The Great Red (Muppet) Menace
Back around Christmas time, I remember talking to some family members and friends who had kids around my daughter’s age (between 14-20 months). Lots of questions about what her favorite TV shows were. I tried to fake some answers but in reality, she didn’t watch much. It’s not like we had actively tried to encourage or discourage TV Time, but there were certainly times that the TV was on, and even times we put on a children’s show in an attempt to actually get something done around the house. But she didn’t seem interested and when confronted by other parents, I wondered if she was an anomaly Were we good parents or were we the bad parents?
I mean, the experts say no screen time until they’re two, right?
Hey experts, you want to come offer some free babysitting while I’m getting ready in the morning?
Because my baby’s aversion/disinterest in television came crashing down right around twenty months. Now she regularly wants to take her place among the American public by plopping her butt right in front of the Boob Tube. And she can binge watch like a motherfucker.
Oh hey, kids? If you just found this blog after googling Sesame Street, this might be a good time to move along to another blog. And maybe stop going to the 117th page of Google results.
My daughter’s tastes are not all that refined, however. In fact, there are really only two shows she watches. The first is Bubble Guppies. I like Bubble Guppies. It features six mermaid-type kids that are in school. Or at least they are enrolled in school despite their best attempts at truancy. Each episode starts with two of them seeing something as they dally, unsupervised, on their way to school. Then they get to school and are excited about what they witnessed, and their teacher, Mr. Grouper, immediately delves into a lesson on the topic.
Really, Mr. Grouper? It’s called a lesson plan. You’re just going to scrap what you were going to teach because some kids come in excited about something? If I did that, every day I’d be teaching about teenagers getting “hella crunked over the weekend.”
To say nothing of the Bubble Guppies’ parents. What the hell are you doing letting your kids randomly walk to school through marathons or loading docks or the train station? Just because their teacher indulges their delinquent behavior doesn’t mean you should!
But I digress. The episode then revolves around this theme. They sing songs, they set up a make-believe shop selling items related to the topic, then they have lunch, then go outside (“Line up, everybody, line up, line up…”) and pretend to be that thing. And through it all they ask the viewers to help them solve problems with budding skills in math and literacy.
As I said, I like Bubble Guppies. But my daughter quickly grew tired of it, and now always tries to push me toward her current addiction. She asks, and I say, “Bubble?” “No Bubble, Daddy.”
Except sometimes she manipulates me. After I say I don’t want to watch the other show, she says “Yes, Bubble.” And I say, “Yay, Bubble,” then I go turn on the TV, and repeat “Bubble?” Then, with the TV on and me already thumbing through the DVR, she magically changes her mind. “No Bubble….”
“Elmo! Elmo! Elmo!”
I don’t even know how she learned who Elmo was, but she was saying his name before she had watched an episode of Sesame Street. I’m sure it’s just like every other addiction – peer pressure from those other kids at school.
I originally pushed for Sesame Street. Before we discovered Bubble Guppies, Sesame Street was one of the shows we tried to occupy her with back when she wouldn’t watch. I was keen to avoid the likes of Caillou and Barney and the other dregs of children’s television.
I grew up on Sesame Street.
But this ain’t her father’s Sesame Street.
“Can you tell me what they’ve done, what they’ve done to Sesame Street?”
And before I get all “get off my front lawn” about it, I’m not saying they should have always kept things the same. I’m not opposed to change for change’s sake. It wouldn’t really make sense for all of the characters to be wearing disco pants like they were when I was watching the show in the 1970s. And for obvious reasons, Jim Hensen can’t voice a lot of the Muppets that he used to voice.
I like that they encourage kids to get up and move around more than they used to.
And I know that Snuffleupagus can’t be an imaginary friend anymore because we don’t want kids to keep quiet about abuse. I might question how much it’s made a difference. I’d be interested to see if there was an uptick in child abuse reports once Snuffleupagus was revealed to be real. But if that statistic was even one, then it’s worth it.
And truthfully, some of the problems are getting a little better since HBO took over. HBO’s increased the production value immensely. Once you can get past the all the full frontal nudity. (I’ll take “The Obvious Joke” for two hundred, Alex.)
But there are some things about Sesame Street that still bug me:
- Character Voices.
Grover is now voiced by the same person that does Miss Piggy. Grover sounds exactly like Miss Piggy. And Big Bird sounds like Big Dork.
- Muppet Lower Torsos.
I assume this is easier with CGI, but just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. It just looks awkward. Check out the closing credits from last year or this year. Awkward. And man, in the latter, Grover needs to do some squats or something. Not sure how he manages to lug that potbelly around on those spindly legs.
If you’re as old as me, you might have noticed some new Muppets in those clips. Of course, I pre-date Elmo, but you would have had to be deaf and dead to not know of him. One in particular, the pink one with pigtails and a wand, is Abby. Abby Cadaby, to be exact. She is a magician. Abra Cadabra – Abby Cadaby, get it?
