'Sesame Street' Reissues Not for Kids Early episodes of Sesame Street are being released on DVD — with a warning that they may not suit the needs of today's preschoolers. Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times Magazine goes looking for Big Bird.
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'Sesame Street' Reissues Not for Kids

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'Sesame Street' Reissues Not for Kids

'Sesame Street' Reissues Not for Kids

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LUKE BURBANK, host:

Thank you, Rachel.

While we were taking a trip down memory lane yesterday, Ali…

ALISON STEWART, host:

It was - the crowds gathering around computers, remembering my days of wearing striped shirts and Toughskins.

BURBANK: I have - right, which was like a week ago, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Pretty much.

BURBANK: Oh, wait - no, no. We were playing clips from the original season of "Sesame Street," which has just come on DVD. And the thing that was so interesting about it, and this was pointed out first to us by Virginia Heffernan - she writes a column called "The Medium" for The New York Times magazine - and she was writing about the fact that these old "Sesame Street" episodes are actually maybe too hot for today's kids or maybe too gritty.

Do we have the music, the theme song? Let's get in the mood here. Come on, guys, this is going to be a good morning, isn't it?

STEWART: You know, I have a desire for Nestle's Quik right now.

(Soundbite of "Sesame Street" theme song)

"SESAME STREET" CAST: (Singing) Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away…

STEWART: I want to eat graham crackers and sleep on a rug.

BURBANK: That is really the television show that taught me how to read. I didn't go to kindergarten. Thanks, Susie.

But thanks to "Sesame Street," I was able to pick up a few of the essential elements of reading, which allows me to read Virginia Heffernan's amazing work, which has been in such places as Slate magazine. She was an editor at Harper's and Talk magazine. In 2005, she published a comic novel called "The Underminer." And as we just mentioned, she now works for The New York Times magazine. And she joins us now.

Hi, Virginia.

Ms. VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN (Author; Columnist, The New York Times): Sunny days.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: Sunny days? Is that what you said?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HEFFERNAN: Yes.

BURBANK: Or did you say Sunny D?

Ms. HEFFERNAN: I said sunny days. If it's Sunny D, well, then maybe that's the 2000, 2007 version.

BURBANK: That's right. I just wanted to be the kid in the Sunny Delight commercial when they said, we got some cola, some purple junk to go, oh, purple junk, I love that. Sorry, I'm digressing.

Virginia, you wrote this great column about…

STEWART: It's so good.

BURBANK: …about these old-school episodes of "Sesame Street." What jumped at, at you when you actually looked back on this after all these years?

Ms. HEFFERNAN: Well, first of all, the DVDs themselves come with a warning. And I'm going to try to get it exactly right. I think that there's a little cartoon figure that comes out before the first episode, and he stands at a podium and says something like, these early "Sesame Street" episodes are intended for grown-ups and may not suit the needs of today's preschoolers. And they've tried to make it sound, you know, just like - it's just fun, but that is in a very earnest warning on these shows. And when I watched it with a friend of mine born around the same time I was - '69 - and who has a couple of kids, she heard the warning and just (unintelligible) out loud, what did they do to us?

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: Like you were having suddenly a repressed memory was surfacing.

Ms. HEFFERNAN: Yeah. There were - I mean, for me, I mean, I definitely had dimly remembered that something in the pallet of the show was really unnerving that it was - there was something in that. I mean, both unnerving and thrilling. I mean, I watched it from a small town, and it made me think of, you know, New York's mean streets.

BURBANK: Well…

STEWART: Well, I wondered about that because there's this really cranky guy, Oscar the Grouch, and the Cookie Monster, who apparently overeats all the time. You would never see that in the DVD for kid today.

Ms. HEFFERNAN: That's right. Their, you know, their characters even Carolyn Frente(ph), the executive producer now, says they really would never have been to create Oscar the Grouch, an unmedicated, chronic depressive who really does not - he doesn't employ any of today's techniques. No, (unintelligible) of therapy. He has no regime of anti-depressants. He's just going down.

