Sesame Street Without the Sass (and Not Much Bert) at Arizona Science Center
I was too old for Sesame Street.
When it debuted in November 1969, I was in the second grade, and this oddball educational show wasn't yet a groundbreaking, game-changing cultural touchstone. It was a brand-new public TV kiddy program aimed at 3- to 5-year-olds just learning their ABCs. I already knew the alphabet; in fact, I'd recently gotten in trouble with my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Jorgensen, for turning in a book report on Animal Farm (not, she insisted, appropriate reading for a 7-year-old). But still I rushed home from school each day to watch Susan and Gordon (the first Gordon — the real Gordon — not the bald guy who later replaced him) and Bob and Mr. Hooper hanging out on an inner-city New York street, comparing notes on the letter G and counting to 10.
I was there for the Muppets. The worst part about going to school was having to go to bed at 7, which meant that on Sunday nights I missed The Ed Sullivan Show and, therefore, his castmates, the Muppets.
I was obsessed with them. They were puppets, but they were different from that cheeseball Mr. Moose on Captain Kangaroo or the embarrassing, goody-two-shoes papier mâché-headed losers on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. The Muppets were smart-alecky and sarcastic — things I got into trouble for at home, but for which the Muppets were applauded on nighttime TV. Some of them were monsters who ran around eating other people's possessions and, every once in a while, one another. They were puppets for adults, and I, a little boy who longed to be addressed as a grownup, felt a kinship with a children's entertainment so full of irony and scorn — words I didn't even know yet.
The Muppets brought their late-night sneers to Sesame Street — rolling their plastic eyes at the different pronunciations of lower-case "e" and making wisecracks about the difference between "up" and "down" and singing, for no apparent reason, "Lulu's Back in Town" (and then revealing that Lulu was a big, ugly, green monster with halitosis). The Muppets appeared to be making fun of children, which made me feel less awful about being a 37-year-old trapped in a kid's body.
And so I was, right up through fourth grade, a closet Sesame Street watcher. It aired on the local PBS affiliate twice a day and five times on Saturdays, and I tuned in for years, slogging my way through the counting lessons and the cute mini-documentaries about how to mail a letter. I was especially fond of Bert, a cranky malcontent who thought his best friend was a dope. He's just like me, I thought, except bullet-shaped and made out of felt.
I looked forward to seeing my old friend at "Sesame Street Presents: The Body," an educational attraction currently on exhibit at the Arizona Science Center. But there is very little Bert — and absolutely no sarcasm — in this hands-on exhibition that teaches kids about how their bodies work.
It was nice to see Grover and Oscar again, and the exhibit's re-creation of the front stoop of Susan and Gordon's brownstone is pretty much dead-on. But I'd forgotten about Elmo, that shrieky little cry-baby whose annoying personality is smeared all over this exhibition. Elmo — and the Walt Disney Corporation, which now owns the Muppets — appears to have rubbed off on the formerly snarky puppets of Sesame Street, because Oscar's earnest patter about the digestive system was completely devoid of the bitchiness that once made him so appealing. And Ernie, who I remember as childlike and cynical, comes across in this fun-with-science cabaret as a bothersome nincompoop.
But the children I watched traipsing through the Science Center's ersatz Sesame Street didn't seem bothered by its lack of puppet ennui. One little girl kept shrieking Grover's name, and a pair of small boys appeared enraptured by Ernie's rubber ducky. Poor kids, I thought, watching them play with something called "Oscar's Sneeze Machine." They'll never know the joy of being mocked by the green guy in the garbage can.
I am definitely too old for Sesame Street.
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