Sesame Street is Not for Kids

Or was not for kids, I should say. According to the NY Times, we all grew up watching a show that was scarring our innocent little minds, would never be shown to children today, and whose re-release on DVD requires a warning that what is contained is not appropriate for children.

Sunny days! The earliest episodes of “Sesame Street” are available on digital video! Break out some Keebler products, fire up the DVD player and prepare for the exquisite pleasure-pain of top-shelf nostalgia.

Just don’t bring the children. According to an earnest warning on Volumes 1 and 2, “Sesame Street: Old School” is adults-only: “These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child.”

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The masonry on the dingy brownstone at 123 Sesame Street, where the closeted Ernie and Bert shared a dismal basement apartment, was deteriorating. Cookie Monster was on a fast track to diabetes. Oscar’s depression was untreated. Prozacky Elmo didn’t exist.

Nothing in the children’s entertainment of today, candy-colored animation hopped up on computer tricks, can prepare young or old for this frightening glimpse of simpler times. Back then — as on the very first episode, which aired on PBS Nov. 10, 1969 — a pretty, lonely girl like Sally might find herself befriended by an older male stranger who held her hand and took her home. Granted, Gordon just wanted Sally to meet his wife and have some milk and cookies, but . . . well, he could have wanted anything. As it was, he fed her milk and cookies. The milk looks dangerously whole.

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Cows are milked by plain old farmers, who use their unsanitary hands and fill one bucket at a time. Elsewhere, two brothers risk concussion while whaling on each other with allergenic feather pillows. Overweight layabouts, lacking touch-screen iPods and headphones, jockey for airtime with their deafening transistor radios. And one of those radios plays a late-’60s news report — something about a “senior American official” and “two billion in credit over the next five years” — that conjures a bleak economic climate, with war debt and stagflation in the offing.

The old “Sesame Street” is not for the faint of heart, and certainly not for softies born since 1998, when the chipper “Elmo’s World” started. Anyone who considers bull markets normal, extracurricular activities sacrosanct and New York a tidy, governable place — well, the original “Sesame Street” might hurt your feelings.

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She told me about Alistair Cookie and the parody “Monsterpiece Theater.” Alistair Cookie, played by Cookie Monster, used to appear with a pipe, which he later gobbled. According to Parente, “That modeled the wrong behavior” — smoking, eating pipes — “so we reshot those scenes without the pipe, and then we dropped the parody altogether.”

Which brought Parente to a feature of “Sesame Street” that had not been reconstructed: the chronically mood-disordered Oscar the Grouch. On the first episode, Oscar seems irredeemably miserable — hypersensitive, sarcastic, misanthropic. (Bert, too, is described as grouchy; none of the characters, in fact, is especially sunshiney except maybe Ernie, who also seems slow.) “We might not be able to create a character like Oscar now,” she said.

Snuffleupagus is visible only to Big Bird; since 1985, all the characters can see him, as Big Bird’s old protestations that he was not hallucinating came to seem a little creepy, not to mention somewhat strained. As for Cookie Monster, he can be seen in the old-school episodes in his former inglorious incarnation: a blue, googly-eyed cookievore with a signature gobble (“om nom nom nom”). Originally designed by Jim Henson for use in commercials for General Foods International and Frito-Lay, Cookie Monster was never a righteous figure. His controversial conversion to a more diverse diet wouldn’t come until 2005, and in the early seasons he comes across a Child’s First Addict.

Should we all sue?

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