On Sesame Street, 'C' Is For Controversy

Muppets Ernie and Sherlock Hemlock on 'Sesame Street' i i

Ernie (left) is exasperated as Sherlock Hemlock tries to get to the bottom of a mystery on a late 1970s episode of Sesame Street. Children's Television Workshop/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Children's Television Workshop/Getty Images
Muppets Ernie and Sherlock Hemlock on 'Sesame Street'

Ernie (left) is exasperated as Sherlock Hemlock tries to get to the bottom of a mystery on a late 1970s episode of Sesame Street.

Children's Television Workshop/Getty Images

The beloved television show has been educating children for 40 years — but not without plenty of grown-up controversy. From Cookie Monster's unbalanced diet, to Elmo's bad grammar, to Grover's civil disobedience, The Week magazine explains why some days aren't sunny days on Sesame Street.

Dale Hrabi, online editorial director for The Week, walks us through the show's Top 10 Controversies.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This week we mark 40 years since PBS and the Childrens Television Workshop invited us onto Sesame Street. The award-winning and much beloved series taught countless kids to count, recite their ABCs, and some contend exposed them to some pretty subversive stuff down on the street. What was Lefty, the letter salesman, selling?

(Soundbite of TV series, Sesame Street)

Mr. FRANK OZ (Actor): (As Lefty) And would you like to buy an O, round and neat, a nearly but circle, tidy and complete? You can sing a pretty song were it like so, O, O, O. Isnt that catchy?

CONAN: From the death of Mr. Hooper to the intimate relationship between roommates Bert and Ernie, The Week magazine counted down the top 10 controversies on Sesame Street. Tell us your Sesame Street scandal, controversy or mature moment that has mesmerized you all these years. The number is 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, thats at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. This Weeks online editorial director, Dale Hrabi, is our guide through Sesame Street scandals, and he joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. DALE HRABI (Online Editorial Director, This Week): Hello, how are you?

CONAN: And so why do we start at the top of the list - way back when the show started in 1969.

Mr. HRABI: Well, yes. We were calling those the race years, and at the time you gotta remember that most childrens programming were things like Mister Rogers, you know, very a very quite, relaxed man. And Captain Kangaroo. So out comes Sesame Street and, you know, they have episodes about civil disobedience and, you know, the Cookie Monster is puffing on a pipe. And it just sort of reflected its times, but those episodes now, when you buy them on a DVD, are labeled adults only.

CONAN: Really?

Mr. HRABI: Yes.

CONAN: Rated X.

Mr. HRABI: Well, not an X.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HRABI: No, but I mean there is a certain awareness that from the point of view of today when, you know, these things are monitored so strictly, these episodes might strike children oddly.

CONAN: Well, heres an example back from 1969, the show reflected the times by having Grover learn the rules of civil disobedience, a.k.a. lining up, from a hippie.

(Soundbite of TV series, Sesame Street)

Mr. STEVE ZUCKERMAN (Actor): (As Hippie Grump) Every body get in line behind me.

Mr. OZ: (As Beautiful Day Monster) (Unintelligible).

Mr. ZUCKERMAN: (As Hippie Grump) Get in line back behind me. All right. Everybody get in line.

Mr. OZ: (As Beautiful Day Monster) Im first in line.

Mr. ZUCKERMAN: (As Hippie Grump) Im first in line and everybody get in line behind me. Were going to play a game where we go forward and then we all turn around to go the other way.

Mr. OZ: (As Beautiful Day Monster) Yes.

Mr. ZUCKERMAN: (As Hippie Grump) Okay, everybody ready?

Mr. ERIC JACOBSON (Actor): (As Grover) Hold it, hold it, hold it.

Mr. ZUCKERMAN: (As Hippie Grump) Whats the matter back there?

Mr. JACOBSON: (As Green Grover): You might not have noticed but Im last in line.

Mr. OZ: (As Beautiful Day Monster) Yeah, youre last, yeah.

Mr. JACOBSON: (As Green Grover) I do not want to be last in line.

Mr. ZUCKERMAN: (As Hippie Grump) Well, somebodys got to be last in line.

CONAN: Yeah, somebody does. That was before Grover was even blue, he was green back then.

Mr. HRABI: Yeah, it was sort of a pre-Grover in a way.

CONAN: Proto-Grover.

