Like most other American kids born after 1968, I grew up with Sesame Street. I knew the sketches by heart, learned to count by watching John John, could manage a few words in Spanish and (since I watched a Canadian version) some words in French. I loved the show, the people, the familiar voices and scenes. So, probably, did you.
The astounding success of the program is little mystery: it’s unfailingly good and pure and true. The lessons are as kindergarten (and hippie flower power) as can be: love your neighbor (no matter how grouchy they might be), be kind to everyone, and make sure to include them in whatever you’re doing. Respect the wisdom and innocence of children, and remember always to have fun. It’s a beautiful and hopeful show, launched as it was at the tail end of a decade full of both wild idealism and terrible disappointment. The activist bent of Sesame Street may never have been readily apparent to children, but this was a kid’s show explicitly designed to make the world a better place, to enable a shift in the hyper-individualist, violent, racist, misogynist America of the late-‘60s by teaching the next generation a range of peaceful and humanist values.
This, of course, didn’t work across the board. It did something for me, at least. When Jim Henson died in 1990 of a bizarre and rare strep infection, I cried along with what must have been a million other people across the world who had grown up on his voice, his values, and his vision.
It never occurred to me that I’d still enjoy watching the program when I was in my 30s, but my son is 15-months-old and, though he has an unaccountable obsession with Hannah Montana (I cannot explain this – voodoo?), he has become obsessed with the Muppets. Though his vocab is still pretty limited, his few words include “Awwel” (which is Elmo, apparently), “Bee Buh” (Big Bird, obviously) and “DeeDo” (Grover). There’s something about those Muppets.
He got to know Sesame Street not through watching the show, mind you, but through watching a DVD collection that was released earlier this year called Sesame Street: 40 Years of Sunny Days. He had a fever and we watched this two-disc collection in a few sittings, me reveling in nostalgia, he experiencing these fuzzy characters for the first time. So, when I saw that a new DVD was coming along entitled Sesame Street: 20 Years… and Still Counting I jumped at the chance to sit down and watch it with him. He made it about seven minutes in, before growing bored and wandering around the TV room yelling “Aww Duh” (all done). Huh.
The thing about this DVD is that, sadly, it doesn’t have a lot of reason to exist. A 45-minute made-for-TV special which was broadcast in 1989, it collects a few classic skits, revisists a few old characters (and some children now that they’ve grown up), and knits it all together with host Bill Cosby’s trademark Cosbyness and a couple of new musical numbers. It’s enjoyable, for sure, but hardly revelatory, since only a few brief interviews with major players are dropped in here and there. We see a montage of Sesame Street’s from around the world, hear Placido Domingo sing a duet with Placido Flamingo, and watch Ray Charles offer a rendition of “Bein’ Green”. However, the inclusion of zero special features – no interviews, no montages, no commentary, no nothing – is completely confounding.
If the 40 Years of Sunny Days hadn’t just come out, and if it weren’t infinitely superior to this forgettable retrospective – which, let’s bear in mind, is 20 years out of date! – this would have been worth recommending.