One of the great things about having a child is getting to relive those moments of your childhood you treasured the most…trips to the playground, toys (though I suspect my daughter may not be quite as interested in Transformers as I was…), holidays, and–of course–Sesame Street. Through the power of Tivo (which I would have loved the heck out of when I was a kid, by the way), we’ve got a whole slew of episodes queued up to watch, and the trip down memory lane has begun. What’s most surprising about it for me is how perfectly Sesame Street seems to fit every era without losing itself. Sure, it’s got high-tech CG and Elmo’s E-mail now, and a cool rap score to lead in the show…but it’s still got Ernie, Bert, Big Bird, Oscar and the gang, and Hooper’s Grocery is still there, and they’re still firing out the number / letter / word of the day like it’s going out of style. And it still gets major guests out of nowhere for cameo appearances…none of whom seem to be the least bit annoyed to be on a kid’s show. Maybe it’s because Sesame Street has now been around for so long (would you believe 39 years?!) that practically everyone remembers seeing it either as or with kids, and everyone has the same positive reaction. A ridiculous 99% of American preschoolers recognize the series’s characters. That’s some serious influence, folks.
I bring all of this up because it struck me, while navigating the minefield which is children’s television, how staggeringly better “the Street” (as the kids do call it!) is than any of the numerous imitators that have popped up since it first hit the air. Barney is perhaps the worst offender, of course; bringing in an irritating purple dinosaur whose sole response to the world around him is to giggle incessantly and rehash old nursery rhymes may have seemed like a good riff on the Sesame Street model, until you watch both the shows and realize that the cleverness and wit of the latter one–that which many adults forget is not lost on children–is hard to beat. In one episode, Baby Bear is talking to his parrot Ralphie, who obligingly repeats everything his owner says and follows it up with rhyme…and some subtle meaning within it. I doubt very much that the subtext of this exchange–“I’m so glad you’re home!” “Home…roam…garden gnome”–reminding adults and some kids of the “roaming gnome” made famous in the Travelocity commercials–is accidental.
But so what? Other than a pleasant trip down memory lane, what purpose does this Street worship serve? Well, in part I hope it serves as a reminder of an incontrovertible fact: that for all the changes we’ve had in the world over the past forty years, the simple but profound message of Sesame Street, which envisioned and presented diversity well before the idea of representing it positively on television was on anyone’s radar, which challenged kids to think cognitively and not simplistically, which appealed to the better parts of our natures without seeming preachy or patronizing, has remained consistent. In fact, I’d say there’s a serious argument to be made that the improving racial and gender situation in the United States is partly a result of the younger generation having grown up with mutual acceptance as a fact (for them) rather than an ideal. And where was one of the first places they got this idea? The show which 99% of the target age group recognize in one form or another: Sesame Street. And generation after generation, tied together by the characters and places on the show, has grown up with that same positive vision. It’s probably for this reason that when Congress was considering cutting funding for PBS, which would have threatened Sesame Street, the backlash was so immense that House members hurriedly backtracked and overwhelmingly voted to restore the money.
My favorite line from the blog where I found that information? “After all, what Republican wants to run in 2006 against an opponent who can claim the Republican killed Big Bird?”
I love everything about that sentence. And if there is any justice in the world, we’ll start taking our cues from the Big Birds of the world–or to be precise, remember the cues we were already given growing up as children–from this point forward. We could have much worse as models of behavior.