Season 21 (November 13, 1989 – May 11, 1990)

In 1968, when Sesame Street was still just a gleam in Joan Ganz Cooney’s eye, the team developing the show decided that they wanted puppets to be a big part of Sesame Street. But they didn’t want just any puppets – they wanted the Muppets. According to legend, executive producer Dave Connell and writer/director/producer Jon Stone said that if they couldn’t get Jim Henson, they wouldn’t even want to include puppets. After a successful run of commercials and interstitials – not to mention the surprise hit Sam & Friends – Henson had already made a name for himself in the worlds of television and puppetry at the fairly young age of 32. Everyone at Sesame was aware of him and wanted to make him a part of the journey they were on.

There is not denying that Jim was an integral part of that journey and what Sesame Street ultimately became. He was there from the very beginning and helped every step of the way. But all beginnings must have an end, and for Jim Henson that end came suddenly in November of 1989. Unbeknownst to him, that would be the final time he recorded any segments for the show before his untimely passing in May of 1990. So with beginnings and endings in mind, I thought we could take a different route today and showcase the first and last recordings Jim did with his two biggest Sesame Street characters – Ernie and Kermit.

The earliest appearance of Ernie is one that many people might not have seen as it was part of the test pilot that was made before Sesame Street began airing. But I want to highlight it for a very specific reason that I’m sure will be immediately noticeable. Take a look (and a listen).

What the heck is Rowlf doing disguised as Ernie?! I wanted to point out this clip because you can see a bit of uncertainty in Jim, a little wavering here and there and a loose grasp on who Ernie would become. Now look at the difference in Jim’s last Ernie performance. There’s such a strong command to it, and a whole lot of heart. Exactly how you’d expect Ernie to act. What a difference 20 years and dozens upon dozens (hundreds? thousands?!) of performances of the same character make – who would’ve thought it!

Jim knows just who Ernie is and what makes him tick, even without Bert by his side. And isn’t it wild that neither appearance features Bert? As proven many times over, while Ernie is probably at the top of his game with Bert to play off of, he’s more than capable of holding his own. Plus it’s kind-of nice to see him solo both times here to get a clear look at Jim’s evolving persona for that little orange fella.

Now let’s look at Kermit. I know that he didn’t originate on Sesame Street, and Jim would perform him a few more times before he passed away, but Kermit has become so associated with Sesame Street that it’s definitely worth taking a look at. Here’s his appearance on episode 0001, giving his “famous W lecture.”

Look at the inelegant way he flops off of the table. Look at the odd shape and desaturated color. This is a frog who is still evolving, but you can sense that Jim has a better grip on the characterization than he does on Ernie at the same point in time. Jim and Kermit had been together for approximately 14 years during this recording and it truly shows. Now check out Kermit in his final Sesame segment.

There’s a subtlety to his performance here, a much more mellow frog who most likely isn’t afraid of the monster under his alphabet. He’s calm and collected, closer to his post-Muppet Show persona where he was the glue holding everyone together. In his earliest segments on Sesame Street, Kermit seemed just as crazy as the monsters with whom he surrounded himself. Look at any segment where Grover is invading his home and affixing body parts and you’ll see a boiling rage that leads to those classic Kermit freakouts many people love. Here, Kermit is introspective and full of wonder, a sky-gazer with hope in his ping pong eye. Two sides of the same coin, and I’m so glad we can see a comparison of each.

When Jim Henson entered the Sesame studio on November 21st, 1989, he had no idea it would be for the final time. On that day, he recorded three segments – the two we’ve seen, as well as the last Sesame Street News Flash segment he would make. Without the usual framing and introduction card, it’s mostly just a set-up for a lovely little song about a bird whose parents are either separated or divorced.

This piece is a world of difference from the first News Flash segment, where the whole point just seems to be yelling at each other.

The differences between all of these segments are vast. But that’s how life works. There are twists and turns, evolutions and changes, beginnings and ends.

Notable Character Debut: Savion! Mr. Handford! Preston Rabbit! Who can choose?!

MVMs (Most Valuable Muppets): Give it up one last time for these versions of Kermit and Ernie.

Classic Song Debut: Wubba wubba wubba wubba, it’s “Monster in the Mirror!”

Curriculum Focus: Environmentalism, teaching appreciation for nature, and recycling. They also increased teaching numbers from 1 to 40 instead of the original 1 to 10. What range!

Click here to reflect on Jim Henson’s Sesame Street legacy on the ToughPigs forum!

by Matt Wilkie

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