This morning, while watching some old school Sesame Street with my kid, we came across a sketch I’d completely forgotten about — but one I absolutely loved growing up. It’s something like a blend of Encyclopedia Brown and Fat Albert, with a soundtrack reminiscent of Shaft. The segments were part of Sesame Street‘s long and laudable tradition of urban-positive programming and also, probably, one of the reasons the old school Sesame Street DVDs come with a warning that the content “may not be suitable to the needs of today’s children,” or something like that. (The assumption is that black kids in the city don’t need to see positive images of themselves?) Personally, I think the sketch still rocks. I also like Roosevelt Franklin, though, so I may not be an impartial judge.
According to the Muppet Wiki,
[t]he characters of Billy Jo and Smart Susie originated in a series of children’s books by [African American writer] John Shearer, with illustrations by his father Ted Shearer. The series debuted with Billy Jo Jive, Super Private Eye: The Case of the Missing Ten Speed Bike in 1976. When the sequel The Case of the Sneaker Snatcher was published in 1977, the cover boldly advertised “Don’t miss Billy Jo Jive and Susie Sunset on Sesame Street!”
Muppet Wiki also has a rundown on individual episodes, airing between 1978 and the early 90s. Here’s “The Case of the Missing Wig,” which is what we watched this morning:
Starting my morning over coffee by looking for clips of Frank O’Hara reading his own work. Wound up getting sucked down a rabbit hole of Man Men blogs. (Getting ready to teach O’Hara today has been more fun than getting ready to teach most things. Maybe it’s just that I don’t teach this stuff all that often and so it still feels fresh.)
First, O’Hara on O’Hara:
If you want to start making sense of O’Hara’s poetry, you could do worse than to think about his tongue-in-cheek manifesto “Personism” (1959).
Two: I found something sweet about the idea of a 15-year-old Jim Carroll dogging O’Hara’s steps one afternoon in an attempt to see everything he was seeing, so as to be able to identify, at some future date, the poem O’Hara was about to go home and write:
And finally, the Mad Men episode. I had forgotten the use of Meditations in an Emergency at the opening of Season 2. Don encounters someone in a bar reading the poems over lunch (heh, heh: lunch poems, get it?). He later winds up sending the volume to an unspecified lover, probably Midge, his bohemian girlfriend from the first season who had finally blown him off. (Too bad, too — I kind of liked the midtown/downtown tension of that relationship more than the similar function of Paul Kinsey’s beard or the pot-smoking punks brought in to help the firm reach a younger demographic.) The actual sequence from the end of the first episode of the second season has been disabled by request. Here’s the voiceover with a fan montage of scenes, which has the over-the-top effect of making the poem even try harder to get at Don’s particularly shifty interiority, but also extends the “emergency” to the rest of the cast:
“Grey” in the poem calls up the idea of “grey flannel suits” quite effectively.
For kicks, here’s where the Man Men blogs took me. One post noted that in the commentary track for the DVD release of the season, the series creator described how accidental his encounter with O’Hara was, and how chance the use of that specific poem (“Mayakovky”) was as well:
Matthew Weiner was at an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York where there were snippets from Frank O’Hara’s poetry on the walls. The poetry he saw that day was from a different O’Hara book, Lunch Poems. Weiner wanted to use this book in the show, but it had not yet been published in 1962. Instead, he chose Meditations in an Emergency, seemingly without having read it. When Weiner had finished the script for “For Those Who Think Young”, he and a co-worker looked at the last poem of the book out of curiosity and found that the last poem, “Mayakovsky”, fit perfectly with what Don was experiencing in the episode. This is how they came to have Don recite the poem as he walked to the mailbox in the last scene. Not the brilliant creative decision I had expected, but an interesting case of serendipity.
“‘Mayakovsky’ has the phrase ‘the catastrophe of my personality,’” Lehman explains. “It is part of O’Hara’s charm that he uses such self-deprecatory humor, and I think that charm extends to the voiceover. Also, the ending of that poem implies a split in the speaker’s personality: ‘It may be the coldest day of / the year, what does he think of / that? I mean, what do I? And if I do, / perhaps I am myself again.’ Note the difference between ‘I’ and ‘he.’ Does Don ‘feel like’ himself?”
Well read! Though I can’t help but note the sharp difference between O’Hara’s reading style, which camps everything up, and the gravity of Hamm’s delivery. Maybe that’s another point to be made: how the poetry can’t help — perhaps especially because O’Hara died so tragically young — but be more serious than his own delivery suggested.
