I think it is so amazing when we sort through all the memories we have collected over our lives how many events we can recall even those from our early years. One I still see vividly in my mind took place when I was about four years old. I was riding in the car with my father when I mentioned something about watching Gumby on television. The revelation was very disappointing to my father and he chastised me by question why I was not watching something more educational such as Captain Kangaroo or Sesame Street, which this week is celebrating 40 years on television. Though the show had only been on the air a couple years at that time, my father recognized the value educational television could bring to children.
I don’t recall exactly how I responded to my father (but now that I think about it, self-psychoanalysis says maybe that’s why I share no secrets with my parents), but it does make me reflect on the influence of Sesame Street and the profound effect it has had on children – especially its intended preschool-aged audience - and how it changed the trajectory of children’s programming almost immediately after its premiere as it was a dramatic departure from the way children’s television had been done in the past.
There are moments when I find it hard to believe the show is actually that old. While I don’t think of 40 as being old (for obvious reasons), in television years that seems almost ancient. One show lasting that many decades, yet still seeming so new and youthful. And perhaps that is the beauty of Sesame Street. It has lasted all these years because it has found a way to keep itself relevant even as other newer, sometimes flashier competitors have come along to steal, or least share its thunder.
When Sesame Street premiered, it brought new vibrancy to children’s programming and transformed not only how children watched television, but also how adults viewed it. The genius of the series is that it is sophisticated enough to entertain both kids and adults simultaneously and ushered in the idea of parents and children watching together.
We take this dual effect programming for granted today, but in 1969 there was a much greater distinction. Kids shows then not only had lower production values, but they also appeared to talk down to their young audiences (I swear there was an old kid series titled “Dumb Dumb School.”) Yes, you did have shows such as Soupy Sales’ or even animated series like the Flintstones that were able to entertain on multiple levels, but Sesame Street has done it in such a way that it also teaches as it entertains. Patterned after successful shows such as lifetime, Sesame Street was an exercise in entertainment education. Yes, it allowed children to laugh and be themselves, but it also has seamlessly taught messages of cooperation and honesty without ever seeming preachy.
The new vibrancy ushered in by Sesame Street also brought a form of diversity to television never before seen. Seeing Gordon, his afro prominent and voluminous, interacting with his neighbors and most importantly the children of Sesame Street shows how the series, which came to air at the tail end of the civil rights era, really made an effort to show blacks and whites and Latin Americans living together and sharing together, and in the ensuing years additional characters such as Luis and Maria would be added. Some might dismiss this casting as political correctness. I call it idealistic, with a vision toward the future. Perhaps it was the producers and public television, unshackled by the restrictions of commercial television and the need to fulfill the desires of advertisers, that felt free to breach boundaries that were previously considered taboo.
While the show has basically remained the same the past four decades, there have been some noticeable changes. The classic Sesame Street theme so many of us grew up with was replaced for a more contemporary hip-hop influenced beat. And according to a recent report on NPR, the pace has been altered to reflect a more narrative style while Sesame the street has also undergone some changes. Much like the New York City street scene it was modeled after, Sesame Street isn’t nearly the gritty place it once was. It has been cleaned up. Gentrification has set in. No there’s not a Starbucks or Restoration Hardware store on the corner, but the difference between now and the early years is quite evident.
But as I said, some things have remained the same. Gordon is still there (albeit not played by the same actor). So are Susan, and Bob, and Luis, and Maria. Big Bird, Oscar, Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, and whole host of Muppet characters are still there. I would say living and breathing, but I think you get the idea. And isn’t it great I can still as the question, “Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?” Chances are, you’ll know the answer.
Well, I gotta scoot…