Abby is probably the second-most featured character on Sesame Street these days. She hasn’t infiltrated out amongst the general population as much as Elmo has yet, but among Sesame Street groupies, she’s almost as ubiquitous.
Abby Cadaby, being a magician, actually casts spells and makes things magically appear. Really, Sesame Street? Magic? What a lazy shortcut to storytelling. I mean, stick to the giant talking birds and cookie-obsessed monsters and green dudes that live in trash cans. Why do you need to add something fake, like magic?
- Episode structure.
I seem to remember that the interactions between humans and Muppets on Sesame Street (ie the entire point of the show) were spread out over the course of the entire episode, interspersed with various vignettes. A typical episode might go: Introduce Problem/Theme, Video of animals, Continue storyline, Aliens creating compound word, Preview resolution on “The Street,” Different Muppet video, then back to the Street for resolution and lessons learned.
Today’s episodes frontload all of the plot/lesson/Street scenes so they are self-contained, and completely over by the time we hit the ten minute mark. Then it’s on to the vignettes, maybe with Murray and his Little Lamb at a school or Cookie Monster exercising self-control. I will address the last ten minutes in #5 below.
I assume this re-organization is partly because episodes are now only a half-hour instead of an hour. Damn you, Mitt Romney! Oh wait, he lost? But you know what happens. Republicans are elected and they cut funding, then Democrats are elected and they restore the funding but also increase the ability of Muppet Local 2658 to negotiate exorbitant pensions that shoestring the show’s budget.
Or maybe it’s because these whippersnappers can’t pay attention to a storyline once it breaks away. We’re no longer training the TV watchers of tomorrow to remember the plot through a commercial break. Boy, back in my day, we had to watch commercials, uphill both ways, in the snow. You little rats have DVR’s now.
Then again, Bubble Guppies can break up the theme throughout an episode.
“No, Daddy, no….”
As I mentioned, I was familiar with Elmo going into this rediscovery process. I used to use Tickle Me Elmo as an example of demand and shortages in economics class, up until that particular zeitgeist craze started pre-dating my students. I’ll let that sink in with some of my older readers – current high school seniors were born in 1998.
So yeah, I was aware Elmo existed. What I wasn’t aware of was that Sesame Street had pretty much become the Elmo show. Take Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, multiply it by Cartman in South Park, and raise it to the power of Barney in How I Met Your Mother and you will begin to approach the degree to which the Giant Red Menace has spread his socialist scourge across Sesame Street. And his pinko girlfriend, Abby, too.
I would guess one of those two is on screen about seventy percent of the time. And if you only count the times that a Muppet is on screen, that would rise to over ninety percent. I’m trying to think of a time that any other Muppet shows up without Elmo lurking on the margins like a Mafioso Union Boss. The only time is when Murray and his Little Lamb go to school, and that’s only in the recent HBO shows. By comparison, Big Bird doesn’t even show up in half of the episodes, and Oscar the Grouch might as well be considered a guest star these days.
Oh, and that “last ten minutes of the show” I referenced earlier? That’s “Elmo’s World,” a completely separate entity. No other cast members, puppet or human, are allowed entry into Elmo’s World. Not even Abby. It’s Elmo, his pet goldfish, and a couple of humans named Mr. Noodle. There are two Mr. Noodles and they are both called Mr. Noodle, unless they’re both on the screen at the same time, in which case they are Mr. Noodle and Other Mr. Noodle. Just like a tyrant to not let the dudes each have their own name. But Mr. Noodle(s) are contained in the Sweatshop that is Elmo’s World, and are not allowed to venture out into Sesame Street proper. Elmo needs to keep his empires separate, like when Walter White picked up that second cellphone.
And really, how is Elmo a good role model? He talks about himself in the third person constantly. “Elmo has a question.” “Dance with Elmo.” “Elmo’s gonna fuck you up and Elmo-shit on your Elmo-fucked corpse.”
That last one might be a misquote.
I know no Muppet is perfect. Each has his or her own little foibles. Oscar represents sloth, the Count has certain OCD tendencies, and Big Bird suffers from the deadly sin of dorkiness. Cookie Monster, in addition to some slightly gluttonous persuasions, also uses the word “me” in place of “I.” But a little subject/direct object pronoun confusion is fine next to the megalomaniacal tyrant that is Elmo.
In fact, I expect Elmo to endorse Donald Trump any day now. It’s too bad he’s only been around since the early 1990s, he’s too young to be Donald’s VP pick. They’d make a natural pairing, and Elmo might be able to bring Republicans back to the fold, reminding them of the third-person self-references of the Bob Dole days.
And with Elmo on the campaign trail, maybe I’d finally win the mental tug-of-war with my twenty-three month old daughter.
But until then, it’s another steady dose of…
“No, Daddy, no… Elmo!”