August 20-24, 2001
This week, as a Tough Pigs experiment and as a personal challenge, I have decided to watch every episode of Sesame Street in its entirety, and report on my harrowing experience to you. I havenít watched Sesame Street for a few years, so this is my first exposure to "Elmoís World." Pray for me.
Monday, Aug 20:
Hey, hasnít Gordon gotten fat! Sorry to start on such a personal note,
cause I love the guy, but still. Heís also doing a lot of unnecessary takes to
the camera, really hamming it up. Elmo, Zoe and Telly meet up with an Australian
"alphabet explorer," whoís looking for a Dotted Dinging D here in "the
wilds of Sesame Street." We hear some didgeridoo as the monsters volunteer to
help track the D. Okay, fine. Then there are a bunch of inserts, all very modern
looking and well-directed, but Iím starting to get mesmerised. So many jump
cuts. I canít look away.
One of the themes for this episode is "imagination," and Big Bird
imagines an elephant dancing -- and then heís joined by a Muppet elephant in
a pink tutu, dancing. Great elephant puppet, but isnít the point of
imagination supposed to be that we donít see the elephant? Maria
shows us some computer-animated clouds, and asks what we imagine we see -- but
then she informs us that we see elephants, and the clouds promptly morph into
elephants. Huh. Then thereís a song about exploring, with a bunch of kids "investigating"
-- which mainly seems to consist of swimming and then
looking through a magnifying glass at nothing at all -- while an offscreen
adult implores them to "Explore! Examine it carefully! Go explore! Satisfy
your curiosity!" Itís starting to get relentless. "We get to learn about
the things we see! Come on and explore with me!" No! I donít want to! Just
leave me alone!
Phew. Then thereís a new segment, "Ernieís Show and Tell," where
a little girl, Sydney, shows Ernie a picture that she drew. He asks her to
describe the picture. She shows him herself, her brother, and Ernie playing.
Ernie is delighted: "Oh, thank you! You drew me on a sliding board!" Ernie
sees that she drew a bright sunny day, the swing set, and the slide. I actually just read
a great book called How
to Talk So Kids Will Learn, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, and they
recommend praising kidsí work in precisely this way. You donít have
to tell the kid, "This is great, this is bad." Just describe what you see.
If thatís what the child was trying to convey, then she will praise herself
for accomplishing her goal. As the adult, you donít have to make her feel like
she needs your judgement for everything. Ernie is describing everything,
and not making judgements. I noticed recently that Faber and Mazlish have a
daily column on the Sesame Workshop Parentsí website, and now I see their
influence on the show itself. Sydney is clearly so happy to have
Ernie describe her picture. Sheís thrilled. This is my favorite segment so
Meanwhile, Iím finding the quest for the Dinging D somewhat uninvolving. To tell you the truth, I couldnít care less if they find the Dinging D or not. Things perk up when Gina arrives -- and look! Sheís wearing a fab powder-blue lab coat and has just finished giving Barkley a checkup. I donít remember Gina being a vet! Gosh, they grow up so fast. Gina suggests to the monsters that they try to lure the D by making D sounds, so they stand around and go: "Duh. Duh. Duh." [Insert obvious joke here.]
It works. They find the D. The explorer is
thrilled. Elmo goes off to feed his goldfish. Fast-forward through a long "alphabet jungle" cartoon which saps my will to live.
But then itís "Elmoís World!" Elmo is taking care of his
goldfish, Dorothy, in a make-believe bedroom made of magic crayon lines. Today,
Elmo wants to learn about Teeth. First, he asks his friend Mr. Noodle for help.
He looks through his shade -- but itís not Mr. Noodle! "Itís Mr.
Noodleís brother, Mr. Noodle!" I have to admit that Iím finding this
charming. Mr. Noodle is a silly clown-mime type in a brown suit, who messes up
all of Elmoís tooth-brushing instructions. Elmo and some off-screen kids
encourage Mr. Noodle to keep trying, and he finally brushes his teeth properly.
Then some live kids appear to explain tooth-brushing again to Dorothy the
goldfish. The relationship between the kids and Mr. Noodle is really
interesting: In this world, Elmo and the kids know all the answers. This is
exactly the opposite of that crummy "Explore! Explore!" song. That was an
adult telling kids what to do, but not really giving them an actual topic to be
interested in. I got the same feeling from Gina suggesting the "D sound" trick to
the monsters. "Elmoís World" gets it just right; the kids are the ones who
can figure things out, and Elmo is giving us interesting questions to guide us
through the research process.