Mr. HRABI: Yeah, proto-Grover, right. You know, and one of the things that Sesame Street was trying to do, is initially its target audience member was a four-year-old inner city black child. And you know, it was trying to help raise awareness that even in those kind of grim situations, like learning can really give someone the inspiration to make more of his or her self. Grover, I dont know if he was going about the right way.

CONAN: There is also, well, you know, should you justifiably celebrate so great a grouch?

(Soundbite of TV series, Sesame Street)

Mr. CAROLL SPINNEY (Actor): (As Oscar the Grouch) Gordon, I feel great today.

Mr. HAL MILLER (Actor): (As Gordon Robinson) Oh, you do, huh?

Mr. SPINNEY: (As Oscar the Grouch) Yeah. Im going through all my trash, just throwing it around and looking at it. It makes a grouch feel terrific.

CONAN: Well, thats a rare moment of equanimity for Oscar.

Mr. HRABI: Yes, he is usually on the depressive side. It seems originally that they planned, or Jim Henson planned to put him underneath a manhole. He was going to be essentially a sewer dweller.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HRABI: But the show itself realized that might be too grim and so they softened up a bit and put him in a trash can.

CONAN: I guess that's softening up a bit. It was a though, again, not a children's show, but of course, famously on The Honeymooners, one of the characters worked in the sewer. So

Mr. HRABI: Well, and you can see the move to the trash can transformed his personality. He's much chipper afterwards.

CONAN: Here's this email from Suzie(ph) in Jacksonville. I think adding Oscar the Grouch as a main character was an interesting thing. He was the kind of grumpy, mean character that could easily have been depicted as evil but he was accepted and loved by everyone on Sesame Street, like the grouchy old uncle might be in one's family. One of my favorite short-term characters was Ross Parrot modeled after presidential candidate Ross Perot. Ross Parrot told kids, it's your alphabet. You can say it anytime you want to. They've added many other characters that correspond with pop culture or current events.

Mr. HRABI: Well, the show's creators are obviously very sly in knowing, you know, the certain similarities to the The Simpsons in that there's an irreverence to the show. But and also, but I think children most children see it at their level not at that level.

CONAN: Well, interesting, the pop culture reference - recently, there was a pop culture reference on Sesame Street when they took on Fox News. Again, we go back to the character Oscar the Grouch who runs the Grouch News Network, GNN, and takes an angry call.

(Soundbite of TV show, Sesame Street)

Mr. SPINNEY: (as Oscar) Yeah, yeah. I know what you're going to say.

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (as character) Hugging and kissing? That is it. I am changing the channel. From now on, I am watching Pox News. Now, there's a classy news show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And I assume the switchboards lit up as soon as Pox News went out.

Mr. HRABI: Well, especially with callers from the Fox network. You know, they had been engaged in a battle with the White House. And this, I think, was just, you know, the last straw.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HRABI: And so, they did protest that and, you know, this is a case where the PBS ombudsman admitted that the satire was too good to have been resisted. But he couldn't help himself, you know?

CONAN: So, after 40 years, what is your Sesame Street moment? Give us a call, 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. Bill(ph) is on the line. Bill calling from Denver.

BILL (Caller): Definitely, my favorite adult moment was the torch singer slouching over the piano singing: oh, how I miss my ex.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HRABI: I don't remember that one. But it you would, you know, it seems like the kind of thing that would make an ex far harder to forget.

CONAN: Yes, indeed.

BILL: It definitely was. It was when my kids were probably five or six, 20 years ago, and I remember it still.

CONAN: Oh, well, thanks very much for the call, Bill.

BILL: You bet.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And I suppose the longest-running controversy on Sesame Street has been the, well, somewhat ambiguous relationship between Ernie and Bert.

(Soundbite of TV show, Sesame Street)

Mr. JIM HENSON (Actor): (as Ernie) And I'm never going to eat cookies in my bed again.

Mr. OZ: (as Bert) Okay. Good.

(Soundbite of humming)

Mr. OZ: (as Bert) Ernie, what are you doing?

Mr. HENSON: (as Ernie) I'm going to eat cookies in your bed, Bert.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Cue the laughing trombones. But also cue the controversy.

