew how best to use it.
As Sesame Street celebrates its 45th season on air (now screening in more than 100 countries and in 20 international editions), we can all be thankful for a world in which Luis and Maria, Mr Hooper, Grover, Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Elmo and a vast array of celebrity presenters have become profoundly important parts of our lives, even if like me, you have long ago left that little boy far behind.
What wasn’t left back in the dim dark annals of the past however was my love and appreciation for many of the things that make Sesame Street such a unique and compelling show, even all these years after its debut, and so without any further ado, I present the five things I love most about this most wonderful and enduring of show.
Its larger-than-life but simultaneously relatable characters
Let’s be honest, lovely though your neighbourhood might be, the odds of it having a sometimes surly but ultimately kindhearted grouch living in a garbage can, or a giant yellow six year old bird in it are probably fairly remote.
More’s the pity really since their presence on Sesame Street transforms a reasonably ordinary New York street with small shops, Brownstones and trash cans, somewhere the kids who watch the show could identify as not that dissimilar from the community in which they live, into somewhere magical and amazing.
This remarkable balance between the relatably day-to-day environs of Sesame Street and its marvellous inhabitants is what makes it such a wonderful place to spend time in, and of course, learn in.
They might discuss ABCs and 123s and the need to treat others well and not over-indulge in cookies – I’m looking at you Cookie Monster – the sorts of things any kids needs to learn but they do it in a way that keeps you riveted to the TV set.
I remember quite clearly being rooted to the spot during the hour the show was on TV, not wanting to forgo even as second with Grover (who remains my favourite inhabitant of Sesame Street to this day), Ernie and Bert (close runners-up), Oscar the Grouch, Count von Count, Mr Snuffleupagus, or Big Bird.
It remains the same for kids today who delight in every nanosecond that Elmo is on their screen, singing and taking them on grand adventures in his signature segment Elmo’s World.
But it wasn’t just the Muppet characters that entranced.
The humans who lived on the street such as Gordon and Susan, who own the 123 Brownstone, Mr Hooper, Luis and Maria and Bob were, and are, integral to the show’s appeal, comforting and caring for their young neighbours, and most crucially, making sense of the world around them to them.
They were the adults to the Muppets’ children and together they created a learning environment that remains at once relatably ordinary but also magically alive with possibilities and lessons far beyond our own.
Laugh as you learn
From the very beginning, Sesame Street had a cheeky sense of humour.
No po-faced lessons here thank you very much – the information imparted might be important but equally so is its delivery which is often subversively clever, pun-laden and, to the eternal delight of the child inside of me, just plain silly.
This inspired decision to mix silliness with education, which found expression in everything from Monsterpiece Theater, an affectionate send-up of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater (Sesame Street airs on America’s publicly-funded broadcaster), the messy pie falls of the Baker down an impossibly high set of steps – never was counting so much fun! – to today’s parodies of The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and Hunger Games, was a revelation to audiences used to dry educational programmes.
The real joy is that Sesame Street hasn’t relinquished one iota of this irreverent attitude, every bit as prone to pun its way through a segment now as it was back in 1969, a rarity in a world where advancing years often brings with it a calcification and dryness of expression, a tribute to the spirit of the original team, most especially one Jim Henson who believed important lessons didn’t have to be boring to take in and would be better learnt as a result of a little, or lot of, silliness and mirth.
Life isn’t always happy
It would be nice if life could always be one long line of happy Polaroid moments but the fact is that tragedy and setbacks can strike at any time, something kids need to be prepared as much as anything else.
To its enduring credit, Sesame Street has never sugar-coated the realities of life, willing to tackle things like, most notably, the death of a much-loved character like Mr Hooper (Will Lee) who ran the corner store for years and was a cornerstone of the tight-knit community and divorce, a sad fact of life for many of the show’s contemporary viewers.
