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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Sesame Street Memories

Henry Farrell and Keiran Healy are talking about Sesame Street over at Crooked Timber--and well they should: it was, in its time, probably the strongest, most mature, most intelligent and good-hearted effort ever made to fulfill the idealistic dreams of some of those early advocates of better television programming back in the 40s and 50s. Educating and enlightening and uplifting and uniting the people, through images and story-telling and song! I've always had, and always will have, a soft spot for that program, though the Sesame Street I watched and loved has been missing for decades now, as its disappeared for those Irish boys and girls who fell in love with the Muppets and America while watching the show when it was imported across the Pacific, as Henry and Keiran attest.

There are lots of fine comments on both threads (bloix and mikesdak have especially good insights), attesting to the seriousness with which Sesame Street has struggled with its ideals and strategies--for educating its youthful viewers, and enabling them to relate to others as well) as it has traveled the globe and taken root in surprising surroundings. But that doesn't surprise me, as Crooked Timber has always attracted, as part of its fairly open-minded intellectual/cosmopolitan style, authors and commenters that have understood the importance of childhood--and not in some cloying, stereotypically "liberal" way, but in a way that recognizes the hard work and real joys of figuring out how make home that parents and children can enjoy together. And originally, Sesame Street was supposed to provide that: even if children and adults didn't watch it always together (which we didn't: my parents couldn't keep up with me--back in the early 70s, before and during my kindergarten years, I would, according to my mother, catch the show two or three times a day, absorbing every cartoon and skit--and my dad, at least, wouldn't have wanted to, considering as he did the program to be "socialist," once commenting to me, rather Grouch-like, that "their garbage is collected for free"), it gave children a fairly unstructured, yet still carefully filled, glimpse of the variety and reciprocity which characterized the adult world. The children would parrot back what they learned to their parents, the volia--you've got growth and change and joy. Sometimes, anyway.

When Belle Waring weighed in on Sesame Street on Crooked Timber a few years back, it got me and Tim Burke and Laura McKenna arguing about children's television and parenting and culture, as we we tended to do a lot back then. (See here and here for examples.) On that thread, Tim pointed out that what he calls "the old prosocial expert mafia" used to hate because of it took kids away from books and prepared their eyes and minds for commercial television. I have a lot of disagreements with Tim on this and some related points (I'm much more comfortable with the idea of television being used to support "prosocial" or public interest ends, I'm much less comfortable with commercial television and pop culture in general, and I think he seriously underestimates Sesame Street's pedagogical effectiveness, at least during those mid-years of television's 50-plus-year history), but I know that practically speaking--just in terms of what we watch and like and what we like seeing our kids watch, and how much--we're mostly on the same page, and we're certainly on the same page regarding Sesame Street's decline. With the emergence of Elmo, and the discovery of his appeal to the just-past-toddler set (read: two- and three-year-olds), the possibilities of hooking into the educational and emotional paranoia of so many of the parents of children that age, and selling them a safe, linear, reliable methodology of learning and discovery, just became overwhelming. Elmo took over the show, pushing other Muppets and humans and their storylines to the side, squelching their oddities and uniqueness and histories, dumbing the whole thing down. I don't say this to run down the character of Elmo or the makers and performers behind him (as my wife discussed in reviewing Kevin "Elmo" Clash's book, Henson was heavily involved in the creation of Elmo, and a lot of his irreverence and style were there in Elmo from the beginning), but I have to say, I wish my original thought when I first became aware of Elmo had been born out: oh man, far out, they're giving us a mentally handicapped Muppet! Because that's what I thought he was: like a Muppet with Down Syndrome or something. And if I'd been right...well, who knows, Sesame Street still probably would have gone downhill, for dozens of reasons, but at least the show probably wouldn't have so quickly been sucked into an annoyingly all-purpose, self-congratulatory, toddler-Muppet world.

Oh, well. I still have my memories, and I still have my copy of the 1978 Christmas Eve on Sesame Street, back before there was Elmo, and Maria and David were still an item, and Mr. Snuffleupagus was still imaginary, and Mr. Hooper was still alive (his key role in the Christmas special's retelling of O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi," with Ernie and Bert buying each other presents, is tear-jerking television at its best), and Oscar was still something more than just grumpy, but an occasionally mean and wicked prankster. And thanks to YouTube, we still have this:

Thanks for the memories, Sesame Street. Our last two kids haven't watched you at all, but I hope, if only out of nostalgia, that you'll keep on going.


Rob Perkins said...

Russell, your Dad and mine may have been cut from the same cloth, when it came to Sesame Street. My memories of Sesame Street include a skit with a goat who got mad.

In the skit, the refrain would go, "He got maaaaad! He got maaaad! He got maaaaad! (It ain't bad to get mad)"

When my father saw it, he declared it False Doctrine and switched off the television in an ironic pique: "It is *so* bad to get mad!" he exclaimed.

The other thing I remember is all the Spanish language skits, often a repeat of English skits aired just minutes before. And I recall having little or no patience for them. But, I did learn to count to ten in Spanish, and I can still remember the music...

I don't share your opinion about Elmo, who never struck me as more than a gregarious four-year-old. I've met children whose mentation was stuck on worse things than an inability to use pronouns, though my own oldest daughter outgrew that by the age of three.

And Sesame Street in the 90's was kind of fun! Slimy the worm, Oscar's friend, planning and executing a mission to the Moon launched from Sesame Street for all worm-kind, was one of the bits played out over a season's worth of shows.

Perhaps I'm just betraying one of the characteristics of having a home office in a house with two toddlers and no cable? Hmm...

Wendy said...

Christmas Eve on Sesame Street is without a doubt the best Christmas tv show ever. :) My sisters and I still quote it all the time.

Michigan Madsens said...

Thank you so much for this discover. The Number 9 Cutie was my favorite. I memorized it and sang it to the children. I found it at You Tube.