Mr. HRABI: I don't think those trombones sounded like they were laughing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HRABI: They sounded rather miserable. Apparently, that whole mien, the idea that Bert and Ernie, you know, have a special relationship like that has been traced to Kurt Anderson, the original editor of Spy magazine and the host of Studio 360

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HRABI: in a book he published in 1980. At that time, or in later years, he said that he thought it was just a joke between him and a few friends of his, and so he was surprised that it touched such a nerve.

CONAN: But, in other words, started as a joke and has now become an urban myth.

Mr. HRABI: Well, you know, the show itself issued an official denial in 1990 pointing out that the entire raison d'etre for Bert and Ernie is to show children that despite their differences, they can still be good friends.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Tina(ph) is with us from Middleville in Michigan.

TINA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

TINA: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

TINA: Quickly, I remember when my daughter was about three - she's nine now so this is a little while ago - and I believe this was an older clip. They had a picture of an elephant and a rhino up on a clipboard with a pointer. And they had said, all right, kids. What's the difference between an elephant and a rhino? And, you know, nobody knew. And they said, elephino, and they just moved on as kind of saying, hell if I know. And it caught my eye

CONAN: I see. That's the old joke about the Hellawi(ph) tribe, yeah.

TINA: Yeah. And I was really shocked. But I mean and nobody believed me, either, because they're like, on Sesame Street? No. But I don't know if that happens - if they do that kind of a thing a lot. It's really the only time I had run into something like that.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. HRABI: It sounds to me, I mean, they have a lot of fun with puns. And I mean, key to the whole idea of Sesame Street is, you know, building the ideas of empathy and tolerance and inclusiveness. So, I think it was probably, you know, just a sort of subtle way to say, hey, they're both great animals, you know?

TINA: Yeah. But then another way for me as a mother just to kind of I mean, I laughed for a second. Then I thought, wait a minute. What?

(Soundbite of laughter)

TINA: I don't know. It was just interesting. Thank you. I enjoy listening.

CONAN: All right. Thanks, Tina, very much. And talking about tolerance, there was in 2002, a Sesame Street in South Africa called Takalani Sesame, introduced Kami who was HIV positive.

(Soundbite of TV show, Takalani Sesame)

Ms. FRAN BRILL (Actor): (as Kami) This is a memory box that my mom made for me

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) Yeah.

Ms. BRILL: (as Kami) before she died of AIDS.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) Oh, yeah. I see. And what do you do with the memory box?

Ms. BRILL: (as Kami) Well, I look at all the beautiful things

Unidentified Man (Actor): (as character) Mm-hmm.

Ms. BRILL: (as Kami) inside my memory box when I want to remember all the good times I had with my mother.

CONAN: And that is something that they've extended into a series of public service announcements, including a - Kami had a conversation with former President Clinton. So this political correct is - Dale Hrabi, is this something that - I'm sure this draws criticism.

Mr. HRABI: Well, naturally. But it also gives the show great opportunities that - in theweek.com story, Top 10 Sesame Street Controversies, we link to the clip of Bill Clinton talking to Kami. And, I mean, it's kind of stunning to see the president of the United States, you know, relate with a small colorful puppet and appear to take her as seriously as he would take any voter, you know?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HRABI: He hugs her at one point to show that he personally has no hesitations in supporting her.

CONAN: And though presumably able to tell the difference, speaks directly to the puppet when the sound is presumably coming from somewhere else.

Mr. HRABI: Yes. Well, you know, he is Bill Clinton. He's learned how to talk to unhearing, you know, audiences many times. Political correctness, the show challenges it all the time. It also, I guess, certainly has been credited with perpetuating political correctness.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. HRABI: And many people feel that the show is obviously liberal. And that's one reason it got in trouble with Fox News.

CONAN: Our guest is Dale Hrabi. He's the online editorial director at The Week magazine, and edited the Top 10 Sesame Street Controversies. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Lindsey(ph). Lindsey with us from Muncie, Indiana.

LINDSEY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

LINDSEY: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

LINDSEY: I was a kid when Mr. Hooper died. And I remember very vividly watching that episode and being really aware that the adults were taking the kids's(ph) emotions seriously and that it was okay for them to feel upset about this and to talk about it with people and to, you know, to be human about the fact that somebody had left them.

CONAN: Yeah, that was - Mr. Hooper was actor Will Lee in 1983. Well, we're going to play a clip you may remember, Lindsey.

LINDSEY: Yeah.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Sesame Street")

Mr. SPINNEY: (as Big Bird) He's never coming back?

