Tomorrow will mark 40 years of "sunny days" and "everything's A-OKs" on PBS's venerable "Sesame Street," the children's show that introduced the world to Big Bird and unleashed the fuzzy red Elmo.
There's no mention of the occasion in tomorrow's season premiere, but it is recognized in a new coffee-table book, "Sesame Street: A Celebration -- 40 Years of Life on the Street" ($40, Black Dog & Leventhal), written by Louise Gikow.
"They completely raised the bar for children's television. They brought education into TV in a way that was not only palatable but extremely attractive for kids," said Gikow, who has done freelance projects for Sesame Workshop, the production company that makes the series. "I don't think 'Blues Clues' or 'Dora the Explorer' or a ton of PBS shows would have happened if it weren't for 'Sesame Street.' "
Creator Joan Ganz Cooney brought her experience producing documentaries about urban literacy initiatives to the project that would become "Sesame Street." She melded a comedic sensibility inspired by "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" with an educational curriculum. To make it palatable to parents, "Sesame Street" includes parodies of current pop culture, including a "Mad Men" spoof (about emotions) for the show's new season.
" 'Sesame Street' has always been written on two levels," said Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, executive vice president of education and research for Sesame Workshop. "The children don't understand these parodies, but the adult does."
The series also made a point of showing the diversity of the human characters in its inner-city setting.
"A lot of people didn't take that seriously as an appealing factor back in '69," said Sharon Ross, assistant chair of the TV department at Columbia College in Chicago. " 'Sesame Street' showed that diversity could be done on TV without alienating viewers and suggested to other children's programs that they really needed to go there."
The show has inspired a new DVD retrospective, "Sesame Street: 40 Years of Sunny Days" ($29.93), on sale tomorrow. It features many of the show's celebrity guests (Tony Bennett, Robert De Niro, Alicia Keys, Lena Horne, Mister Rogers) in more than six hours of iconic scenes from the show, including Ernie singing "Rubber Duckie," Elmo's first episode and the death of Mr. Hooper.
"That was the moment when 'Sesame Street' became an iconic show," Ross said. "That choice to fully address [Mr. Hooper's death] and not pretend he moved or infantalize it in any way, it was a bold choice."
Gikow agreed and said she discovered in her research how important the Sesame Workshop education department was in the way the show addressed death.
"Some of the things you would think to say turn out to be terrible to say. It might occur to me to say to a child, 'Sweetie, he was sick and doing very badly, and he passed away.' But if you say that, the next time the child gets a cold you might have a paranoid child on your hands who [thinks his sickness might lead to death]. It isn't something that would occur to you off the bat, and without that information you could traumatize a whole generation of children."
Not that the show is perfect. It's willing to admit its mistakes and make changes. A 2006 DVD release, "Sesame Street: Old School," was designed for adults and came with a disclaimer that it "may not meet the needs of today's pre-school child," perhaps due to scenes from early in the show of children playing in a junkyard. Truglio acknowledged safety is an issue.
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If you want to listen to some classic Sesame Street songs, check out my post from September 2008. It features a compilation of 36 tracks that you can download.
For the past week Google has had a different Sesame Street character featured in their logo. Here they are so far. Who will be the last one tomorrow?