Sesame Street has been killing it with their parodies of popular shows like Game of Thrones and House of Cards, and their latest parody (embedded above) takes on this week’s big summer release Jurassic World. But maybe, like I have, you’ve been wondering why and how they choose the source material for these incredibly clever parodies that are fun for kids and adults alike. I talked to Sesame Street executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente and head writer Joey Mazzarino to get the inside dirt on the work that goes into these parodies. Also, find out which celebrity guest got really, really nervous and which one was basically a Muppet himself!
UPROXX: I was really tickled that Sesame Street was doing these pop culture parodies, but I was really kind of surprised that you guys were touching on such adult properties.
Carol-Lynn Parente: Well, you know, Sesame Street has a long history of working on two levels, for both kids and adults, and that’s strictly because we’re an educationally focused show, and we know that the impact of the education is deeper when we have co-viewing going on. From that very first season of Sesame Street, they had celebrity talent and wrote on two levels to that reason, and the parodies, for us, are particularly fun, because they help us stay relevant. They’re so much fun for the writers, and the other part of it that’s just so much fun is the puppet building and costuming that they do, that just nails those parodies right on.
What do you look for in a property? When you watch something, like House of Cards, for example, do you look for little lessons that you could pull from it, or do you kind of come up with the lesson first, and then look for a property.
You know, it can go both ways. Either the kids are getting the fun, educational message out of it, and they often don’t understand the parody at all — which allows us to deal with some very adult shows and movies — but most often, you’re going with something that is buzzworthy, that people are talking about. If there’s that kind of interest in it, or cult following, that makes it interesting. Sometimes we come at it from, “What is the most buzzworthy thing people are talking about, and then sometimes you have the curriculum and you figure, what would be a good thing to address the curriculum.
Has there ever been something that didn’t work out, like a parody, or a lesson, that just didn’t meld?
You know, so far we’ve been able to find our way in. I might think it’s because we have just the best writers in the business. They’re comedy, sketch writers, and they just find their way, and we’ve done things like, True Blood and Law & Order. There’s just been so many of them. They just always find something that works, that makes total sense for kids, but has the wink to the adult.
That’s brilliant. What do you think the most adult joke is that you’ve gotten away with, that would have gone totally over kids’ heads, obviously, but really was a very hard wink, the most knowing wink?
Well, Game of Thrones was a tough one. That one, certainly. We found our way in through musical chairs, which was all about one-to-one correspondence, but there’s definitely some adult jokes in there for the Game of Thrones fan.
You say these have gone way back, the pop culture parodies. What’s the earliest one that you remember?
Oh, gosh. I grew up watching the show. We’ve had celebrities from the very first season, and I think the parodies got, maybe, more sophisticated as time went on, but I can remember there was, “Letter B,” which was done to The Beatles’ song, “Let it Be” many, many years ago. One of my favorite classic pieces was — as a Jersey girl — a Bruce Springsteen parody of “Born to Run,” that was “Born to Add.”
Oh, that’s great. I was born in 1980, so I don’t remember what I watched then.
Oh, well, for the ’80s, we had Madonna, “Material Girl,” was “Cereal Girl,” which was about healthy breakfast foods.
Oh my goodness, Madonna. My mother would have been appalled.
I always say, Sesame Street is really just like a timeline of history. It’s not just hair styles and clothes that mark that passage of time, but all of the pop culture references over time, are all represented, in all the decades of Sesame Street.
It makes you wonder, what are these kids going to remember about these celebrities who do the show? And they have a completely different context.
It’s true. It’s that feeling you have when you watch something, and then when you see it as an adult, and realize you didn’t understand how clever it was, or who you were watching at the time, celebrity wise.
I think about seeing Benedict Cumberbatch when Sherlock was just wrapping up [its third series on PBS], and he appeared on Sesame Street, counting. Meanwhile, he has got this whole fandom that kids would never know about because they’re children, and everyone is watching this because it’s Benedict Cumberbatch. That video probably had tons of downloads.
It’s true. It’s part of the fun and the writers make it look so easy, but to find those two levels that work, equally well, is really difficult.
I don’t really want you to spill dirt, because I don’t want to spoil Sesame Street, but has there ever been a celebrity really not get it, when they came on, or are they usually pretty eager?
You know, what’s interesting is that we just always get the best side of every celebrity. They come in and they’re just so excited. I think it brings their childhood back. I think, every once in a while, a celebrity that is intimidated by performing with the puppets, because they’ve never performed with a puppet before. It’s looking at a character that’s, sort of, fur with ping pong eyeballs. It’s something they’ve never done before. I can remember James Gandolfini was so nervous that he would have to have to, like, go off in a corner, and just kind of have his alone time, to just get ready.