We asked Eric to write about one of his particular specialties: New York’s immigrant cultures. (Click here for an example of Eric’s previous work on the subject.) What he gave us for the Companion was a fresh take on the subject, using Anne Nichols’s play Abie’s Irish Rose as a prism through which to understand the dynamics of Americanization. Now largely forgotten, but in its day a “commercial success … and something of a cultural phenomenon,” Abie’s Irish Rose had legs, and it turns out to lie in the background of a television show from my youth that I still remember fondly:
As late as 1972, Abie’s Irish Rose provided the plot for Bridget Loves Bernie, a 24-part television comedy series directed by Ozzie Nelson, in which the upper-class Irish-American Bridget (played by Meredith Baxter) marries Bernie Steinberg (David Birney), a Jewish taxi driver from Brooklyn.The kids love each other, but there are problems with their parents, who are uncomfortable about the differences in class and religion separating the two families. The audience’s response was quite positive, and it became the fifth-ranked show for CBS that year. But Bridget Loves Bernie was unexpectedly canceled at the end of the first season. The story went around New York that the studio executives were fed up with the barrage of anti-Semitic hate mail which greeted their cute little comedy. It was also attacked by indignant rabbis for encouraging intermarriage. The level of hostility towards Bridget Loves Bernie surprised everyone. That wasn’t supposed to be the American way. Warner Brothers’ short-lived 1998 sitcom You’re the One gave us much the same plot, Manhattan setting, and plentiful ethnic stereotypes.
The success of Abie’s Irish Rose was not solely due to effective exploitation, though it made Anne Nichols a very wealthy woman; it is also a striking instance of the interplay of cultural production and the immigrant experience in New York City. At every stage in the history of Abie’s Irish Rose, as author, director, and producer, Nichols was a serious professional in the management of her interests. She exploited the commercial possibilities of the play, and assertively defended her rights. The source of this cascade of light entertainment, Anne Nichols, was born in 1891 and raised in a strict Baptist family in rural Georgia. She was not an “ethnic” and not a New Yorker, at least not until she began to write and produce plays in the early 1920s. We are used to the notion that “ethnic literature” is written by, and reflects the experience, of “ethnics.” Nichols reminds us that a somewhat wider understanding of the uses of ethnicity is called for.
On 10 November 1969, on PBS, the first episode of Sesame Street aired, sponsored by the letters W, S, and E and the numbers 2 and 3.
The cheeky parody of the advertising industry — and corporate sponsorship of television programs — was only one of the things that tied the show to New York, though the attempt to “sell” educational content using the methods of television commercials was one of the series’ originating concepts. It also drew — like sketch-based variety television more broadly — on vaudeville traditions long linked to New York’s popular entertainment culture, preserved in Muppet slapstick and satire, including Bert and Ernie’s comic partnership. The show’s creators lived in New York, too, and they came together much as any urban literary or artistic scene had in earlier periods: over conversation, food, and drink. (The idea for the show came, like the decision to move the national capital from New York to the swamplands of what would become DC, out of a Manhattan dinner party.) The set of collaborations born in the late ’60s grounded the show in New York and ensured it would be filmed here for the next 40 years. Perhaps more than anything, the Sesame Street set — a brownstone, weather-beaten storefronts, a pushcart vendor, and a tire swing, for instance — was clearly drawn from the visual iconography of New York’s neighborhoods. “There would be no Treasure House, no toymaker’s workshop, no enchanted castle, no dude ranch, no circus,” writes the show’s most recent biographer, Michael Davis. “To the underprivileged, the target audience, these settings seemed as foreign as the dark side of the moon.”
Original sketches for the set were drawn in Harlem, Davis explains, but one early possible name for the show set it more specifically on the Lower East Side: 123 Avenue B was eventually discarded as too New York-centric, and the creators hoped for urban preschool audiences across the country. And so a bit of fantasy slipped into the mix after all, a sort of Jane Jacobsean dream: the show would feature life in a slightly magical neighborhood, where adults of mixed races looked out for kids who were even more diverse. (The show’s emphasis on ethnic diversity was aggressive from the start — so much so that I was shocked to learn, as a young adult, that at least one of my childhood friends in rural Arizona had been forbidden by her parents from watching it, out of a fear that it would promote inter-racial marriage. I was more conscious of its nifty packaging of Spanish vocabulary.)