Mr. NORTHERN CALLOWAY (Actor): (As David) Never.

Ms. ALAINA REED HALL (Actor): (As Susan) No.

Mr. SPINNEY: (as Big Bird) Well, I don't understand. You know, everything was just fine. I mean, why does it have to be this way? Give me one good reason.

Mr. ROSCOE ORMAN (Actor): (As Gordon) Big Bird, it has to be this way because.

Mr. SPINNEY: (as Big Bird) Just because?

Mr. ORMAN: (As Gordon) Just because.

CONAN: And, Lindsey, it's interesting to me that they chose to put that in the character of Big Bird, probably the most childlike of all the characters.

LINDSEY: At the time. Now, the what is he - Elmo is the

CONAN: Yes.

LINDSEY: new baby kid. But yeah - and

CONAN: Yeah.

LINDSEY: he was the one who still believes in Snuffleufagus(ph), who was invisible at the time.

Mr. HRABI: I think what I found also very moving about that is Big Bird is so enormous, you know? So he's childlike and vulnerable, but he's so big that all the adults in the show have to look up to him. And he just sort of really dramatizes the confusion of children in those instances. It's very moving, that clip.

LINDSEY: Yeah. That just has always stayed with me that that sort of sensitivity to the subject of kids dealing with death, because we do. And, you know, I did. My grandfather passed a year after that episode aired and I had -I was okay with understanding that because of "Sesame Street." And I think that's all I have to say. So thank you all for taking my call.

CONAN: Lindsey, thanks for your call.

LINDSEY: Appreciate this topic.

CONAN: Appreciate that. The very nature of the show also attracted a fair amount of attention and not all of it positive. For example, well, here's something you might have typically seeing on the show in the early days.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Sesame Street")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. GRACE SLICK (Singer): One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10.

CONAN: Going along with very colorful explosions of all sorts in the background. And some people complained that this may be contributing to ADD. By the way, I did not know until this program - that's Grace Slick singing there.

Mr. HRABI: Wow. Yes. The sort of pacing of "Sesame Street" - I mean, I remember those segments made me feel slightly panicky, but my neighbor across the street just thought they were cool. It is concerning a lot of parents who feel that, you know, this may be contributing to ADHD. One father writing a Web site called fastertimes.com(ph) says he can't quite take away Elmo from his autistic son, even though he feels like he should. And he confesses that each summer, he wants to take Elmo out to the railway tracks and shoot him with a .22.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HRABI: So

CONAN: He would have a lot of company.

Mr. HRABI: Yeah. You know? So Elmo's fan base is somewhat split.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Steve in Portland, Oregon. I think one of the funniest moments I ever saw was when Ms. Piggy was on a cooking segment with Martha Stewart. Martha was explaining some detailed cooking thing that she was doing and Ms. Piggy sniffed, oh, how obsessive. I think it was the last time when Martha appeared with the Muppets.

And this from Brenda(ph) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. My favorite "Sesame" skit was Rebel L, when the puppet was dressed like Billy Idol with leather jacket and punked hair, the L was always missing from the words. I miss my kids being little and watching "Sesame Street" with them. Hopefully, I can with grandkids, which may be all of our fates.

And, of course, it's the enduring controversy we mentioned right at the beginning of this segment, that about the diet of one of the most famous of the characters, the Cookie Monster.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Sesame Street")

Mr. OZ: (as Cookie Monster) Cookie.

(Soundbite of gobbling)

CONAN: What's wrong with that?

Mr. HRABI: Well, you know, at the time - apparently before he ate his first cookie, Cookie Monster was known simply as Sid. So it - you know, the addiction did get to him.

(Soundbite of song, The Sesame Street Theme )

Mr. HRABI: The New York Times has reported that - have said that they feel like Cookie Monster functions as a child's first addict. But, of course, he reformed and - around 2005 - and started eating vegetables.

CONAN: Oh, maybe he'll go back to the pipe. Dale Hrabi, thank you very much for the time today.

Mr. HRABI: Thank you.

CONAN: Dale Hrabi is online editorial director of The Week magazine. You can find a link to the Week's countdown on our Web site. That's at npr.org. And he was with us from our bureau in New York.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. We'll be with you again on Monday. Have a great weekend, everybody. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan on "Sesame Street."

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