Now that Big Bird is in Mitt Romney’s crosshairs, it’s a good time to reassert what makes Sesame Street so essential to families around the world.
Sesame Street is experiencing—I hesitate to say “enjoying”—quite the pop-cultural surge since Mitt Romney put Big Bird in his crosshairs during the first presidential debate while promising to pull funding for PBS, which boasts annual federal funding equal to six whole hours of defense spending.
Our fine yellow-feathered friend soon began filling Facebook and Twitter feeds, made a Weekend Update appearance on Saturday Night Live, became this year’s hit Halloween costume, and was even featured in an Obama ad (“Big, yellow, a menace to our economy. Mitt Romney knows it’s not Wall Street you have to worry about, it’s Sesame Street“), which showmaker Sesame Workshop requested be pulled.
“We as a non-profit organization, we are non-political,” Sesame CEO Melvin Ming said. “Our goal is to reach every child in America. We don’t contaminate that with anything.”
Fair enough, but the show’s ability to reach every child in America, a mission it began waaaay back in 1969, explains why Big Bird has become such a talking point this week. (Google News cites almost three million mentions.) Sesame Street matters in a way that other pop-cultural products don’t because, not only is it pure in its educational intentions, its longevity means that the majority of the population is personally invested in it. It’s seen in over 140 countries and reaches an audience of “well over 100 million viewers.”
In my household, Sesame Street’s profile has been building steadily for about a year. Initially, our now-three-year-old Emile was only interested in Elmo, which I found quizzical as an ’80s child whose sole experience with the red Muppet was that brief, bizarre Tickle-Me-Elmo craze in the mid-’90s.
But Emile had an instant connection with Elmo, one that was reinforced when I downloaded the Elmo Calls iPhone app, in which the young monster will call, text, leave voicemails, and even make a FaceTime video call to your own young monster. It’s pretty ingenious, actually, and certainly amuses a toddler to no end since their line between real and pretend is blurry at best. As far as E is concerned, Elmo is real and likes to call him.
That line was made even finer recently when I got Kinect Sesame Street TV, an even more ingenious evolution of the Sesame brand for Xbox 360. Unlike last year’s Once Upon a Monster, a Sesame-themed Kinect title from cult studio Double Fine, this isn’t a game, per se. Rather, it’s an interactive-TV interface in which last season’s Sesame Street episodes have been layered with motion-sensing and voice-recognizing mini-games. The onscreen characters and at-home kids have always broken that fourth wall, but now they’re actually communicating with each other.
Some of the bits, like Feist performing “1,2,3,4″ or a parody of Glee (brought to you by the letter G, natch), are just straight-up TV but many incorporate some sort of interactive task for viewers, be it throwing coconuts to Grover, drawing geometric shapes in the air, or being transposed into Elmo’s World, where your child appears onscreen and can interact with hand-drawn objects like stars and the moon.
Emile has rarely been as excited for anything as he is about this—and, unlike TV, for which he couches-out and slips into zombie mode, this Kinect-powered two-way TV has him standing up, dancing, jumping, and verbally responding to what’s going on onscreen. The “game” comes with eight interactive episodes, with the future ability to download more. It also comes with seemingly countless non-interactive historical skits from years past. E and I have spent a solid amount of time watching Ricky Gervais sing a terrible “celebrity lullaby,” Bert and Ernie perform with Ray Charles (leading Emile to request a piano of his own), and a “Rockit”-era Herbie Hancock wowing a pre-Fresh Prince Tatyana Ali with a then-mindblowing Fairlight synthesizer. As great as the interactive episodes are, there are only eight of them, so this easily accessed treasure trove of clips from the past 43 seasons is a huge selling point.
Coincidentally, we’d also recently rented Sesame Street: Old School Vol. 2 from the library, a collection of episodes from 1974-1979—the first volume spotlights 1969-1973, while the early ’80s–focussed Vol. 3 comes out next month. These are the original Sesame Streets I recall from my youth, the ones where Snuffleupagus was still invisible (that changed in 1985 for fear of emotionally scarring kids, because nobody believed Big Bird), Cookie Monster basically free-based cookie dough, and Oscar the Grouch was essentially a clinically depressed street bum. The inner-city that the show then-controversially portrayed looked as dingy as one might expect actual 1970s-era N.Y.C. to look.
“Sesame Street: Old School is adults-only,” the DVD even warns. “These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s pre-school child.” Certainly, nobody in the original, gritty seasons were even half as cheerful as Elmo, the subject of Being Elmo, an unexpectedly fantastic documentary on puppeteer Kevin Clash and how his creation took over kiddie culture when so many other new characters had failed. (Don’t show it to your kids, like, ever.) I’ve read Elmo’s happiness described as manic but, at least in our experience, that kind of sheer, intense happiness is our toddler’s default setting.
The media’s default setting, of course, is shiny objects, and soon enough Big Bird and friends will migrate away from the campaign coverage and go back to teaching kids how to sing the alphabet, respect other cultures and (this may be what puts Romney off so much) share their toys. Sesame Street may be a little cleaner than when we were little and the franchise a lot techier—oh, and Tickle-Me Elmo may have been, sigh, renamed LOL Elmo—but into its fifth decade, the show continues its groundbreaking educational work while connecting ever more millions of people around the globe through the magic of letters, numbers, and monster Muppets.