Magical or not, what Sesame Street offered in its city street scene was a space that felt lived in, worn, repurposed, ordinary. (At least, it started out that way.) And yet it housed something extraordinary: the accommodation, the cosmopolitan celebration, even, of difference. Some sketches, to be sure, established universals: everyone eats, everyone sleeps, even though “everybody” in both cases is shown in the end to be made up of a bunch of differences. (Thanks again goes to Joe Raposo for the score to those daily activities.) The late-breaking, treacly classic “We Are All Earthlings” would also seem to preach a universalist gospel, but even that song begins by articulating difference. The show foregrounded not simply diversity but the experience of being different — being the one thing that wasn’t just like the others — in language, color, and economic class, even in lifeform. And it made it plain that difference was not simply a fact of life, but that it was okay, maybe even fun. Humans interactedwith Muppets. Mr. Hooper represented a generation older than the principal adults on the cast. The humans on set, adult and children, were surrogates for an audience of diverse ages. The show aimed to please children and adults — including grandparental care-givers — alike. Only over time did they broaden their focus to include us country kids (see below), though it should be understood that where I lived we already knew where milk came from without Lorne Greene telling us. The differences encountered by watching the show — even when it rendered me an outsider — were part of what made it so interesting.
Such differences also tend to make genuine neighborhoods interesting,
though some people, of course, will always see neighborhoods as
exclusive rather than inclusive. Sesame Street‘s neighborhood is distinctively urban, as the various “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?” sketches make clear, operating as they do from the assumption that neighborhoods are relatively self-contained in terms of basic public services rather than suburban. (They also assume not everyone in your neighborhood is pleasant.) The neighborhoods I saw on Sesame Street were quite different from my own. I don’t remember this sketch from the mid-70s, but it seems like something that would have drawn me, in my imagination, away from the cow patches I was surrounded by:
Come to think of it, I’ve looked a lot like that city kid for most of my adult life. It’s only the last few years I’ve had my hair cut short. I wonder if this guy has been burrowed in my subconscious all that time.
The sketch puts a primary difference up front, both to value that difference and to affirm one’s identity — and also, I would argue, to allow one to imagine other identities than the ones you were born into.
Sesame Street didn’t have to wax metaphysical to make New York seem enticing. All it took was a Raposo melody and some seemingly random footage of the city in winter. Can you identify places pictured here? Things that remain the same? Things that have vanished?
Against the grain of 1970s images of the subway as a scary place, Sesame Street offered this Sam Pottle and Grace Hawthorne song from 1974, which the MTA should really consider picking up as part of an official campaign. It begins with urban rudeness and accounts for all sorts of frustration — missed stops, the heat, crowds — but somehow still affirms the democratic joy of it all:
On the first episode of Sesame Street (which you can get on the Old School Vol. 1 DVD set or with this book, but which I can’t seem to find on YouTube), Gordon escorts a little girl named Sally — clearly a proxy for child viewers — around the neighborhood, introducing her to human and Muppet characters. “Sally, you’ve never seen a street like Sesame Street,” he tells her. “Everything happens here. You’re going to love it.” Michael Davis responds to this line: “everything and anything can happen on Sesame Street — except bad stuff.” Not necessarily so — at least not mildly bad stuff. One of the show’s genius strokes was to let characters — usually Muppets or characters in animated segments, but sometimes the humans, too — feel all kinds of unpleasant emotions, from frustration, to the isolation of difference (even if it’s a difference that makes you feel ordinary), to embarrassment over mistakes, to annoyance at your friends, to miscommunication. In some cases, but not all, these issues are worked through. But things work out for different people in different ways. What’s remained constant for 40 years is the affirmation that no matter how isolated or different you may feel, someone else somewhere — maybe just a ten-ton Muppet no one else can see — cares enough to make the loneliness go away, that someone who’s different from you may be able to care about you nonetheless.
A while back I wrote here that, like the American Songbook guru Jonathan Schwartz, I feel pretty confident saying that my musical unconscious was more shaped by Richard Rodgers than any other composer or musician. The Sound of Music alone probably sealed that deal, but Oklahoma!, Carousel, and South Pacific are right up there as well, especially the latter two, for which I played in the orchestra for high school or community productions.
The other contender for the title, though, would be Sesame Street‘s Joe Raposo. Over the last week or so I’ve been floored to realize how many of my favorite Sesame Street sketches feature his songs. Not all of my favorites below are Raposo songs, but enough are that I’m giving the guy a big fat shout out. I think my early encounter with his music for Sesame Street (and for The Muppet Show, too) primed my brain for a certain strain of rock and roll that stretches from David Bowie to Destroyer, what I lovingly refer to as Muppet Rock. (More often than not bands with animal names fall in this category.) One of my grand unfinished schemes is to curate a Muppet indie rock opera, starring Gonzo, for WFMU’s listener hour.
