My Week with Sesame Anniversaries: Day 1, Year 10

Published: November 2, 2009
Categories: Feature

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You know what happens next week? The 40th season of Sesame Street starts, that’s what. And yes: 40 years is amazing, what a legacy, so many children educated, blah blah blah. Sesame Workshop is releasing a cool new book and a cool new DVD, but there’s no TV special to celebrate the show going over the hill.

So I’m commemorating the show’s 40th season by watching the previous anniversary specials, starting with 1979’s 10-year show, A Walking Tour of Sesame Street with James Earl Jones. Later this week I’ll be watching the 20th anniversary special Sesame Street: 20 and Still Counting, the 25th anniversary special Stars and Street Forever, the 30th anniversary special Elmopalooza, and the 35th anniversary special The Street We Live On. Man, that’s a lot of anniversaries. Let’s get started.

So in 1979, Sesame Street had been around for a decade. That’s quite an accomplishment for any TV series, although 30 years later it kinda seems pretty wimpy. As we’ve often heard, the show was created as an experiment to see if TV could teach kids in an entertaining way, so the point of the tenth anniversary special is basically to say, “Dude, it works!”

As you’ve most likely guessed unless you’re pretty stupid, our host for this half hour is James Earl Jones, and he meanders down Sesame Street while talking to us. Sesame Street’s not a very big place, so a walking tour really doesn’t take very long. Jones takes a lot of breaks while we watch montages of clips from the show, which make up the bulk of the special. I don’t know what he’s doing while we’re watching the clips… If I were James Earl Jones I’d probably just stand there saying random words out loud and marveling at how cool they sounded in my deep, rich voice. Words like “lugubrious.”

There’s an alphabet montage that kicks off with a first-season clip of Jones himself reciting the alphabet — “I did it without cue cards!” he claims, although I remain unconvinced. That’s not to say it’s not effective… James Earl Jones glaring at the camera while sternly growling the alphabet is a clip that taught a generation of children their ABCs while simultaneously terrifying them.

This montage also includes bits of alphabet segments with Flip Wilson, the cast of Bonanza, and Bill Cosby, who wears this remarkable getup:

Is Cos trying to look like a kid, or was there actually a time when that was an acceptable outfit? If Bill Cosby is reading this, I encourage him to call me up and let me know.

In this special, all the residents of Sesame Street are just going about their business while James Earl Jones addresses the camera. There’s nothing unusual about that — Susan and Gordon and the gang talk to the camera all the time. But to them, Sesame Street is a real place, where they live. Do they notice that James Earl Jones keeps talking referring to it as a television show? I hope not; if they were to become aware of their fictional nature they might suffer a complete nervous breakdown.

Man, overanalyzing the reality of Sesame Street is one of my favorite things to do.

Anyway, James Earl Jones is a good host for this show, because when he talks everyone listens, but he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable doing this gig. I’m pretty sure he is, in fact, reading from cue cards, and in his three-piece suit he comes across as overdressed, especially compared to Big Bird, who is of course one of the world’s most famous nudists.

At one point Jones says, “Sesame Street learned early on that the more we offered, the more the kids in the audience learned, and so the curriculum expanded.”

Hold it! What’s this “we” business? Since when does James Earl Jones write Sesame Street? And he keeps doing this throughout the show. I mean, really… The producers graciously offer him the privilege of hosting this special, and what does he do? When nobody’s looking, he goes off-book, slips in a few “We did thises” and “We teach kids thatses,” and takes all the credit for the show himself. Pretty sneaky, Mr. Darth Vader!

One thing that’s largely missing from the street scenes of this special so far is Muppets. Jones says hi to a bunch of humans, but we don’t see anyone furry until he approaches Oscar’s trash can halfway through the show. Oscar pops out, and Jones greets him: “Well, if it isn’t Oscar the Grouch!” Oscar says, “Well, if it isn’t Oscar the Grouch, someone’s been cloning around!”

