The higher-ups at Sesame Street have made no bones about the fact that they are trying to keep their tried-and-true children’s programming fresh by updating it for the new millennium. In the last few years, Sesame Street has added new puppet cast members like the controversial pink fairy Abby Cadabby as well as Murray Monster, who now hosts the show in its new “block format.”
When I was a kid, Sesame Street welcomed a cadre of classically trained artists to interact with the people in its neighborhood (think Lily Tomlin, Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, Denise Graves), as well as genius badass performers like Johnny Cash and Savion Glover. Today, the celebrity guests on Sesame Street are more likely to be found in the pages of Us Weekly than they are on stage at Carnegie Hall.
In recent years, viral hits – and playdate failures – have proven the people at Sesame Street know how to get the public’s attention, but have Elmo et. al. finally jumped the shark in an effort to entertain adults?
I started watching Sesame Street as a parent in 2005, the year Alicia Keys appeared with Elmo singing “Dancin'” to the tune of her Billboard #1 single, “Fallin’.” That year other guest stars included Buzz Aldrin, India.Arie, Andrea Bocelli, Wyclef Jean, Shirley Jones and Allison Krauss. Pretty standard, diverse, quality Sesame Street fare. By Season 37 in 2006, the U.S. Department of Education had stopped funding the show and Carol-Lynne Parente took over as Executive Producer, instituting some pretty major changes in the look and feel of the show. Based on what she told the CBS Early Show staff back in September when Katy Perry’s boobs were booted off the Street, Parente made it a point to add a heavy dose of pop-culture and Top 40 music to the show as a way of drawing in “younger parents that may not have grown up with Sesame Street” and who “may not be bringing their children to watch Sesame Street.”
That’s all well and good. I’ve been a Sesame fan since childhood, and I loved watching guest stars like Amy Sedaris, T. R. Knight and Neil Patrick Harris interact with the muppets I adore. I thought the Feist and James Blunt parodies were hilarious and appropriate. (Kids get the benefit of counting chickens and learning about triangles, parents get to aww at Leslie Feist and chuckle at James Blunt singing about triangles. What’s not to love?) Yes, Brian Williams was legendary in the “Mine-itis” episode during 2007’s Season 38, but by the time 2009’s 40th anniversary season rolled around, things started to fall apart on Sesame Street.
In Season 40, First Lady Michelle Obama appeared to talk about healthy eating, which was no doubt a major coup for the program, and according to the Muppet Wiki, viewership increased 60% over the previous season thanks to the aforementioned “block format” that began that year. That’s likely because in Sesame‘s new block format, nearly 30 minutes of the hour-long show are taken up by the CGI-animated “Flying Fairy School,” an Abby Cadabby feature that’s more annoying than the most obnoxious episode of Dora the Explorer – and “Elmo’s World,” which makes me want to claw my eyes out, except for the saving grace of appearances by Mr. Noodle and Mr. Noodle’s brother Mr. Noodle, played by Bill Irwin and Michael Jeter. I’m not a “no TV” or “PBS-only” parent, but if I wanted my kid to watch Nickelodeon, I’d tune-in to Nickelodeon. As a work-from-home single mother who often had to let the TV babysit for a few hours in the morning before my daughter went to afternoon pre-school, I tuned into PBS for the docile, lava lamp-like pace and dulcet tones of Curious George and Sid the Science Kid, not the squeaky, squawky spaz of Abby and Elmo. I mean, my 5-year-old and I have now finally gotten into Nick Jr.’s Yo Gabba Gabba, but there’s a reason DJ Lance doesn’t rock before lunch.
2010’s Season 41 brought Sesame Street the Katy Perry playdate fail, but also huge success with the old-school-Sesame-style number I Love My Hair, which went viral on the web and was quickly mashed-up with Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair.” Sesame head writer Joey Mazzarino (who also voices Murray Monster) penned the song for his African-American daughter, emboldened to share his message of self-love after seeing Chris Rock’s film Good Hair. This week, Sesame Street released Conversations With Bert: Andy Samberg, Part 1 to its YouTube channel, and the video has already received over 100,000 views. The interview will likely reach 500,000 views or more by the end of the weekend, thanks to embeds on The Daily What, Best Week Ever and Jezebel. The clip is definitely funny, in the same way the outtakes from the AP’s interview with Elmo and Ricky Gervais are funny, but the humor is solely for adults. Take a look:
I mean, the Harry Potter joke? It’s great, but no kid of Sesame Street viewing age is gonna get it. I know 20 and 30-somethings without kids get a kick out of watching a beloved character from their childhood like Bert out of context, being funny in a way that has nothing to do with pigeons, bananas or rubber duckies. And as a child of Sesame Street, I appreciate it, too. But as a parent, I can’t help but wonder if Sesame Street is losing some of its educational substance in an effort to entertain adult viewers. Don’t get me wrong, I think Andy Samberg’s digital shorts are arguably the high-point of any SNL episode, and maybe this interview with Bert means Samberg will be appearing in Sesame‘s 42nd season in a song sketch revolving around Michael Bolton as Jack Sparrow. I might think that’s hilarious, but will my kid care, not knowing the original reference?
I’m well aware that a Sesame clip going viral even among adults without children will only serve to bolster brand recognition across the board, thus bringing more kids to the show. But what about getting back to basics and teaching the under 5 set letters and numbers? Yeah, the Mad Men parody was clever (“Good work, sycophants.”), but I gotta say, I sorta miss the days of the Ladybugs’ Picnic. I mean, my kid doesn’t know who Don Draper is (because Mommy watches Mad Men alone… after dark… uninterrupted… with cocktails), but she can definitely get behind 12 ladybugs about to chow down in the park.
I stopped encouraging my daughter to watch Sesame Street a while ago, because I just couldn’t see the value in it anymore. What do you think about Sesame’s increased efforts to incorporate celebrities and pop culture into the show? Are they trying too hard, or just trying to keep up?