In the Golden Age of Sesame Street (let’s say the first 20 seasons, but draw the line wherever you want), the human characters felt like real people. We got a lot of scenes where they talked about real everyday concerns, and plenty of moments where they just got to goof off and enjoy each other’s company. If Sesame Street felt like a real place, it was because Maria, Gordon, Bob, and the rest seemed like they had real lives.
Starting in the 1990s, that changed in a big way. The house style of the show became broader, and the human performances began to match. Newer characters like Chris and Alan don’t seem like “people” so much as “an enthusiastic presence on a children’s TV show.” Alan Muraoka has joked that Alan the character sleeps on a cot in Hooper’s Store, and it’s easy to see why he thinks that. Alan feels more like a placeholder than a person.
Miraculously, season 39 brought a new down-to-earth portrayal to Sesame Street – laundromat owner Leela, played by Nitya Vidyasagar. Leela’s nose ring was mildly controversial back in 2008, but it’s really just the first sign that she seems like a real person. Right off the bat, Leela – and Vidyasagar’s performance – feel startlingly different from other recent characters.
The season’s 4th episode is the first to focus on the character. Leela is making a video to send to her parents in India. In the 70s and 80s, we got to visit Maria and Luis’s families. We don’t get to do that with Leela, but at least she has family outside of the street. Hey, she’s a recent immigrant to the US and her parents are still back in India – already we know more about her than we do about Alan after 10 years!
Throughout this story, Leela gets excited about things that only happen on Sesame Street. Her parents have never seen a talking letter before! Her parents won’t believe she knows a monster who loves to eat cookies! She’s from the real world, and she’s as excited to be on Sesame Street as any of us would be. Look how amused she is by Cookie Monster and Prairie Dawn’s antics:
In many ways, Leela is Maria’s true heir. Vidyasagar follows Sonia Manzano’s lead in how she interacts with the Muppets. She’s often exasperated with them, as all Sesame Street humans are, but she also seems so excited to be playing with these loveable little weirdos. In the season premiere, she turns to the camera and says “It’s gonna take me a long time to clean up after this adventure” with such Maria-esque gusto that it’s almost like she’s been taking notes.
A perfect example of Leela’s enthusiasm is the closing tag of episode 4180 (which begins 51:10 into the episode and can be viewed on Hulu). It’s a simple scene – she just announces the sponsors with Telly and Baby Bear – and Vidyasagar completely throws herself into it. She excitedly rubs her hands together and says “All right, guys. You ready?” in a mock-serious tone. Squeezed between the two Muppets, she gleefully puts out her hands to display Telly’s “I” vest and Baby Bear’s “12” vest. She closes with a double thumbs-up and says “Excellent job, guys!”
On the page, this is a nothing scene, but Vidyasagar’s performance makes it sing. Everything about it feels so natural and casual and off the cuff. She seems like a person having fun with her friends, which is pretty remarkable when those friends are a nervous monster and a bland, personality-less bear.
Throughout the season, Leela’s performances are so full of wonderful little nuances that it can be hard to describe them. When pressed by Big Bird and Snuffy to be in their talent show, she decides to juggle an apple and an orange. This idea causes her to stick out her tongue and shake her head in a victorious fashion.
Leela follows that up by doing a sheepish “aw, shucks” wave when she’s finished. These are just two of her many terrific moments in that scene, and this scene is just one of many standout moments she has in this season. She put in that much effort all the time. Leela was the best thing to happen to Sesame Street in many years, and I’m so grateful we got to watch her hang out there for a while.
Notable Character Debut: Leela! But also Ovejita, Murray’s little lamb from the segment of the same name. It’s remarkable how much life Carmen Osbahr packs into her mostly brief, mostly Spanish exclamations.
MVH (Most Valuable Human): Leela!
MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): You know what? Ovejita is so adorable. Let’s give it to her. Sure, Ovejita. Why not?!
MVE (Most Valuable Episode): 4165, where Telly and Baby Bear look for fireflies. It features a song from Maria & Luis, Gina teaching a wingercize class to Abby and Big Bird, and Leela excitedly pretending to be a firefly so the boys will learn empathy for fireflies. It’s pretty much the best.
Other Notable Episodes: A close runner-up is 4181, in which everyone on Sesame Street gets “Mine-itis” and Bob tries to steal a microphone from Brian Williams.
Classic Sketch Debut: Bert & Ernie’s Great Adventures. The stop-motion style was controversial among adult fans at the time, but I’m just so happy to see those guys.
Classic Song Debut: Feist’s Sesame-fied “1234,” a song that is considerably better and more memorable than the original.
Curriculum Focus: The big focus this year was on math literacy. As the son of one math teacher and the brother of another (that’s two! Two math teachers in my family! Ah ah ah!), I approve.
Musical Highlight: The aforementioned “Firefly Song” accompanied by Luis on acoustic guitar. What a nice surprise to hear Maria and Luis sing with some kids on the steps of 123.
Best Celebrity Moment: Ballerinas Lorena and Lorna Feijóo appeared in two sketches, and my daughter Iris has watched them both a thousand times. So they’re the best in our house.
WTF Moment: Gilbert Gottfried is in one of these as “Denny the Distractor,” a man who wears a rubber duckie helmet. What a surprising person to see in a street story in 2008!
One More Thing: The Aaron Neville/Ernie version of “I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon” is in episode 4165, and that’s the last time Jim Henson’s voice has been heard on Sesame Street. So far.
Okay, One More Thing: The “Murray Has a Little Lamb” theme song was performed by Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose In the Heights was a new Broadway smash at the time. This was his first contribution to Sesame Street, but it wouldn’t be his last.
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by Anthony Strand