Thoughts on life after the PhD
Forty years after it debuted on PBS, it’s hard to remember that Sesame Street was truly groundbreaking in both its goals and its execution. It marked the first time that such an extensive amount of research and planning had gone into children’s entertainment, which in the 1960s was described by FCC chairman Newton Minow as “massive doses of cartoons, violence, and more violence.” It was the first time that a show was specifically aimed at inner-city children, with the goal to not only entertain but to educate. And, as Michael Davis ‘s book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street so dizzyingly reveals, it was a maelstrom of volatile personalities, dogged determination, and dumb luck that seemed on the verge of collapse almost from the very beginning. Its creators couldn’t even agree on a name–everyone hated “Sesame Street.” It was too hard to pronounce, especially for children. But as the deadline for the first episode approached, it was chosen for being the “least bad.”
Davis’s book is amazingly well-researched–he seems to have conducted lengthy interviews with almost everyone who was ever involved with Sesame Street. In the way that it jumps from character to character and topic to topic it can also be a maddening read. The entire first half of the book spends so much time on the intricacies of who met whom and all the odd coincidences that led up to the formation of the Sesame Street team that a reader could be forgiven for skipping over a few pages here and there. But when the book catches up to the day that Sesame Street debuted, it becomes mesmerizing.
Others have written about Sesame Street and the Muppets and Jim Henson, and while I’ve always enjoyed the results, Davis’s is the first account to truly go beneath the surface of all the god-like figures who made the show happen. It’s a bit jarring to see the flaws and foibles of one’s heroes all laid bare, but also strangely moving and humanizing. Jim Henson, it turns out, was a bit of a lady’s man and not the best husband (unbeknownst to many, he and his wife Jane had been separated for some time and were planning to divorce at the time of his sudden death). Behind-the-scenes characters such as composer Joe Raposo and director Jon Stone were hard-drinking and more than a little unstable–shouting matches and petty squabbles were a regular occurrence. And yet despite the horror stories, the theme that comes through again and again from the Sesame Street family is that they wouldn’t have had it any other way. They were unstable and unpredictable and caused each other a lot of grief, but they also deeply admired and respected each other’s abilities, and were all grateful to have been a part of something so memorable.
Davis’s book is a treasure trove of inside information. It’s remarkable to learn, for example, that Sesame Street always seemed to be on the verge of collapse–there was never enough money (the show initially relied on federal grants), the whole production had been conceived by a group of people who had almost no experience in television or education, and at any given moment someone always seemed to be threatening to walk off the set. I giggled when I read that the first German versions of Sesame Street (Sesamestrasse) included very detailed sex education segments. Modern viewers probably also don’t know that Sesame Street was–and still is–one of the only children’s television shows that doesn’t include advertising in its programming (The Howdy Doody program of the 1950s was notorious for having its characters regularly tell children to “go get mommy and tell her to put (sponsor product) on her grocery list!”). Sesame Street is, of course, a merchandising behemoth–but its shows on PBS have always remained, thankfully, ad-free.
The book’s most moving passages, though, are its simple retellings of Sesame Street‘s most memorable and society-changing moments–richer now with the knowledge of everything that led up to them. As a child I remember vividly the first time that a television show directly and honestly addressed death–it was Sesame Street‘s treatment of the real death of Will Lee, the actor who had played Mr. Hooper. When Lee died the Sesame Street production team decided not to gloss things over and to memorialize both the character and the actor on the show. They convened a group of psychiatrists to discuss the best way to introduce children to the concept of death, leaving out any mention of religion and an afterlife. The result was one of Sesame Street‘s most memorable shows, one that had all of the actors legitimately weeping by the end (clip below).
Street Gang is also a study in how children’s television has changed over the last forty years–usually not for the better. There’s no point in applying a “things just aren’t the way they used to be” argument to a medium that must change with the times in order to survive, but it’s impossible not to feel a sense of sadness and loss in reading about the ways that Sesame Street was forced to adapt to the dramatic changes that took place in children’s programming in the 1990s. For the most part, I blame Barney.
Barney the purple dinosaur and his gang of equally creepy friends (plus a gaggle of clean-cut, wannabe actor children) debuted in 1992 and quickly became a serious threat to Sesame Street‘s popularity. Sesame Street had won fans through providing children’s entertainment that adults could nonetheless enjoy, but Barney was most definitely aimed at the infant-to-five-year-old set. As someone too old to watch the show but old enough to be babysitting those who lapped it up like mother’s milk, I remember being horrified that such a bland, preachy mix of bad music and baby talk could possibly be winning the hearts and minds of so many children. It was, though, and for all the wrong reasons. To read the National Review‘s assessment of the program’s popularity could give anyone chills. The show was described as “wholesome without relief…[U]nlike Sesame Street, set in a scene of urban decay, Barney entertains from a suburban schoolyard, swept clean of graffiti and trash. None of Barney’s friends lives in a garbage can, and none grunts hip-hop…And instead of Sesame Street‘s multicultural insinuations, Barney’s message revolves around the importance of brushing teeth, exercising, and even–this is how deep it goes–chewing with one’s mouth closed” (319).
So Barney‘s better, essentially, because it’s fake. It doesn’t take place in a reality that a huge percentage of America’s children can identify with. And it does away with all that annoying “multicultural” stuff.
Sesame Street almost bent to the will of Barney, attempting a “clean up” campaign that would make its gritty urban setting more palatable to young, suburban viewers. The producers even (shudder) considered using child actors as Barney did, despite the fact that the show had often been praised for the genuine interactions between its human characters–which was arguably a result of always using “real” children. Thankfully, the worst of those reforms didn’t happen.
I watched a few minutes of Sesame Street this morning and checked out their website on PBS. There’s good news and bad news. The good news is that Sesame Street maintains its integrity and its admirable goal of teaching tolerance and understanding right along with the ABC’s. With its unforced style that doesn’t talk down to children or preach to them, it’s heads and tails above virtually everything on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel. As an adult, I found I could watch twenty minutes of Sesame Street and actually be entertained and informed. In contrast, I can handle about thirty seconds of The Suite Life of Zach and Cody or Barney before I’m ready to vomit.
The bad news is that everything’s much more polished now. The website is slick and kid-friendly. The show moves at a more frenetic pace, though still slow enough for things to sink in. The neighborhoods on display are a lot cleaner and more upscale (though that could just be the reality of post-Giuliani New York). Such developments are inevitable for any show that’s been on the air as long as Sesame Street, but they’re still a bit sad to see.
Reading Street Gang, you realize that Sesame Street was sort of a miracle–a show that, all cynicism aside, really did aim to change the world with television. Different versions of the show are now broadcast in 120 countries. In South Africa, a brightly colored Muppet named Kami is HIV-positive and encourages children to be more tolerant of those with the disease (it’s estimated that more than 200,000 children in South Africa have been orphaned by AIDS). In India, a female muppet named Chamki excels in school and sports, providing a role model for female literacy and education. Back home in the U.S., I still tear up when I see the Mr. Hooper episode. The show’s reach really went beyond its creators’ wildest dreams.
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