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How Sesame Street changed television and my life

As the seminal children’s show celebrates its 50th birthday, a mega-fan looks back on its immeasurable impact on her life.

How Sesame Street changed television and my life
Puppeteers Daniel Seagren (left) holding and Jim Henson (center) working Ernie and Frank Oz (right) with Bert rehearse for an episode of Sesame Street. [Photo: David Attie/Getty Images]

There are a lot of ways I could express my enduring feelings for Sesame Street and the impact it has had on my life. But perhaps the most concise way is to say this: I’m currently pregnant with my second child, and my three-year-old son has decided that the baby’s middle name has to be “Cookie Monster.” Such is the impact one of the longest-running television shows has had on my family.

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I grew up in the 1980s in a working-class, single-parent household. Like many children of the 80s, I probably watched a lot more television than I would ever allow for my own children. But no other show left the kind of impression on me that Sesame Street did. In fact, long after I no longer needed the lessons about counting, letters, and life skills, one of my elementary school friends and I confided in each other that we still secretly watched the show until fourth or fifth grade (many of the jokes and parodies were just so good).

Part of what hooked me and kept me a devoted fan of the show was exactly what it was designed to do: communicate with children in a way that adults would also enjoy. The revolutionary idea in 1969 was that children’s programming didn’t have to be flashy and annoying; it could include jokes aimed at the grown-ups in the room while still appealing to kids. This ethos is one Pixar and many others have cribbed in the intervening decades, but one that Sesame Street continues to nail.

A revolutionary idea

But Sesame Street has endured for half a century for more than just its wit and humor. It launched (and has never abandoned) the notion that entertainment for children didn’t have to be junk. With Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968 and Sesame Street the next year, PBS started on the mission to use what was at the time still a new and untested medium to teach children. While Jim Henson’s humor and creativity gave Sesame Street its heart and soul, the notion that children’s entertainment could be educational, and even that children were an audience worth considering, can be credited in large part to one woman: Joan Ganz Cooney.

She had been producing documentaries about poverty when she decided that rather than preaching to a small slice of liberals about a problem that wasn’t directly affecting them, she would use television to reach the people who were living with the problems every day. Ganz Cooney had no particular interest in preschoolers but dedicated herself to figuring out how to reach an audience that no one had ever considered. She created a 55-page plan for what would become Sesame Street and its production company, the Children’s Television Workshop, after taking a leave of absence from her job as a producer at a New York City TV station (that was a precursor to PBS) to interview experts in child development and education across the country.

One thing she discovered in her research was how captivated children were by short, 30-second bursts of advertising. So when Sesame Street launched, it used this format, but rather than selling products, the show catered to preschoolers’ short attention spans with bite-sized lessons on fundamentals needed to start school—things such as early literacy and math, along with life skills. In other words, the educational head start that many poor kids lacked.

Commercial success

By the 1980s (and certainly into the ’90s and 2000s) Sesame Street, like most children’s entertainment, also became a commercial and merchandising powerhouse. The majority of Sesame’s product revenue comes from children’s merchandise; 1996’s Holiday Tickle Me Elmo riots aside, you can find literally anything with a furry sesame character on it: diapers, toothbrushes, clothes, backpacks, etc. Sesame is such a commercial juggernaut that it’s had its own dedicated amusement park for nearly 40 years (Sesame Place outside of Philadelphia opened in 1980, and Sesame Place San Diego will open in spring 2021).

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But here too Sesame has transcended most children’s entertainment. For many people, it’s the only show that parents and their children have both grown up with (in fact I’ve found the best way to avoid the more grating elements of the newer seasons of the show is to show my son clips and DVDs of classic episodes from the 1970s and ’80s). And because adults like me have nostalgia for the show, there is accordingly a significant part of Sesame’s merchandise that is aimed at adult fans of the show (most recently a fan-voted Lego set designed for nostalgic adults).

The first true reality television

But beyond Henson’s quirky humor and enduring characters, or Ganz Cooney’s vision of entertainment as education, or even the power of nostalgia and commerce, Sesame Street has survived and grown for half a century for doing something that even now still feels bold: showing real people and the messy reality of real life.

Part of what made Sesame Street so revolutionary was not just depicting poor and working-class people of all shades as regular people in your neighborhood, but also tackling the most difficult and painful parts of life so unflinchingly. For Sesame Street, issues like homelessness, drug abuse, AIDS, natural disasters, terrorism, incarceration, divorce, and death have never been neatly resolved with pat after-school-special-like answers. Instead, with the help of child psychologists and education experts, the show explains to children how to understand life’s most perplexing and difficult moments and helps give the adults in their lives the tools to have age-appropriate conversations.

To honor Sesame Street as it celebrates its 50th birthday this month, I decided to look back at some of my favorite moments. It wasn’t easy to chose only 10, but here they are.

