A Stroll Among The Memories On 'Sesame Street' The venerable children's TV show celebrates its 40th anniversary on Nov. 10, with a demonstration from First Lady Michelle Obama on how to plant your own vegetable garden. The late Jeff Moss, one of the program's co-creators, talked to Terry Gross in 1998; we'll listen back to excerpts from that conversation.

A Stroll Among The Memories On 'Sesame Street'

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This is FRESH AIR. I'M Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross.

On today's show, we salute the talent behind �Sesame Street� which marks its 40th anniversary on television this Tuesday with a special appearance by Michelle Obama. Later in the hour, we'll hear Terry's interviews with Chris Cerf who co-created the show and wrote many of its song parodies and with Frank Oz who did the voices for Cookie Monster and Bert and the Muppet's Fozzie Bear and Ms. Piggy.

But first, we remember Jeffrey Moss. He was one of the original writers on �Sesame Street� and wrote many of the best known songs on the show, including �I Love Trash,� �The People In Your Neighborhood� and �Rubber Ducky,� which was a Top 40 hit. Moss won four Grammy Awards and 14 Emmys for his work on �Sesame Street.� He received an Academy Award nomination for his songs in �The Muppets Take Manhattan.� Moss also wrote children's books.

He died of colon cancer in 1998 at the age of 56. But four years before that, he joined Terry at a piano in the FRESH AIR studios.

(Soundbite of archived interview)


Jeff Moss, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. JEFF MOSS (Head Writer, �Sesame Street�): Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Why don't we start with the song that's your - your chartbuster that actually made it at number 16 on the Billboard chart?

Mr. MOSS: Something like that. Back a few years ago, the highest (unintelligible) ever I think for a song sung by a guy in bathtub.

(Soundbite of song, �Rubber Ducky�)

Mr. MOSS: (Singing) Rubber ducky, you're the one. You make bath time lots of fun. Rubber ducky, I'm awfully fond of you. Rubber ducky, joy of joys, when I squeeze you, you make noise. Rubber ducky, you're my very best friend, it's true. Oh, every day when I make my way to the tubby, I find a little fella who's cute and yellow and chubby. Rub-a-dub dubby. Rubber ducky, you're so fine and I'm lucky that you're mine. Rubber ducky, I'm awfully fond of, rubber ducky, I'd like a whole pond of, rubber I'm awfully fond of you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I should have been squeezing it in the background.

Mr. MOSS: In fact, it was I who was squeezing it in the background nine years ago.

GROSS: On the record?

Mr. MOSS: On the record, yeah.

GROSS: So, how did you write the song?

Mr. MOSS: Well, depending which story I tell you, either it was very late at night and I was there loading my tub with my rubber duck just overcome with the poetry of the song or I had created a character of the rubber duck for Ernie and it was just - he loved it. It was his passion, his obsession. It just overflowed that way.

GROSS: Jeff Moss, you were one of the original writers on �Sesame Street.� When you signed on to do this show, was it understood you'd be writing songs too and that songs would be an important part of the program?

Mr. MOSS: In fact we thought that songs might be an important part of the program, but no. Joe Raposo was the original music director. And in fact, we found out - we were going to use records and we found out because it was public television, it was very hard to clear the rights to use them. So Joe came to me and said, well, look, you write words and music, I write words and music, why don't we just do it. We'll write two of the curriculum, we'll do it faster. Joe was wonderfully oblivion, he said we'll do it better. Let's just go do it and we did it.

GROSS: You're already writing songs.

Mr. MOSS: Oh, sure. Oh, sure.

GROSS: So he's confident you can do it. What kind of songs have you been writing?

Mr. MOSS: Well, from the time I was nine or 10, I'd been writing songs to, you know, entertain my friends. And then in college I'd written musical comedy stuff in college. And then my first job, which had been on another children's television show called �Captain Kangaroo.� I'd written a lot of songs for there.

GROSS: So, now you were also in on the creation of some of the characters�

Mr. MOSS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: �like Cookie Monster�

Mr. MOSS: Indeed.

GROSS: �and Oscar.

Mr. MOSS: Indeed.

GROSS: Tell us about creating Cookie Monster.

