Since its 1969 debut, Sesame Street has introduced millions of children to letters, numbers, and the crazy-safe world of Jim Henson's Muppets. For generations, the vaudevillian comedy of Bert and Ernie, the grumpy Oscar the Grouch, the sweetly befuddled Big Bird, and all the kindly humans on the block served as a high-water mark for educational entertainment. Sesame Street has become an institution; created as a response to the popularity of television and the hypnotic attraction it held for younger viewers, the show exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. But it didn't just happen overnight. In Street Gang: The Complete History Of Sesame Street, Michael Davis follows the series from inspiration through development to modern times. It's a story worth telling, even though Davis spends a little too much time lost in the details.
Jim Henson was the show's most visible contributor, but it was a group effort, spearheaded in no small part by the vision and drive of Joan Ganz Cooney. A publicist with little academic experience in child psychology, Cooney was able to bring together a wide group of talents and corral their energies toward one goal: Establishing an ongoing television program aimed at preschoolers, designed especially to help inner-city kids get a jump on the fundamentals. Cooney brought in educators, psychologists, and perhaps most importantly, a wide range of artists from children's TV, including refugees from CBS' Captain Kangaroo, plus Henson, whose Muppet characters were already well known from their commercial and variety-show appearances.
The end result was something special, and Davis' enthusiasm for the project and the people who created does him credit. But he has an unfortunate habit of giving over to hyperbole where none is needed; odds are, anyone picking up Street Gang is a fan of its subject, which makes the occasional quasi-poetic interjection tedious and unnecessary. Worse is Davis's clumsy grasp of structure. The book has passed the halfway mark before Sesame Street's first episode even airs, and too much time is spent describing the endless bureaucracy that drove the series' creation. Enough of Gang is compelling to make it worth a look. It's just unfortunate that Davis forgot the essential Sesame Street value: When it comes to fun or fact, it's always better to err on the side of the former.