Oh my goodness.
I think it was a little bit of the nervousness of performing with the puppet characters.
Did anyone surprise you by being really comfortable?
You know, I think they get to be like kids, when they see characters they grew up with, or Elmo talking to them, they totally forget the puppeteer — just like the kids do — and start interacting with the character. It’s fascinating to see, really.
I think it’s the best, when you see guys like Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston, who play these super serious, scary dudes, and you know they’re actors, they’re only acting, but then they come up, and they’re so happy to be there, and they’re having so much fun. I think that’s the best part of watching celebrities on Sesame Street is that it’s so clear they’re having so much fun.
That is sort of the normal experience for us. In fact, what people don’t realize is that we’re a not-for-profit, and so our studio time is really valuable, and we need to make the most of it. And it’s always hard when you know the celebrity doesn’t want to go, they’re having so much fun, and we kind of have to move on to the next thing. It’s tragic to sort of remind them that our time is limited, and we have to move on.
Oh, that’s such a bummer.
It’s like, “But I was just getting… We were just starting to become really good friends. Can’t we do something about friendship?”
Well, it’s true! You get them there, and when they’re so excited to be there, you think, “Let’s just do another piece with them! Let’s just sing the alphabet or anything they’ll do!” It’s very valuable studio time and we have an agenda of things we have to get through.
Has anything ever been improvised that really worked for the show, that you were able to use?
Oh, sure, it happens all the time. There was a lot of content we got with Jack Black when we shot with him, and we had a piece written, and then in between rehearsals of the piece, they went off singing songs, and improving some content, which was just spectacular.
What kind of response have you gotten from the filmmakers and the producers of the shows and movies?
You know, I think that’s probably some of the sweetest stuff we get, is the people being so honored to have that feather in their cap, because it’s rare that we have the time to visit a select list of either characters we can parody or shows and movies. We do as much as we can, but it’s a limited amount, and they’re usually so honored. Social media, now, also makes it really easy to get their feedback very quickly when something is launched. [We had] Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter when we did Sons of Poetry, our parody of them, he tweeted right away, like he’s “made it,” now that he’s been parodied by Sesame Street.
I think it’s so great the way Sesame Street, and the Muppets, and just the Jim Henson universe, in general, it’s ageless. It’s for everybody, and it’s not even about being a kid, it’s just finding that part of you that’s still purely entertained.
Well, you know, it’s funny because that’s what resonates with people, but when you realize what the pieces are about, Sesame Street‘s all about helping kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder, all of those things together, and every one of those pieces has a really salient educational goal attached to it. The fun is what people remember about it. The beauty of it is, they’re really teaching things too.
It’s like hiding spinach in brownies.
After speaking to Carol-Lynn Parente, I spoke to head writer Joey Mazzarino.
UPROXX: Could you talk about what you guys think about when you say, “Hey, we’ve got House of Cards or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones? Very mature show, and we’re going to do it for a children’s show.”
Joey Mazzarino: I think we always look for what’s the way into a kid’s world that could work with whatever the property is. Like Game of Thrones, I was watching Game of Thrones and I go, “It’s sort of like a game of musical chairs.” That’s something that a kid would have in their life because of parties and I said, “Well, what if to get to be the king, you just had to play a game of musical chairs?” We were thinking about House of Cards and said, “Well, it’s kind of like the big bad wolf going through the three houses of government. Maybe we can work it that way with the three pigs.” It’s finding a thing that would be relevant to a kid’s life. Breaking Bad we never did because I could not figure out a way to make it relevant into a kid’s life. I don’t want to make light of the drug thing or comparing to cookies wouldn’t be right so we couldn’t find a way.
So, Breaking Bad was one property that didn’t work. Are there any others you just couldn’t figure out a way in?
When we started Cookie’s Crumby Pictures, that’s the one when Cookie Monster liked veggies and things like that .. for some reason, I pictured him in a Sam Jackson wig doing Pulp Fiction where he’s like, “You know what they call a chocolate chip in France?” That kind of thing. What I think is really funny, but I couldn’t figure a way into that one either cause I really wanted to do Pulp Cookie, but I couldn’t figure it out. One day, I will crack it cause that’s one of my favorite movies, but I didn’t figure it out.
Maybe the dance scene or something like that.
Yeah, maybe, Jack Rabbit Slim’s.
Jack Rabbit Slim’s!
I don’t know, but I’ll figure it out. Some day I’m going to get that.
You said that you look for similarities in lessons in these adult things, the stories that the shows are telling. They have the similar lessons that you’d be teaching children. What other lessons have you spotted in other shows?