Mr. MOSS: Well, Cookie Monster - Jim and his people had created the physical monsters before �Sesame Street� but they had always been quite scary and they never spoke. But they were such wonderful puppets. And I went into somebody's office one day and said, how about that furry blue one with boggily(ph) eyes, could he maybe talk? And they said, well, you know, the puppeteers don't talk very much and they're scary. And so I said, well, what if he doesn't talk very much and I try to make him funny? And they said, well, go ahead and do it. And I wrote a bit for him in which he had two words and one of them was milk and the other one was cookie. And we were in the studio and Frank Oz performed them just so brilliantly we all fell off the seats and I went back and started writing more.

GROSS: Oh, this is a song cue, why don't you Cookie Monster.

Mr. MOSS: Now, this is what he has for breakfast, for lunch, for dinner but he sings about breakfast today.

(Soundbite of song, �Breakfast Time�)

Mr. MOSS: (Singing) Me have a soft boiled cookie with a glass of cookie juice on the side. But for a change, one morning me will have me cookie scrambled or fried. It isn't hard each morning to keep me satisfied, just give me a soft boiled cookie please with a glass of cookie juice on the side.

GROSS: That's great. So was the voice your idea.

Mr. MOSS: Oh, no, no, no.

GROSS: Is that you?

Mr. MOSS: That's a poor imitation of Frank Oz who's idea it was.

GROSS: Now you created, co-created Oscar.

Mr. MOSS: Co-created Oscar, yeah.

GROSS: And how did he come about?

Mr. MOSS: He came about because the educators had suggested that we have a character who showed kids that are watching necessary cheerful all the time�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: �so a grouch was created and it was decided that he lived in a trashcan and then we sat down and kind of created this wonderful, vicious circle for him, where if you make him happy, he hates that and that makes him unhappy. But being unhappy makes him happy so he likes that, but that makes him unhappy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And meanwhile, he has his obsession and his passion which is Oscar sings�

(Soundbite of song, �I Love Trash�)

Mr. MOSS: (Singing) Oh I love trash, anything dirty or dingy or dusty. Anything ragged or rotten or rusty, oh I love trash.

GROSS: I like the idea that you put that in waltz.

Mr. MOSS: Yes, indeed. That was a good juxtaposition trying to write a pretty waltz for a yucky character.

GROSS: Did educators ever object to the fact that he was an unsanitary puppet?

Mr. MOSS: You know, they didn't. But we think that today, if we were creating today, they might have, you know, they might have worried that kids would crawl in garbage cans and all that, but they never did. So the writers feel that the kids can discriminate. The educators test it out, we don't.

GROSS: When you were younger, you had ambitions of writing Broadway musicals?

Mr. MOSS: Well, in fact, I probably did, yeah. I grew up, I guess, during the late �50s and I can - my father was on the stage, my father was an actor�

GROSS: Oh, yeah?

Mr. MOSS: ...and I can remember�

GROSS: Would I know him?

Mr. MOSS: Arnold Moss, his name was and he was a Shakespearean actor and my earliest memories are theater memories and I can remember �The King and I� and that kind of stuff. But by the time I was old enough to try it, it kind of was going in a different direction than it had been going. And I found �Sesame Street� and that's the direction everything went.

GROSS: Broadway, I imagine, was going in the ersatz, rock direction?

Mr. MOSS: It was going rock and it was going in the area where the songs were less important, where the production was more important and Bob Fosses and Tommy Tunes and those people who were brilliant, but they were the stars. They were the people who were using, you know, the Gershwin songs rather than the new writer songs.

GROSS: Now you got to write a Broadway musical in a sense that you wrote the songs for "The Muppets Take Manhattan."

Mr. MOSS: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.

GROSS: Which is about the Muppets going to Manhattan to do a Broadway show.

Mr. MOSS: And putting on a Broadway musical.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: Yes, at the Biltmore Theater.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So did you get a chance to write the kinds of songs for that that were very close to what you would've written for the stage?

Mr. MOSS: I don't think so. They were more the kinds of songs that I would've written if I have been doing the Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland movies of...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. MOSS: ...the 30s, which is another way that one might look at Kermit and Piggy and the show that they put on was a very glitzy Broadway show. But, you know, there was jazz in that score that I wrote, and it was rock, and there was waltzes, and again and kind of ragtime.

GROSS: Well, you got an Academy Award nomination for the songs...

Mr. MOSS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...that you wrote for "The Muppets Take Manhattan." Let me ask you to do one of the songs from there. It was a song you wrote for Miss Piggy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...about how she wants to be a movie star.

