Bert and Ernie: What’s Their Deal?

Published: September 19, 2018
Categories: Commentary, Feature

So, this happened on the internet yesterday. It all started when a former writer for Sesame Street named Mark Saltzman gave an interview with the website Queerty. (Saltzman is the writer and composer who gave us “Caribbean Amphibian” and many other classics.) In the interview he announced that Bert and Ernie are a gay couple.

Except he didn’t exactly say that. The Queerty interviewer asked him “In the writer’s room… were you thinking of Bert & Ernie as a gay couple?” He said, “…I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.” He continued, comparing Bert and Ernie’s relationship to the one between himself and his longtime partner. The internet is the internet, so a ton of websites including the geniuses at TMZ jumped on this one excerpt from this thoughtful interview and soon there headlines everywhere about how “Yes, Bert and Ernie Are Gay!” It overshadowed the rest of the interview, which is too bad because Saltzman has a lot of interesting thoughts.

Sesame Workshop has addressed the usual Bert and Ernie rumors over the years. After this story went viral they posted a public statement which was pretty much the same as usual.


First of all, I get why Sesame Workshop thought they had to do this. They’re probably tired of explaining that Bert and Ernie are officially not gay. And they do own those characters. So they get to decide. I guess they thought releasing the statement would save them from a few phone calls and emails. Frank Oz chimed in on Twitter too.

Later Frank clarified that he knows they’re not gay because he created the personality of Bert. OK then, if Sesame Workshop says they’re not gay, and Frank Oz says he never thought of them as gay when he was playing Bert in all those classic episodes, then they’re officially not.

But you know, they might be facing an uphill climb. It’s hard to tell fans definitively that they don’t have permission to read a fictional character one way or another. Not that I think fans should be encouraged to go around spreading rumors that Grover is a murderer and the Count is actually a vampire who drinks blood. But it’s pretty harmless if adult fans of Sesame Street like to think of Bert and Ernie as a couple. Looking at some of the comments on Sesame Workshop’s Facebook page, some people think they’re brothers, some people think they’re friends, and some people never thought about it. Those are all valid points of view, and so is reading them as a gay couple.

In the interview Mark Saltzman brings up the New Yorker’s magazine cover the week gay marriage was legalized, which showed the two Muppets in a romantic pose reflecting on the new law of the land. Some people saw that cover and assumed Sesame Street had approved it. They didn’t, but it just goes to show you how hard it is for Sesame Workshop to control the way people think about the characters. People have seen Bert and Ernie living together and caring about each other for 49 years.

But the statement says officially they’re just “best friends.” That’s OK. But what about the next part, “Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets™ do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation.”

Why did they even say that part? We already know Bert and Ernie are male and they’re pretty much humans. Why did they add the part about them being puppets? “They remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation” implies that they don’t have a sexual orientation BECAUSE they’re puppets. That logic doesn’t hold up. I just found a page on the Muppet Wiki called “Spouses.” It lists several puppet couples who have children, including Earl and Fran Sinclair from Dinosaurs, Humphrey and Ingrid from Sesame Street, King Ploobis and Queen Peuta from the Muppets’ old sketches on SNL, Elmo’s parents Louie and May, and Pa Gorg and Ma Gorg. 

All of these characters are puppets, and they’re all in heterosexual relationships, and they all reproduced. Is Sesame Workshop saying none of those characters has a sexual orientation? Not to mention Kermit and Miss Piggy. Does Sesame Workshop think Miss Piggy doesn’t have sexuality? She’s aggressively pursued Kermit and famous men for years. Then there’s Pepe the Prawn, who is largely defined by his horniness. And in case they forgot, there was a movie that came out last month with a lot of jokes that were focused on puppets’ sexual activity. I mean, I understand if they forgot it already, but they kind of made a fuss about that puppet sex movie when the trailer came out.

A lot of the conversations on this topic raise the question of why Sesame Street has never had a gay character. A lot of people who like the idea of Bert and Ernie being a couple just want to see LGBTQ representation on the show. Frank Oz seems to have learned about that yesterday, as seen in his thoughtful follow-up tweet:

That sums it up nicely. Why not a gay character on Sesame Street? Sesame Street is often said to be a groundbreaking show, but in this area they’re falling behind. They don’t need to announce that a longtime character is gay, they could introduce a new character. It could be a Muppet, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be a new human cast member who happens to have a same-sex spouse. Mike Pence would hate it, but he doesn’t have to watch the show if he doesn’t like it.

Going back to where it all started, the viral story based on the Mark Saltzman interview was overblown, but the Sesame Workshop statement wasn’t even necessary at all. The rumors about Bert and Ernie come up every few years, and they probably always will, but if they think they have to say something, they could stand to say it better. Here’s how I would re-write the official statement:

As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. They are not intended to depict a gay couple, but they certainly do love and care for each other, and we are happy that so many viewers with different life experiences who grew up watching Bert and Ernie on Sesame Street can identify with and see themselves and their relationships in these characters.

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by Ben Nichols

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