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Muppets and the Media Landscape

The Film Center's annual tribute to Jim Henson highlights how radically kids' TV, and even Sesame Street, has changed.



Sesame Street at 40 Sing! the Music of Sesame Street Jim Henson & Friends

On Thanksgiving Day 1971, the Muppets from Sesame Street paid a visit to ABC's The Dick Cavett Show, for them a rare venture into the world of commercial television. Oscar, the ratty green monster who lives in a garbage can, observes ruefully that their show back on public television doesn't have any commercials. "Would you like some?" Cavett asks. "Oh yeah," Oscar replies. "I love trash."

This odd exchange is captured in Jim Henson & Friends: Inside the Sesame Street Vault, one of three Sesame Street-related video compilations screening this month at the Gene Siskel Film Center. The venue first paid tribute to Henson in 2008, combining archival compilations produced by the Jim Henson Legacy with some of the old Muppet movies, and, according to program director Barbara Scharres, the series has performed well enough (drawing more adults than kids) to merit repeats in 2009 and '10. Culled from four decades of the landmark show and ancillary broadcasts, the Sesame Street programs are royally entertaining, showcasing the classic puppets: Ernie and Bert, Oscar and Big Bird, Grover, Cookie Monster, Elmo, Zoe, and of course Kermit the Frog (whom Henson created years before Sesame Street). The video clips are particularly fascinating given the story of the show, which traded in A-B-C and 1-2-3 onscreen but behind the scenes was frequently wrestling with issues of $$$.

To read Michael Davis's book Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street is to be reminded how radically different the media landscape was back in 1966, when Joan Ganz Cooney, a producer for New York's educational Channel 13, and Lloyd Morrisett, a vice president for the Carnegie Corporation, bonded over the idea for Sesame Street at a dinner party. Carnegie bankrolled a fact-finding tour on which Cooney interviewed teachers, pediatricians, psychologists, and child development specialists about how TV might teach learning concepts to preschoolers. CBS and NBC both passed on the proposed show, but the winds of the Great Society were at the producers' backs: after President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and authorized $9 million for programming (with another $1 million coming from Carnegie), Cooney and Morrisett were able to cobble together enough funds from the government and various foundations to create the nonprofit Children's Television Workshop as a laboratory for their new show.

Sesame Street was radical for its time because, in contrast to the dry, classroom-bound programs of 60s public television, the new show would put across numbers and letters by exploiting the energy of commercial TV. The show's nearest predecessor was CBS's gentle Captain Kangaroo, but the creators were also enamored of ABC's campy Batman, which appealed to both kids and hip adults, and NBC's racy Laugh-In, with its wild mix of filmed skits and comic blackouts. Morrisett had noted his preschool daughter's alacrity at memorizing TV jingles, which became the model for the show's many talented songwriters (their catchy music is highlighted in Sing! The Music of Sesame Street). From the start the creators conspired to give ideas the punch and brevity of a product pitch. Every episode of their show would open with a mock commercial such as: "Sesame Street has been brought to you by the letter T and the number 8."

Sesame Street at 40: Milestones on the Street surveys landmark moments in the show's history, and the older footage reminds you how strikingly urban the show felt. The set was a gritty street in Harlem, anchored by a brownstone stoop, and the human cast was multiracial. (The show was briefly banned in Mississippi.) Not everyone at CTW embraced the idea of tailoring Sesame Street to the urban poor, but Cooney was vocal about it. "Business goes where the money is," she told Variety in 1970, "and our purpose is to go where it isn't. The multi-million-dollar companies know that their targets are in the economic center of society. . . . They aim for the middle class. We've made Sesame Street for the poor people and the ghetto communities, although we wouldn't discourage the more privileged from watching."