Mr. MOSS: Yeah, she wanted to be everything and love her man at the same time. She sings:

(Soundbite of song, �I'm Gonna Always Love You�)

Mr. MOSS: (Singing) I wanna be a movie star and I wanna learn to drive a car. I wanna be a veterinarian too and I'm gonna always love you. Then she sings. I'll be the cutest model you ever saw and then I think I'll study criminal law and I'm gonna to learn to scuba dive too and I'm gonna always love you.

Mr. MOSS: Went on and she wanted to climb the Matterhorn, but only after all her children were born. And she wanted to be a good mommy, too, but I want to always love you.


Jeffrey Moss, singing and speaking with Terry Gross in 1994.

We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Today we're celebrating Sesame Street as the show celebrates its 40th anniversary on the air. We're listening to Terry's 1994 interview with the late Jeffrey Moss, who wrote many memorable songs for the show.

GROSS: Your first job after college, I think, was working on "Captain Kangaroo" as a production assistant.

Mr. MOSS: Production assistant.

GROSS: What was the job description?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: There was no job description. The woman who hired me said well, we have jobs for production assistant. You could choose either the CBS News or "Captain Kangaroo" and I was being very young and flippant. I said well, I've seen the news and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: ...I hadn't seen �Kangaroo� and that's where I ended up.

GROSS: So you didn't grow up watching "Captain Kangaroo?"

Mr. MOSS: No.

GROSS: I'll confess, I never liked the show when I was growing up. I couldn't understand the attraction of what seemed to me to be an old man wearing overalls.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And it was such a non-urban show to me, that I just never related to it.

Mr. MOSS: Well, it wasn't non-urban, though it did have a moose who liked to drop ping pong balls on people's heads, which was not urban but neither was it particularly rural. But it's funny. It had a lot of funny stuff in it and a lot of educational stuff that I guess maybe we didn't realize, or the people who made the show didn't realize, that it had. And I did that for six months and then came back as a writer for a couple of years and it was a very nice place to begin.

GROSS: So when you got the job on "Sesame Street," were there things you felt you wanted to do different than the way you'd seen it done on "Captain Kangaroo?"

Mr. MOSS: Everything about "Sesame Street" was new. The great thing was that we had a marvelous freedom that we didn't realize we had then - this is looking back on it - but Joan Cooney had raised a lot of money that couldn't be paid to anyone in salaries but could be spent on production. And we didn't have a network that we had to please, we didn't have stars that we had to please, we didn't have sponsors that we had to please and we were committed to doing 130 hours of television. And there were four of us wrote 90 percent of the first year's show. And we could just have the most wonderful time as long as we were willing to work 37 hours a day. And we just did whatever we wanted to do that stuck to the curriculum.

In the early years, when I was head writer, I used to say to the writers look, the two jobs you have is one; to keep the three to five-year-old watching the TV; and the other one is to write a show that if you were spinning the dial, you would stop and watch yourself. And that's what we did creatively from the very, very beginning.

GROSS: Was every song supposed to carry a lesson with it?

Mr. MOSS: Yes. And almost every song did, and almost every piece of material on "Sesame Street" did and does.

GROSS: Do you have a song that's your favorite lyric for teaching something in a really entertaining way?

Mr. MOSS: Of the recent songs that I've done, we began doing racial relations as a goal a few years ago, just several years ago, and they wanted a song that would kind of be the corner post of that. It's a film of kids at the beach, kids playing at the beach in their bathing suits, and this is the way I chose to deal with it.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. MOSS: (Singing) Skin, covered all over with beautiful. Skin, covered all over from ankle to chin, lovely skin on knee's and the nose's and everywhere, skin on tummies and toes and under your hair? It's even there. Oh skin, wonderful colors and beautiful toes. Skin; think of without it, you're nothing but bones. Skin is ever so lovely no matter the color you're in. Let's hear it for skin, beautiful skin. Let's hear it for skin. Beautiful skin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: Out.

GROSS: Now who sings that on the show?

Mr. MOSS: It's the voice of Kevin Clash, who's one of the Muppet's but it's just a film of the kids playing at the beach. It's not a Muppet song.

GROSS: That's a good song.

Mr. MOSS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Another one of your little Tin Pan Alley numbers.

Mr. MOSS: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, you've been writing more books, lately, focusing more on the books. And your new book is called "Hieronymus White." Tell us a little bit about the story and then I want you to read the beginning of it.