"Now Elmo will ask a baby!" He interviews a live baby, then notices that the baby doesnít have any teeth. Then he sees that Dorothy doesnít have any teeth! "That makes Elmo wonder -- what has teeth and what doesnít have teeth? Letís find out." Do birthday cakes have teeth? (Off-screen kids: No!) Do birds have teeth? (Kids: No, they have beaks!) Wow. Itís obvious to me that they did a ton of research on how to teach kids critical thinking skills in a way that actually engages them. Then Elmo gets a funny video e-mail (from the Count!) about toothbrushing. Elmo learns from a TV show on the Teeth Channel. Then he talks to the Wisdom Tooth to learn even more about teeth, and imagines himself as a cute red beaver, a shark and an elephant.
This comes as a complete surprise to me, but I was mostly bored by Sesame today, except for Ernieís Show and Tell, and I was charmed and amused by "Elmoís World." Sesame was all about adults having the answers and giving kids instructions. "Elmoís World" is all about kids getting interested in a topic, asking questions, making observations and drawing conclusions. Say what you like about The Red Menace (and I have, I have), "Elmoís World" gets the pedagogy right. From now on, if you got a problem with Elmo, then you got a problem with me. I got that monsterís back.
Tuesday, Aug 21:
Bring back the show!
So first thereís the theme. Then we get to Sesame Street, and Big Bird
starts singing the theme again. Itís a little disorienting. Other cast members
and Muppets join in. They go on for quite a while, Muppets and adults and kids
all singing, "Sunny day, sweeping the clouds away." Itís becoming quite a
production number. They take a second chorus. I start to get a little worried
that this may go on forever. Maybe when theyíre done, someone else will sing
the theme. Maybe weíre trapped in an Escher loop and Iíll never escape.
Then Elmo explains that today is Sing-Along Day on Sesame Street. Okay, at least
thereís an explanation. I see light at the end of the tunnel.
Then thereís a whole bunch of other songs. Actually, the thing that
really strikes me today is how gorgeous the production values are on Sesame
Street these days. The sets, the puppets, the lighting, the choreography -- everything is so amazingly polished and perfect, but not in a sterile,
uncomfortable way. Itís like a perfect jewel, awe-inspiring - like your
favorite song, like your first crush. I want to hug it and put it in my pocket.
Maria leads a counting song in Spanish thatís really catchy. They do big
production numbers for everything. They do a celebrity version of "Sing"
with REM and Maya Angelou. It makes me want to be a preschooler again.
That being said, I fast-forward quite a bit. As gorgeous as the Muppets
are, I donít have a lot of patience for cartoons about 16, and Iím impatient
to get to Elmoís World.
Yay! Itís Elmoís World. Elmo is talking about Hair today. Seeing
Elmoís World for the second time in a row, I can see whatís formula - and,
like Bear in the Big Blue House, thereís some comforting repetition
here. I thought "Now Elmo will ask a baby!" was a funny bit yesterday, but
he does the same line today, so I guess thatís part of the format. Still
funny, though. The only time I fast-forward is during the film insert of Joseph
getting his first haircut. I have no time for Joseph and his haircut. I want
On The Hair Channel, Elmo watches a fairy-tale cartoon about a kingdom where the king decides that everyone should wear their hair like his. And everyone does, except for a little black girl with dreads named Liddy LaRue. The king questions Liddy, and Liddy says: "No matter what I do, my hair wonít go that way. Itís just different. Besides, I like it this way." Liddy asks whatís wrong with everyoneís hair being different. The king is overcome by Liddyís reasoning, and signs a new law that says that everyone can have different hair. Liddy is triumphant.
I love Liddy. Liddy speaks truth to power.
Liddy is the Rosa Parks of cartoon fairy-tale hairstyles. I can think of nothing
better than a world in which cartoons about Liddy are broadcast to our
nationís pre-schoolers. We live in a Golden Age.
But thereís more! Elmo shows us a video that he made about Bertís
hair. Itís shot on handheld video, shaky and close-up on Bertís head. Bert
complains that he just got out of the bath, and his hair is all slicked down and
wet. Elmo asks if he can touch Bertís hair. Bert reluctantly agrees, and
Elmoís hand comes into shot and messes up Bertís hair. Bert asks if Elmo is
done. Elmo says he wants to play now, but Bert leaves, saying that he needs to
go put gunk in his hair to make it stand up. This piece takes all of
about a minute, and I can not express in words how happy it makes me.
Bertís hair. Liddy LaRue. Dorothy the goldfish. Maya Angelou. Itís all so beautiful. And thereís still three more days left in this week. How do little kids do this every day?
Jon L. wrote in about his 4-year-old daughter Sage: "You and Sage respond to Elmo similarly. Other popular shows cut to 'real kids' (Arthur and Teletubbies do it), and it really bothers Sage. She shouts, 'Bring back the show!' Someone should tell the producers that we donít like the documentary footage of toenail clipping and pencil sharpening." I like it when people send funny stories about their cranky kids. Send more of those, please.
