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Sesame Street made its debut 45 years ago today, introducing audiences to new friends like Big Bird, Elmo and Gordon, Bob and Linda — not to mention Oscar the Grouch, who’d likely remind you that he’s nobody’s friend if he had the chance. The show was the result of producer Joan Ganz Cooney, Carnegie Foundation VP Lloud Morrisett and Muppet maestro Jim Henson came together with the simple intent of finding some way using television’s hold over kids for good, with their creation going on to be screened in more than 100 different countries and include more than 20 international editions.
For those looking for a chance to relive childhood nostalgia — or, worse, those who’d never had the chance to enjoy the show as a child — here are ten reasons why the most popular neighborhood in America has captured the hearts of millions (Elmo not included, due to personal biases; he’s got his own documentary, anyway).
Bert and Ernie
The roommates and best friends at the heart of the show may share names with minor characters in It’s A Wonderful Life, but according to everyone involved in the show, that’s simply an odd coincidence. Instead, they’re simply two guys who share an apartment despite their obvious differences in temperament and ideological outlook. Think of them as the Sesame version of The Odd Couple.
The most single-minded of all the characters on Sesame Street, a clue to the subject of Cookie Monster’s obsession is right there in his name. Originally created by Henson for a General Foods commercial that never aired, he eventually showed up in the very first episode of Sesame Street, although it’d be a couple of years before his signature song, “C Is For Cookie” would make it to air. In the era of healthy eating, he’s since come to accept that cookies are only “sometimes snacks,” and that a balanced diet includes fruits and vegetables.
Officially, his name is Count Von Count, but let’s not stand on ceremony here; the number-obsessed vampire started life as a slightly more unsettling figure — he’d hypnotize anyone who tried to stop him counting — but, after concerns that that would frighten off the show’s core audience, he settled into a more benign, melodramatic laugh-filled existence. Fun fact: Anyone who grew up on Sesame Street and says that they don’t have an impersonation of the Count is lying.
Big Bird (and Snuffy)
Ostensibly the main character of the series, Big Bird is a triumph of design (by Henson), construction (by Kermit Love) and performance (by Carol Spinney for more than three decades, although other puppeteers have taken over in recent years). Affable, curious and eager to please, Bird was the unofficial audience proxy for years, becoming so identified with the show that he was even cited by Mitt Romney in a debate during the 2012 U.S. Presidential Elections as an example of PBS spending cuts necessary to reduce the federal budget.
Snuffy — full name Aloysius Snuffleupagus — was a wooly mammoth introduced onto the show a couple of years into its run, and the center of a running joke for years because no-one aside from Big Bird actually managed to meet him, leading to other characters believing he was Big Bird’s imaginary friend. That ended in 1985, as producers started to worry about the impact of the audience seeing adults disbelieve Bird even when he was telling the truth.
Oscar the Grouch
Everything you need to know about Oscar — who lives in a garbage can on the street — is right there in his name. Well, almost everything; you don’t get his love of trash (as demonstrated by his theme song, helpfully called “I Love Trash”) or how charming the character is in his curmudgeonly ways. Strangely, despite what appears to be a particularly New Yorker demeanor, it’s been revealed that he is, in fact, Canadian. Let’s chalk that one up to an unexpected in-joke on behalf of the Sesame Street writing staff.
Sure, he might sound like Yoda — Frank Oz performed both characters, although Eric Jacobsen took over in 1998 — but Grover is another character to predate Sasame Street; the puppet appeared, sans name and personality in the show’s first season, but Grover’s proper debut actually happened on a 1970 episode of The Ed Sullivan Show, appearing alongside Kermit the Frog, setting up a double act that would continue in Sesame Street itself. In addition to his appearances with everyman (well, everymuppet) Mr. Johnson, Grover leads a double life, saving the day — or, at least, trying to — as SuperGrover on a fairly regular basis.
There was always more to Sesame Street than the Muppets, however. The show has always included an admirably diverse group of humans, including storekeeper Mr. Hooper, music teacher Bob, repairman Luis and mail carrier Molly (Charlotte Rae, who’d later go on to appear in Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life). Keeping the show grounded in some level of reality, the humans have also helped the show deal with more serious subjects, including dealing with the death of a loved one following the real-life death of Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper.
Pinball Number Count
The format of Sesame Street has always included short films and animations intended to teach children basic concepts through repetition. Of these, none were quite as earworm-y as “Pinball Number Count,” a series of one-minute sequences that taught the audience how to count as soundtracked by the Pointer Sisters. Eleven versions of the animation exist, with the final number rising from 2 through 12.
Parodies of movies, television and music have always been part of Sesame Street, from Monsterpiece Theater — a parody of PBS’ Masterpiece Theater, with Cookie Monster playing an Alistair Cooke-style host called “Alistair Cookie” — to today’s efforts, which have included The Hungry Games, Star S’Mores, Cookie of Oz and Twilight Breaking Cookie. Yes, there might be a theme emerging…
Unexpected Celebrity Cameos
Alongside the regular human cast, celebrities have always shown up on Sesame Street to teach the audience about a particular idea or word, with a partial list of guests including Maya Angelou, Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Ralph Nader. Oh, and Steve Wonder, right in his prime:
With all of that on offer, it’s no surprise that the show has been around for so long. Happy Birthday, Sesame Street. Here’s to 45 more years, at least.
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