Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question comes from associate editor Erik Adams:
Preparing the content for Sesame Street has been a welcome exercise in reminiscence and nostalgia; it’s also been a neat reminder of all the messages and lessons I took away from the show as a young viewer. So I’d like to know: What’s something you remember learning from Sesame Street?
My vocabulary would be missing several words were it not for the show (chief among them: “cooperation”), but I feel like a piece of my soul would be missing without classic segments like Smokey Robinson’s “U Really Got A Hold On Me.” For the unfamiliar: There’s a big letter U, and it really has a hold on Robinson—an uncompromising grip that Smokey tries (and fails) to fight. Through Sesame Street, I learned about homophones (see also: The Beetles and “Letter B”) and the literal and figurative senses, though I wouldn’t know the terms for those concepts for years afterward. Not that it matters, because I already knew that Smokey Robinson trying to worm his way out of a U’s hug is hilarious.
Sesame Street taught me a lot, but more than anything it taught me that it’s okay to be totally weird. Oscar The Grouch is endearing because he’s different, and Grover really gets going when he straps on a cape, stretches his imagination, and swoops around as Super Grover. And Bert was obsessed with pigeons and had a bottle cap collection, for crying out loud. Sure, there were fairly tame, white bread characters on Sesame Street (Big Bird comes to mind, even though he’s an 8-foot-tall yellow bird), but the ones I identified with the most or laughed at the hardest were the ones that were a little off. Now, if you’ll excuse me and excuse my weirdness, I’ll just be over here “Doing The Pigeon.”
Chances are, I could turn on a new episode of Sesame Street right now and still learn a thing or two. The greatest lesson Sesame Street ever taught me is that nobody knows everything, and that’s okay. When you’re a kid, you’re pretty aware that there’s a lot you don’t know, but you tend to look at grown-ups as wise, all-knowing beings who have all of the answers. By portraying its human, adult characters as curious people with just as many questions as its Muppets, Sesame Street highlighted the fact that we’re always growing and always learning. The realization that there will always be more to discover, no matter your age, is profound and one that is crucial in our maturation. We are all the Yip-Yips, experiencing every day with mouth agape, in awe of all that we don’t yet know.
Most of the lessons I really remember taking away from Sesame Street were emotional ones: That it’s okay to make mistakes, and there’s no need to get mad or guilty or ashamed about it, or to give up; that helping someone and caring about them is better than giving them presents; that enjoying music is more important than having a perfect voice. Man, I embraced those songs. But the one piece of actual information I can really remember getting from Sesame Street is a little more abstract: The song “High, Middle, Low” taught me how harmonies work, and how to listen to music not as a solid piece of undifferentiated sound, but as a bunch of parts working in unison.
I’m old enough to have grown up in the “no one sees Mr. Snuffleupagus but Big Bird” era of Sesame Street, in which the two had a warm friendship, but any time Big Bird wanted to introduce his friend to the adults, Snuffy would wander off. Eventually, Sesame Street dropped this conceit as being too confusing for kids—was Snuffy imaginary? Shy? Was it all a series of astonishing coincidences?—but while it lasted, it was a great way to explore the concept of imaginary friends that seem all too real to kids, not to mention the universal childhood problem of grown-ups not believing you even when you’re telling the truth. But for me, the biggest message was perhaps an unintentional one: You can be friends with someone even when they’re being a pain in the ass. Maria, Gordon, and Bob were always exasperated at Big Bird’s tales of Snuffleupagus, thinking he was either lying, or wasting their time dragging them away from work to meet someone who was surely imaginary. But even when their patience visibly started to wear thin, they never called Big Bird a liar, and they never got mad at him. They just accepted that what they assumed were flights of fancy were part of who Big Bird was. This lesson gets reinforced time and time again—Bert and Ernie often drive each other nuts, Cookie Monster steals cookies at every opportunity, Oscar’s an antisocial crank—but the friendships still endure. In the end, we have to overlook our friends’ flaws, because everyone’s got them.
