Photo Credit: Richard Termine
It's been 50 years since the first episode of Sesame Street aired on November 10, 1969. Its creators pioneered the idea of using television to build early-years literacy skills – and still be entertaining. The show was heavily researched and carefully constructed, using proven advertising techniques (such as repetition of short, zippy inserts) to build letter and number recognition. Every episode ended with harmonica music and a voice-over saying: “Sesame Street was brought to you today by the letter E and the number 5.”
It would be an understatement to say that Sesame Street has a special place in my heart. It has an exclusive, over-sized, VIP parking spot. In light of this major milestone, here's everything I want to say thank you to Sesame Street for.
Making diversity a priority, from day one. Even in the pilot, the human cast was multi-cultural, with a variety of skin tones and ethnicities. In 1969, this was nothing short of mind-blowing and groundbreaking.
Keeping my mom sane in the early 80s. “Sesame Street saved me,” my mom openly says about that hour from 11:00 a.m. until noon, when she would manually turn the TV dial to public television (of course, there was no remote control, VCR, DVD, Netflix or PVR). Secure in the knowledge that the content was age-appropriate and educational for me and my two younger siblings, my mom said she gratefully used that time to clean up, make lunch and get organized for the afternoon.
The classic animation sequences. You know there’s one that has unconsciously stuck with you for all these years. Maybe it’s the groovy pinball game that counted up to 12 or the typewriter that rolls in humming “Noo-ne-noo-ne-noo…” Whatever it is, you see it for a few seconds and bam – you’re a kid again.
Tackling real-life situations. The show’s producers were conscientious and thoughtful in addressing sensitive topics like the death of Mr. Hooper, the existence of Mr. Snuffleupagus, and the loss of first-responders after 9/11. The show has also portrayed a wedding, a birth, an adoption, and the aftermath of a hurricane.
The unforgettable Muppets. Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster, and The Count are now recognized around the world. Thank goodness for Oscar, who validates that we all have days where we feel like telling everyone to “Scram!” The main Muppet cast remains as charming as ever, but it’s worth a YouTube search for the offbeat and zany antics of past characters like Don Music, Forgetful Jones, Sherlock Hemlock, and Lefty the Salesman (“Would you like to buy an O?”).
The hilarious team of Ernie and Bert. Their nondescript apartment with the ‘E’ and ‘B’ twin beds was the home of comedy gold. Adults have speculated for half a century about the nature of their relationship – friends, roommates, partners? – but kids didn’t care. It has never mattered and never will. In the end, maybe that’s the real lesson.
Being an inclusive neighbourhood. Jason Kingsley, a boy with Down syndrome, appeared regularly on the show in the 1970s. In 2017, the Sesame residents met a new Muppet friend named Julia, who has autism. Julia joins a strong group of current female Muppets that includes Zoe, Rosita and Abby Cadabby.
The timeless comedy that spans generations. When my family watches the Sesame Street Old School DVDs, my kids’ favourite bit is the baker who stands at the top of a staircase with an armful of desserts, dramatically announces “Nine… coconut custard… pies!” and proceeds to lose control of them as he falls down the stairs. It’s conclusive proof that a good sight gag lasts forever.
Letting the Muppet characters talk like kids. Cookie Monster (“Me want cookie!”) speaks to kids because he speaks like them. Like many toddlers, Elmo refers to himself in the third person, and Baby Bear’s “Rs” come out sounding like “Ws.” Rather than mock or correct this, those around them simply model grown-up speech patterns themselves.
The 1978 TV special, Christmas Eve on Sesame Street. I owned the read-along record as a kid, and you won’t find a more sincere or heartwarming holiday story. It’s mandatory viewing in my house every December, and I have yet to make it through the “Keep Christmas With You” anthem without crying.
The unparalleled creativity. The show became known for catchy hits such as “Rubber Duckie” and clever song parodies like “Barn in the USA.” Muppet characters were thrust into regular jobs, as Kermit the Frog reported “fast-breaking news stories” and Grover waited tables at Charlie’s Restaurant. And let’s not forget the spoofs. It was only in adulthood that my dad explained to me that the Guy Smiley-hosted segments called “Here Is Your Life” and “Beat the Time” were send-ups of old TV game shows.
The powerful nostalgia. Sesame Street was a common shared experience for those who grew up in the 70s and 80s, mainly because it was one of the only children’s TV shows we had. Today’s fragmented media world can’t duplicate our widespread familiarity with the Ladybug Picnic song or the Martians repeating “Yip yip yip yip yip.”
The A-list celebrity guests. It is always entertaining to see big stars interact with the Muppets, and plenty of them will be appearing in the 50th Anniversary Celebration special.
The books, toys and other merchandise. When I became a parent, I couldn’t wait to introduce my kids to these beloved characters. Every year, on the plane ride to visit my parents, I use a perky Grover puppet to talk my kids through the takeoff and landing. My parents kept my original Sesame Street Library set, and my dad still nails the voices in the “Perils of Penelope” story when reading it to my kids.
Congratulations, Sesame Street, on your 50th season. You’re a beacon of positivity, humour, respect and integrity. You’ve made us laugh, made us cry, and taught us our ABCs and 123s. You helped us grow up, but also gave us permission to hang on to our inner child. Thank you for that, most of all.