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: