Finding Elmo

40 years of Sesame Street: We kids were not subjected to ads for Coke or Pepsi.

January 25, 2010 16:48
3 minute read.


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I don't know much about Wall Street or J Street, but I know Sesame Street.

Sesame Street, which celebrated its 40th birthday last week, is produced in the US by the nonprofit organization Sesame Workshop (formerly known as the Children's Television Workshop or CTW). The show premiered on November 10, 1969, and is the longest running children's program on American TV.

For those of us who grew up watching the likes of Big Bird, Ernie, Bert and Oscar the Grouch, Sesame Street brings back many fond memories. The show not only taught us the letters of the alphabet and how to count, but entertained us while doing so.

Since it was broadcast on public television, there were no commercials to interrupt our viewing. We kids were not subjected to ads for Coke or Pepsi, but as the end credits rolled we were told that "Sesame Street has been brought to you by the letters J and K and by the number 12."

The differences among the residents of Sesame Street were taken as a given. It didn't matter if you were white like Bob, African-American like Susan and Gordon, or that you could also speak Spanish like Maria and Luis. It also made no difference if you were a little red furry monster like Elmo or a big yellow bird. You were all part of the Sesame Street family - even Oscar the Grouch.

Sure, there have been guest stars - everyone from Robert De Niro to First Lady Michelle Obama has dropped by Sesame Street - but it was the everyday characters that made the real impact on the children watching the show.

Israel has its own version of the show called Rehov Sumsum with Kippi the giant hedgehog and Moishe Oofnik (the Israeli equivalent of Oscar the Grouch) as the main characters but also features various human residents of the street, both Jewish and Arab. In 1998 the show's format was remade (Rehov Sumsum/Shara'a Simsim) in a way which combined Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs to generate a message of coexistence.


More importantly, Sesame Street has adjusted with the times. Even the Cookie Monster has changed his voracious eating habits by eating healthier and now proclaiming that cookies are "a sometime snack." Sesame Street has also tackled very difficult and sensitive issues: It dealt with the death of the actor who played Mr. Hooper by talking about losing a loved one; a South African version of the show even features an HIV-positive Muppet; and in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on New York where Sesame Street is set, producers chose to address it during their season premiere episode in 2002.

But I long for the good old days on Sesame Street. On Sesame Street, Mr. Hooper's store never needed video cameras for surveillance because there was never a risk that Grover would steal an apple. Would BFFs (Best Friends Forever) Ernie and Bert talk to one other if they shared an apartment in our neighborhood, or would they just send endless text messages to each other on their cellphones? Would The Count mingle with the other Muppets or would he just sit at his computer all day, "One, two, three new Facebook friends, ah-ha-ha!" (Cue thunder and lightening.)

But what I personally love most about Sesame Street is the setting. Most of the interactions between the characters (whether human or monster) took place on Sesame Street itself, and that hasn't changed. What has changed in the last 40 years is that our streets have become more dangerous and not a place you would want your children to hang out. The show's theme song states, "Come and play. Everything's A-OK. Friendly neighbors there, that's where we meet." In this day and age we don't even know who our neighbors are - and if we do, do we stop and talk with them, or just offer a cursory, meaningless wave hello?

We need to get back to those good old days, as the refrain of the theme song asks: Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

The writer has an MA in creative writing from Bar-Ilan University.

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