Season 14 (November 22, 1982 – May 20, 1983)

One of the most special things about Sesame Street is the fully-developed world it created over the years. People talk to the camera, casually talk about the alphabet, and spontaneously burst into song. The opening scene of season 14 is one of the show’s all-time best examples of how this world works.

You see, Big Bird is going off to camp, so naturally all of the humans (and a handful of Muppets) sing a joyful Gilbert & Sullivan pastiche about it. Called simply “Big Bird’s Going to Camp” (and written by Norman Stiles & Christopher Cerf), it does a lot of heavy lifting. The lyrics re-introduce viewers to the characters and set up the complicated dynamics of the opening 5-parter. Most impressively, that specificity means that it couldn’t ever be reused. This wasn’t designed to be a classic song. It’s a one-off, and it’s still one of the best songs the show ever did. Only on Sesame Street.

The adult cast are all experienced veterans at this point, so they know exactly what that tone should be. They need to be friendly to the audience, patient with the childlike Muppets, and willingly goofy when the script calls for comedy. But for the first five episodes of this season, Big Bird is off at camp, so the show introduced a brand-new, temporary human cast: Camp Director Aunt May (Marilyn Sokol) and Big Bird’s counselor Mickey (Giancarlo Esposito).

Both of those names might look familiar to you. Sokol provided voices for Sesame Street often throughout the 1970s, and is best known among Muppet fans as the voice of Alice “Ma” Otter in Emmet Otter’s Jugband Christmas. Esposito, who was just 24 when these appearances aired, never worked with the Muppets again but went on to be a prolific character actor. Among other roles, you might know him as Buggin’ Out in Do the Right Thing, or as Gus Fring on Breaking Bad, or as Pierce’s brother Gilbert on Community.

We do see the gang back on Sesame Street occasionally throughout this arc, but the bulk of the “be an adult on Sesame Street” heavy lifting falls to these two newbies, and they both nail it. Even though these stories take place in a new location with unfamiliar characters, they feel exactly like the same show, and it’s largely thanks to these two performers.

Throughout the arc, both of these characters help guide Big Bird through his new environment just like any of his adult friends back on Sesame Street would. They even get to announce the sponsors at the end of each episode, usually something only regular characters get to do.

Of the two, Aunt May appears in fewer scenes, but her high energy makes a big impact. She leads the campers in an enthusiastic “D-I-N-N-E-R!” cheer, and tells them what they’ll need for a nature hike. She’s in charge here, as surely as Mr. Hooper is in charge of the store back home.

Mickey is a much more comforting presence. Before Big Bird leaves, Mickey lets him finish his guessing game with Snuffy (even though the adults all still believe Snuffy to be imaginary). At camp, he patiently teaches Big Bird how to play baseball, and tells him it’s okay to cry because he misses home. (He even rubs Big Bird’s back, which is a nice and caring touch.) Big Bird always needs a trusted adult presence, and for this arc, Mickey is it.

Even though it’s only for five days, these new additions are exciting. By season 14, the human cast had been very stable for a long time. The newest addition to the main cast, Olivia, is now on her 7th season as a regular. At this point, Sesame Street is a show where all of the human faces are very familiar ones.

That would change in the years ahead. As the original young adult cast settled into middle age, a succession of new young adults joined the show: Piri, Gina, Savion, Celina, Chris, Leela, and Nina. Mickey’s youthful energy is kind of a preview of that, and Aunt May feels like a precursor to energetic authority figures like Ruthie and Alan.

As far as I know, this was the only time Sesame Street ever featured a substitute cast. They took other trips, certainly, but the adults went on those trips. Turning the show over to these two actors is a remarkable vote of confidence in their abilities, and they both rise to the occasion. This arc is a fascinating look at an alternate universe Sesame Street (Sesame Camp?). I wouldn’t want to live there, but it’s fun to visit for a week.

Notable Return: After eight years away from the show, former head writer Jeff Moss is back as a staff writer this season! Yay, Jeff Moss!

Notable Character Departure: This is the last season with new material featuring Mr. Hooper, but we’ll give him a proper farewell next week.

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): Snuffy’s cousin Abigail.

MVH (Most Valuable Human): Mickey, of course!

MVE (Most Valuable Episode): Episode 1740, in which a water shortage hits Sesame Street. That’s such an important topic, but one that would never have occurred to me.

Other Notable Episodes: Slimey and Oscar both go to space (separately!), so that’s pretty exciting. Also Snuffy becomes a superhero and a Honker gets laryngitis.

Classic Sketch Debut: Grover the Singing Waiter, one of the best “Grover pesters Mr. Johnson” sketches the show ever did.

Classic Song Debut:We All Sing with the Same Voice,” a call for racial and cultural harmony that, uh, definitely worked.

WTF Moment: Oh, just Othmar the Grouch visiting from the seventh moon of Zurkon. You know how it is.

Musical Highlight: The lovely, piano-driven ballad “Me and my Chair” about a kid and his wheelchair.

Best Celebrity Moment: James Taylor stopped by to sing Jelly Man Kelly.

One More Thing: Rusty is the only Muppet at camp other than Big Bird, and there’s a real church puppet vibe to him.

Okay, One More Thing: Yes, it *is* interesting that the camp director has the same name and title as Spider-Man’s aunt.

Click here to cook hot dogs with Big Bird and Mickey on the Tough Pigs Forum.

by Anthony Strand

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