Love doesn’t quite cover Juliette Burton’s feelings for the brightly coloured singing Muppets that teach but don’t preach. Happy Sesame Street Day!
I grew up on the street – the Sesame Street. And I’m proud of it.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s I was obsessed. From toddler to nursery to kindergarten; every day I’d sit cross-legged in front of the TV to absorb the colours, lessons and inspiration.
The floodgates of happy memories broke as I watched Street footage for this article. And now, rediscovering Sesame Street in its new 21st-century guise is – and I can’t stress this enough – helping me cope with being an adult.
The Jim Henson Company created the original Sesame Street characters, including Big Bird, Elmo, Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, Grover and Cookie Monster. In 2001, the rights to these were sold to Sesame Workshop. Since the show’s debut in 1969, The Jim Henson Company has created and built the puppets used, but those characters and the show itself are owned and run by Sesame Workshop.
Jim Henson’s vision was to teach without preaching; never talk down to kids; to stoke the fire of their imaginations and promote a world of tolerance, acceptance and learning from each other. A Reithian ideal in a Hensonian world. This ethos permeates all of Henson’s work.
In so many ways Jim Henson was as much a father to me in my formative years as my dad was. I never met him, never hugged him, never made him badly crafted pottery he had to pretend to like, but still, Jim taught me so much.
“Celebrities line up because when you’re jamming with Grover or talking to Kermit, nothing else matters. You’re a kid again.”
The Sesame Street sketches have stayed with me more vividly than a lot of school lessons blanked from my memory thanks to social anxiety, separation anxiety and bullying or parental lectures. Have you ever noticed how relationships with brightly coloured singing Muppets are so much easier than with actual humans?
From Sesame Street I learned how to sing the alphabet, but I also learned about friendship and respect for those who are different to me. Not only were the Street’s inhabitants different colours, they were different textures and fabrics. Some even lived in trash cans.
Thanks to Sesame Street, I learned that two men could live together and love each other so much they gave up their own possessions to buy each other the perfect Christmas gift. Bert and Ernie loved each other in a way I wanted more than the love shown to Disney princesses. Bert annoyed Ernie; each got on the other’s nerves, but ultimately they wanted to be in each other’s company. Even if one of them had the world’s worst monobrow.
Watching them, I hoped someone someday could one day love me, annoying as I am, enough to part with their paperclip collection in exchange for a soap dish for my Rubber Ducky.
From Super Grover I learned that being helpful is super, from Big Bird that being kind is appreciated, from Oscar the Grouch I learned that sometimes angry people are just unhappy and scared and lonely. And maybe living in a trash can (sorry Mum, dustbin).
I also learned that comedy matters and laughter lasts. For example, all hail the greatest comedy moment ever to have been broadcast:
Bert: Ernie, why do you have a banana in your ear?
Ernie: It’s to keep the alligators away.
Bert: Ernie! There are no alligators on Sesame Street!
Ernie: I know! It’s doing a good job, isn’t it?
Behind the scenes, there was real care and attention put into every bit of stealth learning. Seemingly cute storylines like Big Bird’s imaginary friend Snuffleupagus becoming ‘real’ in 1985 had deeper reasons. Did you know until that year Big Bird was the only character who could see Snuffleupagus and all the adults didn’t believe him?
Apparently, after a string of sexual abuse cases on other TV shows, the writers felt that by having the adults refuse to believe Big Bird despite the fact that he was telling the truth, they were scaring children into thinking that their parents would not believe them if they had been sexually abused and that they would just be better off remaining silent.
Jaw? Meet the floor.
Like all of the best things, Sesame Street has evolved, but has kept that respect for children at its heart.
The Street now houses many new female characters and some of them have caused quite a stir; like the brilliant Zari, the feminist. And the celebs continue to queue up to appear alongside Elmo and co.
Only a few weeks ago Mark Ruffalo taught me what empathy is (and reignited my crush while he giggled away). And I learned I do not – as I may have previously thought – dislike James Blunt, because he sang the arguably better version of You’re Beautiful on Sesame Street. (I would’ve preferred My Triangle to be number one.)
“I learned how to sing the alphabet, but I also learned about friendship and respect for those who are different to me. Not only were the Street’s inhabitants different colours, they were different textures and fabrics. Some even lived in trash cans.”
Celebrities line up because when you’re jamming with Grover or talking to Kermit, nothing else matters. You’re a kid again.
Sesame Street taught me so much. It taught me that sometimes childlike enthusiasm is vital. Every time I hear the refrain “Sunny day, chasing the clouds away” I want to run away with all those kids in the opening credits on my way to where the air is sweet.
And other adults who still feel like kids feel the same way. Kids masquerading as grown-ups in the UK, USA and Australia are all still nostalgic for it, dreaming of it, waiting for it, perhaps even working towards it.
Sesame Street taught me there’s no such thing as too much love. I can tell you how to get, how to get to Sesame Street. But it’s more fun to find out yourself.
If you’re not familiar with Sesame Street here are a few of my favourite Street moments: Kermit and the giggling girl doing the alphabet… Or Over, Under Around and Through… Or the pinball or The Martian’s Yip Yip Yip Ah Ah… or the recent Game of Chairs sketch…
Watch Camilla King’s pick of Sesame Street’s most kid-soothing musical moments here.
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Juliette Burton is a docu-comedian, actor, writer, thinker, dreamer, doer and person. She has a history of mental health problems and loves The Muppets. These two things are in no way linked.