Is Oscar the Grouch a complete jerk, or not? It’s a question I think about fairly often. Not as often as I think “What am I going to have for dinner?” but certainly more often than I think “What’s the primary national export of the Czech Republic?”
The other day, I wrote about Sesame Street Episode 578, in which a witch casts a spell that plants a nose on Oscar’s face. The only way he can break the spell is to do something nice, which he finds excruciatingly painful to do. Even after he does one nice thing, he immediately re-invokes the spell by doing something rotten. If this episode is your Exhibit A, it certainly points to Oscar as an irredeemable jerk.
And yet, it’s hard to completely write him off. Early in the COVID-19 crisis, Sesame Workshop posted a video of Oscar reminding people to stay home. It went something like this:
When the video was discussed around the internet, there was some talk about whether this was really in character for the world’s most famous grouch. Would Oscar truly care whether or not we all get sick? Doesn’t he hate everyone? Doesn’t he enjoy the misery of humans and other living things?
Occasionally people make the joke that Oscar is grouchy because he lives in a trash can. The implication behind these jokes is that if he just lived in nicer surroundings, he might be a nicer person. But that theory is garbage, much like the contents of Oscar’s home. He’s a Grouch, and grouches love filth and trash. He wouldn’t want to live anywhere nicer. So that theory doesn’t hold water. It kind of seems like he’s grouchy simply because he’s grouchy.
Most of the time, I think Oscar is definitely just a complete jerk. He’s always yelling for people to scram or to go away, even when they treat him with nothing but politeness. When I watched Sesame Street as a little kid, there were a lot of street stories with Oscar doing his best to ruin everyone’s day by playing mean tricks on them, or bringing them down to his level by responding to their kindness with grouchiness. In my era of Sesame Street, he was constantly rejecting Telly’s desperate attempts to be his friend.
But he’s definitely capable of affection. He’s awfully fond of his pet worm Slimey, and he can even be found reading the little annelid a bedtime story now and then. Would a truly heartless monster do that? He also cares for the elephants that quite reasonably fit in his trash can, as well as a menagerie of other pets.
And don’t forget his feelings for Grundgetta, whose name always looks like it’s spelled wrong! Oscar’s had a romantic relationship with her for years. They even got engaged once, but he called off the wedding because he couldn’t bear the thought of making her happy. Which means… maybe he is a jerk, because he wants his girlfriend to be unhappy? Except she’s a Grouch too, and they love being unhappy. Hmm. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to be a couples’ counselor to Grouches.
In his 2003 memoir The Wisdom of Big Bird (and the Dark Genius of Oscar the Grouch), Caroll Spinney writes, “Oscar is a complicated character. He’s sometimes misunderstood, even by the writers and people who work on the show.” He goes on to say “…although he can be rude and mean, he fundamentally has got a heart of gold. He’s just a Grouch, that’s all.”
Caroll Spinney is about as definitive a source as you can get on the subject, but I still wonder: How far down do you have to dive into Oscar’s psyche before you get past the scoundrel and reach the sweetheart?
So I put the question to you, the Muppet fans reading this website: Is Oscar the Grouch mostly mean, mostly good-hearted, or somewhere in the middle? I want to hear what you think, especially if you can provide specific examples from Sesame Street episodes and other productions! You can post your comments on the Tough Pigs forum, on Facebook or Twitter, or you can e-mail me at Ryan@ToughPigs.com. If I get enough good responses, I’ll post a follow-up article with some of your insights!
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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com