CHARACTERS • MORE
|Premiere||November 10, 1969|
|Network||PBS (1969 - present)|
HBO (2016 - 2020)
Sesame Street is an educational television program designed for preschoolers, recognized as a pioneer of the contemporary standard which combines education and entertainment in children's television. Sesame Street also provided the first daily, national television showcase for Jim Henson's Muppets, an act he'd been performing since the 1950s. The series is produced by Sesame Workshop, formerly known as the Children's Television Workshop (CTW), and has now aired over 4,500 episodes. It is one of the longest-running shows in television history, and in 2019, the series celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Because of its widespread influence, Sesame Street has earned the distinction of being one of the world's foremost and most highly regarded educators of young people. Few television series can match its level of recognition and success on the international stage. The original series has been televised in 120 countries, and more than 20 international versions have been produced. In its long history, Sesame Street has received more Emmy Awards than any other program, and has captured the allegiance, esteem, and affections of millions of viewers worldwide.
Sesame Street uses a combination of puppets, animation, and live actors to teach young children the fundamentals of reading (letter and word recognition) and arithmetic (numbers, addition and subtraction), as well as geometric forms, cognitive processes, and classification. Since the show's inception, other instructional goals have focused on basic life skills, such as how to cross the road safely and the importance of proper hygiene and healthy eating habits.
There is also a subtle sense of humor on the show that has appealed to older viewers since it first premiered, and was devised as a means to encourage parents and older siblings to watch the series with younger children, and thus become more involved in the learning process rather than letting Sesame Street act as a babysitter. A number of parodies of popular culture appear, even ones aimed at the Public Broadcasting Service, the network that broadcasts the show. For example, the recurring segment Monsterpiece Theater once ran a sketch called "Me Claudius." Children viewing the show might enjoy watching Cookie Monster and the Muppets, while adults watching the same sequence may enjoy the spoof of the Masterpiece Theater production of I, Claudius on PBS.
Several of the character names used on the program are puns or cultural references aimed at a slightly older audience, including Flo Bear (Flaubert), Sherlock Hemlock (a Sherlock Holmes parody), and H. Ross Parrot (a parody of Reform Party founder H. Ross Perot). Over 700 notable personalities have made guest appearances on the show, beginning with James Earl Jones, and ranging from performers like Stevie Wonder to political figures such as Kofi Annan. By making a show that not only educates and entertains kids, but also keeps parents entertained and involved in the educational process, the producers hope to inspire discussion about the concepts on the show.
Following an initial proposal by Joan Ganz Cooney in 1966, titled "Television for Preschool Children," an eighteen month planning period was set aside, and with a grant of 8 million dollars from multiple government agencies and foundations, the proposed series would test the usefulness of the television medium in providing early education for young children. Apart from Cooney, the original planning crew included several veterans of Captain Kangaroo, such as executive producer David Connell, producer Samuel Y. Gibbon, Jr., and writer/songwriter Jeff Moss, as well as producer/head writer Jon Stone, and producer/writer Matt Robinson (who later originated the role of Gordon). At Cooney's suggestion, Jim Henson and the Muppets were brought in, and composer Joe Raposo followed. The CTW research crew included Harvard professor Gerald S. Lesser as head of the board of advisers and Edward L. Palmer as director of research, tracking and observing how child audiences responded to the programming.
Though the earliest pilot episodes involved dramatizing the inner thoughts of child actors in a studio set, Jon Stone suggested a more urban setting, "a real inner city street," with an integrated cast of neighbors. The original human inhabitants were Bob, Mr. Hooper, Gordon, and Susan, and they dominated the street storylines which made up roughly 25 percent of the hour-long show. To maintain the realism of the street, the Muppets were kept separate; thus, Ernie and Bert, while they lived on the street, resided in a basement apartment. These framing scenes would surround segments of animation, live-action shorts, and Muppets. These sketches, in particular the short animated segments stressing letters and numbers, were intended to function on a similar level to advertising commercials (and indeed, the bits were often labeled as such, i.e. "the J commercial", and during the earliest seasons it was common for letter or number films and cartoons to be shown multiple times in the same episode). They were quick, catchy and memorable, so as to convey information and maintain the interest of preschool children within their limited attention spans.
