Season 40 (November 10, 2009 – February 18, 2010)

I realize that when I as a fan discuss and debate things about Sesame Street like format and curriculum changes, defunct characters, the reduction in episodes per season, and the show’s first-run episodes moving to HBO, I tend to forget one very simple, yet important thing:

I am not Sesame Street’s target audience.

Yes, you heard it here first, folks: I am not a preschooler who loves clapping and singing the songs I hear on the show and just watching the characters in a fascinating story. I am a grown man (in terms of age, the jury’s still out on character) who loves clapping and singing the songs I hear on the show and watching the characters in a fascinating story. I am not the target audience, but I am still a fan. And as the show celebrated its fortieth anniversary, it really felt like the target audience for season 40 was… us. Yes, the folks who can talk for hours about the tragicomic figure of Mr. Johnson or how Don Music and Roosevelt Franklin deserve to be restored to the spotlight. The fans who still love the show even after we’ve learned our letters and numbers. It was a celebration, and we were the guests of honor.

And they pulled out all the stops for us. Every episode had an Easter egg that only die-hard Sesame Street fans would get. Things like The Alligator King on a box of crayons. An ad for “Jim Henson’s Puppet Workshop.” Forgetful Jones forgetting that he’s retired and showing up in a flashback. The kids probably didn’t understand that, but the adults sure do. (I mean, if you have a four year-old who knows who Little Teeny Super Guy was, then good on them.) And as a fan, it really made me feel like Sesame Street was really paying attention to its history and honoring the people and characters that helped make the four-decade-strong juggernaut that it was. (Plus, it gave me incentive to actually watch a few more episodes than usual that season.)

Another big change that would set fans to talking and typing was Zoe’s size change. Originally designed for Zoe’s role as Mousey the Hatter Helper in the 2008 direct-to-DVD project Abby in Wonderland, a smaller Zoe puppet was used for the character throughout season 40. And boy, was it jarring! I know that I wondered if this was a temporary change, or if Zoe’s “shrinking in the wash” was permanent (press). And the Muppet performers even made jokes about it in public events celebrating the show’s anniversary. Thankfully, Zoe was restored to her full size the following season, but boy, was that a weird thing to see or what? It certainly got the fans talking.

But perhaps the biggest testament to the fans was seeing people who had started as fans themselves rise through the ranks to become part of the Sesame family. Most notably, Muppet performer and writer (and friend of ToughPigs) Joey Mazzarino became the show’s head writer starting with season 40. Mazzarino went from being tongue-tied meeting Jim Henson to the person in charge of Sesame Street’s writing staff. To me, that’s the greatest tribute of all. Seeing people who grew up watching this world unfold becoming part of it themselves just gives me the warm and fuzzies. (Of course, that may just be from watching the warm and fuzzy characters.) It reminds me that this is a show with a family all its own. And when the show celebrates its staff and its fans, it can make for a magical experience.

Notable Character Debut: Blögg, Gonnigan, and Niblet, all part of Abby’s Flying Fairy School, an animated segment debuting this season. You remember them, right?

Notable Character Departure: With a cameo appearance in “Elmo’s World: Frogs” in the season premiere, Sesame Street’s most beloved guest star, Kermit the Frog, made his final appearance on the show. Since The Walt Disney Company purchased the Muppets, it’s unlikely that the world’s most famous amphibian will find his way to Sesame Street again. Y’know, unless they have some kind of star-studded 50th anniversary special or something, but what are the odds of that?

MVM (Most Valuable Muppet): Abby Cadabby has really come into her own by Season 40. Between her struggle with Sparkle Speckle Fairy Freckles, learning to ride her tricycle, and somehow being able to control the seasons, I’d say she’s well-earned her first MVM honor.

MVH (Most Valuable Human): It really feels like there’s an even balance between the human characters this year. So I’m going to go off the beaten path and say Paul Rudd. Why? Because he manages not only to appear in a celebrity spot, but shows up later in the season finale to play a dashing prince! And he even got the chance to puppeteer Roosevelt Franklin! There’s a guy who made the most of his time this season.

MVE (Most Valuable Episode): Before he turned Alexander Hamilton from a mere historical figure to a pop culture icon, Lin-Manuel Miranda kicked off his relationship with Sesame Street by appearing as Freddy Flapman in the season premiere. Flapman is a real estate agent who tries to convince Big Bird to migrate to a new habitat. I’ll give you three guesses as to how it turns out, and the first two don’t count. (Perhaps he should’ve spoken with Miss Finch beforehand.)

Other Notable Episodes: With every episode in Season 40 having a “Hidden Gem,” I’d say they’re all notable. Where else can you see Frank Biondo having a drink in Hooper’s Store?

Classic Sketch Debut: Sesame Street’s take on Mad Men features Frank Oz performing Mr. Draper. I’d say that’s pretty classic by that alone.

Curriculum Focus: Season 40 puts an emphasis on teaching kids about the environment and how to take care of it. Habitats and recycling are points raised several times over the season. The format changes slightly, too, with Murray Monster acting as a kind of host, introducing the different segments in the show.

Best Celebrity Moment: Boy, I’ve already burned through Paul Rudd, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Kermit the Frog. Thankfully, Season 40 is chock full of great celebrity moments. One that stands out is former First Lady Michelle Obama helping to plant a vegetable garden on Sesame Street. Finally, a source of free food! (I mean, beyond eating at Hooper’s Store.)  

Musical Highlight: Before he was The Lemur, Ricky Gervais sang a lullaby to Elmo in Episode 4201. It’s absolutely adorable!

WTF Moment: Of course, Gervais also told Elmo not to joke about the Holocaust on the show in an outtake from that season. Good advice, but a bit cringey.

One More Thing: According to Muppet Wiki, Season 40 was the first season of Sesame Street to not have any clips from older episodes with characters performed by Jim Henson. A bit sad, but it is nice to know that bits featuring Jim were still airing for 20 years after his passing. A good tribute to a good man.

Okay, One More Thing: I don’t have anything more to say; I just wanted a place to put this photo of Luis in a cowboy outfit.

Doesn’t he look awesome?

Click here to shrink in the wash on the ToughPigs forum!

by Matthew Soberman

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