‘Sesame Street’ Is Middle-Aged and Awesome

Big Bird and the gang have ruled children’s television for 45 years, failing to be derailed by Dora the Explorer or Katy Perry’s breasts. Can you tell me how ‘Sesame Street’ got here?

Kathy Willens/AP Photo

Decades before Yo Gabba Gabba, Dora the Explorer, Blue's Clues, and the iconic purple dinosaur himself hit the air, Sesame Street premiered on November 10, 1969, with an ambitious goal: proving television could be more than just a boob tube. Now 45 years after Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, and co. entered American living rooms and taught generations how to spell, count, do arithmetic, respect others, and express their feelings, Sesame Street's mission has been accomplished.

To call Sesame Street bold and revolutionary may seem excessive in 2014, but the television landscape for children in 1969 was pretty bleak. While nightly news footage of the Vietnam War bombarded adults, children were bombarded with mostly a lot of (entertaining) nonsense. Saturday morning cartoons Howdy Doody and Romper Room had been the main programming options for children in the previous decade. The beloved Mr. Roger's premiered in 1968, opening a door to television that didn't speak down to children. (It would still be a stretch to call the show a learning tool though.)

Sesame Street was a first in television history. After psychologist Lloyd Morrissett saw his three-year-old daughter transfixed by a television test pattern, he spoke to Joan Ganz Cooney, a producer at New York City public television station WDNT, about the possibility of using television to educate children. “Commercials are effective teachers,” Cooney wrote in a report to the Carnegie Corporation that eventually helped lead to the foundation of the Children's Television Workshop (which created Sesame Street and other shows) in which she cited how the genre's “frequent repetition, clever visual presentation, brevity, and clarity” could potentially be used to teach preschool-aged children.

Cooney wrangled $4 million from the federal government, half of Sesame Street's two-year launch budget, to test the premise that “if television could successfully teach the words and music to advertisements, couldn't it teach children more substantive material by co-opting the very elements that made ads so effective,” wrote Michael Davis Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.

Keeping with the overarching goal to teach through TV, the songs on the show were purposefully infectious so kids would easily recall the educational content. The addicting ditty “One of These Things” was used to help children learn to compare and discern differences. Anything with the Count (Count von Count if you're inclined to be formal) taught numbers and basic arithmetic through songs. A personal favorite is “C Is For Cookie” for guiding me through a 1994 playground debate over how to spell the word. Spelling wasn't my strong suit and making arguments that went against the popular girls fell even further out of my wheelhouse, but I could hear Cookie Monster's gravelly voice reminding me “C is for Cookie.” It was a small step in learning to stick to my guns, but a leap in my comprehension of phonetics.

Of course, Sesame Street's songs weren't only educational; from a pure tuneage perspective, the music was pretty kickass. It goes without saying the theme-song “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?” is catchy as hell, but not in the dripping saccharine way of Barney's “I Love You, You Love Me.” Ernie's classic homage to his favorite bath toy, “Rubber Duckie” was nominated for a Grammy and actually hit number 11 on the Billboard charts in 1971. “Sing,” which premiered on the show, went even higher, hitting number 3 on Billboard in 1973 when the Carpenters recorded it.

These were songs that parents could like (almost) as much as their kids did. While Sesame Street was hyper-cognizant of the need to keep things age-appropriate, the show has more than a few nod-and-winks to the adults tuning in, which is part of the reason it outlived shows like The Electric Company and Reading Rainbow. For instance, Sesame Street parodied grown-up shows 30 Rock, Mad Men, and Downton Abbey. Kim Cattrall (Samantha Jones from Sex and the City) teaches the meaning of the word “fabulous” with some excessive gushing that only fans of her less kid-friendly work would recognize.

And as the above mentioned clips illustrate, Sesame Street is really good at staying relevant. Like the almost as long running Saturday Night Live, Sesame Street has stayed clued in to changing trends in popular culture. Its beloved reputation has enabled the public television show to consistently snag the hottest celebrities: Lupita Nyong'o spoke to Elmo about loving her skin; Usher rocking out to the alphabet; Amar’e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony shooting hoops with Grover; and Neil Patrick Harris as a singing Shoe Fairy (again, the potential double entendre was probably lost on the kids).

Like any other show—and certainly one on the air for over four decades—Sesame Street had at least a few missteps. An obvious recent mistake was cutting Katy Perry's “Hot N Cold” twist with Elmo in 2010 because helicopter parents feared there was too much Perry on display. More upsetting (and more forgotten) was an early puppet, Roosevelt Franklin who spoke in a stereotypical African American dialect and was known for being rowdy. While Sesame Street had one of the most racially diverse casts on television when it premiered, parents were upset by Roosevelt and rightly got him removed from the show by 1975.

But these errors are far outweighed by Sesame Street's bravery in taking on controversial and difficult topics for children throughout its entire history. In 1975, Sesame Street became the first children's program to feature someone with Down Syndrome. Jason Kingsley, the son of one of the producers, would go on to appear 55 times on the show talking about his disability. The show was highly progressive in explaining breastfeeding, as well as pregnancy and childbirth in 1989 through the popular character Maria (Sonia Manzano). When the actor who played Mr. Hooper, Will Lee, passed away in real life, Sesame Street's writers decided to include it in the show and tackle the topic of death head-on in 1983. Big Bird's honest reaction will emotionally wreck you in a way even The Fault in Our Stars can't.

The international versions of Sesame Street dealt with even heavier issues. In 2002, South Africa's Takalani Sesame added HIV-positive Kami to provide children in a country ravaged by AIDS a character to which they could relate. Kami even got love from Bill Clinton for helping families talk about HIV/AIDS. In 2006, Israel's Rechov Sumsum added Mahboub, an Arab-Israeli puppet who spoke both languages on the series. Perhaps because Sesame Street handles controversy so well, versions of the show have aired in some of the most chaotic and war-torn places: children in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Kuwait, and Pakistan and dozens other countries around the globe have found comfort in Sesame Street.

The great irony is that even those who praised Sesame Street in 1969 worried whether it could last. “Only time will tell how Sesame Street does over the long haul: the value of novelty can subside,” wrote Jack Gould in a largely favorable 1969 review for the New York Times. Gould's concerns were unfounded. Now, 45 years later, we all still want to know how to get to Sesame Street.