Wednesday, August 22:
No! Not the toes!
Okay, back to the salt mines. This is where the personal challenge part of this feature really starts kicking in. I worked late today and didnít get home until 9pm, and now I have to watch a whole hour of Sesame Street before bed. I thought writing this column would be easy, but I find that Iím actually dreading it tonight. I once had a life beyond watching Sesame Street. That world feels so far away now.
On the Street, Baby Bear idolizes the Count -- "the grand master of counting" -- and asks him to be his counting coach. The Count agrees, and teaches Baby Bear how to count a baby. First, they count the baby itself -- one baby -- but then the Count starts counting the babyís ears (one, two), her eyes (one, two), her hands (one, two). Then they move on to the fingers. (One, two, three, fourÖ) My eyes are glazing over. They finish the fingers. They move on to the feet. Iím afraid that theyíre going to do the toes next. They finish the feet. They start on the toes. No! Not the toes! One, two, three, fourÖ
Okay, Iím starting to see why Iíve been dreading Sesame. The problem is not the counting. I donít take issue with the counting. The problem is that this isnít a story. Thereís no conflict. Thereís no character development. Nobodyís overcoming an obstacle. They want to count, so they count. Then they want to count some more, so they count some more. Same deal on Monday -- the monsters decided they wanted to find the Dotted Dinging D, and they found it. On Tuesday, they wanted to sing, so they sang. But there arenít any conflicts between the characters -- if Baby Bear wanted to count, and the Count refused to teach him, then that might be an interesting story.
Iím not saying it would be. But it might be.
Itís possible to structure a show like this, where the characters are just gently going through their day. But if youíre going to try to get by without conflict or story, then the characters need to have tremendous personal charm to pull it off. I can watch Oscar read the phone book; I can watch Grover do his laundry; I can watch Elmo talk to his goldfish. But only a superstar can get away with it. I like Baby Bear and the Count, but they just arenít superstars.
Then thereís Elmoís World, my reward for getting through the counting. Whatís the topic today? Itís BABIES! Excellent! This is gonna be great. Dorothy the goldfish is baby-sitting two little goldfish. Mr. Noodle tries to play chess with Natasha. Elmo interviews a baby -- and the baby stuffs a soft ball into Elmoís mouth. Ohhhhh, yeah. It doesnít get any better than this.
Thursday, August 23:
Poetry for the people
Back in the early 90ís, when Steve Whitmire first started performing Kermit, I always referred to the character as "the new Kermit." It actually took me a couple years before I could think of him just as Kermit -- partly because I had to get used to the new performance, and partly because Whitmire has gotten better and more fluent as Kermit over the years. Now Kermit is just Kermit to me.
Whitmireís also performing "the new Ernie" now, and today is the first time Iíve seen Ernie back out on the Street, where he belongs. Ernie and Bert werenít on the Street for a long time, since back in the 80ís, when Henson and Oz went off to work on other projects and couldnít show up to film Sesame episodes anymore. But now Whitmire is available to perform Ernie on the Street, and check him out.
Ernie shows up at Luisí Fix-it shop, announcing his new Instant Poetry Service: "Instant rhythm, instant rhyme!" Heís wearing a sideways baseball cap and a vest, and when he recites his poetry, he gets a little hip-hop backbeat: "Congratulations are in order. You just fixed a tape recorder!"
Luis is impressed: "Ernie! How do you do it?"
"Oh, I think itís the hat," Ernie shrugs. "Poetry for the people, Luis!"
Later on, Ernie sits with Tarah and Samantha on the steps of 123 Sesame Street. As the scene starts, heís explaining to the girls: "Itís called Instant Poetry. I think thereís a big market for it." Noticing us, he announces that Tarah and Samantha are going to read us poems that they wrote. Thereís some more Show-and-Tell Faber and Mazlish stuff here, with Ernie appreciating the "surprise ending" of Tarahís poem. Then Ernie plays a game with Telly, playing the drums and trading rhymes with Telly. Ernie plays a funky backbeat on the drums that is so authentically cool that I canít stand it.
Okay, ya got me. As far as Iím concerned, heís not "the new Ernie" anymore. This is Ernie.
Meanwhile, on Elmoís World, the topic is Birthdays -- and itís Dorothy the goldfishís birthday today! Dorothy has a little cake in her bowl. Elmo turns to her: "Is Dorothy having a good birthday?" Close-up on the fish. It never occurred to me before what a serious, deadpan expression goldfish have. Elmo chirps, "Good!" Dorothy is a worthy co-star on this show. Elmoís World must be sponsored by the Goldfish Council, because I suddenly have the impulse to go out and buy a goldfish. Dorothy imagines Elmo being born, and we see Elmoís parents in the hospital. "Oh boy!" Elmoís dad says. "George is almost a daddy!" His mom adds: "Gladys is almost a mommy!" The doctor puts Elmo in Gladysí arms, and they all giggle just like Elmo. Iím having flashbacks; itís Christmas í96 all over again.
