Michael Davis’ Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street is one of my new favorite non-fiction books, both because it’s thorough, well-written, and shows the author’s strong affinity for his subject, and also because of my own affinity for its subject, a television show that defined my preschool years and introduced me to the Muppets, whose later “grown-up” variety show was in turn my introduction to both vaudeville-style humor and dark comedy.
Street Gang focuses primarily on Sesame Street‘s prehistory, from conception to launch through its first season, a period loaded with bold ideas, coincidences, and enough drama to sustain a compelling narrative. Davis weaves personal histories of staff members, cast members, and Muppets into the overall history in a way that keeps the tale from becoming monotonous – as much as I enjoyed the book, it’s hard to create much tension when you know everything more or less works out in the end – and also enlightened me by giving new dimensions to people I’d only known as characters or names on the screen. Bob McGrath’s history as a successful singer and the amazing coincidence that launched Carroll Spinney’s puppetry career stood out as two of the more interesting back stories, excluding, of course, the stories of Muppets from Kermit to Bert and Ernie to Elmo, Zoe*, and Abby Kadaby.
*The Zoe story is as close as the book comes to out-and-out controversy, to me at least, because she was part of an entire makeover called “Around the Corner,” a show change that came from a top-down business plan rather than an organic development from the writers and Muppeteers. That plan was a direct response to the scourge of children’s television known as Barney – a show I have forbidden from my house, even though my daughter has at times asked to watch it, and if that makes me mean so be it – but also included elements of merchandising strategy, a reflection of the declining age of the typical Sesame Street viewer, and questions of whether a sanitized part of the neighborhood strayed from the show’s original goals of reaching inner-city kids and was perhaps motivated by the most subtle racism. The fact that a successful character emerged from this mess only adds to the relevance of the story, and another 20 pages on Zoe would have been welcome.
The star of the book is Joan Ganz Cooney, the determined, willful, yet wholly inexperienced (at first) life force of the project who sold the vision, got the show launched, and saved it (at the expense of The Electric Company, sadly) in a 1970s anti-public-television push in Congress. I felt grateful while reading about her refusal to let the show die or deviate from its mission, even through a difficult period in her personal life, because of how important those two shows have proven in my life. Sesame Street and The Electric Company influenced me in a number of ways – I watched both programs voraciously, as well as other PBS education fare from 3-2-1 Contact to Write On to the Letter People to a now-forgotten show called The Metric System to which I can still hum the theme song to another one with teenagers working at a newspaper and fighting some villain named “Dunedin” – of which their educational influence was only a part. I grew up in an almost completely white neighborhood; it wasn’t wealthy, or privileged, but it was nearly devoid of minorities; Asian-* and African-American students constituted under 2% of my high school’s total enrollment while I was there. Most mainstream television programs were all-white at the time, and if there was a minority character, the writing was forced and he’d end up somewhere between a mildly offensive stereotype and a horribly offensive one. Yet I grew up not just tolerant, but largely ignorant of skin color – it’s never really crossed my mind, no more relevant to the discussion of someone as his hair or eye color. I can’t prove the source of that character trait, but I think the ethnically mixed cast of both Sesame Street and The Electric Company played a major role in it – if you present an impressionable child with daily images of people of different races or ethnicities interacting in normal, even boring ways, he’s going to believe that that’s the way everything should be. And I also believe that these shows helped shape the dramatic change in attitudes from my parents’ generation to the generation after mine, or even from mine to my daughter’s; racism isn’t gone, but it’s been driven underground in much of our society, and overt expressions of racism or sexism will often get you shunned or fired.
*One of those Asian-American students was the best man at my wedding and remains my closest friend, even though he kicked my ass in Zooloretto the other night.
Of course, the educational aspects to these PBS shows weren’t lost on the two-year-old me – I read at a very young age and always had a thing for numbers, which I’m sure is a shock to you all, but my parents have never described doing anything unusual to teach me letters or words or math. If you watch an old episode of either Sesame Street or The Electric Company today, it’s hard to miss the almost propaganda-like educational agenda: They hammer the letter and number of the day into the child’s head, through repetition and through context, and the fact that thirty-plus years on* I can still remember songs and sketches is testament to how powerful and effective they were.
*We own the Sesame Street Old School Volume 1 DVD set, which I recommend more for parents than for today’s kids, and when my wife saw a sketch she hadn’t seen since the 1970s, about “two little girls and a little dollhouse,” she got all teary-eyed. That’s the power of Sesame Street.
Davis finishes the book with some notes on how the show has changed, including the shift in format to suit the Sesame Street‘s ever-younger audience. The original show had a single storyline of street scenes that carried through the entire show, with cartoons and sketches interspersed throughout. The new format gets that entire story out of the way in a single uninterrupted segment off the top, and of course the final 20 minutes are now devoted to “Elmo’s World,” a scourge on my existence that seems to insult the intelligence of any three-year-old who might have learned something from the first 40 minutes of the program. Unfortunately, it seems to me that they’ve dumbed the show down – yes, they’re trying to reach the one-year-olds plopped down in front of the set, but they have to be losing the three- and four-year-olds along the way. Shouldn’t “Elmo’s World” be its own show, rather than altering such a long-term success to serve an audience outside those covered by its original mission? My daughter seems to agree; once she outgrew Elmo’s World, that was it for Sesame Street in our house. She’ll watch Word World and Peep and the Big Wide World and Sid the Science Kid and Dinosaur Train – I haven’t gotten her hooked on the new The Electric Company yet, although I think it’s very good – but Sesame Street just bores her. Maybe I’m just being nostalgic, but that makes me a little sad.
Speaking of which, my one warning on Street Gang: Buy a pack of tissues. The prologue is a long description of the memorial service for Jim Henson, and his was but one of a series of major, often premature deaths to hit active members of the show’s cast and crew. Many of you are the right age to remember the episode when Mr. Hooper (played by Will Lee) died, and Davis includes the portion of the script where the adults explain to Big Bird that “Mr. Looper” isn’t coming back. It was a brilliant, award-winning episode, and the text plus the description of the cast members’ reactions will bring anybody down even as you appreciate how well it was written.
Next up: I’m halfway through Richard Russo’s Mohawk. I’ve also got Junichiro Tanazaki’s The Makioka Sisters lined up after that – if anyone has tackled it, I’d love to know how you liked it and whether it’s worth the time.