BURBANK: He does live in a garbage can. I mean, just for the record, it's hard to get that stuff.

Ms. HEFFERNAN: You don't see him showing any ambitions to get out even.

BURBANK: Oscar, you got to take control of your own life from within…

Ms. HEFFERNAN: That's right

BURBANK: Fix the can from within, buddy. Fix the can in your soul. What are some of the other things, though, like Cookie Monster pretending to be Alistair Cookie and eating his pipe.

Ms. HEFFERNAN: Well, you know, although, yeah, Alistair Cookie so they - in the early days, they did a lot of parodies of other PBS shows. Today, they do - they still do parodies of television shows, including "24" and some other stuff but they - the early days, they did - they took on especially PBS shows. So Alistair Cookie was the host of the show called "Monsterpiece Theater."

And I remember - I don't know if you all remember - that the parodies were also kind of scary because you knew that your parents were sort of watching the shows they were parodying, and I don't know, somehow I found that upsetting. But anyway, so Alistair Cookie used to smoke a pipe because Alistair Cooke has smoked a pipe on the real show. Now, they cannot show you that. No character can ever be seen smoking a pipe. You know…

BURBANK: Or eating a pipe, eating a pipe for that matter.

Ms. HEFFERNAN: He also ate the pipe, but that's not what today's researchers are worried about. They're just worried about the smoking.

BURBANK: Now, there's another thing that you're kind of obsessed with, and I am too now, which is this song about where milk comes from called "Hey Cow." Let's just - let's sample that for a minute.

(Soundbite of song, "Hey Cow")

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Chewing the grass so green making the milk.

(Soundbite of cow mooing)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) Waiting for milking time.

Unidentified Man #2: The cow makes milk for her baby, the calf, but she makes much more milk than her calf can drink.

BURBANK: And this video goes on for six hours and 14 minutes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HEFFERNAN: And you could - I can tell by how where you interrupted it that you start to get impatient almost with the first chords, you know. You almost think, yeah, the six hours is telegraph even in that first section. Was life just at such a slower pace that this made sense to preschoolers and adults? I mean, you hear that exact line about the cow makes milk for her calf several times as you have noticed. Yeah.

BURBANK: Yeah, it's like a seven-minute song of just stock footage of cows walking around the field with that song.

Here's the question I want to ask you, Virginia, as we wind this down, and I don't want to sound like Sean Hannity or something, like, oh, no, the PC police are here but, like, really, why are kids such wuzzes now? Weren't we better off being able to see that the subway was a possibly scary place?

STEWART: Seriously, does everybody get a trophy? Does everybody need a trophy?

BURBANK: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HEFFERNAN: I don't know if I think that the - I think that the changes on the show go in both directions. The contemporary "Sesame Street" is much faster paced. I mean, you don't think that people listening to that cow song are especially tough.

I mean that is, you know, it's like a-morning-is-broken-Michael-row-the-boat-ashore kind of version of the '60s. There is a version of the '60s on the - '60s, '70s on the show that's tougher, but kids are tougher in some ways and less tough in others.

BURBANK: Well, for us in our 30s and 40s who consider ourselves pretty tough, I guess, we can thank our time down on "Sesame Street."

Ms. HEFFERNAN: Our bad ass "Sesame Street."

BURBANK: That's right. Thank you, Virginia.

STEWART: You have…

Ms. HEFFERNAN: Okay. Bye. Thank you.

BURBANK: Bye-bye. Virginia Heffernan.

STEWART: I have to read her column.

BURBANK: Oh, my gosh, we'll link to it on the blog.

STEWART: It's really funny.

BURBANK: It's The Medium column, it's what is called. She writes it for the New York Times magazine. We'll have all kinds of video and written goodness for you on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT blog. Keep listening. We've got lots more for you coming up.

STEWART: I never put the Bert and Ernie thing together until Virginia wrote about it.

(Soundbite of song, "Hey Cow")

Unidentified Man: But she makes much more milk than her calf can drink.

So twice day on farms all over America…

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