Saturday 1 January 2000

Sunny day, everything’s A-okay

Nicole Colson looks at the 40-year legacy of the children’s show Sesame Street, and the way it revolutionized television.

From Socialist Worker US

[November] marked the 40th anniversary of the television show that may have had a greater impact on the lives of multiple generations of people around the globe than any other.

I’m talking, of course, about Sesame Street.

Currently on the air in some 125 countries, Sesame Street is the longest-running children’s TV program in U.S. history. It has become a staple of American life, with one 1996 survey finding that 95 percent of American preschoolers had watched the show by the time they were age 3.

Sesame Street has become such an important part of life for millions of kids in the U.S. that, when the transition to digital television was scheduled earlier this year, it was delayed for several months in part due to fears that low-income families would find themselves suddenly without the show.

The show began as an experiment in a seemingly simple, yet revolutionary, idea: that TV could be used to help teach very young children.

Although there were kids’ shows like Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody, Sesame Street was the first show to consciously explore the potential of TV to teach kids basics like numbers and letters, and how to navigate emotions and social interaction.

The idea for what would become Sesame Street grew out of a dinner party thrown in 1966 by public TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney. The party included Lloyd Morrisett, then-vice president of the Carnegie Corporation.

The concept for Sesame Street was shaped by the social movements of the 1960s and growing progressive politics that, on a national scale, had seen the implementation of the Johnson administration’s “War on Poverty.” The resulting 1965 Head Start program would target low-income pre-school aged children for early intervention with educational, health and nutritional assistance and other social services.

In 1968, the Children’s Television Workshop was founded, with money from Carnegie, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – a creation of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, which, for the first time, authorized federal funds for the production of culturally enriching content for public television. The Workshop’s first project was Sesame Street, which would debut the following year.

When it premiered, Sesame Street had the distinction of having “the most extensive planning for any TV show to date,” the New York Times wrote at the time. The show’s research team designated a “curriculum focus” for each season, and identified and emphasized a “set of related objectives” that were written into each episode.

Learning was reinforced through constant repetition and reinforcement of concepts – each episode has a “letter of the day” and “number of the day” featured in multiple segments throughout the show, grounded by a running story set on the “street” featuring adults and monsters interacting.

Segments were written with some sly adult humor as well – the use of celebrity guest appearances, for example, and re-workings of popular songs (such as, Johnny Cash singing “Don’t Take Your Ones to Town,” a take-off on his hit “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” or REM singing “Furry Happy Monsters,” a spoof of “Shiny Happy People”) – which encouraged parents to view the show alongside their kids. This season featured a Mad Men parody, complete with opening credits, for “Muppet Men”--where the advertising Muppets make commercials that prompt emotions.

As Michael Davis, author of Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, writes, the show’s creators “came together at a star-crossed moment in American life when people of means who lived in comfort chose to dedicate their energies to the less fortunate and the forgotten, the rural poor and the underprivileged of the urban ghettos. Sesame succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings and, in doing so, changed the world, one child at a time.”

Famously left-wing pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock predicted early on that Sesame Street would result in “better-trained citizens, fewer unemployables in the next generation, fewer people on welfare and smaller jail populations.”

THAT MAY be a more than a slight overstatement, but the show struck a nerve from its debut on November 10, 1969. Nearly 2 million households tuned into the first episode. By the end of its first season, 7 million children a day were watching the show. Ten years after it began, according to Davis, some 9 million American children under the age of 6 were watching Sesame Street daily – and 90 percent of children from low-income inner-city homes regularly viewed the show.

Sesame Street was unique in the approach it took: geared toward urban kids, the “street” was set in an urban landscape, complete with graffiti, peeling paint and trash cans (the street has a more “cleaned-up” look today) and a multigenerational and multiracial cast.

This ruffled some feathers. In 1970, a state commission in Mississippi briefly banned the show because of its integrated cast. “Mississippi was not yet ready” for the multiracial cast, one member of the commission told the New York Times. The vote was reversed when the story made national news.

Linda (actress Linda Bove) was the first regular deaf character on American television. And today, Leela (Nitya Vidyasagar) is one of the only Hindu characters.

