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SHOWS FOR YOUNGSTERS AND THEIR PARENTS TOO : Lamb Chop, Shari and pals ‘Play-Along’ for third season on PBS

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“It’s an anti-couch potato show!” declares ventriloquist/puppeteer Shari Lewis, explaining the popularity of her Lamb Chop’s Play-Along, which enters its third season Monday on KCET. “We get kids not just to sit and sing along with us, but to physically participate.”

Through skits and stories, Lewis and her fuzzy friends Lamb Chop, Charlie Horse and Hush Puppy have entertained and educated families for nearly 40 years, and along the way they’ve picked up a number of awards and honors, including a Peabody, nine Emmys, and three Emmy nominations this year.

Lewis attributes Lamp Chop’s continued popularity to the show’s family appeal. “Families can share the entertainment and create a very nice relationship bond,” she says. “If Mother and Dad can watch with the kids, you can learn a lot about your child: their ability to participate, what they know or don’t know, what they like or don’t, and you can build upon this knowledge. One of the strongest things we offer is the fact that parents watch with their kids.”

Monday’s opener examines diversity. After being criticized by outsiders for being “brown (Charlie Horse), gray (Hush Puppy), white (Lamb Chop), and mottled pink (herself),” Lewis says, “I make us all look alike and our differences are still there.” Other topics include cheating, teamwork, vandalism, support systems, anger and independence.

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As she’s done from the beginning, “none is done with a wagging finger,” Lewis says. “I don’t sell my message, I tell my story. It’s always been this way. If kids think they are being taught or preached at, they will turn off. I try not to sugarcoat, but build the comedy on a substantial basis.”

First introduced on an episode of “Captain Kangaroo” in 1957, Lamb Chop has evolved through the years. Lewis has “let the winds of MTV blow through this show. There are a lot of electronic graphics now. They can be very stimulating.”

Still featuring the show’s trademark musical and imaginative games, two segments have been added to the season’s 10 new shows: “Any Kid Can Draw,” using basic shapes, such as the numerals 0 through 9 to draw a man or nine ovals and two triangles to draw a pig, and “Buster’s Brainbusters,” featuring brainteasers.

Lewis constantly is amused by children who recognize her. “I love how little kids don’t really know what’s going on with television,” she says, laughing. “I’ve had many kids come up to me and say, ‘I watched your show this morning, remember?’ ”

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And they watch every morning, she believes, because “they love us because we get them out of their seat, they hop along and turn along and count along and spell along and rhyme along and chime in in so many different ways.”

“Lamb Chop’s Play-Along” airs Monday-Thursday at 7:30-8 a.m. on KCET and Monday-Friday at 9:30-10 a.m. KPBS.

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