[10 May 2009]
Sesame Street and I were born the same year (1969), so I can barely conceive of children’s media without its all-pervasive influence. To me, alphabet letters are animated figures with their own colors and personalities; the act of counting from one to 20 invokes a variety of sing-song mnemonics that still dance in my head, and the word “cooperation” stands as one of the first words I ever learned (and no, this didn’t turn me into a communist, as a right-wing neighbor of ours—in all seriousness—regularly warned my mother). These are personal examples, but all of you “Sesame Street generation” comrades out there doubtless have your own catalogs of formative quirks related to the show.
Forty years old now (ahem), Sesame Street may well be the most consequential program in television history. Immediately praised on arrival for its documented effectiveness in improving basic learning skills in children and also condemned for its commitment to interrupted narrative with its “education as commercials” approach (not to mention the frequently irreverent and anarchic behavior of the muppets), the show exhibits no signs of fading circa 2009. Ever the trend setter, we might not even fully understand Sesame Street’s full impact on television and American culture as we know it until it celebrates its 80th birthday—will the tufts of hair on Ernie and Bert have turned silver?—in 2049.
In any case, it’s about time a proper book on the subject finally came out, and Michael Davis’ Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street answers the call quite splendidly. With Street Gang, Davis—the former senior editor of TV Guide—presents the substantive back-story to a children’s show whose origins were, to an unprecedented degree, intellectually driven. Its eventual appearance on public television, too, owed much to the tireless efforts of its founders—public television producer Joan Ganz Cooney and psychologist Lloyd Morrisett—in 1) assembling just the right group of people (and puppets), 2) jockeying for multi-million dollar grants, and 3) conducting preparatory think-tank sessions galore.
All of this resulted in a brand of children’s programming that, as Davis puts it, “rewrote the book”. Never before Sesame Street had a children’s television program relied on an “A-list of advisers” armed with “stated education norms and objectives”. Neither had any previous children’s show functioned as a “living laboratory, where results would be vigorously and continually tested”, and where writers and social science researchers commingled in a “forced marriage that, with surprising ease and good humor, endured and thrived”. The big beneficiaries, of course, were American children from neighborhoods of every socioeconomic level, pretty much all of whom tuned in.
Davis does well in Street Gang to spend ample time discussing the show’s key ancestors, such as Howdy Doody, Ding Dong Bell, Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Captain Kangaroo. If you’ve been looking for a decent history of Captain Kangaroo, as a matter of fact—one that includes prolonged backstage glimpses of central figure Bob Keeshan—look no further. Davis depicts Keeshan as something of a loose cannon—volatile and difficult to be sure, but one who valued and understood his audience, perhaps, better than few before him. An unwitting breeder of future Sesame Street talent, such as producers Jon Stone, Dave Connell and Sam Gibbon, Keeshan proved to be a valuable early source of endorsement for Sesame Street, in spite of any resentment he may have felt, as it scrambled to find its legs.
But if the Captain understood pre-schoolers, the Sesame Street gang had an edge by showing how well it also understood that same demographic’s parents, who appreciated the “winking references to pop culture, song parodies, and outrageous puns that came out of the mouths of the puppets”. At an early ‘70s media moment during which the co-viewing and co-listening activities of adults and children seemed to be spiking, Sesame Street was clearly leading the charge, sending songs like “Rubber Duckie” and “Sing” straight up the pop charts. The show’s ability to merge those two audiences was a pretty neat trick, and likely had more than a little bit to do with the developing general perception of public television as an entirely family-friendly proposition.
Sesame Street’s instant rapport with television audiences, as well as its long-term success, owes much to an extraordinary group of visionaries, and Davis provides well-rounded biographical sketches for most of these, such as crucial behind-the-scenes figures like Stone, Connell, Gibbon, and Morrisett. And those with higher name recognition, such as Cooney and the late muppet master Jim Henson, get the extended treatment they deserve. Cooney, who essentially nurtured Sesame Street and the Children’s Televison Workshop from their earliest stages, secured a reputation as one of the most successful women in America by 1969, and although she attributes her good fortune, at one point, to “dumb luck”, Davis makes sure we know better.
As for the immortal Henson, Davis emphasizes his human side. His intense business preoccupations, for example, led to a standoff with Disney during his final days. And his zany sense of humor, which reveled in chaos and disobedience, is likely the crucial factor in his muppets’ journey to the very heart and soul of children’s television. Davis’ decision to bookend his narrative with accounts of Henson’s funeral gives the entire story a certain bittersweet aura, highlighting as it does the unfortunate difference between people and puppets.
Street Gang will likely draw in plenty of readers who are curious about cast members they remember from the old days, like Matt Robinson (the first Gordon), whose inner city street sensibility was no mere concoction; Will Lee (Mr. Hooper), a once-blacklisted survivor of the McCarthy era and mentor to James Earl Jones; and Northern Calloway (David), whose tragic self-destruction would have easily made for garish headlines today. Davis also packs in loads of good info about key puppeteers, such as Mr. Carroll Spinney (Big Bird and Oscar), who grade school kids used to call “pee wee”, and Kevin Clash (Elmo), who may well be credited singlehandedly for navigating Sesame Street through the great Barney scare of the ‘90s.
As a “complete history”, Street Gang doesn’t really live up to its billing. One expects pages of appendices and even more information than what Davis offers here with a subtitle like that. And when the last third of the book turns into a somewhat loose collection of vignettes, the issue gets harder to ignore. For example, the outing of Snuffleupagus as a real creature and not just a figment of Big Bird’s imagination seemed like a big psychological deal at the time but doesn’t make the cut, for some reason, here. And you won’t be finding the name “Jerry Falwell” anywhere in the index. (In fact, you should probably keep a copy of David Borgenicht’s 1998 coffee table book, Sesame Street Unpaved close by when you read this.) I’d just as soon forgive Davis these gripes, though, since his subject—which is brought to us by the ever-bustling Children’s Television Workshop—does happen to be, after all, a work in progress.