Kevin Wong, writer and father of a 13-month-old son, hates Elmo. Is it because the character speaks in a shrill baby voice, constantly refers to himself in the third person, and has his fuzzy red Muppet face plastered on innumerable products? Well, yes, those are all important factors. But in a provocative Kotaku piece called “How Elmo Ruined Sesame Street,” Wong lays out a wide-ranging, evidence-based case that the childish character, perennially three years of age, has been leading the venerable PBS educational series in the wrong direction for decades. Elmo, Wong argues, models undesirable behavior for Sesame Street‘s young viewers, prevents numerous teachable moments, and leeches airtime away from other, more worthwhile characters. And the problem is only getting worse.
It wasn’t always this way. Elmo started on Sesame Street as a mere background character known only as “Baby Monster” in the 1970s, passing from one Muppet performer to another. After veteran Richard Hunt gave up on the character in the 1980s, Kevin Clash took over the role and gave Elmo his current boisterous personality. This is not necessarily a bad thing, Wong says. Elmo can be quite effective when used as a foil, as long as there is an older, more articulate character like Kermit on hand. Things started to go wrong, according to the article, in the 1990s, when Elmo began to monopolize more and more time on the show. Other characters simply went into orbit around him, acquiescing to his every, whiny demand rather than trying to shape him into a more mature, responsible citizen. Eventually, Sesame Street began simply handing over huge chunks of each episode to the red menace, and the takeover was complete. How does Kevin Wong cope with this? “No Elmo merchandise,” he says. “We’re a Grover family, the whole way.”