‘Goodness and humor’ celebrated as ‘Sesame Street’ turns 50

Grover, a muppet character for Sesame Street.

Grover, a muppet character for Sesame Street.   | Photo Credit: AP

Over the years, the educational show has become a children’s favourite

Fifty years ago, beloved entertainer Carol Burnett appeared on the very first broadcast of a quirky TV programme that featured a bunch of furry puppets.

Blink and you might miss it, but Ms. Burnett followed a cartoon about a witch called Wanda, which was loaded with words beginning with the letter w.

“Wow, Wanda the Witch is weird,” Ms. Burnett commented. And then poof she was gone.

First episode

That show was Sesame Street and Ms. Burnett was instantly hooked. She would return to the show multiple times, including visits to demonstrate to pre-school viewers where her nose was and to smooch a rubber duckie.

“I was a big fan. I would have done anything they wanted me to do,” she said. “I loved being exposed to all that goodness and humour.”

This first episode of Sesame Street aired in 1969. It was a turbulent time in America, rocked by the Vietnam War and raw from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King the year before.

Enter “Sesame Street” creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, who worked with Harvard University developmental psychologist Gerald Lesser to build the show’s unique approach to teaching that now reaches 120 million children. Legendary puppeteer Jim Henson supplied the critters.

“It wasn’t about if kids were learning from TV, it was about what they were learning from TV,” said Steve Youngwood, the chief operating officer of Sesame Workshop. “If they could harness that power to teach them the alphabet and their numbers as opposed to the words to beer commercials, you may be able to make a really big difference.”

Diversity is key

Over the years, Sesame Street has had many firsts. It became the first children’s programme to feature someone with Down Syndrome. It’s had puppets with HIV and in foster care, invited children in wheelchairs, dealt with topics like jailed parents, homelessness and women’s rights.

It introduced the bilingual Rosita the first Latina Muppet in 1991. Julia, a 4-year-old Muppet with autism came in 2017 and this year has offered help for kids whose parents are dealing with addiction and recovery. So important is the show that PETA recently asked for the creation of a vegan Muppet.

Before each season, educators and creators gather to align the curriculum with the latest thinking.

In the past, for example, narrative stories were broken up into little chunks because the thinking at the time was that kids couldn’t follow a long story. That turns out not to be true, and “Sesame Street” now delivers 10-minute narratives.

Sesame Workshop has also pared down episodes from an hour to 30 minutes, and the show is now shot on 4K, with the creators knowing that many children are watching on tablets or phones.

“We are a mirror to society here even though we’re dealing with birds and chickens and monsters,” said Matt Vogel, the puppeteer who portrays Big Bird and the Count and who grew up watching the show.

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Printable version | Feb 24, 2020 7:04:52 AM |

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