Composing Silly Songs For 'Sesame Street' Writer and humorist Christopher Cerf has been associated with the Children's Television Workshop since 1970, developing products, producing music albums and writing parodies of rock-and-roll songs for Sesame Street.
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Composing Silly Songs For 'Sesame Street'

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Composing Silly Songs For 'Sesame Street'

Composing Silly Songs For 'Sesame Street'

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(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified People: (Singing) One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, we're gonna, we're gonna around the clock, we're gonna around the clock, we're gonna around the clock, we're gonna - 12, 11, 10, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four three, two one, we're gonna, we're gonna, around the clock, we're gonna around the clock, we're gonna around the clock, we're gonna. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, we're gonna, we're gonna.


Christ Cerf wrote or co-wrote more than 200 songs featured on �Sesame Street,� including �Put Down The Duckie,� �The Word Is No,� and such memorable parodies as �Born To Add� and �The Letter B.� He won two Grammy Awards and three Emmys for song writing and music production on the show. Cerf is also an author and satirist who helped launch National Lampoon. His most recent project is �Lomax: The Hound Of Music,� a PBS children series he co-created and co-wrote. Terry spoke with Chris Cerf in 1990, when a collection of songs from �Sesame Street� had just been released.


There's a new collection of Sesame Street rock and roll videos. And one of the songs that you wrote for that collection of videos, or that's featured on that collection of videos, is �I Can't Get No Cooperation,� performed by The Cobblestones.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER CERF (Composer-Lyricist): Right.

GROSS: Are there copyright laws that you have to obey when you're parodying famous people's famous songs?

Mr. CERF: Absolutely, though nobody knows exactly what the rules are. But you really don't copy the tune. You have to try to suggest the tune and suggest the words. But you can't use the original ones. And if you do, you can be sued. But most of time we stay away from that. And you know, that came up in the sequels book too. We were going to do a parody featuring the Bambi characters, a movie called �Bambo,� that was a going to be a cross between �Rambo� and �Bambi,� and the line that went with it was: They killed his mother, now it's time to get even.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CERF: And, in fact, we made a little postcard of that and brought it to the book convention. And we were notified very quickly that there would be injunctions against the book and all kinds of things if we tried to use those characters, so, we left it out finally. And indeed, that was a case where we had gone over the line because we were using not just a copyrighted name, you know - and certainly parody is encouraged by free speech. But you can't use trademarks and the Bambi character was a trademark. So, there are rules. Nobody knows exactly where the line is but parody is generally okay, as long as, you can see that it's not trying to trade on the original.

GROSS: Titles, you can parody titles without any problem.

Mr. CERF: Oh, absolutely. Oh, sure.

GROSS: Have you ever been sued?

Mr. CERF: Actually, yes. We were sued for a �Sesame Street� song called �Letter B,� that was a parody of �Let It Be.� And we weren't sued by the Beatles who, in fact, wrote an affidavit on our behalf, but by someone who had bought the copyright to that song, an Australian firm. And eventually, it was settled out of court but it does make you stop and think. And probably we might have gotten a little closer than we should've to that tune. Actually, it was settled for $500. So, it looks likely we would've won the case of if it had gone all the way.

GROSS: Yeah, that's not exactly a grand settlement.

Mr. CERF: No, since they originally sued us for five and a half million.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CERF: I figure $500 is a pretty good settlement. The funny part of that was that Michael Jackson, by this time, owned the company. So, I had to write the check to Michael Jackson, who I'm sure needs the money more than I did.

GROSS: Let's see what you did with �I Can't Get No Cooperation,� by the Cobblestones. You wrote the music for this, yes?

Mr. CERF: Yes, I wrote the music and tried to do a Mick Jagger imitation as well.

GROSS: Oh, you're singing on this?

Mr. CERF: Yeah, though you'll see that it doesn't sound too much like him.

GROSS: Well, that means he won't sue you.

Mr. CERF: Well, we hope not.

(Soundbite of song, �I Can't Get No Cooperation�)

COBBLESTONES (Group): (Singing) Well I'm sitting on a seesaw seat. Thinking seesawing would be neat. And I can't find a friend to sit on the other side. Yes, I've tried it all alone. But I crashed down like a stone. Couldn't get no cooperation if I tried. No, no, no, no cooperation. No, no, no, no cooperation. No, no, no, no, no cooperation. If I tried, if I tried.

GROSS: There's a Muppet based on you who sometimes sings the songs that you wrote. Who designed the Muppet?

Mr. CERF: Actually it was based on a Muppet that Jim Henson designed years ago called Fat Blue. In fact, if you watch �Sesame Street� closely you'll see that that Blue character is the basis of a lot of things that are known as anything Muppets. You slap a different wig on them, or glasses or different costume, and they look different. And basically what they did was put curly hair that looked a little like mine, and glasses that looked a little like mine on the Fat Blue Muppet, and gave him a piano, which usually gets broken in the course of performing any of these songs. And I get to sing, which is really fun.

GROSS: What's it been like to work on �Sesame Street� since the death of Jim Henson? How have you been affected by that, you know, in terms of your work?

Mr. CERF: Well, it's been a very sad year because not only Jim Hansen but Joe Raposo, who was our principal composer, died within the last year as well. So, I mean, I think really all of us have been doing this so long. It's hard to believe, but the show is in its 22nd year now. But because we all stayed together pretty much, you don't really feel that all that time is past. And I don't think any of us expected these things to happen. And Joe and Jim, of course, are still pretty young guys - or would've been. So, we took it pretty hard. But I think, you know, the show will go on and, of course, Jim built an incredible group of performers and all the rest of them are still there.

So, you know, a lot of those characters were played by other people. So, really only Kermit and Ernie are missing at the moment. And we have 20 years of them on tape. So, the show looks pretty much the same still. I think it made us all feel what a family we all were, you know, so that we've all gotten even closer and everybody worked extra hard to fill the gap. So, it's been a - it's been an exciting year in a way though it's certainly been a sad one.

GROSS: Did the �Sesame Street� people do anything at the funeral about their work for �Sesame Street?�

Mr. CERF: Well, there was work included because some of Jim's most famous work was on our show. And one of the nicest moments, I think, was that Caroll Spinney, who plays Big Bird, appeared in the bird costume and sang �It's Not Easy Being Green,� which since he was yellow would sound weird. But it was incredibly touching and made everybody cry. The whole service was remarkable because it was filled with music and puppet performances and jokes.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CERF: Jim had left instructions and a series of letters that he wrote of exactly what songs he wanted at his funeral, which included things like �Lydia, the Tattooed Lady.� But the whole thing was - it just made it all sadder. But definitely there were �Sesame Street� characters and things included throughout.

DAVIES: Chris Cerf, he wrote or co-wrote more than 200 songs for �Sesame Street.� He spoke with Terry Gross in 1990.

This is FRESH AIR.

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