Advertisement

Counting to 25 : ‘SESAME STREET’ HEADS INTO A WATERSHED YEAR ON AN EVEN MORE POLITICALLY CORRECT PLAYGROUND

Jack Mathews is film critic for New York Newsday

As any preschooler who has learned to count to 40 with Big Bird and the other residents of “Sesame Street” can tell you, the fabulously successful children’s show will be celebrating its 24th birthday on Monday, not its 25th, as the eager promotion material suggests.

But who can blame people whose greatest talent is thinking like 2- to 5-year-olds for jumping the gun?

Besides, the show has a new set to introduce, a host of new characters, new music and a couple of ambitious new priorities.

“These are dramatic changes,” says Michael Loman, brand new himself as “Sesame Street’s” executive producer. “People felt that 25 years was a good time to look back, reassess, and challenge ourselves. Find ways to keep the experiment vital.”

Advertisement

Experiment is the watchword among those who labor at the Children’s Television Workshop, where “Sesame Street” is produced. The show made its debut in November, 1969, as an $8 million, 2 1/2-year “experiment” to determine whether the power of television could be useful in preparing disadvantaged and inner-city children for school.

Twenty- four years and 3,000 episodes later, the answer begins with the letter “Y.” Within 10 years, the show had reached saturation level with its target audience, and the percentage of all preschool-age children now watching is somewhere between 90% and 100%.

The show, in original or language-adapted versions, is seen in 70 countries, and with the thriving spinoffs--videos, books, magazines, outreach programs--it has made the nonprofit Children’s Television Workshop the most influential name in child development since Dr. Benjamin Spock.

Like Dr. Spock, “Sesame Street” has had its critics. But few experts dispute the value of its goals and underpinning ethics: encouraging self-esteem, embracing other races, appreciating other cultures.

Advertisement

Those themes are being expanded this year, as “Sesame Street,” relocated from Manhattan to sound stages at Queens’ Kaufman Astoria Studios, opens up to include the neighborhood “around the corner.” Here, old and new characters will interact at the Fuzzy Arms apartments, Celina’s Dance Studio, the Finders Keepers thrift shop and a playground park whose wildlife residents include a Motown Muppet trio called the Squirrelles.

“This will open up new relationships for all our characters,” says Loman. “It will also show where some of the original characters and people on the show are located.”

New characters have been introduced throughout the years, but never so many in one season, and rarely with as much specific purpose. Valeria Lovelace, who has headed “Sesame Street’s” research department for 11 years, says new characters are usually “the babies of writers,” but this year most were created to facilitate the show’s enlarged curriculum.

“We usually move into the process when the characters have been created and we can go out and test them,” Lovelace says. “We’ve been in the loop much earlier with these.”

Advertisement

Among the new characters is Zoe, a girl Muppet monster with a zest for life and a mind that works faster than her mouth.

“Every year, we’ve created a female Muppet character, but they haven’t been successful,” Lovelace says. “This year, we’re trying to create a star who will be a very good role model for girls, in terms of taking initiatives and setting goals.”

Other new cast additions:

Ruthie (Ruth Buzzi), the proprietor of Finders Keepers, whose cluttered shop offers endless visual triggers for storytelling, something research showed needed more emphasis.

Advertisement

Angela and Jamal, an African-American couple whose relationship to regulars Susan and Gordon (Angela and Gordon are cousins) will give the writers an opportunity to deal with extended families. Jamal’s job as an urban park ranger also will provide a convenient host during trips to the new playground.

And Nathan, Tarah, Carlo and Lionel, the first four children to become regulars on the show. The group, which is multiracial and includes a physically handicapped girl, is intended to provide real-life models for those at home.

If this show isn’t politically correct enough for you, hang around.

“The world has changed very quickly in the last 25 years, particularly in the last 12 years,” says Lisa Simon, a “gofer” during the first season and now a producer-director with seven of “Sesame Street’s” 51 Emmys to her credit. “For children, it’s much harder than it used to be. They’re faced with the world at a very early age, and need things to help them through that process.”

Advertisement

To that end, “Sesame Street” has dealt with such issues as love, marriage, family, sibling rivalry, adoption and discrimination (“It’s not easy being green”). It even dealt, in the program’s most poignant moment, with the theme of death, prompted by the passing in 1983 of Will Lee, who had played Mr. Hooper since the first season.

Lovelace says the “Mr. Hooper’s Death” show was put through rigorous testing before it went on the air, a process that a planned segment on divorce failed to clear two years ago. Lovelace says that program, about the breakup of the parents of popular Muppet Snuffleupagus, was scrapped after research showed that children were frightened by it.

“They didn’t understand what we were trying to say about arguing,” Lovelace says. “They were not clear that Snuffy would be taken care of. They were confused about whether he and Big Bird would still be friends. It was disappointing after all we went through not to use it, but we don’t want to put anything on the air that will disturb children.”

Research reigns at “Sesame Street.” The show’s format is built around specific curriculum goals--100 pages worth today, compared to four pages in 1969--and those are blueprints for the writers, producers and directors to follow. And it’s clear that input from other sources is also weighed.

Advertisement

The show’s early lickety-split pace has slowed over the years, partly in response to complaints from teachers and child-learning experts that the show was reinforcing short attention spans. And despite its leading-edge reputation, everyone involved in the show acknowledges that its experimental range is limited by the varied tastes of its broad audience.

“We get a lot of mail about all issues,” says Simon. “A lot of people who don’t like rock-and-roll songs, which we do a lot of. People think that’s damaging. When we get mail on a film piece that people think has frightened their kids or is dangerous, we take it seriously.”

A letter from a woman with experience with child abuse accelerated a major change in the lives of Big Bird and his once imaginary friend Snuffy. The woman wrote that one of the problems abused children have in asking for help is the fear they won’t be believed.

“Kids do have imaginary friends, but somehow the focus had shifted a little bit,” says Simon. “It got to be that the grown-ups weren’t taking Big Bird seriously. After we got that letter, we made Snuffy real, for everybody to see.”

Advertisement

It’s this kind of social sensitivity that Loman says keeps the staff working at its feverish, one-and-a-half shows per day pace, that keeps the research team and writers on their toes, and keeps celebrities lining up on the guest list.

“Everybody wants to be on ‘Sesame Street,’ ” says Loman, who came to the show from a career in sitcoms (“All in the Family,” “The Cosby Show”). “People feel they’re doing something important when they’re on this show, and they are. The hardest thing for me to get used to here is that there is nobody who doesn’t return my calls.”

Early guests for the 25th season include Hillary Rodham Clinton, who offers hints for good health on Monday, and poet Maya Angelou, who sings a song of self-esteem on Thanksgiving Day. The show has had major guests over the years, but none got the staff as worked up as the First Lady, whose arrival was preceded by Secret Service agents and bomb-sniffing dogs.

“Her bit is about a minute-and-a-half and she seemed to enjoy herself,” says Simon, who directed the First Lady. “Most people enjoy themselves when they’re on ‘Sesame Street.’ ”

Advertisement

Hillary Rodham Clinton was on the set less than two hours, Simon says, but it took awhile after she left for things to return to normal.

Some of the Secret Service guys came back to get their pictures taken with Big Bird.

New episodes of “Sesame Street” air weekdays at 8 a.m. on KPBS, 10 a.m. on KCET and 3:30 p.m. on KVCR.


Advertisement