CTW aired the program for test groups to determine if the new format was likely to succeed. Results showed that the elements which best held audience attention included cartoon segments, the Muppets, filmed footage of animals in motion, or musical skits with Susan or other human cast members. When the action stopped in the street scenes, and the adults engaged in lengthy dialogue, children stopped watching. Based on these results, and despite concerns from advising psychologists, that the inner-city street overlooked the real problems of the ghetto and needed firmer roots, the mixture of reality and fantasy was deepened, as Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird became permanent street residents, interacting with the human adults.
Sesame Street is all filmed in New York City (as was another CTW show, The Electric Company). The show was originally taped in Teletape Studios in Manhattan (later Unitel Video). In 1993, when the street set expanded around the corner and more space was needed, production moved to the Kaufman Astoria Studios in neighboring Queens, where the show has been filmed since.
Sesame Street premiered in the United States on November 10, 1969 on the National Educational Television network, which was succeeded a year later by the Public Broadcasting Service.
For forty-five years, each episode aired in an hour-long format. Beginning in Season 45, in addition to the hour-long episodes, a half-hour version also aired in an afternoon time slot. The following season, the show's history of hour-long episodes was retired altogether, with the half-hour format being the only version broadcast. Season 46 also moved first-run episodes to HBO, with repeat broadcasts on PBS nine months later. The deal awarded exclusivity to HBO for five seasons, from seasons 46 through 50.
The show is broadcast worldwide; in addition to the U.S. version, many countries have locally-produced versions adapted to local needs, some with their own characters, and in a variety of different languages. One hundred and twenty countries have aired the show, many of which partnered with Sesame Workshop to create local versions.
As a result of its success in revolutionizing the standards of children's television, Sesame Street paved the way for the development of similar competitors and thus inadvertently diminished its own audience share. According to PBS Research, the show has gone from a 2.0 average on Nielsen Media Research's "people meters" in 1995-96 to a 1.3 average in 2000-01. Even with this decrease, Sesame Street's viewership in an average week comes from roughly 5.6 million households with 7.5 million viewers.
This placed Sesame at 8th place in the overall kids' charts in 2002. It was the second most-watched children's television series for mothers aged 18-49 who have children under the age of 3.
A format change in 2002 helped the show's ratings, boosting the show 31% in February 2002 among children aged 2-5, in comparison to its 2001 ratings. As of 2005, the show was in the top 10 shows for kids 2-5, with 3 other PBS shows.
Sesame Street is known for its multicultural elements and is inclusive in its casting, incorporating roles for disabled people, young people, senior citizens, Hispanic actors, black actors, and others. As recalled by CTW advisor Gerald S. Lesser in his book Children and Television: Lessons from Sesame Street, this integration initially led the Mississippi State Commission for Educational Television to ban the series, as did other states, though it was eventually reinstated. Mutual tolerance and cross-cultural friendship is also conveyed through the Muppet characters, who come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors and range from the humanoid Anything Muppets to various animals to Monsters, Birds, Grouches, Dingers and Honkers all of whom, especially the Grouches, have their own unique perspectives and ways of communicating with their neighbors. Yet they all manage to live in relative peace and harmony, setting an example for child viewers not to prejudge others.
Tying in with its multiculturalist perspective, the show pioneered the idea of occasionally inserting very basic Spanish words and phrases to acquaint young children to the concept of knowing more than one language. This practice was introduced in the show's second season, with Susan and Gordon learning phrases from Hispanic characters such as Miguel, Antonio, Rafael, Luis, and Maria (the last four of whom joined the show in the third season). One storyline involved the opening of a bilingual library. In 2002, the show's format allowed Rosita, the bilingual Muppet who joined the cast in 1991, more time in front of viewers, and also introduced the more formalized Spanish Word of the Day segment in every episode. Sign language has played a major role throughout the years, through Linda and visits from the National Theatre of the Deaf.
Many of the Muppet characters have been designed to represent a specific stage or element of early childhood, and the scripts are written so that the character reflects the development level of children of that age. This helps the show address not only the learning objectives of various age groups, but also the concerns, fears, and interests of children of different age levels.