Much of the joyous nature of the show is due, of course, to late-puppeteer Jim Henson and his Muppet monsters. (Cooney had insisted that either Henson create the puppets for the show, or no puppets be used at all.)

Initially, the humans and monsters were never supposed to interact – the “street” scenes were for humans only, while the monsters would appear in various skits or interspersed segments. Child psychologists had advised the show that young children would be confused by the combination of the real world and Muppets. But when producers tested early episodes, they found that children were fascinated by the monsters and utterly bored by the human scenes.

The decision was made to create Muppets to interact with the humans – and Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch were born. Big Bird remains, in many ways, the heart of the show: a 4-year-old trapped in an eight-foot-tall yellow-feathered body. He has the innocence and wonder of a small child, and sometimes the confusion or sadness of one as well.

Other Muppets embody character foibles that are easily relatable – Oscar the Grouch’s constant grumpiness, Bert’s anal retentiveness, Telly’s worrying, Grover’s frustrated flailing.

As Davis notes,

Considering that most Muppets start out as bath mats with appliqués, it’s fairly miraculous that they seem to have more dimensionality to their personalities than do most human characters on TV...[Henson] understood that viewers would suspend their sense of disbelief if they saw pieces of themselves in the characters.

The show was also groundbreaking for the way that serious issues were tackled head-on. Children’s questions were always taken up in a way that was honest, thoughtful and without condescension. Perhaps the most famous instance was the death in 1982 of actor Will Lee, who played shopkeeper Mr. Hooper--the most popular character on the show.

Lee was an amazing figure in his own right--an early proponent of Method acting and a member of the left-wing Worker’s Laboratory Theater and the Theater of Action during the 1930s. He was also a victim of the McCarthy blacklist after he refused to testify when called before the anti-communist House Un-American Activities Committee in 1948.

After Lee’s death, it was decided that a new actor would not be hired to replace him, Instead, the show dealt with his death on air, in a famously poignant episode, that included the grown-ups explaining to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper would not ever be coming back, and that people die “just because.” In other words, Mr. Hooper’s death was explained in a way that 4-year-olds could understand and grieve.

The show where Mr. Hooper’s death was announced was scheduled for Thanksgiving, so that more parents would be at home with their kids, and was publicized so that parents could watch with kids and answer their questions. Writers also made sure not to say that Mr. Hooper died in hospital, so that kids wouldn’t be scared of going to a hospital.

Since then, Sesame Street has tackled topics including the Iraq War (furry red monster Elmo has a father who, in one special, spends “lots and lots” of days in Iraq before finally coming home); adoption (the Street’s veterinarian Dr. Gina became a single mom when she adopted a baby boy from Guatemala); and Hurricane Katrina (a five-part series had Big Bird’s nest destroyed by a hurricane and Muppets and people helping to rebuild it).

Part of what makes the Street special has always been its social conscience--teaching kids how to treat the people in their communities with love and respect, and to feel pride in themselves. In one episode in 1971, a then 30-year-old Jesse Jackson led kids in reciting the spoken-word poem “I am somebody”. It included the lines: “I may be poor, but I am somebody...I may be on welfare, but I am somebody / I may be small, but I am somebody.”

Another classic from the 1970s captured the burgeoning women’s movement. “Women Can Be” includes female Muppets singing about being daring surgeons, astronauts and lion tamers.

THE IMPORTANCE of the show extends far beyond the U.S. It “has arguably had an even greater impact overseas, especially in places like Kosovo and South Africa, where the show is made in partnership with local TV producers and tailored to local concerns,” noted the New York Times.

In 2002, Takalani Sesame, the South African version of the show – in which Bert speaks with a black South African accent and Ernie with a white one – debuted a Muppet named Kami, an orphan who was infected with HIV. At the time, one in every nine South Africans was infected with HIV.

Yet people with AIDS still faced tremendous prejudice, and the government of Thabo Mbeki openly denied the value of medication to treat the virus. “We are living in a society that is very stigmatizing and discriminatory,” said Musa Njoko, an AIDS activist, told the Associated Press when Kami was created. The introduction of Kami “is going to create a culture of acceptance.”

