FIFTY years ago, beloved entertainer Carol Burnett appeared on the very first broadcast of a quirky TV program that featured a bunch of furry puppets.
That show was Sesame Street and Burnett, like a lot of kids, was instantly hooked. She would return to the show multiple times, including visits to demonstrate to preschool 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 – sponsored by the letters W, S and E and the numbers 2 and 3 – aired in the autumn of 1969.
It was a turbulent time in America, rocked by the Vietnam War and raw from the assassination of Martin Luther King the year before. The media, like today, was going through disruption.
Newt Minow, who was the Federal Communications Commission chairman at the time, famously said TV was becoming “a vast wasteland”. Like today, there was lots of content, but it wasn’t necessarily quality.
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.”
The show was designed by education professionals and child psychologists with one goal: to help low-income and minority students aged 2-5 overcome some of the deficiencies they had when entering school. Social scientists had long noted white and higher income kids were often better prepared.
So, it wasn’t an accident that the show was set on an urban street with a multicultural cast. Diversity and inclusion were baked into the show. Monsters, humans and animals all lived together peacefully.
It became the first children’s program 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, women’s rights, military families and even girls singing about loving their hair.
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.
“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 “Sesame Street.”
Music has always been a big part of the show and its song Rubber Duckie peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard charts in 1970. Sing, which premiered on the show, went even higher, hitting No. 3 on Billboard in 1973 when the Carpenters recorded it.
There have been a few bumps in the road, like Roosevelt Franklin, an early puppet whose stereotypical African American dialect offended many.
Katy Perry showed a little too much Katy Perry for some parents in 2010 and Cookie Monster, in the face of an obesity epidemic, had to moderate his adoration of cookies to “a sometimes food”.