Big Bird, an 8-foot-tall yellow bird, lives in a large nest on an abandoned lot adjacent to 123 Sesame Street, located behind the building's trash heap. A regular visitor to Big Bird is his best friend Mr. Snuffleupagus, or Snuffy as everyone calls him. Oscar the Grouch, Sesame Street's local Grouch and his pet worm Slimey live in a trash can in the heap. Oscar's most-seen regular visitor is his girlfriend Grundgetta. Best friends Ernie and Bert room together in the basement apartment of 123 Sesame Street where they regularly engage in comedic banter. Ernie's window box, though seen less often in recent years, is the home of the Twiddlebugs a colorful family of insects.
The bear family from Goldilocks and the Three Bears resides on Sesame Street. The family, headed by Papa Bear and Mama Bear welcomed their second child Curly Bear in 2003. Their son Baby Bear is a good friend of monsters Telly, Zoe, Mexican-born Rosita and Elmo. Beginning in 1998, Elmo was given his own segment, Elmo's World, occupying most of the show's second half as viewers explore topics in a crayon-drawn, imaginary version of Elmo's apartment. In 2012, Elmo's World was replaced by a new segment, Elmo the Musical, only to return in a revised format in 2017.
Grover's segment, "Global Grover," followed the self-described "lovable, furry pal" around the world exploring local cultures and traditions. Grover also has a super hero persona, Super Grover, and starting in 2010, he received an upgrade and appeared in sketches as Super Grover 2.0. Cookie Monster fought with his conscience daily during the Letter of the Day segment, as he tried to control his urges to eat the letters, drawn in icing on cookies. Prairie Dawn often attempted to help Cookie refrain from eating the letters, but would always leave frazzled. Count von Count had fewer problems during the Number of the Day segment where he indulged in counting until the mystery number was revealed by his Pipe Organ.
From 1993 to 1998, Sesame Street's set expanded to Around the Corner locations, which introduced several new Muppets, such as Humphrey and Ingrid, they worked at Sherry Netherland's hotel, The Furry Arms, with their baby Natasha in tow, while bellhop Benny Rabbit begrudgingly helped out.
In 2006, fairy-in-training Abby Cadabby moved to the street, and in 2009, she received her own CGI animated segment, Abby's Flying Fairy School, which includes new characters; her fellow students Gonnigan and Blögg, teacher Mrs. Sparklenose, and class pet Niblet. She later got a step brother, Rudy. Another animated segment, Abby's Amazing Adventures, followed in 2018.
Murray Monster looks for the word on the street, explores different types of schools with Ovejita in Murray Has a Little Lamb, and finds out about the scientific process in Murray's Science Experiments.
Kermit the Frog was a resident lecturer and acted as roving reporter for the "Sesame Street News Flash" segments. Since 2001, Kermit has made rare return appearances to the street, including the 50th Anniversary special in 2019. The Two-Headed Monster sounded out words coming together, and the Martians discovered telephones and typewriters. For two seasons, Googel, Narf, Mel and Phoebe hung out in the Monster's Clubhouse.
Other characters over the years have included game show host Guy Smiley; construction workers Biff and Sully; the large Herry Monster (who does not know his own strength); Roosevelt Franklin, who acted as teacher to his classmates at Roosevelt Franklin Elementary School; and The Big Bad Wolf, who is not a terror to the Street. Forgetful Jones, a cowboy with a short-term memory disorder, rode trusty Buster the Horse with his girlfriend Clementine. Starstruck Gladys the Cow would try out for any role she could, Fred the Wonder Horse assisted Grover in his Marshal Grover identity, and Rodeo Rosie was a cowgirl. Season 47 introduced Julia, a girl with autism.
A slate of human regulars pull the zaniness of the Muppets back to reality, and serve different pedagogical functions, showing literal integration and tolerance rather than metaphorically through colorful Muppets, and representing different personalities and adult "roles" and occupations.
Music teacher Bob has been on Sesame Street since its inception. For several years, he had a close friendship with Linda, the local librarian who was the first regular deaf character on television. The Robinsons are an African-American family that includes schoolteacher Gordon, nurse Susan, adopted son Miles, and Gordon's photographer sister Olivia. Maria and Luis Rodriguez are a Hispanic couple who run the Fix-It Shop. Maria gave birth to daughter Gabi in 1989, and her pregnancy was covered on the show. In 2011, Maria became the superintendent of 123 Sesame Street.
