It is strange, even now, even having a fairly good idea how making a television show works, to see a behind the scenes outtake of Oscar the Grouch complaining about the lack of sex on Sesame Street. It’s one of those shocking moments in which the human body makes a sort of guffaw noise. It’s human instinct to want to say out loud, “Oscar?!?!” At least, it’s human instinct to feel that way if that human grew up with Sesame Street, which is probably most of us now, because there’s something just so pure about it. In that it’s remarkable how this show is, deep down, in most of our cores as humans. To the point it’s pretty obvious, today, who was paying attention to the show as children and who weren’t.
Even before watching Marilyn Agrelo’s Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street (which just had its Sundance Film Festival premiere and will air on HBO later this year), I’ve been thinking about Sesame Street a bit over the last few months. (To be fair, with plenty of free time because of everything, there are a lot of topics that take of my brain space that didn’t really used to.) In that Sesame Street could be pretty weird. (My case in point is this four and a half minute short about how milk is made that involves someone just singing the word “milk” over and over.)
But, yes, Sesame Street is a television show and there’s plenty of behind the scenes shenanigans and drama, just like any show. Created by Joan Ganz Cooney and Jon Stone, Sesame Street‘s intention was to fill a void on television for children to learn while they weren’t at school. Specifically, minority children were the target, as a way to help some of the kids in these demographics who were falling behind in school. It’s interesting, because when you’re a child, even a child growing up in the suburbs in the Midwest like I did, you’re not looking at stuff like that, this was just Sesame Street. In the film, right after hearing this context, we see the original opening credits, and it shows a group of Black children on the playgrounds of what is obviously New York City. As a child, I just saw kids on a playground that looked like the same playgrounds that I played on. Certainly not in a city I had never been to and wouldn’t move to for another 25 years. At no point, back then, did I think, “Oh, this doesn’t look like where I live.” Instead, it looked like a place I wanted to live. (I would later find out that the real New York City has less talking green monster misanthropes living in trash cans than I was promised.) Though, as the film acknowledges, there were PBS stations in the deep south who refused to play Sesame Street when it first aired for reasons I probably don’t need to spell out.
The behind-the-scenes footage, interlaced with current interviews with the cast and creators, are a gift. It’s crazy to think when I was four-years-old, watching Bert and Ernie, in reality I was watching the comedy duo of Jim Henson and Frank Oz. And, here, we get to see them in action – which, honestly, is pretty amazing and jarring at the same time.
Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street also addresses some of the touchier subjects in Sesame Street history. There’s the behind the scenes envy between Jon Stone and Joan Ganz Cooney, to which Cooney, who is interviewed in this film, admits she got most of the media attention for the creation of the show and Stone resented this. Also addressed is the character of Gordon (played by three different actors; Roscoe Orman for, by far, has the longest duration), who was originally played by Matt Robinson, but left the show after a Muppet he created, Roosevelt Franklin, was phased out after viewer complaints. (Robinson left the show before I was born, but when repeats of this era were aired it was awfully confusing.)
And then there’s Mr. Hooper, played by Will Lee, who died in 1982. For people of a specific age, this might have been our first experience with death. Or, at least, having it explained so bluntly. I remember when this happened, watching it as it aired. I also remember my mom talking to me before it aired, so I assume there were a lot of warnings for parents before this episode aired. I have not watched it since and, my goodness, it’s devastating. It’s truly remarkable Sesame Street aired this. The cast were still coping with Lee’s death themselves and admit today that all the emotions we are seeing on screen are real. What a powerful moment of television.
I walked away from Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street with the notion that Sesame Street is a miracle. Well, I kind of always assumed that, but now it’s confirmed. At one point it’s mentioned that the magic that was created on Sesame Street could never be reproduced. It would be impossible. This seems true. Just the pairing of a guy who knows TV like Jon Stone with someone like Henson is a miracle in itself. It’s astounding that Jim Henson was a part of this show for as long as he was. Here’s an actual genius making content for children. There’s a clip of an old interview with Henson and Joan Ganz Cooney from the ’80s and Cooney said her biggest surprise with Sesame Street is that Henson was even still there, assuming he’d have “flown the coop” years ago. (In a modern interview Cooney says during contract negotiations she once told her lawyer to give Henson, “anything he wants.”)
Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street is just a terrific film. At the end, it’s dedicated to the people who made the show, but also anyone who ever watched. For so many of us, Sesame Street is part of our DNA. While watching this film, it doesn’t just feel like we are learning about how Sesame Street is made, it also feels like we are learning how we were made.
‘Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street’ premiered this week via the Sundance Film Festival and will air via HBO later in 2021. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.