'Sesame Street' still educates, entertains kids and adults after four decades
PASADENA, Calif. -- Tomorrow will mark 40 years of "sunny days" and "everything's A-OKs" on PBS's venerable "Sesame Street," the children's show that introduced the world to Big Bird and unleashed the fuzzy red Elmo.
There's no mention of the occasion in tomorrow's season premiere, but it is recognized in a new coffee-table book, "Sesame Street: A Celebration -- 40 Years of Life on the Street" ($40, Black Dog & Leventhal), written by Louise Gikow.
"They completely raised the bar for children's television. They brought education into TV in a way that was not only palatable but extremely attractive for kids," said Gikow, who has done freelance projects for Sesame Workshop, the production company that makes the series. "I don't think 'Blues Clues' or 'Dora the Explorer' or a ton of PBS shows would have happened if it weren't for 'Sesame Street.' "
Creator Joan Ganz Cooney brought her experience producing documentaries about urban literacy initiatives to the project that would become "Sesame Street." She melded a comedic sensibility inspired by "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" with an educational curriculum. To make it palatable to parents, "Sesame Street" includes parodies of current pop culture, including a "Mad Men" spoof (about emotions) for the show's new season.
- When: 10 a.m. weekdays WQED.
- Starring: Big Bird, Elmo.
" 'Sesame Street' has always been written on two levels," said Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, executive vice president of education and research for Sesame Workshop. "The children don't understand these parodies, but the adult does."
The series also made a point of showing the diversity of the human characters in its inner-city setting.
"A lot of people didn't take that seriously as an appealing factor back in '69," said Sharon Ross, assistant chair of the TV department at Columbia College in Chicago. " 'Sesame Street' showed that diversity could be done on TV without alienating viewers and suggested to other children's programs that they really needed to go there."
The show has inspired a new DVD retrospective, "Sesame Street: 40 Years of Sunny Days" ($29.93), on sale tomorrow. It features many of the show's celebrity guests (Tony Bennett, Robert De Niro, Alicia Keys, Lena Horne, Mister Rogers) in more than six hours of iconic scenes from the show, including Ernie singing "Rubber Duckie," Elmo's first episode and the death of Mr. Hooper.
"That was the moment when 'Sesame Street' became an iconic show," Ross said. "That choice to fully address [Mr. Hooper's death] and not pretend he moved or infantalize it in any way, it was a bold choice."
Gikow agreed and said she discovered in her research how important the Sesame Workshop education department was in the way the show addressed death.
"Some of the things you would think to say turn out to be terrible to say. It might occur to me to say to a child, 'Sweetie, he was sick and doing very badly, and he passed away.' But if you say that, the next time the child gets a cold you might have a paranoid child on your hands who [thinks his sickness might lead to death]. It isn't something that would occur to you off the bat, and without that information you could traumatize a whole generation of children."
Not that the show is perfect. It's willing to admit its mistakes and make changes. A 2006 DVD release, "Sesame Street: Old School," was designed for adults and came with a disclaimer that it "may not meet the needs of today's pre-school child," perhaps due to scenes from early in the show of children playing in a junkyard. Truglio acknowledged safety is an issue.
"I read every script and make sure that whatever the characters are modeling, if a child was to imitate that, they're safe," she said. "One of the things that I think is wonderful about 'Sesame Street' is that we are experimental, and we try and we learn. And sometimes we fail, but we do learn from those mistakes."
Gikow pointed to 1994's expansion of the show's set beyond Sesame Street and around the corner to include The Furry Arms hotel, which lasted only until 1998.
"The show had become too complicated," Gikow writes in "40 Years of Life on the Street." "Testing showed that there were too many new characters and too little time to develop them."
That testing is one of the distinguishing characteristics of "Sesame Street," according to Carol-Lynn Parente, executive producer of "Sesame Street" and the "40 Years of Sunny Days" DVD. The research and education department collaborates with producers to set a curriculum, which is taken to advisers and childhood education experts for consultation.
"They'll hold a seminar where our writers and producers are present, and we ask questions from a television production standpoint," Parente said. "How can we use that knowledge to write stories? And they follow up and review what we've written, and it's tested [with children] before it airs."
That research and listening also results in changes to the show. As the new season begins tomorrow, the show adopts a new block format. A Muppet named Murray hosts the hour, introducing segments that include the human and Muppet characters on the famous set, "Elmo's World" and a new CGI-animated feature, "Abby's Flying Fairy School," the first time a Muppet, Abby Cadabby, has been rendered in computer animation. "Flying Fairy School" has a curriculum rooted in helping children develop critical thinking skills.
"The goal [has always been] to use the most up-to-date, best media that's the most attractive to kids to help them learn and reach their full potential," said Miranda Barry, executive vice president of content for Sesame Workshop. "Now kids are more accustomed to seeing longer-form programming, full stories."
Back in 1969 it was believed that children had short attention spans, which is why the show's original format broke up the program into short, sometimes commercial-length, segments. Barry credited the VCR and children repeatedly watching full-length movies at home for moving "Sesame Street" to a format with longer segments.
"We are putting chunks together so we are not interrupting the story any longer," Truglio said. "We found from our formative research that the children were getting upset that we are interrupting the story. So by chunking it into 12-minute or 8-minute [segments], it's serving their needs and they are very attentive."
This season also introduces a nature-focused curriculum. Tomorrow's episode deals with habitats as Big Bird considers leaving Sesame Street when a fast-talking real estate agent sings the praises of different places birds can live.
In another segment, first lady Michelle Obama plants vegetables in a garden with Elmo. Other celebrities in the new season include actor Jake Gyllenhaal, "Today" host Meredith Vieira, comedian Ricky Gervais, "Late Night" host Jimmy Fallon and Grammy nominee Jason Mraz.
It's the inter-generational appeal of "Sesame Street" that may be one of the key contributing factors to its longevity, especially at age 40. Generations of children who grew up on the show are comfortable sharing it with their own children and checking in years later to see how the human characters on the street have grown and changed.
"There's a general continuity to the show," Ross said, pointing out that characters have married and have had children on the show, including Maria (Sonia Manzano, who studied acting at Carnegie Mellon University). "I think the continuity has tapped into the idea that 'Sesame Street' ultimately is about family being part of the educational process."
First Published November 9, 2009 12:00 am