In her first episode, Kami wanders onto Sesame Street, scared that no one will want to play with her. But people and Muppets alike welcome her – and allow her to teach them about HIV. “They say they don’t want to touch me because they think I’ll make them sick,” she explains to her new friends about why children at school refuse to play with her – a reality facing many South African children at the time.

Sometimes, political realities have forced the show to make drastic changes. Jointly produced segments that showed characters from the Palestinian show, Shara’a Simsim, interacting with characters from the Israeli version, Rechov Sumsum, had to be scrapped after the Second Intifada, in part because of political difficulties over scenes of Palestinian and Israeli children interacting as part of everyday life.

Even the decision of where to show the characters meeting posed problems. As New York Times reporter Samantha Shapiro detailed in a recent profile of the Palestinian show:

[T]he Israelis were in favor of spontaneous Muppet drop-bys, but the Palestinians insisted the visits had to be by invitation only. “The only Israelis who come to Palestinian neighborhoods uninvited are settlers,” [executive director Daoud] Kuttab explained to me.

The Israelis told me they were trying to emulate the philosophy of Sesame Street, to portray the world they wished for, more than the world that was...

For Kuttab, the Israeli idea that Palestinian and Israelis on the show would be best buddies who casually drop in on each other was absurd. In real life, the Israeli production staff refused to travel to Ramallah even for informal visits – they feared for their safety – and many of the Palestinian crew didn’t have permits to enter Jerusalem.

Today, a new version of Shara’a Simsim is in production. According to the Sesame Workshop Web site, the need for a new Palestinian version of the show is clear:

According to UNICEF research, children in nearly one-third of Palestinian families were experiencing anxiety, phobia, or depression as of June 2007...

“Hope comes in many forms,” Kuttab says. “We believe that giving the children positive, wholesome programs that speak with their dialect, reflect their own communities, and deal with issues they face daily will give them a smile – and ultimately hope.”

Although the show is careful to avoid direct references to political conflict, it consciously explores the trauma that Palestinian children experience through metaphorical avenues--showing the community working together to repair damage after a storm, for example.

AS THE New York Times noted, “The show’s original intent was to present enjoyable and beguiling preschool education to poor children who did not have access to decent preschools while bringing diversity to children’s programming. Sesame Street wasn’t the only children’s show with a social message...But it was the mixture of whimsy, pop music and didactic rigor that distinguished Sesame Street from everything else.”

But whimsy has enemies – and the show has, at times, run afoul of conservatives, often for absurd reasons. In 1994, for example, a group of fundamentalist ministers accused Bert and Ernie of being gay, and PBS was forced to issue a statement that the two were just friends and roommates.

During the so-called “Republican Revolution” of the 1990s, Newt Gingrich waged a frontal assault on the idea of publicly funded TV, declaring that PBS was “this little sandbox for the rich.” He pushed to cut all federal funds to the network, and dismissed PBS supporters as “a small group of elitists who want to tax all the American people so they get to spend the money.”

The show is not without its weak spots. Female Muppets tend to be less prominent on the show and extra-girly, like the pink fairy-in-training Abby Cadabby. And anyone who’s ever had to listen to a toddler play with “YMCA Elmo,” “Chicken Dance Elmo” or “Tickle Me Elmo” has surely wished a pox on the Sesame Street marketing machine.

There are also questions to be asked about the idea that young children should be guided toward learning a set curriculum that will prepare them for elementary school--rather than exploring learning in a less-structured and more self-selected way. And it should go without saying that TV, even TV as good as Sesame Street, could never replace quality day care, preschools and teachers.

But Sesame Street has filled an important need for 40 years--and transformed the landscape of American TV while doing so. After all, there would be no Dora, Diego, Blue’s Clues or Wonderpets if not for the big yellow bird that came first.

As Michael Davis recently told the Dallas Morning News, when asked about the show’s legacy, just try to imagine a world without Muppets.

“I think it’s all but impossible to do, but even if you can, what a sadder and drearier world that would have to be,” Davis said. “It’s not just an iconic piece of a past magical time; it’s still standing, growing, evolving. Here’s a show on a medium where things often don’t last 40 minutes, and it’s lasted 40 years and is still going strong.”

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