Candy store operator Mr. Hooper was a mainstay at Hooper's Store during the show's first decade. Actor Will Lee died in 1982 and when the producers opted to help their young viewers deal with the death of someone they loved rather than cast a new actor in the role, the character's death was discussed in a landmark 1983 episode. Afterwards, Mr. Hooper's apprentice, David, inherited the store and was assisted by Gina. Next came Mr. Handford, who ran the store for several seasons before turning it over to Alan, the current proprietor of Hooper's, in 1998. Gina stopped working at the store in the 1990s to earn a degree, and became a veterinarian. The show's most recent humans are Gordon and Susan's nephew, Chris, who works at Hooper's Store, Leela, who runs the laundromat, Armando, a Puerto Rican resident and writer, Nina, a babysitter who works at the bike shop, and Charlie, who moved to the street with her family after her parents retired from the military.
As of 2020, Chris, Alan, Nina, and Charlie are the only human regulars who appear on the show. Former cast members like Gordon, Bob and Luis, however, have occasionally appeared in online videos for the show that have been released since. Many human cast members who had been absent from the series made a return appearance for the special Sesame Street's 50th Anniversary Celebration.
Mr. Noodle and his brother and sister, who appeared only in Elmo's World were meant to provide a vaudevillian perspective on subjects, contrary to most of the show's human characters. The show's earliest seasons featured a number of similar human comedy duos who appeared in their own inserts. These include Buddy and Jim, Larry and Phyllis, and Wally and Ralph.
In addition to the street scenes and the Muppet segments which would eventually dominate the show, Sesame Street has made considerable use of film inserts subcontracted to a variety of filmmakers and artists. These inserts have used a variety of techniques, from filmed skits and documentary footage to cel animation, stop-motion, CG, and pixillation.
Some of the innumerable contributors have included William Wegman (with Fay Ray and his other dogs), Bud Luckey, Jeff Hale and his Imagination Inc. studio, Sally Cruikshank, Bruce Cayard, and Pixar, as well as staffers such as Mo Willems, David Rudman, Frank Oz, and Jim Henson. Notable recurring inserts, which became as much a part of the show's fabric as the Muppets and human cast, include the Mad Painter, "Pinball Number Count," the Number Song Series with its falling baker, and Teeny Little Super Guy, to name a few.
Short form series
The show has also spawned the spin-off series Play with Me Sesame and Sesame Street Unpaved (showing classic episodes), both seen on the Noggin cable network; as well as the segment-only series Open Sesame. Elmo's World and Global Grover, both segments on Sesame Street, have been distributed internationally as individual series.
After the format changed in 2002, the show has had a number of short form series which air as segments of the show but internationally air as their own separate series. On the show itself, these air on either a daily basis or in every other show. Such series include Elmo's World, Bert and Ernie's Great Adventures, Cookie's Crumby Pictures, Abby's Flying Fairy School, Super Grover 2.0, Elmo the Musical, and Smart Cookies, among others.
Sesame Street has maintained a rigorous research standard since its foundation, to ensure that the programming is addressing the needs of its viewers. The Education and Research (E&R) department of Sesame Workshop is currently headed by Rosemarie T. Truglio, Ph.D. and Jeanette Betancourt. Truglio states that the level of interaction between E&R, Content, and Production is "intimately hand-in-hand. They are not creating anything without our knowledge, our guidance and our review. We are involved in content development across all media platforms." This close-knit organizational structure has been an integral part of Sesame Workshop since it began.
Writers create plots for Sesame Street scenes and segments, and the content is reviewed by the E&R team. They have authority to reject a script and force rewrites if the content is not acceptable. When a script is factually correct, but includes gray areas that may not be comprehensible to children, the writers and E&R work together to tweak everything. "A balance between content and humor" is always maintained, according to Truglio.
Since 1998, Sesame Workshop has provided extensive content on its website and others such as Random House . Content ranges from birth to school-age, and includes information on dozens of topics, such as appropriate parenting techniques, dealing with children's fears, development of literacy, and maintenance a good health.
Research is funded by government grants, corporate and private donations, and the profits gained from the sale of Sesame Workshop merchandise.
Sesame Street is known for its extensive merchandising, which includes many books, magazines, audiovisual media, toys, and the "Tickle Me Elmo" craze.
Its fiction books have sometimes displayed a notice stating that money received from the sale of the publications is used to fund Sesame Workshop, and mention that children do not have to watch the show to benefit from its publications.