But enough of that. For your Monday afternoon music needs, here’s a playlist of my fifteen (well, sixteen) favorite songs from Sesame Street, the ones so deeply burned into my brain there’s no hope of ever shaking them. Most are from 1969-74; I may have picked up some later ones from a 25th anniversary VHS collection I watched with my daughters a decade ago.
In descending order:
15. Grover and Madeline Khan sing “Sing After Me (The Echo Song),” after she rebuffs Grover’s advances. This is a Sam Pottle tune, first aired in 1977:
14. The Count, “Doing the Batty Bat.” I remember this song a little better than the other famous song by the Count, and unfortunately this one doesn’t have such a brilliant parody to go along with it. (Please click that link. You will not regret it.)
Raposo wrote this song in 1985:
13. “Would You Like to Buy an O?” This shady character reminds me of my friend Scotty G out in the LBC. Raposo wrote this; first aired in 1971:
12. “What’s the Name of That Song?” Another Sam Pottle tune (1974):
11. Bert and Ernie sing “I Dance Myself to Sleep.” This is from ’81, which means I probably watched it with younger siblings. I know I watched this with my daughters when they were little but I’m pretty sure I knew it in the 80s too. Classic Bert and Ernie, this one written by Christopher Cerf:
10. “Mah-Na Mah-Na.” I don’t actually remember this version (1969), but it was later a staple on the Muppet Show with different characters. According to Muppet Wiki, it was “written by composer Piero Umiliani for an Italian documentary about life in Sweden, titled Svezia, Inferno e Paradiso (Sweden, Heaven and Hell).” This was Henson’s first pass at it:
9. “Martian Beauty” (1972) was designed to teach the number 9, so I’ll let it clock in here. Written, sung, and animated by Bud Luckey, who would go on to work for Pixar. Lyrics by Don Hadley:
8. Ernie sings “Rubber Duckie.” I don’t know if I love or hate this song. When I was a kid we had a Sesame Street songbook for the piano, so I also grew up playing and singing this and a few of the others on my list. Written by Jeff Moss, performed by Jim Henson. I was in my mother’s womb when this first aired:
7. “The Alligator King” (1971). Another Bud Luckey song and cartoon w/ Don Hadley lyrics. I’m putting it, appropriately, at number 7, but this was one of my favorite sketches of all as a kid. Still is:
6. “C Is for Cookie” (1971), by Joe Raposo. My best friend had this on a Sesame Street LP. His older
brother called us babies for listening to is and then put “Love Is Like Oxygen” on the record player. At least that’s how I remember it. The brother also had one of those big Farrah posters but his mom made him cut it off at the waist.
5. “Sing” (1970). Another one that’s as old as I am. Raposo wrote it. It’s been performed any number of ways. I liked the Carpenters’ version when I was a kid. I remember a filmstrip at church when I was a kid that held this up as the “right” kind of music. This version, the bilingual one, is from ’71. Luis was always trying to squeeze Spanish in there.
4. Bert and Ernie, “The Imagination Song” (1972), by Joe Raposo. I love how Bert wakes up:
3. Oscar sings “I Love Trash” (1969). This was my favorite to play on the piano, and I loved the lyrics, too. They gave me license never to throw anything away. Here’s the original version from the first season, when Oscar was still orange:
2. (tie) Two songs about 12: “The Pinball Number Count” and “Ladybug Picnic.” I couldn’t dispense with these all the way back at #12, though. These rank so high simply because once you hear them you can’t shake them for days. Probably the most memorable of all those animated sketches. The first one’s by the Pointer Sisters. Written in ’72 but debuted on SS, apparently, in ’76:
And the other is another Bud Luckey/Don Hadley number (1971):
1. And, finally, Kermit singing “Bein’ Green,” also from the year I was born, and perhaps Raposo’s best song. They were lefties at Sesame Street in the early days, those wacky kids.
I got a little carried away with the John John sketches yesterday. I’d intended to add a few from my other favorite human child/Muppet interactions: Kermit’s conversations with Joey. These are all from ’72 if I’m not mistaken. Again, what I find amazing is that she seems oblivious to the Muppeteer hiding behind the desk (in this case Henson himself) and is perfectly willing to interact with Kermit on a human level.
Counting to 20, with commentary on Kermit’s eyes:
Another, in which we learn how ticklish Kermit is:
And, saving the best for last, Joey tries out her ABCs, with a little trick up her sleeve. This is one of the best Sesame Street sketches ever:
I just realized Joey’s got the same shirt on for all three. Were these filmed on the same day?
