For anyone who has been a child in the last half-century (or loves one or five of their own), you are likely familiar with Sesame Street, the beloved children’s television show conceived by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett in 1966. The show, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, began airing on public television on November 10, 1969. And despite the recent controversy of whether Bert and Ernie are gay, which really is a conversation about representation and why it matters, Sesame Street endures for young and child-at-heart viewers everywhere, screen time be damned.
“It’s like poetry,” Sesame Street writer Mark Saltzman told The New York Times last September about whether Bert and Ernie are more than friends (or if Elmo is a girl or a boy). “It’s what you need it to be.”
What is fascinating, to me, about the award-winning children’s program, however, is its reliance on comedians, especially in “Elmo’s World.” Writer and muppet-historian extraordinaire Louise Gikow has called the Noodle family in “Elmo’s World” “a dynasty of mimes … in the tradition of great silent film comedians like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.”
For the unfamiliar, none of the clownish, bow-tie-wearing Noodle clan speak during the segment. Instead, child narrators instruct Mr. Noodle, played by the ever-versatile Tony Award-winner Bill Irwin and Mr. Noodle’s brother, the late Michael Jeter, whose performance as the homeless cabaret singer in the 1991 film, The Fisher King, will forever delight and haunt me, learn how to celebrate a birthday, put on shoes, and pretend to be a cat, among other important lessons of the day. Additions to the Noodle family include poet and Tony and Obie award-winning actor Sarah Jones as the first Miss Noodle, Ilana Glazer of Broad City-fame also as Miss Noodle (the second), and Broadway star and singer Kristin Chenoweth as Ms. Noodle, among others.
The subversive joy young viewers feel as they watch a grown-up mess up these basic acts of play and duty while being able to offer much-needed advice to adults is a powerful reminder how vaudevillian humor teaches without moral or psychological intentions. Well before Avenue Q popularized schadenfreude, the preschool set understood how funny it was when Mr. Noodle’s spot-on impression of a cat resulted in Barkley the dog chasing his apt feline impression.
Perhaps not speaking down to their audience while making them laugh and think are two of the secrets to Sesame Street’s continued success. The TV show is so much more than a Transylvanian muppet who obsessively counts all the things and a blue monster who eats all the chocolate chip cookies (and occasionally veggies) and now operates Cookie Monster’s Foodie Truck with Gonger, a hot-pink monster who responsibly sources his avocados from California and replicates his grandmother’s buttermilk biscuit recipe with the whisking speed of the Tasmanian devil. Sesame Street has always been a place where children are reminded that we all can be “smarter, stronger, and kinder.” What better way to learn resilience and growth than through humor?