Happy 40th Birthday, Sesame Street!
“Sunny day, everything’s A-OK…”
Who among us can hear these optimistic words without being transported back to a simpler time? A time of learning the alphabet, counting along to catchy tune, loving milk and cookie, and the monsters that devour them? For 40 years, the average childhood has been tinted with the rosy hues of “Sesame Street.”
This staple of children’s television deserves a celebration. “Sesame Street” set the bar for educational TV, debuting in 1969 several unprecedented methods.
For example, Joan Cooney, one of the creators of the Children Television’s workshop, wanted to place an emphasis on children’s natural “imagination and resources.” Instead of bombarding children with bland entertainment, “Sesame Street” would advocate activity over passivity. Cooney said that the initial goal was not to teach kids through the medium of television, but to encourage them to “turn off the television set at the end of the program” so that they could undertake their own projects.
Even today, such faith in the abilities of young children is refreshing. Although many children’s shows follow “Sesame Street’s” lead with educational, multicultural and/or nutritional lessons, too many of them condescend or patronize. In “Dora the Explorer” and “Ni Hao, Kai Lan,” Dora and Kai Lan teach kids about other languages and cultures — definitely a good thing. However, for all their merits, these shows tend to get too cutesy or repetitive.
Then there are shows like “Teletubbies,” which seem to exist solely to irritate the viewer with an endless stream of bright visuals and baby talk.
Compare these new schlocky shows to “Sesame Street,” and there’s no contest. “Sesame Street” skits are still palatable, even laugh-out-loud hilarious, for children and adults alike — there’s no pandering to anyone. With its hip musical numbers (who can resist the pinball counting cartoon, grooving to a funky beat?), obliging guest stars and goofy sense of humor, people of any age can enjoy it.
Even cynical college kids stumbling across “Sesame Street” segments on Youtube or PBS have to smile. In “Monsterpiece Theatre,” Cookie Monster, reclining in a smoking jacket, presents Muppet versions of classic literature, often with a great deal of puns (see: “[The Number] 1 Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”). In a recent episode, fast-talking Muppets bustle about an advertising agency, parodying the very adult “Mad Men.”
Elmo jokes with Ricky Gervias; Michelle Obama shows us how to grow a vegetable garden; Stevie Wonder shows little kids how to jam — the discoveries the show gives us are endless.
From the very beginning, the creators made the radical decision to integrate adults and kids, monsters and humans, of all professions and ethnic backgrounds. This integration was crucial to “Sesame Street’s” success; as Tim Teeman, British TV critic puts it: “This notion of equality about age, race and gender is great because as a child, there are so many barriers between you and the adult world.”
In fact, “Sesame Street” not only promotes multi-cultural awareness in its American inception, but has also bridged significant regional differences in each international adaptation.
For instance, the Arabic-language version, “Iftah Ya Simsim” (delightfully, that means “Open Sesame”) has a camel named No’Man instead of our tall yellow Big Bird. The Spanish-language version, “Plaza Sésamo,” has copies of the American characters, but renamed. Bert and Ernie become Beto y Enrique, and the Cookie Monster becomes Lucas, “el monstruo comegalletas.”
The scope of “Sesame Street” envelops the world, with varying levels of success. In Mexico alone, 72 percent of mothers reported watching the show when they were young, with 98 percent confirming that they wanted to show it to their children.
One particularly successful — and controversial — inception of “Sesame Street” is “Takalani Sesame,” the South African version (presented in all 11 national languages). “Takalani Sesame” faced widespread GOP derision when it introduced Kami, a four-year-old Muppet who became HIV positive from a blood transfusion, and whose mother died from AIDS. American conservatives were by and large appalled by the character, dreading the day that Kami would appear on the American version, teaching kids to accept people with AIDS.
Although Kami is only on the South African version — and for a good reason, as over 18 percent of the South African population live with HIV/AIDS — perhaps the American “Sesame Street” will one day tackle the issue, with or without regards to homosexuality.
Teaching kids tolerance can hardly be a bad thing.
And yet, strangely, “Sesame Street” falters in some countries, even when it’s met with open arms. Although the UK picked it up shortly after the US started production, they stopped playing it on BBC in 2001. In 1998, the Philippines stopped production of its own Tagalog version. A few more countries, like China and Norway, have followed suit.
And of course, with so many children’s television shows peppering early morning cable, American kids are also changing the channel.
One can only guess why. Even though the show has a “magazine” format, combining cartoons with sketches, Muppets with little “documentary” segments, an hour of “Sesame Street” may not provide as much novelty as it used to. For all its variety, little ones have shorter attention spans than ever.
The preschool kids of today have full access to cable TV and Internet; the shiny candy stores upstage “Sesame Street’s” plate of veggies (and maybe a cookie or two).
Not that “Sesame Street” hasn’t anticipated this evolution of children’s entertainment from the start: the CTW made “Sesame Street’s” Web site one of the first educational websites on the net, with resources for both parents and children. If you go there today, you’ll be greeted with great aplomb by Elmo, who wants you to play.
Try to resist that helium-voiced call!
Despite its detractors, and despite the slightly waning interest, “Sesame Street” still holds as a cultural zeitgeist. In one fictional city block, we can find Rosita, a Mexican immigrant with blue fur, singing a song with a giant sleepy elephant; Bob the music teacher teaching kids sign language with his deaf girlfriend Linda; Oscar the Grouch reading a bedtime story to his baby/friend, Slimey the Worm.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better endorsement of loving your neighbor.
Hopefully, “Sesame Street” will continue for many years to come, teaching kids (and adults) the wonders of sharing, kindness — and, above all, learning.
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