That, by the way, is a perfect example of why Sesame Street deserved to last for 10 years and have its anniversary celebrated. It’s the kind of kids’ show that features a bitter, angry character who lives surrounded by trash, and who can deliver jokes that are deliberately constructed to go over the heads of the children in the audience. Yep, I’d say the show is a success.

Another observation: This is a pretty grouchy Oscar. I think some of the fans believe Oscar isn’t quite as grouchy he used to be, so I can’t wait to track his progress through all these anniversary specials and see how 10-year Oscar compares to 20-year Oscar, and 25-year Oscar and so on.

After one group of clips, we return to the street, where Jones is strolling — completely uninvited — into Big Bird’s empty nest area. Not cool, bro! Does Big Bird break into your house while you’re not home? But Jones doesn’t give it a moment’s thought, he just keeps on talking to us about international co-productions or some crap. I’m not so sure about this Jones fellow.

One segment from the show that’s presented here is a bit shot on location at the Metropolitan Opera House, with Big Bird trying to get the grown-ups to see Mr. Snuffleupagus, who’s coming to attend the opera. I can’t help but notice that, damn, the adults were mean to Big Bird back then.

Not only do they not believe that there’s a Snuffleupagus, they actively make fun of him for talking about it! While they all stand in front of a fountain, Snuffy walks by in the background, and Big Bird starts yelling: There he is! Turn around so you can see him, he’s right over there! And they just stand there, and they’re all like, “Oh, sure Big Bird, so all we have to do is turn around and we’ll see him, yeah, of course, sure…” and by the time they turn around, the fountain shoots up a wall of water, and Snuffy is completely obscured, and they all shake their heads and roll their eyes and leave. I know some kids of the 70s believe it was a mistake for the show to make Snuffy visible to the adults, but I think it was a great choice, because this clip makes me want to punch the TV.

Our Walking Tour wraps up with James Earl Jones sharing some final thoughts, and this is when Big Bird finally shows up. He appears to sniff Jones, and then he says, “You know, I’ve learned a lot on Sesame Street.” There’s an awkward pause (waiting for the cue card guy to switch to the next card?) and then Jones says, “And I’ve… met… many friends.” Then they stand there for a second like they’re not sure what to do… Is that it? And then they walk away from the camera, and that’s the end of that.

So it’s really not much of a 10th birthday party, really. (At least, it’s not as exciting as my 10th birthday party when we played Battletoads all night). But here they are, and they must be amazed and overjoyed that they made it to ten years. And just think, this show is going to last long enough to see its fortieth anniversary! It’s perfectly reasonable, then, that the next anniversary special is a bit more self-congratulatory. And you can read about it tomorrow!

Other things about this special:

•When Jones first appears standing in front Hooper’s Store, he announces that he’s on one of the most famous streets in the world: “It’s not Flugel Street, and it’s not Pennsylvania Avenue… It’s not even the street where you live!” I’m sorry, but what the heck is Flugel Street?

•Here’s a fun fact: Will Lee, the actor who played Mr. Hooper, taught James Earl Jones acting at the American Theater Wing. Which is why it’s nifty, not to mention adorable, that Mr. Hooper greets Jones with a “Hi, Jimmy, nice to see you!”

•The Grover waiter sketch they use has Jerry Nelson’s Fat Blue customer Muppet making a mistake: Complaining about his alphabet soup, he says, “There’s a Y missing!” then corrects himself, saying, “No, not the Y… It’s the Z. The Z is missing.” I love stuff like that. I know it only happened because they didn’t want to do another take, but I find it endearing.

•The numbers montage includes a really funky song called “Gimme Five” that I don’t remember ever seeing on the show, but now I can’t stop thinking about it:

Entertaining and educational! What a great TV show.

Special thanks to Tough Pigs’ own Scott H for research assistance. Click here to mock Big Bird on the Tough Pigs forum!

by Ryan Roe –

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