Socialist Worker

Sesame Street—this page is brought to you this week by the number 50

As Sesame Street approaches its 50th anniversary, Simon Basketter looks back at a show that repeatedly broke the mould and upset right wingers

Issue No. 2679

The cast of Sesame Street celebrate the show’s 50th birthday

The cast of Sesame Street celebrate the show’s 50th birthday


In folk tales vampires often suffer from arithmomania—an ­overwhelming desire to count things.

But it takes genius to combine that with a vampire whose least ­favourite time of day is 2.30 because that’s when his “tooth hurty—Ah-hah-hah”.

Sesame Street is 50.

When the show began in 1969 the street was set in an urban landscape, complete with graffiti, peeling paint and trash cans.

Though over the years the street has cleaned up a bit.

Considering that most Muppets started out as bath mats, they have more complex personalities than many human characters on TV.

Big Bird is a 4 year old trapped in an eight-foot-tall yellow-feathered body.

He has the innocence and wonder of a child, and the confusion or ­sadness of one as well.

Cookie Monster is accepted as a normal member of society, despite evidence that he has frequently stolen cookies and would do so again.

The programme was shaped by the social movements of the 1960s and growing progressive politics.

It was also a reflection of the system’s ability to find space for reform ­without paying at the end of the post war boom.

It hit the target audience.

In the US in the early 1970s some 90 percent of children from low-income inner-city homes ­regularly watched it.

Learning was reinforced through constant repetition. Each episode had a “letter of the day” and “number of the day”.

The other repetition was the ability to annoy right wingers.

The US right worried a lot about whether Bert and Ernie were gay

In 1970, a state commission in Mississippi banned it because, “Mississippi was not yet ready” for its integrated multiracial cast.

The US right worried a lot about whether Bert and Ernie were gay. Ernie in fact was in love with his rubber duck.

In the early years, the show included left wing singers and ­activists such as Pete Seeger and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Sainte-Marie taught Big Bird about breastfeeding.

In 1971, Jesse Jackson led children in reciting, “I may be poor, but I am somebody/I may be on welfare, but I am somebody/I may be small, but I am somebody.”

It’s not a call to arms, but for a show for pre-school children that’s not bad.

Left wing actor and victim of McCarthyism Will Lee played ­shopkeeper Mr Hooper. The show broke ground when it dealt with his death as part of the programme.

Family values are an important part of the show. What made up a family was a fairly broad definition—liberal but safe.

And in truth not every stereotype has been avoided over the years.

Elmo once had a father who spent “lots and lots” of days in Iraq before finally coming home.

Little was said about what he was up to while there or how many Iraqi Elmos he killed.

International versions of the show presented themselves as a haven of harmony and peace.

While not much of a threat to the powerful, they are still the type of thing to give Daily Mail readers nightmares.

Too many US presidents and their partners have appeared with the characters, from Richard Nixon onwards.And the marketing machine over the years has produced its share of animatronic nightmares.

But it was occasionally prescient. Oscar the Grouch has sometimes worked for the “trashy news show, Pox News”.

Ronald Grump has appeared three times. Once played by Joe Pesci he wanted to demolish Sesame Street to fulfil his plans for The Grump Tower.

But Oscar refuses to leave his trash can and saves Sesame Street.

“If there’s one thing I despise,” Grump says, “it’s cheap sentiment. Hugs, kiddie television, cute, furry animals.”

Happy birthday.

And Finally

Ernie: 1Q.

Bert: 2Q.

Ernie: 3Q.

Bert: 4Q.

Ernie: 5Q.

Bert: 6Q.

Ernie: 7Q.

Bert: 8Q.

Ernie: 9Q.

Bert: 10Q.

Ernie: What’s that, Bert?

Bert: 10Q!

Ernie: I couldn’t hear you, Bert.

Bert: [Yelling] 10Q, 10Q, 10Q!

Ernie: You’re welcome, you’re welcome, you’re welcome, Bert.


Exhibition—Judy Chicago

In her 80th birthday year, Baltic presents the first major British survey of pioneering feminist artist and author Judy Chicago.

The exhibition spans Chicago’s fifty-year career. It explores the artist’s work while highlighting her ongoing concern with the devastating effects of climate change on the natural world.

Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead
16 Nov—19 Apr 2020. Free

Exhibition—Music and migration

Visit this family-friendly exhibition of musical instruments and be part of a celebration of Bengali folk music in the north west of England.

The exhibition will recall how singing was of vital importance to Bangladeshi immigrants arriving to work in mills and factories in the 1950s and 1960s.

Collective singing of and listening to these songs provided critical succour in a time of displacement and upheaval.

Manchester Museum
16 Nov—23 Nov. Free

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