Happy birthday, Dorothy! Now blow out your candles.
Friday, August 24:
Sadness saves the day
My last day of Sesame-watching begins with Luis showing monsters Ingrid and Humphrey that their baby daughter Natasha can scribble with a crayon. The proud parents coo over Natashaís childish scrawls. Now, stop me if Iím getting too jaded, but little kids really do draw crummy pictures. It sounds harsh, maybe, but in your heart, you know itís true. Kidsí drawings are messy and incoherent, with no sense of style or composition. Earlier in the week, I was loving this juvenile-art appreciation thing. Five days in, itís really wearing me out. Perhaps a steady diet of Sesame Street has hardened me to life, but Sesame producers: youíre being too indulgent. I know you only want to encourage creativity, but there is, perhaps, such a thing as too much creativity. Twenty-five years from now, these kids will be making our game shows and action movies. Youíre only encouraging them.
Letís move on to Monster Clubhouse, a new 8-minute segment starring four brightly-colored young monsters who have set up a clubhouse in a huge cardboard box. The monsters are hyper and enthusiastic, and they invite us to become monsters by messing up our fur and jumping around. They begin with the Monster Clubhouse theme, to the tune of Old McDonald: "M-O-N-S-T-E-R! C-L-U-B HOUSE!" So what happened at the last meeting? Mel, a furry blue moptop who speaks only in growls, "reads" the minutes and then tears them up furiously. Now itís time to dance -- "the Honk your nose, Touch your toes, Spin around, Strike a pose dance!" Itís cute. The monsters mostly act as a group, so I canít really distinguish them as separate characters -- but the segment moves fast, and theyíre obviously having fun with it. Monster Clubhouse is definitely my favorite part of the day.
Back on the Street, Baby Bear draws a picture of his superhero, a little brown bear with a cape and propeller beanie named Hero Guy -- or, as Baby Bear says, "Hewo Guy." Hero Guy springs to life, and leads Baby Bear into his drawing of a pirate ship. What is it with Baby Bear these days? Maybe itís his cute wittle speech impediment, but heís become a real magnet for crap. Iíll give you an example. Once Hero Guy and Baby Bear are on the pirate ship, they realize that they canít sail it, because Baby Bear forgot to draw the ocean. "This makes me sad!" Baby Bear yelps. "You?" says Hero Guy. "This makes ME weally sad!" Baby Bear ups the ante: "This makes me weally weally sad!" It goes on. "This makes me weally weally weally sad!" And on. "This makes me weally weally weally weally sad!" Stop. Please. "This makes me weally weally weally weally" - Iím not exaggerating, it really goes on this long - "weally sad!" But Hero Guy cries so much that his tears make an ocean. Baby Bear cheers, "Your sadness saved the day, Hero Guy!" and they sail away. Oh my goodness. How can a show be so good and so bad in just one week?
Unfortunately, weíre still talking about drawing pictures on Elmoís World. I donít know, maybe itís me, maybe itís five Sesame episodes in a row, but this is the first episode of Elmoís World that isnít thrilling me. I think itís partly that watching kids draw is just boring. Drawing is one of those activities thatís fun to do, but not much fun to watch, like baking cookies, or playing soccer. I find myself longing for an Elmoís World about knee surgery, or car repair. Anything for a bit of action.
At the end, Elmo shows a video of himself drawing a picture of his parents. In the video, he fusses around with the picture, and then shouts: "Elmo loves his mommy and daddy! Hi, Mommy! Hi, Daddy!" Then he babbles a bit in baby talk. This feels to me like an admission of defeat -- I donít care who you are, itís hard to fill a whole hour of television with kids drawing. You just run out of things to say.
Itís a shame that I have to end the week with kind of a dull episode, because Iíve actually learned quite a bit from my week of educational TV. Iíve learned that, contrary to popular myth, Elmoís World really is better than the rest of the show. Iíve learned that birthday cakes donít have teeth. And Iíve learned that Sesame Street is much more of a mixed bag than I remember. For every moment of greatness, thereís a clumsy, dull misstep.
But, like me, Sesame Street is in its early thirties. Weíre both grown up now. We ought to be thankful for our moments of greatness, I suppose, and accept our moments of weakness. So, as I think back to my week with Sesame Street, Iíll cheer for the good parts, and Iíll cry for the bad parts. And my tears will make an ocean, and Iíll sail away.