Calling “Sesame Street” children’s programming is like calling “Saturday Night Live” a sketch comedy show or “The Simpsons” a cartoon. Technically it may be accurate, but the label fails to grasp its wide and powerful reach in pop culture.
Case in point: During a recent visit to “The Tonight Show,” Maroon 5’s Adam Levine stumbled on the words to “The Muffin Man” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” but he got the lyrics to the “Sesame Street” theme spot-on.
As the series kicks off its 45th season this week, it looks to maintain its cultural place by doing what it’s always done: teach basic learning skills to preschool-age children.
“At this point, the show is such a well-oiled machine, there are times I think if all of us went away, the show would still get done,” says Carol-Lynn Parente, executive producer of “Sesame Street.” “And that’s the challenge: not to let the machine get in the way of evolution and innovation.”
Even decades after its debut, the show remains a powerhouse, generating more than $46.5 million in merchandising last year and with a steady stream of viral videos on its YouTube channel that has more than a million subscribers and more than a billion video views. The show even has a robust Vine channel, with more than 42,000 followers. This fall, the one-hour series also launched a condensed half-hour version to air on PBS Kids in the afternoons.
Since Parente took over as executive producer in 2005, the show has continued to tinker with format and content, going from magazine style to something more segmented and easily digestible in the YouTube era. Meanwhile, it’s also taking “deep dives” into subjects deemed essential to today’s children as determined through extensive educational research.
It’s no longer just about learning your ABCs. This season the show will broaden its psychological scope to include strategies for managing a tough issue for humans in general, and children in particular. Executives call it “self-regulation,” and for the show that will mean it will focus on giving children ways to navigate an environment awash in everything from junk food to computer games.
And who best to journey down that path with them than Cookie Monster, the unrestrained id of the Sesame Street Muppets? The big blue devourer of all the cookies will learn the fine art of delayed gratification this season in a new series of movie parodies titled “Cookie’s Crumby Pictures,” short film parodies with titles such as “Furry Potter and the Goblet of Cookies” and “Twilight Breaking Cookie.”
If choosing the least likely cast member to become the paragon of virtue seems like a head-scratcher, it may make more sense to know that the decision was not reached lightly. “We conduct an annual content advisory seminar,” says Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of content and research. “We bring in all the people creating content [for ‘Sesame Street’] and the research scientists, psychologists and educators share their research and advice.”
Using the latest child development research has always informed the content of “Sesame Street” and, increasingly, the data has shown that helping children keep their bodies calm and their emotions in check will benefit their future learning.
Muppet performer Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, who performs the fairy Abby Cadabby, among others, holds a degree in child development through the arts from San Francisco State. Previously, she spent years designing programs for kids at risk or in the hospital.
“This show is the perfect embrace of everything I’ve ever dreamed of,” she says. “ ‘Sesame Street’ is [children’s] ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
But putting scientific findings in the hands of the anarchic Sesame Street Muppets is sometimes a tricky proposition. Truglio is mindful of “boomerang effects” in which children can focus on the funny negative effect instead of the more desirable (but less humorous) positive effect.
“With Cookie Monster, we never focus on the failed attempts,” Truglio says. “We try to show what strategies work for him.”
Cookie Monster hasn’t sworn off the cookies, but maybe he won’t be quite the glutton he once was.
Appealing to both children and adults has long been “Sesame Street’s” secret weapon, all the way back to when the series was conceived by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett in 1969. With an assist from a still relatively unknown Jim Henson, who provided the Muppets, the public television series became an instant hit. Bob McGrath, who is one of two original cast human members still with the show after 45 seasons (Loretta Long is the other), recalls the first time the cast toured the country and did a show for children in Griffith Park.
“Matt Robinson, who played Gordon, went out to do a little warmup, and every time he mentioned Big Bird, it was a mini-Woodstock,” McGrath recalls. The kids “all brought Big Birds, and they thrust them up over their heads like a Jimi Hendrix LP.”
Sonia Manzano, who has played Maria on the show since 1971, can attest to the show’s resonance with its audience. As a New York actress, Manzano has occasionally branched out from “Sesame” to appear in, among other things, “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” where she had a recurring role as Judge Gloria Pepitone, an authoritative figure very unlike friendly Maria.
“I’ve had wonderful New York stage actors [on the set] say, ‘I grew up on you,’” Manzano says. Although that’s flattering, those cohorts can’t seem to reconcile her “Sesame” persona with the more adult “Law & Order” character. “I have to tell people I will answer any and all ‘Sesame Street’ questions after the scene [we’re shooting] is over,” she says.
“Sesame Street” is a fictional place, of course, but to the cast and crew who’ve in some cases worked there for decades, it becomes its own real world.
“They say if you’re born in Brooklyn, you’re always a Brooklynite,” says Parente, who has been with the show for 26 years. “People move into ‘Sesame Street,’ and it’s with them forever.”
When: 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. weekdays
Rating: TV-Y (suitable for young children)