This is so cheeseball, but I don’t care: Through Sesame Street, I learned about love. And not just because of the relationship of the characters on the show, but about the love my parents felt for each other. As a kid, I didn’t understand the deep bonds that go into a marriage, but I did understand the friendships I saw come to life on television. My mom’s pet name for my dad happens to be Snuffy. So I may not have understood what marriage was beyond happily-ever-after-ideals, but I did understand that Big Bird and Snuffleupagus were buds through and through. And that’s exactly how I still see my parents.
Sesame Street isn’t exactly known for indulging in elaborate plot structures or tricky narrative schemes. That being said, the show (or rather, a book based on it) was my first taste of postmodernism. The Monster At The End Of This Book, the best-selling children’s book starring lovable, furry old Grover, was the first piece of fiction I’d ever encountered that actively tried to fight back against me, with the cuddly little blue guy doing everything in his power to stop my 8-year-old hands from flipping pages. I don’t think it’s stretching too far to say that my love of authors like Grant Morrison, who continually manipulate the border between fiction and life, between the page and the real world, had part of its genesis in poor old Grover desperately begging me not to turn that final page and reveal the title monster. (For the sake of decency, I won’t reveal its stunning identity.)
Unfortunately, one of the few things Sesame Street can’t teach you is how to improve your memory, and so I have a spotty recollection of the endless hours I no doubt spent with Big Bird and company. However, one of the moments I do remember is “I Don’t Want To Live On The Moon.” At the time, Ernie’s flight of fancy as he’s getting ready for bed confirmed the feeling I had when I read a good book, and also handily reinforced my homebody tendencies when faced with adventures (that undersea section is a tidy cost-benefit analysis). But, as it’s no doubt designed to do, it also teaches you about a lot of other things less overt—the ways people move away even if they might want to come back, the ways you can’t always get what you imagine, and the sense of wanting to return to loved ones even if it’s impossible—and somehow making all of it feel like it will eventually turn out all right. “I Don’t Want To Live On The Moon” taught me to dream big and prepare for sadness, which is a decent life lesson, and it was a good musical primer for a lot of the sad music I’ve liked since.
I’d like to say I learned some eloquent life lesson from my years glued to Sesame Street, but decades later the message that stands out in my mind is a simple one: Tap dancing is awesome. From 1990 to 1995 (a.k.a. my prime Sesame Street watching years) Savion Glover would occasionally break out his tapping skills, and his effortless movement always enthralled me. I don’t have a particularly inspiring story—it’s not like watching Savion inspired me to fulfill my own dancing dreams—but I really enjoyed watching a relatively young kid show off such an impressive skill set. And there’s certainly something to be said about the fact that Sesame Street’s most accomplished dancer was a young black man, which is hardly the conventional image associated with the profession. It’s possible that subtle act of representation influenced my worldview, but I know for sure that Savion was my gateway drug to the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Gregory Hines.
I don’t mean to undermine Sesame Street’s educational value when I say the show mostly taught me about television. We didn’t have full cable or a VCR until I was around 8, and while I wasn’t on a strictly Muppet-only diet during that period, my earliest television experiences were almost all Sesame, The Muppet Show, and Fraggle Rock. The Muppet Show is largely comedy, and I found portions of Fraggle Rock terrifying, so that left Sesame Street as my main exposure to the vast expanse of other options on television, all rolled into a single program. I was most fascinated and entertained by the Muppet characters, of course, but those other segments—animation, interactions with real humans, explanations of how crayons are made—and its hour-long running time made it feel like a much bigger show that was showing me a much bigger world. Sesame Street has so much more ambition than most TV shows aimed at that age group (or, really, than a lot of TV shows in general) and if I can’t claim anything as lofty as the show teaching me how to read, I can say it served as preparation for the good kind of media consumption. Though I never really made the connection before, I’m specifically wondering if Sesame Street’s combination of comedy, music, recurring characters, and sometimes-repeated segments might have made me so predisposed to my 20-plus years of Saturday Night Live fandom.