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How PBS and ‘Sesame Street’ got remote learning right 50 years ago

Cover jacket of the book "Sunny Days" by David Kamp.
(Simon & Schuster)

In 1970, television viewers had the option of three major networks, a handful of local channels and a new outlet called the Public Broadcasting Service, which would soon dominate the underserved market of “shows for kids that weren’t utter dreck, glorified commercials or both.” These programs would become the stuff of Gen-X legend. Nod sullenly if you remember these old favorites:

“Heyyyy Youuuu Guyyysss!”
“I’m Bernadette!”
“Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here.”
“It’s All Right to Cry.”

For the uninitiated, these are signature lines from “The Electric Company,” “Zoom,” “Schoolhouse Rock” and “Free to Be… You and Me,” staples of a nutritional diet of 1970s kiddie TV. They weren’t all on PBS, and none had the lasting impact or staying power of “Sesame Street” (which is still keeping socially distanced youngsters calm in the year 2020), but they all get their due in “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America,” a new book by David Kamp.

A longtime magazine journalist and author of the bestselling “The United States of Arugula,” Kamp has written a sublime book about a variety of creative people coming together not in the pursuit of fame or money, but to enrich the lives of children, especially those of limited means. Kamp talked to The Times about why the 1970s were better, how “Sesame Street” led to hip-hop and educational screen time in a pandemic.

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David Kamp, the author of "Sunny Days."
(Sabrina A. Hamady)

Had I read the book in February, it would have been a cool trip down memory lane, but what I was struck by now is the full-press bipartisan effort to help the poor, which feels sadly anachronistic.

The book was completely done before the pandemic and actually conceived before the 2016 election. The situation that we’re in during the coronavirus was well-seeded in 2015 with acute polarization and self-interest. To some degree, “Sunny Days” is a nostalgia trip with an underpinning of personal experience, but it’s also a hint hint to readers that America is capable of coming up with good solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems.

There was widespread buy-in in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and not just for “Sesame Street,” but “Free to Be...You and Me,” which is basically radical feminism for children that was incorporated into school curriculums in 35 states. The shows weren’t seen as provocations, it wasn’t a red state/blue state thing. It was an extraordinary time. A big motivation for the book was figuring out how the creators did it.

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So there was a time when PBS wasn’t in the GOP crosshairs?

“Sesame Street” grew out of Head Start, as a way to help inner-city kids get up to speed for kindergarten like their middle-class peers. It wasn’t political. In 1972, when Nixon vetoed funding for public television, CTW founder Joan Ganz Cooney teamed up with fellow Arizonian Barry Goldwater to intervene and help restore it.

The 1970s are maligned, in part because of pictures of gas lines and ugly man-made fabrics, but it’s the period when we’ve come the closest to an equitable society. The Environmental Protection Agency was founded under Nixon, and the Equal Rights Amendment had wide acceptance. There was more of a belief in the common good.

I have a 9-year-old. We’re all desperate for smart screen time. Is a new age of great children’s TV in the cards?

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There was an immense amount of forethought that went into creating those shows — a ton of testing done with educational and pediatric psychology experts. It wasn’t a fumbling transferral of the curriculum onto TV. I feel so bad for teachers trying to get through a muddled, improvised school year. What has to happen going forward, especially if the new normal is semi-retreat into quarantine, is extreme research, preparation and actual investigation into how remote learning affects kids. That’s the standardSesame Street” set.

Jim Henson, with his puppet creations.
(Jim Henson Company 2001 )

Speaking of Zoom, what can you tell us about the fascinatingly low-fi original, “Zoom”?

“Zoom” was dreamed up by Christopher Sarson, a producer at Boston’s WGBH who brought “Masterpiece Theater” to life. Like Fred Rogers, he wanted a show that made space for children’s sensitivities but through a more multicultural urban spectrum. Sarson brought in seven ethnically diverse, nonprofessional kids aged 9-13, dressed them up in matching $5 rugby jerseys from Sears and let them basically hang out. In an early form of user-generated content, viewers would send in ideas — make tie-dye shirts, do loom weaving, sing a particular song. “Zoom” was rough and ragged, flubs weren’t edited out, and the kids had crazy ’70s hair. Many of them had thick ridiculous Boston accents like Rachel Dratch and Jimmy Fallon on “SNL” because Sarson didn’t want polished actors.

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While I was reading the book, a clip of Todd Bridges on Little House on the Prairie was going around. It’s raw and real, and reminded me of “Zoom.”

They had “Zoom Raps” where the kids could talk honestly about their racial and ethnic differences. The adults behind the show believed tensions in the discussions could be self-moderated by the kids. During the busing crisis, an Irish American girl named Tishy said whites should stay with whites, blacks should stay with blacks, and Puerto Ricans should stay with Puerto Ricans. All the other kids objected but without ostracizing her. The realness and affection was remarkable.

As a kid, I thought “The Electric Company” was the coolest.

It’s really sophisticated. It starts with Joe Raposo, who was musical director of “Sesame Street,” but really brought the funk to “The Electric Company.” The theme song is as good as something by Curtis Mayfield. And then you have sexy actors like Rita Moreno and Morgan Freeman doing the silhouetted blending of words, “Ch...at...Chat.” There was a weird sensuality to it. Moreno took the job knowing it didn’t pay “West Side Story” money, but she had a daughter the right age, Fernanda, and knew it was an important thing to do.

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The cast of a 2009 revival of "The Electric Company."
(Anthony Causi / PBS)

I can attest to the effectiveness of the educational earworms. I never forgot what I learned about conjunctions and interjections from “Schoolhouse Rock.”

There was a funny moment in 2013 when President Obama, during an interview with Chris Cuomo about a potential government shutdown, referenced the “Schoolhouse Rock” classic “I’m just a bill.” It was pop culture shorthand for this enormous political issue. The stickiness was by design. “Schoolhouse Rock” was put together by Madison Avenue ad men and “Sesame Street” was conceived by cognitive psychologists. In both cases, basically in all these shows, the people behind it wanted educational lessons to be lasting, valuable learning tools.

You make an intriguing case in the book that “Sesame Street” laid the groundwork for hip-hop.

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The show was revolutionary on two counts. First, it was the first time black kids could turn on the television and watch people who looked like their family, friends and neighbors. “Sesame Street” debuted the year before “Soul Train” and the “Flip Wilson Show,” so in its first season, it was the blackest show on television. Icons like James Earl Jones, Lena Horne and Jackie Robinson showed up to count numbers and recite the alphabet. Questlove wrote the foreword to “Sunny Days” and he talks about the impact Roosevelt Franklin, the purple Muppet who was really black, had on him as a young boy. So much of Franklin’s patter seeded the ground for what would become rap. Both Questlove and April Reign told me “Sesame Street” was formative in shaping their political and artistic sensibilities.

The other way “Sesame Street” was revolutionary was it acclimated white kids to seeing African American and Latino kids and adults in everyday life. Black artists invented hip-hop, of course, but it didn’t become huge until it was embraced by white Americans in the 1980s. I don’t think it’s a coincidence these were the same kids who grew up on “Sesame Street” and “The Electric Company.”


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