Long before Bob the Builder and Dora the Explorer, Sesame Street was pioneering children’s educational entertainment -- and the show is still as relevant and engaging as ever. What’s the secret to its staying power?
FORTY YEARS AGO THIS NOVEMBER, a new television show designed to educate and entertain kids hit the PBS airwaves. It was unlike anything else on TV at the time, and it captured the attention of children and parents alike.
Today, that same show, Sesame Street, continues to break new ground in children’s programming, a feat recognized by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS), which will grant a Lifetime Achievement Emmy to the long-running series at this month’s Daytime Emmy Awards. Frank Radice, president of NATAS, praises Sesame’s vitality and what it has contributed to society. “There are people out there who don’t know what a [vinyl] record is or have never seen a typewriter,” he says. “But they know Big Bird.”
The show’s well-known theme song asks, “Can you tell me how to get/How to get to Sesame Street?” We not only know how to get to Sesame Street, we know how -- and why -- Sesame Street gets to you, even all these years later. Let us count the ways. We love to count. (Cue lightning flashes and Transylvanian bats.)
1. It’s Still Funny
Sesame Street has maintained a strict educational mandate through the years, but the show’s pedagogical gears, the mechanisms used to teach preschoolers, have always been greased by comedy. When Sesame debuted in 1969, it was a video reincarnation of vaudeville, with its classic buddy bits and sassy send-ups.
The show’s quick-cut comedic pace, a hallmark of Sesame’s early years, was patterned after late-1960s TV sensation Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, which featured blackouts, knock-knock jokes, and sight gags. And just as Laugh-In had its walk-on cameos, a contingent of comedy greats has stopped by the stoop at 123 Sesame Street over the years. A (very) incomplete list includes Jack Black, Carol Burnett, Sid Caesar, Jim Carrey, Bill Cosby, Billy Crystal, Ellen DeGeneres, Tina Fey, Jay Leno, Cheech Marin, Richard Pryor, Jon Stewart, Ben Stiller, and Lily Tomlin. Adam Sandler will join that alumni association this fall.
2. It Still Winks at Parents
The researchers, writers, producers, and performers behind the series make cheeky children’s television that tickles adult sensibilities. Here’s why: It was an early in-house supposition, one that was later supported by bona fide educational research, that children learn much more if grown-ups watch and laugh along with them. (And who wouldn’t laugh at a segment about healthy eating that features a Howie Mandel look-alike Muppet who hosts a show called Meal or No Meal?) The 40th season will feature a bit with Sarah Jessica Parker waiting around the Sesame Street stoop for her Sex and the City love interest, who goes by the nickname Big. Ever-obliging Grover tries to help by bringing her a big rock.
3. It Still Promotes Cultural Literacy
Kids may not be familiar with Kristin Chenoweth, who pops up during “Elmo’s World” segments as Ms. Noodle, the voiceless, clueless sister of baggy-pants clown Mr. Noodle (played by Bill Irwin). Parents, however, likely recognize not only the incandescent Broadway star but also what her character is meant to be: a Charlie Chaplin–esque homage to silent-film stars that introduces children to the art of mime.
“The Noodles don’t really know what they’re doing wrong in any situation,” Chenoweth says. “The kids watching them call out, ‘No, no, no!’ They see an adult is doing something wrong, and they know how to fix it. I was in a bank once when a little girl pointed at me and said, ‘Ms. Noodle! You do things wrong. And you don’t talk.’ I said, ‘I know, but you help me figure things out.’ “
When legendary musician James Taylor is on tour, he occasionally takes requests to play “Jellyman Kelly,” a nonsense song he performed, with jazz virtuoso Howard Johnson on tuba, on Sesame Street in 1983. Taylor credits his multiple appearances on the show with extending his popularity beyond the generation that first discovered him.
Indeed, you could learn an awful lot about music, literature, art, science, sports, and politics simply by studying the letter A on Sesame Street’s lengthy list of guest stars. It includes legendary dance-company founder Alvin Ailey, moon-walking astronaut Buzz Aldrin, beloved novelist and poet Maya Angelou, former secretary general of the United Nations Kofi Annan, and barrier-breaking athlete Arthur Ashe.