If it’s Cookie’s Crumby Pictures, our curriculum for that is executive function. It’s figure out how Cookie can control himself, delayed gratification, control emotions, so all the Cookie’s Crumby Pictures parodies, we have to figure out how to make the story about him controlling himself. But then other things, like Game of Thrones, that’s a math one, you can figure out math in that one. Mad Men was emotions, which was just low-hanging fruit for that.
Is there anything else that hasn’t been able to pan out?
Not yet. We had a hard time with Homeland because we just couldn’t figure out what it was, then the writer of it, she really wanted to do it. I was like, “If you can find a way, we’ll do it.” That was a problem, trying to figure out what was funny about it. She was like, “Well maybe it’s Comblands or Phonelands?” I was like, “I don’t think so. That doesn’t make sense.” One day I was running and I was like, “Homelamb, and it’s like a wolf in sheep’s clothing has infiltrated the sheep.” So I called her and was like, “We’re looking at the wrong part of the word! We got with land, it’s Homelamb.” That took a while to break. We probably had like three meetings before we figured it out.
Have any writers or producers of shows specifically approached you about doing a parody?
No, but I know Matthew Weiner wanted to buy the Mad Men puppet. We kind of reuse them, they’re like Mr. Potato Head. Kurt Sutter, after we did Sons of Poetry, I think he put it on Twitter. I was like, “He noticed, that’s awesome.” I love it when they really appreciate it. Kevin Spacey [also] tweeted about his. It was cool.
I wanted to ask, because the magic of doing something in Henson land is the fact that you can figure out how to work adult-friendly humor into a kid-friendly thing.
As long as it doesn’t take away from being a show for a kid and then they’re going, “Wait, I want to watch this Game of Thrones thing I hear so much about.” They don’t know anything for what it is and the parents can knowingly go, “Oh, that does sound like the Red Wedding.” What’s not to like about the Red Wedding?
What’s the most adult thing you’ve been able to get away with?
We don’t really try to get away with anything. It’s really about, what’s funny about it? How do we make it work for a kid? It’s not like we’re trying to be subversive or anything, you know?
What I think is really cool about the way you write for the parents and the kids is you don’t write down to them. You kind of treat them, not like adults, but like people and it’s not really about, “Okay, you’re on this level, so what can you learn? What are you able to know?”
No, we don’t really write down and we’re not doing something that’s too hard and they can’t grasp it. We’re really aiming for the education of the show and none of our stuff talks down to the kids. It’s like our characters play with you when you come and tune in and you may learn something, but it’s playing. It’s not going, “Hey, this is the alphabet, we want you to remember this.” It comes out through story.
How involved have you gotten with the celebrity guests?
Sometimes really involved, super involved. They want it. I know Ricky Gervais, he really wanted to do it and we talked about what he wanted to do before he wrote it and he was really involved with wanting to get it done. Some people come in the day of and just do it as is. It depends on the celebrity really.
Who surprised you the most in a good way?
Mark Ruffalo surprised me because I kind of wrote him as the straight man because most of the stuff I had seen him in, this was before Avengers, it was like, “He’s pretty straight, he’s a really serious actor.” He was so fun and funny and silly. He was so happy to be silly and really just was as big as a Muppet and he did awesome in the most awesome way.
That is so adorable to hear Mark Ruffalo being compared with a Muppet.
He was the greatest and he matched the Muppets’ energy in such a great way. I loved it, one of my favorite guests.
That’s fantastic. Have you had anybody come back?
Oh yeah, sure. We’ve had a couple of returns. Not that often, but Neil Patrick Harris came a couple of times. Tina Fey came back a couple of times. Oh Josh Gad, he was so great on a celebrity vocab that we were like, “We have to get Josh back to be a character on the show. He’s total Muppet and he was so hilarious.
Do you find that a lot of celebrities with kids come on because of the kids?
I think you find that a lot of parents really want something cause they have their kids, you know? Some people don’t know, I remember with Elvis Costello, because we pre-recorded the day before. I was like, “Oh, you’re going to bring your kids?” He said, “No, I don’t think I’ll ruin it for them.” I said, “No, I’m telling you, it will be amazing.” His kids came and they saw the Muppets and they sort of fell in love and you could see it in their eyes. I saw him well up, looking at his kids and enjoying the day. It was just awesome.
What do you think about the videos going viral?
What do I think when a video’s gone viral? I think it’s great that it happens. It’s great for a lot of reasons. It’s great because a lot of kids get to see it, a lot of people get to see it, but it’s also great because people still know we’re around. Some people still think, “Oh, that was a show I watched as a kid,” or don’t think there’s so much competition, but they go, “Oh wow, they’re still around,” and “Hey, they’re still pretty good.”