On another occasion Joey helps Snuffy with his ABCs:
Her Muppet Wiki page makes her out to be a little older than typical kids on the show or in the audience, which is why she seemed so smart. It doesn’t tell us, though, where she is now. Unlike John John, she wasn’t featured in the 20th anniversary special.
Next week Sesame Street celebrates its 40th anniversary. If you’ve used Google today, you may have been tipped off to the fact:
I’ve written about the show here before — even recently — but I’m planning a longer post for Tuesday, the actual anniversary of the first episode’s airing in 1969, not quite a year before I was born. In the meantime I wanted to create some playlists of favorite sketches from my own childhood.
For this installment, I wanted to offer a set of clips with kids interacting with Muppets. One of the things New York Magazine pointed out this week in its nod toward the 40th anniversary — along with the fun fact that the original name of the show was to be 123 Avenue B — is that initial audience tests for the show, without Muppets, flopped with kids. Henson’s arrival on the scene clearly was key. (I’ve purchased Street Gang to help me out with posts this week, but like an idiot I left it in my office. I’ll fact check later.)
Given that I’m the oldest of 7 children, my encounter with Sesame Street was a long one. And I never really outgrew it. I loved to watch it with younger siblings and I’ve loved revisiting it with my own kids, though I strongly prefer the show pre-Elmo. I have very clear memories, dating as far back as I can remember television, of one human child who was a perpetual favorite in our household. In fact, if one of his sketches came on, whoever was watching would yell throughout the house: “John John’s on!” and people would come running.
Was there ever a Sesame Street kid as adorable as John John?
Clearly, his gift was to be able to interact with the Muppets as if they were human. He seems not to notice there’s a human being attached below and to the back. The genius of the directors was that they only loosely scripted these encounters and let the actors improvise.
Take Bert’s reaction to John John’s questions in this one:
Like many Sesame Street sketches, the ones with John John tend to turn on the idea of difference. I’m toying with the idea that the show’s foregrounding of this idea is a key to its cosmopolitan vision. More on that later. For now, easy differences to digest, like the difference between up and down:
And between loud and soft:
Here’s some more counting for good measure. JJ’s mess up (below) bears an uncanny similarity to this classic Bert and Ernie clip from the first season.
And finally, he makes it to 20, in what was, perhaps, John John’s best appearance of all time:
The other day I was dancing with my kid to a couple DVDs of Sesame Street’s first few seasons. Yes, I realize it’s a little early to introduce the kid to TV, but the music is perfect, and in the end I plan to skip the last 25 years of children’s programming and go back to Henson for building blocks of literacy, morality, and imagination. Goodbye, SpongeBob … hello, Kermit.
So in the midst of picnicking ladybugs and alligator kings and such, up comes a segment featuring none other than a young Jesse Jackson. I was stunned. And moved. I watched it two or three times in a row:
What exactly would prevent this segment from airing today? That medallion? (Just kidding.) Actually, I think it would be the W word. What a shame. It’s a reminder that the show’s creators aggressively aimed, in the beginning, to foster self-esteem among kids living in urban poverty. I didn’t recognize this agenda as a child, of course, living in the rural southern reaches of the Rocky Mountatins. To me, Sesame Street was my key representation of a far-off place called The City, where people of all races lived and got along and played on tire swings at the termination of dead end streets.
Here’s another clip that shows where the Sesame Street version came from. Turns out it was already a little softened:
Is it good or bad that these seem like relics from a distant past?
School’s almost back in session. Our students have begun to return to the city in droves, which terrifies — perhaps even terrorizes? — people in multiple neighborhoods. What those neighbors don’t realize is that those of us (adults and families, that is) who live in student residence halls are utterly relieved to have our own students back and the “summer associates” — the khaki-clad douchebags from everywhere else who are only here for the summer as interns, and who love to leave beer cans in the elevator on their way out for the night — scurrying back to the Big Country. Seriously, I know NYU and New School students have a bum rap, and some of them deserve it. But many of the people I live among and teach are eager to be here and to engage with the city in a meaningful way. Maybe the nice ones self-select into the courses and buildings I inhabit.
Anyway, in a different context today I was musing about the phrase “welcome back,” and how for me — like many who grew up in the 70s — it inevitably makes me want to break into the Welcome Back, Kotter theme song. The show’s opening shots of a graffiti-covered F train in Brooklyn were among the most lasting images of New York that populated my imagination before I finally visited the city in my late teens.