The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Friday, October 23, 2009
THE PARTS LEFT OUT OF THE SESAME STREET ARTICLE: Before Sesame Street, "educational TV" usually meant awkward efforts to broadcast academic content in a traditional academic manner. Afterwards it meant trying to discern what kids were already learning from television and to reverse-engineer a method of delivering lessons the same way. Most famously, this meant creating commercials for letters, numbers, and basic concepts, in hopes that the same children who learned jingles by osmosis could learn spelling and counting the same way.

That experiment turns 40 next month, and I wrote a bit about its history in the November issue of Reason. That article is now
online. There's a bunch of stuff I wanted to discuss in it but didn't have room to get into. Fortunately, I’ve got all the space I want here on the blog.

The story says, for example, that for the show's "first two decades on the air, writers and performers were usually free to follow their creative instincts." I didn't have room to list any of the times the bureaucrats did manage to rein in the creative side. One of the funniest Muppets, the soulful schoolkid Roosevelt Franklin, was axed, for example, because some blacks in the organization felt he was too much of a stereotype. (The equally black people who had created him, and his substantial black fan base, presumably felt differently.) After 14 years in which the show's grown-ups refused to believe in Big Bird's best friend, the Eeyorish and elephantine Mr. Snuffleupagus, the '80s panic over child abuse prompted the program to end the running gag, for fear that it would discourage children from telling parents if they'd been molested. And then there's Don Music, the ever-frustrated singer-songwriter who co-starred in several funny sketches with Kermit the Frog. He was effectively eliminated when producers heard that a few kids here and there were copying his habit of banging his head on the piano.

Also, the story mentions that Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, was blacklisted in the McCarthy era. I didn't have room to add that Matt Robinson, the original Gordon and the voice of Roosevelt Franklin, was the son of a Stalinist poet. So the show's cast included more than one man with a radical background. But the show's creators were liberals, not radicals, and sometimes rather fretful liberals at that. According to Street Gang, Michael Davis' recent history of the program, when Jim Henson turned up at a planning seminar, Joan Ganz Cooney was worried that the bearded stranger might be a member of the Weather Underground. "How do we know that man back there isn't going to throw a bomb up here or toss a hand grenade?" she whispered to a friend.

Another difference between liberals and radicals: In the '60s, liberals gave lip service to allowing the poor "maximum feasible participation" in the programs designed for them. For radicals, participation was the opening demand. As I wrote in the article, you can see that distinction at work in the show's approach to education. As I didn't have room to write, you can also see it in the show's approach to TV. Liberal television was about giving viewers the programs that would be good for them. Radical television—or "guerilla television," as it preferred to call itself—was about giving ordinary people access to the airwaves to do with as they pleased. Its partisans were filled with utopian hopes for the new medium of cable TV, which they envisioned as something closer in spirit to YouTube than to Comcast.

That wasn't what Sesame Street was up to. But I'm happy to report that YouTube today is filled not just with classic Sesame clips but with a host of Sesame remixes, mashups, and parodies. It took four decades, but the radicals got their hands on the show after all.

posted by Jesse 4:02 PM
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