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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

In Character is the NPR series exploring great American fictional characters. In the coming months we'll hear about Captain Ahab from "Moby Dick," Hester Prynne from "The Scarlet Letter," and Hannibal Lecter from "Silence of the Lambs."

Today we're going to deconstruct a character whose signature can be summed up in a single word.

COOKIE MONSTER: Cookie.

SEABROOK: NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports on Cookie Monster.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: We at NPR News have high journalistic standards, so I sat down with Cookie Monster for an exclusive interview.

One thing we've been wanting to know is...

COOKIE MONSTER: Yeah, yeah, yeah, what, what, what?

BLAIR: Is it true you eat things other than cookies?

COOKIE MONSTER: Me eat everything. Yeah, one cannot live on cookies alone. Yeah, meat, vegetable, fruit, meat, fish, bicycle, truck, me once ate fire hydrant. Me monster, yeah. Me getting kinda hungry now.

BLAIR: The Cookie Monster has always been veracious, but he didn't always eat cookies, or at least his predecessor didn't. Years before "Sesame Street," Muppet creator Jim Henson made a very similar monster who ate snack foods in television commercials.

Cheryl Henson, Jim's daughter and president of the Henson Foundation, says then he ate computers.

Ms. CHERYL HENSON (President, Henson Foundation): He devoured machines for an IBM industrial film, which was a film to entertain the IBM executives.

(Soundbite of film)

Unidentified Man: This is a recording analytic program readout to be utilized by engineering personnel exclusively.

Ms. HENSON: He just crunched up machines and gobbled them all up.

(Soundbite of crunching)

Unidentified Man: The quantum polarization of the energy transfer involved herein...

Ms. HENSON: The big difference between that puppet and the final Cookie Monster is that this one had teeth, and those came out for eating cookies.

BLAIR: So the basic look and spirit were there but the character we know today was still a ways off. Enter puppeteer Frank Oz. For nearly 30 years Henson and Oz were an extraordinary team. Cheryl Henson says they shared a subversive sense of humor. Their Muppets were regulars on the Ed Sullivan and Tonight shows.

Frank Oz says the idea for Cookie Monster began on a Muppet game show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRANK OZ (Puppeteer): I remember that Jim played Guy Smiley, who was the host of the show.

(Soundbite of show)

Mr. JAMES HENSON (Muppet Creator): (As Guy Smiley) Hello there and welcome to "The Mr. and Mrs. Game." This is the show...

Mr. OZ: And there was a character who was just a monster. And the monster won on the show and he had a choice...

(Soundbite of show)

Mr. HENSON: (As Guy Smiley) You can choose either an all-expense paid two-week vacation in Hawaii along with a new car, a new house, and $10,000 in cash...

COOKIE MONSTER: Oh wow.

Mr. HENSON: (As Guy Smiley) Or a cookie.

Mr. OZ: And he chose the cookie.

(Soundbite of show)

COOKIE MONSTER: Cookie.

Mr. HENSON: (As Guy Smiley) A cookie.

COOLIE MONSTER: Cookie.

Mr. HENSON: (As Guy Smiley) Give that man a cookie.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. OZ: And I remember us screwing around with that, and that, I think, is the beginning of it.

BLAIR: Ultimately Cookie Monster was the brainchild of several people improvising. Writers and producers like John Stone and Jeff Moss, and puppet builder Don Saline(ph).

Mr. DON SALINE (Puppet Builder): It just happened during performance and with the writers and Jim, innately and organically.

COOKIE MONSTER: What starts with the letter C.

BLAIR: Cookie Monster's anthem was written by longtime "Sesame Street" composer Joe Raposo(ph).

COOKIE MONSTER: Who cares about the other things? (Singing) C is for cookie, that's good enough for me...

BLAIR: But the person who gets the most credit for Cookie Monster is Frank Oz. He was known for taking Muppet character development seriously. He also did Miss Piggy and Bert, among others. "Sesame Street" veterans Chris Surf(ph) and Norman Styles worked on the show throughout the 1970s and 80s.

They say Frank Oz wouldn't break character as Cookie Monster, even when they were writing.

Mr. CHRIS SURF: So it wouldn't be, you know, Frank saying, well, I'm not sure if this works or that works or whatever. It would be, What you think, maybe me do this? What you think? Maybe we should hold cookie over here.

Mr. NORMAN STYLES: I mean, Frank puts everything that you can into that part. And people have really said this when they analyze it. It's really like Frank's id. You know, it's just with no control on it whatsoever.

COOKIE MONSTER: Me got to taste cookie soon or me going to go crazy.

Mr. STYLES: And Bert is the exact other half that's very worried about everything and very square.

BLAIR: Frank Oz doesn't perform on "Sesame Street" anymore but he is still the best person to answer the question: who is Cookie Monster?

Mr. Oz: A very sensuous monster, very tactile. As opposed to many of us who need many things to try to make us happy, he only needs one thing, and that's a cookie. And he's insatiable. He's not intellectual, he's not that smart. As I said, he's very sensual and tactile. But that's pretty much him.

Ms. ANNETTE BENNING (Actor): My name is Annette Benning and I'm going to talk about here and there. And Cookie Monster's going to help me. Right, Cookie Monster?

COOKIE MONSTER: Why we here, Annette, and not there, Annette? Where you put cookies?

BLAIR: Another reason Cookie Monster is so appealing, says Norman Styles, is that he's sweet.

Mr. STYLES: In all of his, you know, his mono-mania, that would not stop him about caring about somebody else.

COOKIE MONSTER: You finished?

Ms. BENNING: Uh-huh.

COOKIE MONSTER: Okay. Right now that all cleared up, let us leave here and go there with cookies, okay?

Ms. BENNING: Okay, Cookie Monster. I will go there.

COOKIE MONSTER: Okay. Okay. Okay. Okay.

Ms. BENNING: Not yet, Cookie Monster.

COOKIE MONSTER: What? What? What? What?

Ms. BENNING: We haven't finished talking about here and there. I have another question I want to ask you.

Mr. STYLES: He's not going to knock anybody over to get the cookies. He's going to try to get around them to get the cookie, he's going to beg for the cookie, he's going to: oh please, please, please, please.

BLAIR: "Sesame Street" producers tried to reign in Cookie Monster's obsession a few years ago as part of their Healthy Habits for Life campaign. He started singing cookies are a sometimes food. For a while there were rumors that he'd be replaced by a veggie monster. It wasn't true but a Sesame Workshop executive says they were inundated with mail from angry fans.

More than 3,000 of them signed an online petition. What's wrong with you people? one of them wrote. To quote the monster himself, C is for cookie and that's good enough for me.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

COOKIE MONSTER: So we done?

BLAIR: We're done.

COOKIE MONSTER: No more talking?

BLAIR: No more talking.

COOKIE MONSTER: You aren't going to need this microphone any more?

(Soundbite of chewing)

COOKIE MONSTER: Wow, that's solid, that's solid steel. This going to be challenge.

(Soundbite of chewing)

SEABROOK: You have got to see Cookie Monster devour the NPR microphone. There's a video on our Web site. Go to NPR.org/InCharacter; that's all one word. He also answers philosophical question posed by Elizabeth Blair.

And if there's a character that's enriched your life, we want to know about it. Add your thoughts to the In Character blog.

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