40 Years Of Lessons On 'Sesame Street' As the classic children's television program celebrates its 40th anniversary, the producers of Sesame Street talk about how the show has changed.
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40 Years Of Lessons On 'Sesame Street'

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40 Years Of Lessons On 'Sesame Street'

40 Years Of Lessons On 'Sesame Street'

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STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

This morning on "Sesame Street" the number of the day is...

U: Forty.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF SCREAMING)

U: That's a huge number. How many is 40?

INSKEEP: It takes some explaining, but I can say that 40 years ago today, "Sesame Street" aired its first episode. The last 4,186 shows have taught kids their numbers and letters, but we wanted to find out what lessons the producers and performers on "Sesame Street" have learned. So we sent NPR's Robert Smith out to the neighborhood.

ROBERT SMITH: Sesame Street was always considered an experiment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: The first show opened in 1969 with this space age synthesizer music and a question: Could kids actually learn anything from a television set?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SESAME STREET" THEME SONG)

SMITH: The one thing about Sesame Street that hasn't changed in 40 years is that we still call it an experiment in children's television.

SMITH: Carol-Lynn Parente is the executive producer of "Sesame Street."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SESAME STREET" THEME SONG)

U: (Singing) Sunny days, sweeping our clouds away...

SMITH: This year producers once again added new characters, rearranged the show and jazzed up that theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SESAME STREET" THEME SONG)

U: (Singing) ...how to get to Sesame Street? Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

SMITH: Parente says numbers and letters never change, but getting kids to learn them takes constant tweaking. So what has the "Sesame Street" team learned? Let's count.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

U: (Singing) Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.

SMITH: Lesson number...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

U: (Singing) One.

SMITH: Children are much more adaptable than once thought. Originally, the monsters were not going to interact with humans on Sesame Street.

SMITH: At the time, educators were concerned that if, in fact, you were on the street with human characters and trying to teach something and Muppets appeared, there would be a mix-up between what was considered to be fantasy and reality and that children would have difficulty adjusting to that.

SMITH: Louise Gikow wrote the new book, "Sesame Street: 40 Years of Life on the Street." She says that when they test marketed the show, they found the exact opposite. Kids paid more attention when the Muppets talked, which brings us to lesson number...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

U: (Singing) Two.

SMITH: A good Muppet character takes time to grow.

SMITH: And he's never liked me, Oscar.

SMITH: There's a sweetness to the Muppets now, so it's hard to believe that in the beginning they felt raw, even scary. Oscar seemed meaner. Big Bird was a big dope.

SMITH: (As Big Bird) Hello, Gordon. He talked like that the first show.

SMITH: The key for all Muppets was finding that human character inside. Spinney's realization was that Big Bird wasn't stupid. He was a six-year-old.

SMITH: He's sort of a surrogate child. He learned the alphabet along with the kids at home.

SMITH: And as for Oscar? That's lesson number...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

U: (Singing) (Singing) Three, three, three, three. Let's sing along with three.

SMITH: Oscar was orange in the first season. Cookie Monster once had teeth. If a character feels real, then kids can accept the changes. Speaking of Cookie, let's have him help with lesson number...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

U: (Singing) Four.

U: (as Cookie Monster) Cookie starts with C. Let's think of other things that start with C.

SMITH: How about the word competition?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: (as Barney) (Singing) I love you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: (as Dora) Go.

U: (Singing) Dora, Dora, Dora the Explorer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: (Singing) SpongeBob SquarePants.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: It was getting crowded in children's TV. Sesame Street had to adapt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: (as Elmo) (Singing) Yo, MC Elmo's got something to say about the Sesame's number for today. It's a number we're picking, and that's no jive. It's cool, it's hip, it's fresh and five.

SMITH: Lesson five: Freshen up. Elmo played a big part in brightening Sesame Street, but another change could be seen on the street itself.

SMITH: I've lived 40 years in this lovely, classy part of the neighborhood.

SMITH: Looking at the early episodes, the current set looks so much cleaner. It looks like they cleaned up the neighborhood a little bit.

SMITH: It looked more grungy, and frankly, I loved it grungy.

SMITH: Well, much like the city of New York, it's been gentrified a little bit, cleaned up?

SMITH: Yes, yes. I think the whole country has come up that way.

SMITH: But Spinney promises me Oscar will never be moved to a recycling bin. Of course, "Sesame Street" has made mistakes before. Now, where were we in that count of lessons learned by Sesame Street over the last 40 years?

U: Six.

U: Six.

U: I'm six. I'm six. I'm six years old today. Yay!

SMITH: In 1994, Sesame Street sprawled. They built new part of the neighborhood around the corner from the old street and added tons of new characters and Ruth Buzzi.

SMITH: Today, we're going to cook up one of my favorite things in the whole wide world: The number six.

SMITH: But author Louise Gikow says it was too confusing.

SMITH: So they pulled back on the characters and went back to the street.

SMITH: "Sesame Street" was learning to keep it simple.

SMITH: (as Count von Count) Seven! Seven cookies.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SMITH: Mr. ROSEMARY TRUGLIO (Head of Research, "Sesame Street") They love a narrative.

SMITH: Rosemary Truglio is in charge of research at "Sesame Street." She says the early show was modeled after fast-paced variety shows like "Laugh-In." But kids, with their VCRs and DVDs, were developing a longer attention span.

SMITH: And we were breaking up the narrative in these little skits and interrupting it with the lessons about letters and numbers and sharing and brushing your teeth instead of having the children experience the narrative as a 15-minute story.

SMITH: These days, "Sesame Street" has a more regimented pace. There's a long story out on the street, then mini shows: Ernie and Bert get their 10 minutes, Elmo gets his 15. It turns out it's calm and predictable for the younger audience that "Sesame Street" is drawing these days. No more getting distracted by a chef on a staircase.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

U: A raspberry pudding dessert.

SMITH: This season, Ernie and Bert are presented in claymation. The fairy, Abby Cadabby, is computer generated.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "SESAME STREET" THEME SONG)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee's back with us tomorrow. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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