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THIS DAY IN NEW YORK HISTORY

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.

ssCast.jpgThe 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 interacted with 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.

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