What’s Up with the Count’s Thunder and Lightning?

Published: November 6, 2019
Categories: Feature, Fun Stuff

Count von Count wasn’t on Sesame Street when it premiered 50 years ago, but he has been around since the early seasons, and he’s still going strong. Everyone who has ever seen Sesame Street knows three things about the Count:

  1. He appears to be a vampire.
  2. He loves to count.
  3. When he finishes counting he goes “Ah ah ah!” as thunder rolls and lightning flashes.

Items #1 and #2 are pretty straightforward. The reason the character exists is that the Sesame writers, in a flash of genius, asked themselves “What if COUNT Dracula really liked to COUNT?” (Despite what you may read on the internet, it seems to be a coincidence that some old stories include vampires getting distracted when their intended victims throw grains of rice on the ground, thus compelling the vampire to count them.)

We take item #3 for granted, because most of us have known and loved the Count for our entire lives. He’s a variation on a vampire, so of course he has fangs and a cape. And of course he’s from Transylvania. And of course he creates thunder and lightning.

But wait a minute! Does it really make sense that he creates thunder and lightning? I’m not an expert on vampire lore, but I’ve seen the original Dracula movie starring Bela Lugosi, and I’ve consumed many other vampire films, TV shows, and books, plus a few boxes of Count Chocula. And I’ve never encountered “spontaneous generation of thunder & lightning” as a trait associated with any other fanged fellow.

Thunder and lightning are pretty important to horror movies in general, though. If you’re a certain kind of film nerd, you’re familiar with “castle thunder,” a sound effect from the original Frankenstein movie that has been recycled in hundreds of productions since then. It’s the perfect sound to accompany a foreboding establishing shot of the castle where a mad scientist lives — or a monster, or some other evil villain. You’ve probably heard it – it sounds like “PA-PAOW! BOOMBOOMBOOMBOOM!”

My best guess is that the Sesame people started with a Muppet who was inspired by classic horror movie vampires, and paired him with spooky thunder, another trope of classic horror movies, to create the perfect scary-but-not-too-scary character. The thunder and lightning have been part of the Count’s persona since the beginning. In his first appearance, he counts blocks as Bert looks on – and Bert is startled when the counting culminates in cracking and flashing. Since then, the Count’s friends have gotten used to it. It’s part of his eccentric charm.

But I keep thinking about these questions, questions no one should ever bother to ask: How does the Count’s thunder work? Where does it come from? Can anyone invoke the lightning by counting with sufficient energy, or is it exclusive to Count von Count? It was driving me batty, so I put on my monocle and started searching the ancient texts: Muppet Wiki and YouTube.

In a season 31 episode, the Count leaves Sesame Street for a day and Ernie takes over his responsibilities. While briefing Ernie, the Count declares that he is the only one who can make the thunder and lightning happen. This means Ernie must resort to shouting “THUNDERRR! LIGHTNING!” after counting, which is quite endearing. And it’s persuasive evidence that the thunder is a power unique to the Count.

But by taking a few steps back in time, we can find some evidence to the contrary. In the late ’70s, a character named Countess Dahling von Dahling appeared on the show a few times. She was the Count’s cousin, and when she finished counting, not only did she bring the thunder, she made it rain! Even indoors. Especially indoors. From this, we might draw the conclusion that it runs in the family. I’m left-handed, and I have several relatives who are also left-handed, so perhaps the ability to call down localized severe weather is the left-handedness of the Count family?

This notion is supported by appearances of the Count’s grandmother, whose counting also causes rain, and his grandfather, whose counting causes snow. But there was also Countess von Backwards, whose counts are punctuated with the sound of wolves howling, and another Countess whose counts are accompanied by the sound of a bell chiming. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that the Count has a niece who incites the sound of Burt Bacharach singing when she counts, or a brother-in-law who counts and summons a swarm of locusts. Apparently it takes all kinds of Counts to make all kinds of special effects.

But our guy Count von Count is limited to thunder and lightning, right? He can’t make it rain, can he? Well, when Alison Krauss and Union Station performed on the show in season 36, the Count punctuated their song with thunder and lightning, then quickly assured them, “Don’t worry, it’s not gonna rain.” That implies that it might rain, doesn’t it? And then there’s a sketch from the 1980s in which the Count goes on a picnic and counts the ants that carry away his food. When the thunder and lightning appear, guess what accompanies them? No, not potato salad. That’s right – rain!

So it’s possible that he can choose whether to or not to supplement his thunder with precipitation. It’s also possible that all of these Count appearances over the span of almost 50 years were written by different people who didn’t really care if they were universally consistent.

Nah, that can’t be it.

Now consider this: A sketch from the 1990s finds the Count directing Liam Neeson on the set of a movie called Transylvania 6-5000, where Neeson is dressed like the Count. Is this the Count’s biopic? I think we can safely assume it won many Academy Awards in the Sesame Street universe. After a few admirable but middling attempts, Neeson dramatically counts to 20 with such fervor that he invokes the thunder and lightning. It even starts raining!

And now consider this over here: 1978’s Sesame Street Bedtime Storybook includes a tale called “Who Stole the Count’s Thunder?” Here, we learn that the Count’s thunder emanates from his own personal cloud, which hovers above his head all day, and which has been in his family for generations. Things get crazy when the Amazing Mumford does a spell that detaches the cloud from the Count, allowing it to become a freelancer, producing thunder for anyone on Sesame Street who happens to be counting. (A similar incident also occurred in Sesame Street episode 0974, but OF COURSE you all knew that already.)

This is truly fascinating. The next time you see the Count in any Sesame Street production, picture a thundercloud floating above, just outside the frame. When he sang “Coconut Counting Man” with Harry Belafonte, the cloud was skulking around in the sunny blue sky. When he drove across America in Follow That Bird, the cloud was speeding along the highway at 55 miles per hour. And when he appeared on MSNBC’s Countdown, the cloud was right on top of Keith Olbermann.

I think I’ve gathered a sufficient amount of evidence, and I think I’ve subjected it to the correct degree of scrutiny, which is to say way too much. Here, then, are four things I know about the Count’s thunder and lightning:

  1. They originate from his personal cloud.
  2. They’re triggered by his counting, but he can suppress them if he chooses, and he can control whether or not they’re joined by rain.
  3. His fellow counting vampires have their own clouds, which produce a variety of effects.
  4. Ernie is not a vampire, but Liam Neeson is.

And that’s what I know about that. I hope you’ll all come see me when I deliver my lecture on this topic at the University of Transylvania as part of next year’s symposium on counting. The lecture will be five hours long.

Special thanks to Scott Hanson for research assistance! Click here to be the Count’s grandmother on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com

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