Mr. MOSS: Yeah. "Hieronymus White," it's subtitled "A Bird Who Believed That He Always Was Right." And it's about a bird who comes to believe that he always was right. It begins - goes back to way before he was born when his parents are very young and goes through to the point that his granddaughter has grown up and it shows the good things about believing you're always right and the bad things. And it traces his life and comes to a point where something happens that causes him to no longer believe that he's always right.

(Reading) This is the story of Hieronymus White, a bird who believed that he always was right. He was always an expert, whatever the task. He would share his advice. There was no need to ask. When his children came down with a fever or chills, he'd order the doctor to choose different pills. When the postman delivered a package or letter, Hieronymus told him how he could do better. He approached every issue so confidently he'd seem shocked at the thought that you might not agree.

Yes, all through a life that was famous and long, Hieronymus thought that he couldn't be wrong, till one day, late in life, when his feathers were thinning, so now let's go back to the very beginning. This is the story of Hieronymus White, a bird who believed that he always was right.

GROSS: I really like that. I'm sure I know this character.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: Yes. I think we all do...

GROSS: This character has given me too much advice over the years.

Mr. MOSS: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: So what inspired you to write this story?

Mr. MOSS: I think I wanted to write firstly about a person who believed that he always was right. I have known a number of them in my life and sometime don't have to go too much farther than the mirror to find one. And also, I wanted to write about continuity and about passing things on from one generation to the next. And I began the story and it kind of took off and became what it became.

GROSS: Let me get you to do a short grumpy poem...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...from a previous collection of poems called the "The Butterfly Jar."

Mr. MOSS: This is called "Hi. How Are You Today?"

(Reading) I'm feeling very horrible and low and mean and mad and dreadful and deplorable, and rotten, sick and sad, and nasty and unbearable and hateful, vile and blue. But thanks a lot for asking and please tell me, how are you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Very good.

Well, it's really been a pleasure...

Mr. MOSS: Me too.

GROSS: ...having you here on the show. I've really enjoyed it a lot. I'd love for you to end with a song. And you have actually a very sweet song about goodbyes. Maybe you can do that. Tell us first how you wrote it.

Mr. MOSS: It's from "The Muppets Take Manhattan" and it comes at a time when the Muppets are not being successful in their quest to become stars on Broadway so they all have to split up and go in their various directions and this is the song they sing.

(Soundbite of song, �Saying Goodbye�)

Mr. MOSS: (Singing) Saying goodbye, going away, seems like goodbye's such a hard thing to say. Touching a hand, wondering why it's time for saying goodbye. Saying goodbye, why is it sad? Makes us remember the good times we've had. Much more to say, foolish to try, it's time for saying goodbye. Don't want to leave. Still we both know, sometimes it's better to go. Somehow I know we'll meet again, don't know just where, and I'm not sure just when. You're in my heart, so until then, want to smile. Want to cry saying goodbye.

DAVIES: Jeffrey Moss recorded in 1994. He was one of the original writers on "Sesame Street" and wrote many of the show's more memorable songs. Moss died in 1998.

"Sesame Street" was known for using every trick in the book to get kids to learn the alphabet, including enlisting stars like Richard Pryor for the job.

I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.

Mr. RICHARD PRYOR (Comedian, actor): That's an A, and here's a B, and nobody care about no C. And ain't nobody interested in D, right? Because E's got it all covered as we shift to the F, hang up with the G. Huh? Move down to H.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRYOR: Jump to the I, and then the J. Now here come K, walking in the place along with L. You know, what I mean? And M was cool. M said to N, O, P, Q, R. Now S comes stepping up, right? T was mean though. T didn't take no U because V was W. Mm. Mm. Mm. And X had it covered because Y was mean, because that's the Z of the game.

(Soundbite of "Sesame Street" theme song)

Unknown Artist: Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away. On my way to where the air is sweet. Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Coming up, Chris Cerf, who wrote many rock and roll song parodies for "Sesame Street." Also we hear from Frank Oz, who was the voice of Burt, Grover, Cookie Monster, and The Muppets Fozzie Bear and Miss Piggy. And David Bianculli reflects on 40 years of "Sesame Street."

(Soundbite of "Born to Add")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER CERF (Singer, songwriter): (Singing) ...it don't matter why we like to add one and one out here it's the thing to do. Now some say that screaming one plus one all night means we're thoughtless, cruel, and bad, but kids like you and me, baby, we were born to add. Yes, sir, we were.

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