Over the years, Sesame Street storylines have tackled such varied life issues as death, adoption, marriage, and birth, often inspired by national statistics or events within the circle of the show's own cast and crew. In 1992, the subject of divorce was the big project of the season, resulting in an unaired episode in which the mother and father of Mr. Snuffleupagus (and his sister Alice) get a divorce.
The decision to tackle the issue of divorce was a weighty one for the Children's Television Workshop, and the idea had a long gestation period. As early as 1989, writer/director Jon Stone announced that he was attempting to examine the issue:
“We make a conscious decision on what to look at. My two projects for this year are drugs and divorce. Divorce is a difficult one. Perhaps we could do it with puppets. I am also writing a script on drugs and peer pressure.”
Other crew and cast members expressed mixed feelings on the topic, however, even before the script was written. In fact, in 1990, executive producer Dulcy Singer initially vetoed it. Singer was concerned with tackling more complex social matters, but also wanted to primarily emphasize issues affecting lower socio-economic groups, returning to the show's original target audience of inner city and financially disadvantaged families. She opposed the idea, claiming that "Divorce is a middle-class thing," instead preferring a story illustrating a single-parent family, with the child born out of wedlock with an absent father. To some extent, this may have been fulfilled in a Sesame Street News Flash about a bird, whose parents live in different trees.
Choosing an Approach
The topic of divorce would not be ignored, however, and it was discussed again the following year. The decision was affected by Census Bureau statistics, revealing that 40 percent of all children in the United States, not just the middle classes, would soon live in divorced households. Even so, it still required adjustment, for writers and performers alike. Jerry Nelson noted that "Now we delve into things like divorce that are likely to affect small children very heavily. We didn't touch those things before."
The first obstacle was determining how to address the issue in a narrative, and whether to use the Muppet characters or the human cast. Producer-director Lisa Simon publicly reported on the difficulties:
“We hope to get to it by the end of the season. It always takes us a while to figure out how to do an issue appropriately, from a child's point of view... With puppets, it's slightly less frightening...The kids have somebody to identify with. They see the puppet characters have feelings and work through a difficult issue many of them will have to face.”
“They once tried to deal with the subject of divorce. They knew they couldn't do it with either of our married couples - Gordon and Susan or Maria and Luis - so they tried it with Snuffleupagus, writing a show about his parents getting divorced. They wrote a whole show and taped it, and it was just devastating for test groups of kids. So they just threw the whole thing in the garbage and never tried it again. It was just too difficult a concept for a 3-year-old.”
The Test Results
The tentatively scheduled airdate for the broadcast was April 10, 1992. The episode, intended as #2985, "Snuffy's Parents Get a Divorce," was written by Norman Stiles (who had previously tackled the issue of Mr. Hooper's death in Episode 1839), and the script was subject to scrutiny by the advisory board and developmental psychologists. The board suggested that the script more heavily emphasize the fact that arguments do not automatically mean divorce. The script was revised, the story was taped, and the completed episode screened before a test audience of sixty children. Dulcy Singer still had her doubts:
“We were really nervous about the show, and we didn't think it was a shoo-in. When you're dealing with something like death, the approach can be universal. But with divorce, it's so personal. People react differently.”
The final episode addressed the advisors' concerns via a conversation in which Gordon reassures Elmo, Big Bird, and Telly that "Just because parents have an argument, or get upset with each other, doesn't mean they're getting a divorce... Or that they don't love each other anymore." He also reassured Snuffy and his sister Alice that it's not their fault, "No, not even if you spill something."
The reassurances had little effect on the test viewers, however, especially taken in conjunction with the rest of the episode. While Mommy Snuffleupagus had been a recurring character on the series for several years, Snuffy's Daddy had been a more elusive figure; like so many Muppet parents, his appearances were generally limited to storybooks. When he does appear in the episode, arriving for a weekend visit, Alice attempts to bring him inside, but he reminds her that "I don't live here anymore." Children were unclear on where Snuffy's parents lived, especially the father, and believed that Daddy "ran away and Snuffy and Alice would never see their father again."
The realistic depiction of the Snuffleupagus children struggling emotionally with the issue also proved troubling. In one scene, as Alice overhears her parents arguing in the next cave, she pounds and kicks her teddy bear out of frustration. Singer weighed in on the reactions, which, despite the care taken, revealed both emotional responses and misunderstandings of the very points which the script attempted to clarify:
“The kids came away with negative messages... The kids said she stabbed the teddy bear with a knife. The kids misunderstood arguments. They said arguments did mean divorce. Some thought Snuffy's parents were moving away even though we said just the opposite. A number said the parents would no longer be in love with them.”
With the testing results in, research director Valeria Lovelace recommended scrapping the episode and going "back to the drawing board," and the idea was abandoned, at least for the season. Initially, there was some talk of attempting to broach the divorce issue later on, perhaps in multiple parts. However, as producer Michael Loman recalled, "We ate the cost and never aired it. We feel there are a range of issues that we can deal with in the family that do not go to the extreme of divorce."
A single screenshot from the episode can be seen in 40 Years of Life on the Street, depicting the scene immediately following Daddy Snuffle dropping the kids off at their mom's house. Noel MacNeal voiced Daddy Snuffle for the show. While MacNeal normally performed Mommy Snuffleupagus as well, this time he only did the suit performance while Eureeka's Castle puppeteer Lynn Hippen supplied vocals for a "clear female voice."
The subject of divorce was revisited nearly 20 years later, with the production of an educational resource video, Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce, which debuted in December 2012.
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- ToughPigs.com "A Chat with Noel MacNeal, Part 1" by Ryan Roe, February 14, 2011