The show's left-wing politics went down easy because it was such a surefire mix of pop music, vaudeville comedy, and imaginative, often psychedelic animation. Almost immediately, though, people recognized that Sesame Street's single biggest asset was Henson, whose Muppets came to define the show. Henson had insisted on ownership of the Sesame Street characters and a 50-50 split of merchandising profits with the Children's Television Workshop, but he was also committed to CTW's mission, and over the years the phenomenal sales of Sesame Street products became crucial to the company's survival. The characters were much prized in the entertainment world: when Henson died in 1990, he'd just cut a $150 million production deal with the Walt Disney Company that relinquished control of his characters from The Muppet Show (Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, et al), and Davis reports that Disney CEO Michael Eisner was still scheming to get his hands on the Sesame Street characters.

When Sesame Street debuted in November 1969, it became an immediate hit and, in very short order, a cultural treasure. As a result it's never had any trouble attracting stars. Sing! The Music of Sesame Street is a cornucopia: opening with a soulful rendition of the theme song by Gladys Knight & the Pips, it rounds up performances by Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Carol Channing, James Taylor, Billy Joel, Patti LaBelle, R.E.M., and Feist. Sesame Street at 40 includes guest appearances by Lily Tomlin as Edith Ann, Henry Winkler as Fonzie, Paul Reubens as Pee-Wee Herman, R2D2 and C3PO from Star Wars, Ben Stiller, Liam Neeson, James Gandolfini, and Robert De Niro (who boasts that he can play "a New York City taxi driver, an out-of-shape boxer, or even a cabbage," and then turns into a Muppet cabbage head). One of the last clips shows Michelle Obama coming on the show to talk with kids about gardening.

These celebrity cameos tended to blur the line between public and commercial TV, just as Henson and company did when they moonlighted on network and syndicated television. Jim Henson & Friends collects clips of the Muppets from commercial TV: variety shows (Ed Sullivan, Flip Wilson), talk shows (Cavett, Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, Johnny Carson), game shows (Big Bird and Oscar appearing on The Hollywood Squares). They're entertaining but a little tacky; on some chat shows, Henson, Frank Oz, and Caroll Spinney do awkward couch time with their puppets, delivering the characters' voices on camera and breaking the illusion of autonomy. More worthwhile are clips from a couple early network TV specials: Julie on Sesame Street (1973), concocted by director Blake Edwards (The Pink Panther, Breakfast at Tiffany's) for the Muppets and his wife, Julie Andrews, and Out to Lunch (1974), in which the Muppets costar with Morgan Freeman, Rita Moreno, and the other players from CTW's second successful series, The Electric Company.

By the time Sesame Street's 25th anniversary rolled around, the media landscape was much different from when the show began. For the past few years its ratings had been eroded by PBS's cloying, Dallas-produced Barney & Friends, which was pitched to a younger audience. Viewership of Sesame Street was trending younger too, and for the show's anniversary in 1994, David Britt, who'd succeeded Cooney as CEO of CTW, ordered an overhaul. Called "Around the Corner," it expanded the Harlem street of the original set to include—just around the corner—a suburban playground similar to the spaces Barney the dinosaur and his little friends frolicked in. Child actors would replace the real kids whose interactions with the Muppets had provided some of Sesame Street's most charming moments. CTW also rolled out a new Muppet character, Zoe, to be performed by Fran Brill (who will attend the coming week's screenings of Sesame Street at 40 and Jim Henson & Friends). Zoe was meant to satisfy the demand for a female role model on the show, but as Davis puts it, the character was "a plush toy in search of an identity, a carefully considered product that would be tested for its appeal with children in focus groups."

That sort of thinking makes the early archival footage from Sesame Street seem even more magical. A fever of creation seems to hang over the whole enterprise, as indie filmmakers and animators strut their stuff in a minute or less and Henson and company debut and develop their wild characters. Of course before Sesame Street, Henson had been working mostly in TV commercials (some of which will be screened December 12 and 13 at the Film Center), and he brought that sensibility to the show, as did many of the other contributors. But back then Sesame Street was bent on selling us the letter Q and the number 4; now, like any other children's show, it has to expend a good deal of energy selling itself.   

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