Muppet puppeteer Jerry Nelson (The Count, Mr.Snuffleupagus, Robin the Frog, Floyd Pepper and more) passed away last week. That sad news got me thinking about just how much Sesame Street has meant to me.
In the mid-Seventies, I spent a significant chunk of my preschool years living in Singapore where I was exposed to much more US television than was being broadcast in Ireland. So I grew up with Sesame Street, The Electric Company and others and those influences have stayed with me to this day. When I think back, it becomes easy to understand – few around me spoke English and my parents had completely different accents, so my Sesame Street friends actually outnumbered any constant English-speaking influences at that time.
And they were friends. That was one of the real successes of Sesame Street. It was a real place, populated with real people and, in every episode, they invited me to join them. Made me feel part of the family. The format worked perfectly for me, with the main street sections tying everything together while the show mixed in so many repeated segments that became familiar and more fun each and every watch. I would never tire of Bert trying to get to sleep with the sound of Ernie counting fire engines, or the baker falling down steps, or the mysterious Number Painter. I think some of my all-time favourites were the segments with the musician, Don Music, and Kermit and of course Grover serving the blue man in the restaurant (also Jerry Nelson).
Every element of the show contributed. I know when most people think Sesame Street, they think Muppets first, but it’s important to acknowledge the role of the real live human beings, who grounded everything and I think made children feel more secure when watching the show. You knew you were safe when Gordon was around, though you did have to behave. Maria, Bob and David were so charismatic – adults with all the authority that comes with that, and yet as fun and innocent as any child. Sure, Mr. Hooper could be a bit grumpy sometimes but that was a strength of the show – it wasn’t always sugar-coated. It felt honest. It was just like a real family.
And on top of all that, there was the animation and live-action snippets and, so important, the songs. Has there been a show since that demostrated that much creativity and experimentation? I don’t know. Some of those sequences were pretty out there (Daddy Dear, for example) but so many worked brilliantly – the two little dolls sequence, for example, or even the little glimpses into US life, which differed so much from my own. And throughout the show, Joe Raposo’s songs were so special. Beautiful, fun, childlike and yet never patronising to children or their parents. He set the tone for that show.
Sesame Street entertained on just about every level.
But we all know it did so much more. The show educated. It didn’t hide it. It didn’t try to sneak a lesson past a kid without them knowing. It wasn’t embarrassed by it or compromised by it. The show embraced it.
Sesame Street celebrated learning.
There are a huge number of stars behind the scenes who helped make that show what it was – educators, writers and researchers who were all of vital importance to the show. Joan Ganz Cooney and her colleagues demonstrated beautifully that education and entertainment can work hand in hand, each enhancing the other and coming together to become something greater.
And so, back in Singapore in the mid-Seventies, I felt like one of the Sesame Street family. The result was that I came home to Ireland with a mish-mash of accents, a Singapore dialect mixed with a combination of my parents and a large helping of American. And with the help of Sesame Street, I came back able to read, count and with a healthy desire to learn.
Years later, when I was well outside the target age group, Channel 4 in the UK aired the show and I met new characters like Telly and eventually that favourite of children everywhere, Elmo. But unfortunately, over this part of the world, Sesame Street ceased airing and dropped out of my life.
But Sesame Street hardly ended there. The television world changed and Sesame Street had to evolve and change with it but it still airs in the US and so many of our favourite characters are present and accounted for. It spread in many other forms internationally, including Northern Ireland’s own Sesame Tree with Sixteen South. As I wrote on this site a couple of years ago, Grover and friends now help my new generation learn to read and count. Just last week, I was on holiday and the one thing the girls watched during that time was the Elmo in Grouchland movie. About five times. Sesame Street is back in my life after all these years.
So what does Sesame Street mean to me? Sesame Street is family. It is honesty. It is a celebration of learning. An honest acceptance of life as it is today while striving for a far better tomorrow. More than anything, Sesame Street represents my faith in good television. The show is indisputable proof that entertainment can educate without one element trampling over the other. Television can be great thing. It can even change the world. And when anyone doubts that, I just point them to Sesame Street. Sesame Street showed me that we can do something special with television.
And now I try to do just that.
Jerry Nelson will be sorely missed. He taught children to count, millions of children. That is incredibly special and something to be celebrated.
And to everyone involved in Sesame Street over the years, thank you.