My top 10 Sesame Street moments:

The Martians Discover a Telephone
The Martians are minor characters that don’t appear too often, but they have such quirky, lasting appeal. I remember loving this sketch when I was a kid, and even though he’s never seen a rotary phone in real life, my son similarly thinks this is hilarious.

The Two-Headed Monsters Sound Out Words
Much like the Martians, the two-headed monster isn’t as mainstream as core Muppets such as Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and Grover. But he is part of the bizarre universe of Jim Henson’s brain that believed entertainment for kids didn’t always have to be cuddly. The two-headed monster lives fondly in my childhood memories for his uniqueness and, yes, for helping me sound out words.

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Grover and a Fly in My Soup
A few months ago, Sesame Street‘s Twitter account asked followers which character they would most like to be stranded on a desert island with (the choices were: Grover, Oscar, Elmo, and Cookie Monster). The tweet went vial, and Grover was the overwhelming favorite. It’s easy to see why. He may be hapless and make mistakes constantly but he’s also completely unflappable. And besides he’s had at least 50 different jobs over the years (including his alter-ego Super Grover).

Paul Simon Gets Totally Upstaged While Singing “Me and Julio”
There have been so many amazing celebrity guest appearances and song parodies over the years that I could write a list of just those. This moment where a little girl decided to riff on the opening of one of the most celebrated songwriters in America is perfection. Sometimes Sesame Street is at its best when it’s simple: a group of real kids just being themselves, singing and dancing around to some guy with a guitar.

Tiny Little Super Guy
This one is a deep cut, a strange little animation of a guy on a glass in the cupboard coming alive and walking around the house. It likely wouldn’t make many “greatest hits” lists, but I remember it fondly from my childhood perhaps in part because it’s so strange and whimsical. It’s just the sort of thing that I could see a four-year-old me imagining, and I was delighted to see that there was a place for this kind of weirdness in the world.

Herry and John John Count to 20
Herry Monster is great for being exactly the opposite of what people think kids’ entertainment needs to be. He looks kind of frightening, and his voice is gruff. He doesn’t fit the bill of sweet and cuddly like Elmo, but he also doesn’t confirm your expectations like Oscar. He’s literally the personification of subverting expectations. And you know who gets that? Kids. Herry may seem scary, but he’s just a friendly guy. John John made several memorable appearances in the late 70s and early 80s with various Muppets (and even returned as an adult). But I love this clip for the same reason the little girl with Paul Simon is great. He’s just being a kid, and Herry Monster plays along. (Bonus: John John talking about emotions with Bert: “Oh you happy?”)

Bert and Ernie Fish in Cowboy Hat
Bert and Ernie were originally played by Henson and his longtime collaborator and friend Frank Oz, who claimed that the characters mirrored their personalities. They were meant to illustrate how it’s possible to be friends with someone who is different from you, and while Bert and Ernie’s relationship has been the source of decades of speculation, that never mattered much to me growing up. I just loved the play of Ernie’s irreverent sense of humor to Bert’s straight-man seriousness. There are so many classic bits (it’s impossible for me to eat a banana without thinking of this one). Ernie’s innovative (and ridiculous) solution to a broken cookie jar and Bert’s exasperation not only sums up their relationship perfectly, but as a parent who has watched my child do some strange things, I now appreciate Ernie’s child-like logic on a whole new level. Bonus: Bert and Ernie performed two of my favorite Sesame Street songs: “Doin’ the Pigeon” and “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon.

Kermit and Cookie Monster and the Mystery Box
Kermit the Frog only appeared in the early seasons of the show, before there was a harder line between the characters that were part of Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) and the Muppets (when Disney acquired the Muppets in 2004, the Sesame Street characters were not part of the deal). This scene with Cookie Monster and Kermit is so witty and works so well for adults with perfect adult comedic lines such as “Well, if friendship means nothing . . . !” along with the kind of slapstick that Cookie and Kermit both excel at.

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Goodbye Mr. Hooper
The real death of actor Will Lee, who played the beloved Mr. Hooper from 1969 to 1982, forced the show to confront the topic of mortality and gave parents tools to explain the most difficult reality of life to their children. Watching the actors confront their own loss on screen is probably one of the most honest moments in television.

Sesame Street News Flash
This list could go on much longer—and I haven’t even given props to some of my favorite characters, like Oscar and Mr. Snuffleupagus—but I’ll end with the recurring segment that first introduced me to my future profession. Even as a preschooler, I felt a special kinship with Kermit’s befuddled reporter, which may explain why, over 30 years later, a figure of Kermit dressed in his reporter’s trench coat watches over me every day at Fast Company.

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About the author

Kathleen Davis is Deputy Editor at FastCompany.com. Previously, she has worked as an editor at Entrepreneur.com, WomansDay.com and Popular Photography magazine.

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