As the AV Club notes, the way Sesame Street handled difficult issues like Mr Hooper’s death, which was especially sad for his closest friend on the street Big Bird who could never quite get his name right, was testament to the ethos which guided the entire show:
“Mr. Hooper’s death was revolutionary because of its frank discussion of a complicated subject that does not fit squarely into the box of children’s entertainment. “Farewell, Mr. Hooper” was ultimately the entire mission of the series boiled down into one episode. It defined what Sesame Street was for most kids: using everyday moments—be they silly or sad—as teachable ones, without being patronizing about the subject matter. Sesame Street had enough confidence in its audience to learn from the scenario they presented, even if that audience was still learning its ABCs. If vaguely Eastern European royalty could teach kids to count or a woolly mammoth could teach them about imagination, what was stopping Big Bird from allowing them to understand death?”
It makes sense that Sesame Street would be this brave in tackling what could be viewed as controversial issues.
After all, the show was founded on the belief that things could be done markedly different from the prevailing televisual ethos of the day, especially when it came to childrens’ programming, and this included naturally enough the sense that children could be taught the hard lessons of life if it was done in the right way.
I credit much of my willingness to approach life in an open, honest and authentic fashion to Sesame Street‘s willingness to admit that for to every slapstick pie fall there are sad moments that no one can quite explain, especially not when you’re 5 or 6 years old.
I am glad Sesame Street chooses to focus on a holistic view of life since kids don’t live in make believe world, they live in a real one and need to be taught in appropriate ways how to handle the worst and the best that life can throw at them.
Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street: so many wonderful songs
The sound of happiness for me in the 1970s, and no doubt for countless people on countless days since has been the bright, inviting theme song that kicks off each Sesame Street program.
It’s a song that starts with the words “Sunny Day” so you just know it’s going to lead somewhere good, which then goes on to extol playing, friendly neighbours and sweet air.
This is exactly the kind of place anyone would want to go, and so we all did, not regretting it for a second ever.
Sweepin’ the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get,
How to get to Sesame Street
Come and play
Friendly neighbors there
That’s where we meet
Can you tell me how to get
How to get to Sesame Street
How to get to Sesame Street…
How to get to Sesame Street
How to get to Sesame Street…
Besides one of the best theme songs in the history of television (yes I will be that bold), there have been a host of memorable songs, many, in the early days at least by the impressively talented Joe Raposo such as “Bein’ Green” (sung by Kermit), “C is For Cookie” sung by guess who (I can still sing all the lyrics perfectly), “Rubber Duckie”, Ernie’s ode to his favourite bathroom pal by Jeff Moss, and “People in Your Neighbourhood” again by Jeff Moss, and more recently “The Alphabet Song”.
What was delightful about each and every one of them is they were sing-songy fun and taught you something valuable, another nod to Sesame Street‘s core value of making learn endless, lifelong fun.
And giving you the kind of earworms that, right into adulthood, you don’t mind having for even a minute.
They must be someone famous right? The well-placed use of guest stars
To be fair, as a kid I wasn’t exactly au fait with the fact that many of these people were celebrities.
I knew they were important because everyone on Sesame Street gave them a great big warm welcome, and treat them beautifully – but then they did that with everyone so why wouldn’t they? – but given my time overseas in many places not exactly plugged into the world at large (remember I’d somehow missed out on what a TV actually was), I wasn’t sure why they were important.
It didn’t matter, and still doesn’t.
What matters is that these people are talented, kind, warm and are willing to have some fun, just like everyone else on Sesame Street.
Without exception, Sesame Street has made excellent, judicious use of guest stars, of which there have been some 600 plus, playing to their strengths – “The Power of Yet” with Janelle Monae anyone? Cab Calloway singing “Hi De Ho Man” anyone else? – and importantly once again, teaching us something really valuable.
It was a masterstroke.
No one of course.
Well played Sesame Street, and yet another example of the way the show always had its finger on the cultural pulse from day one.
And in case you’re wondering who will be carrying the official birthday cake to the celebrations, it won’t be the Baker (Alex Stevens) from the early 1970s episodes of Sesame Street who is, ahem, a little unsteady on his feet (he was one of my favourite parts of Sesame Street when I was a kid) …
And here’s the official sizzle reel for the 45th season of Sesame Street … and to 45 more happy wonderful funny educational years!