Elmo's Dad Ships Out for Duty on 'Sesame Street'

The folks at Sesame Street are working with military groups to make a new video for children of active service members. In it, Elmo's father deploys (although it's vague about whether he's in the Army or going to war) and the red-furry muppet has to cope with his absence. The target is the half a million children younger than five with parents in the military.

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Military deployment can be tough on the soldier's young children. With tours of duty getting longer and more active duty families having children, psychologists are trying to answer the questions that children have about the separation. And that is where Elmo comes in. The folks at Sesame Street have teamed up with military family groups to make a video about what happens after Elmo's father ships out. NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

On the Sesame Street set, on a soundstage in Queens, New York, Elmo is getting ready for his close-up. In the script, Elmo's father has been deployed for months and is about to return to his wife and red, furry child.

Unidentified Woman (Playing Elmo's mother): What, what, are you okay, angel?

KEVIN CLASH (Actor playing Elmo): Elmo's excited that daddy's coming home, Mommy.

Unidentified Woman (Playing Elmo's mother): Uh-huh?

Mr. CLASH (Playing Elmo): But Elmo's excited in a funny way. Oh jeez.

Mr. CLASH: Guys, give us a second.

SMITH: That deep voice is Kevin Clash, the man behind Elmo, or I should say under Elmo. Four puppeteers are crouched on the floor, squeezed into a space about the size of a car trunk, trying to do this emotional homecoming scene.

Mr. CLASH: One more time.

Mr. CLASH (Playing Elmo): Excited in a funny way. Elmo's tummy is doing flip-flops.

Unidentified Woman (Playing Elmo's mother): Oh, it's okay to be nervous or even shy. I mean, you haven't seen your daddy in a long time.

(Soundbite of clapping, background sounds)

SMITH: A military deployment storyline may seem a little odd until you hear the statistics. There are nearly half a million children of active military members under the age of five. Jeanette Betancourt is an educational therapist and the Vice President of content design at Sesame Workshop. She says that young children have a different set of worries and fears when their parents go off to war.

Dr. JEANETTE BETANCOURT (Educational Therapist and Vice President of Sesame Workshop content design): For under five year olds, it's the concept of time. It was hard for them to understand why their parent was leaving in the first place. So it's showing, what we recommend is that it's described as a job. It's a job that a parent has to do.

SMITH: While the video deals specifically with how Elmo copes with his father's absence, the script is very subtle about what exactly his father is doing. The notion of any Muppet going to war, much less Iraq, is never mentioned. Instead, Elmo's father explains that he's going to be helping people and doing grown-up work. Betancourt says they have to deal in metaphor.

Dr.. BETANCOURT: It's like everything we do on Sesame Street. It's representing a situation.

SMITH: Sesame Street has been taking on the real world more and more, with projects on obesity and disaster relief. Gary Knell, the President of Sesame Workshop, says that since September 11th, they've realize they can tackle these big issues in a targeted way.

Mr. GARY KNELL (President, Sesame Workshop): We try to build stories, for instance, around Big Bird's nest being blown away in a hurricane and it's a disaster for him, and he feels terrible. But the community on Sesame Street came together to rebuild the nest. It was in many ways a metaphor for how New York came together after 9/11 and support the victims. We're trying to deal with kids on their level, and that's really the key to the success of the show in so many ways.

Unidentified Man#1: Cue. Elmo.

Mr. CLASH (Playing Elmo): What Elmo say?

Unidentified Man#1: Welcome home (inaudible).

Mr. CLASH (Playing Elmo): Welcome home (inaudible).

Unidentified Man#2: And welcome home, daddy.

Unidentified Man#3 (Playing Elmo's father): Oh, you welcome, son.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: On the set, the reunion scene is proving to be a logistical challenge. In this take, the reunion kiss between Elmo's dad and mom goes on a little too long for children's TV.

(Soundbite of people kissing, laughing, background sounds)

Mr. CLASH (Playing Elmo): They're kissing.

(Soundbite of people kissing)

Mr. CLASH (Playing Elmo): This is a new Sesame Street.

(Soundbite of people kissing, laughing, background sounds)

Unidentified Woman(Playing Elmo's mother): I need a breath.

SMITH: But eventually they nail it.

Mr. CLASH (Playing Elmo): And welcome home, daddy.

Unidentified Man#3 (Playing Elmo's father): Oh, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: By this summer, the video and a military family outreach kit will be available at no cost to schools and family support centers.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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