Sesame Street Live has traveled across North America since 1980 showcasing full-bodied, walk-around versions of the Sesame Street characters. The property is also represented in the Sesame Place theme park in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, and a Plaza Sésamo theme park in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico. Additionally, Sesame Street characters are a major prescence at Universal Studios theme parks in Japan and Singapore.
The Sesame Beginnings line, launched in mid-2005, consists of apparel, health and body, home, and seasonal products. The line is targeted towards infants and their parents, and products are designed to increase interactivity. Most of the line is exclusive to a family of Canadian retailers.
Creative Wonders (a partnership between ABC and Electronic Arts) produced Sesame Street software for the PC.
Movies and specials
In addition to episodic television, Sesame Street has released two theatrical feature films, with a third in development. A number of TV movies and specials have also been produced including Don't Eat the Pictures, Big Bird in China, and many others, as well as several direct-to-video titles.
Some educators criticized the show when it debuted, claiming that its format would contribute to shortening children's attention spans. This concern still exists today, although there is no conclusive proof of this being the case, even after more than 40 years of televised shows.
In a letter to the Boston Globe, Boston University professor of education Frank Garfunkel commented, "If what people want is for their children to memorize numbers and letters without regard to their meaning or use -- without regard to the differences between children, then Sesame Street is truly responsive. To give a child thirty seconds of one thing and then to switch it and give him thirty seconds of another is to nurture irrelevance."
In the magazine Childhood Education, Minnie P. Berson of State University College at Fredonia asked "Why debase the art form of teaching with phony pedagogy, vulgar sideshows, bad acting, and layers of smoke and fog to clog the eager minds of small children?" These "vulgar sideshows" have since won a record 101 Emmys, suggesting a measure of disagreement from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
For an animated segment on the letter "J", the writers included "a day in jail", justifying it by stating that words beginning with "J" were sparse. This drew criticism from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Terrence O'Flaherty, despite executive producer David Connell's assertion that kids would be familiar with the word through shows like Batman and Superman.
Even with its attempts to help the underprivileged, the series received criticism. Educator Sister Mary Mel O'Dowd worried that the show might start to replace "personalized experiences". "If Sesame Street is the only thing ghetto kids have, I don't think it's going to do much good. It never hurts a child to be able to count to ten or recognize the letters of the alphabet. But without the guidance of a teacher, he'll be like one of our preschoolers who was able to write "CAUTION" on the blackboard after seeing it on the back of so many buses, and told me 'That says STOP.'"
As early as 1972, CTW began partnering with foreign countries to develop dubbed versions of the show as well as co-productions with their own content. The original programs introduced new settings and characters modeled after those established in the American version, sometimes carrying over familiar characters and inserts.
In the late 1990s, versions popped up in China and Russia as these countries shifted away from communism somewhat. There is also a joint Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian project, called Sesame Stories, which was created with the goal of promoting greater cultural understanding.
Over three dozen co-productions have aired over the years; see: International Sesame Street.
- Some notable rumors about Sesame Street over the decades include Bert and Ernie's relationship, the dubious claim that they were named for characters in It's a Wonderful Life, the death of Ernie by cancer, the introduction of a Muppet with AIDS, Cookie Monster becoming the Veggie Monster, and Elmo toys corrupting children. See also: Category:Rumors
- The Sesame Street theme song — "Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?" — originally featured a solo by harmonica legend Toots Thielemans, and for years, his recording of the theme was used in extended sequences of the show's closing credits.
- Lesser, Gerald S. Children and Television: Lessons from Sesame Street. New York: Random House, 1974.
- Morrow, Robert W. Sesame Street and the Reform of Children's Television. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2006.
- Sesame Workshop Press Release (via ToughPigs.com A Half-Hour Sesame Street Is Coming June 18, 2014
- ToughPigs.com The Half-hour Sesame Street Is Now the Only Sesame Street August 13, 2015
- 'Sesame Street' to Air First on HBO for Next 5 Seasons. The New York Times. August 13, 2015
- HBO Max and Sesame Workshop Announce New Content Partnership Cementing a Shared Commitment to Kids and Families. Sesame Workshop press release, October 3, 2019
- The Boston Globe "New character joins PBS" by Joanna Weiss, 10/19/05
- Sesame Workshop press kit